(This is the fourth post in “The Rock” series.)
A conversation I once had with a friend of mine sticks in my memory and comes back to me as relevant to this blog post.
“My sister tried ‘the Christian thing’ for awhile but dropped it because she didn’t find it ‘worked for her,'” my friend told me, half-chuckling.
But I was intrigued to know what the sister meant by “worked.” What had she expected? How were those expectations not met? I think new believers’ or not-yet believers’ expectations are something we should be addressing honestly as old believers.
I’ll tell you bluntly that I am not a Christian because it “works for me.” Depending on the definition of “works for me,” it doesn’t work for me.
But hasn’t that been my point of this series of posts? That it’s a good idea to notice where our beliefs crack up when they hit reality? Where they’re not working?
Well, that’s why I say, “Depending on the definition of ‘works for me…'”
What’s fair to expect from one’s Christian beliefs if they are, in fact, fact? What claims does the Bible make about the effects it should have on our lives if it’s believed?
I’ll tell you frankly that I don’t find neat answers to this question and certainly not neat answers that neatly fit my own personal experience.
Recently, I was listening to a speaker on the subject of the happy Christian. He seemed like one. He seemed to think we all could and should be happy Christians. Everything he said seemed right and true and biblical. He quoted extensively from the Bible. And not inaccurately or out of context the way many, “Name it and claim it,” prosperity preachers will. I couldn’t disagree with anything the speaker was saying. Except that what he was saying had no correspondence from my own reality.
I realized afterward, wrestling with his lesson and what to do with it, that it was an excellent and true lesson. On one piece of the truth.
It wasn’t the point he was making, so he didn’t get into the subject, but the Bible also has a lot to say on the other piece of the truth—the part that lines up better with my experience. Truth is complex. It has many sides. And we all have different experiences that are all true and need enfolding in a proper view of reality.
I’ve never known what to do with the Bible’s promises of an abundant life, love, joy, peace that passes understanding, a light and easy yoke in Jesus’ service, bread and water of life that satisfies hunger and thirst to the point where the consumer is completely satisfied. I read these promises with a giant question mark above my head. I have no idea what these promises are talking about.
But they’re framed in such a way that it seems they are promised to all who fall into a certain category: believers in Jesus. And also according to other promises, I fall into this category. According to these other promises, there’s nothing required to fall into this category other than repentance (a mind change) from unbelief to belief. I wouldn’t know how to accomplish that change in any way other than I have. So I go on believing that I fall into the category of “believer.” But then, I have no idea what to do with the other promises of abundant life and love, joy, peace (etc.).
There are flip-side promises for believers in Jesus, however: a delightful list of T words; tempting, testing, tribulation, trials. In short, trouble. I also can’t say I’ve ever seen any of the promised persecution for Jesus-followers (other than in the very mild way that the views I hold are unpopular with the general public). But I can say “amen” to the summation of these kinds of biblical promises as expressed in a movie popular in my youth: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Amen to that!
But I always also hear that somehow God’s felt-presence in the midst of the pain and the troubled Ts makes it all worthwhile. An experience of God makes it all bearable. Or worthwhile. Or something.
And again, the giant question mark appears above my head, cartoon style. God’s presence? Some people feel that? This invisible, inaudible, intangible Person that I’m promised I’m in some kind of relationship with? How do I experience that relationship? Not in the same way other people apparently do.
I hear stories of the experience of God’s presence that, to be honest, I find slightly suspect. It’s not up to me to judge, and this is a purely subjective evaluation, but I catch whiffs of placebo effect in the stories. A psychological experience is difficult to prove empirically, after all.
Then, I hear other stories of the experience of God’s presence that even my sceptical self is not inclined to doubt in the least. I hear conversion stories that are so dramatic and accompanied by such radical life change that I can’t question their reality, including the claimed psychological experience that came along with the life change.
This wasn’t my conversion experience. But I also don’t doubt that my conversion experience was just as real or lasting. It’s withstood a lot, after all. It just wasn’t as experiential. And since that time, for me there has been a little but only a little experience of God’s felt-presence that I couldn’t also see as suspect of being a self-induced psychological phenomenon.
So, what do I do with these uncomfortable truths?
First, I’m open about them—the reason I’m writing this post. These truths aren’t heard often enough. Anyone considering the Christian faith needs to know that not everyone has the same experience with it—and with God. They need to know that the disappointment and disillusionment can be very real if one has false expectations. I find there’s a version of a spiritual “prosperity gospel” very common in all Christian circles that can be just as damaging as the health and wealth prosperity gospel of certain Christian circles when it doesn’t stand up to real-life experience. Anyone considering Christianity needs to know what it should look like if the whole thing “works.” They need to have a clear understanding of what it means if Christianity “works.” And what that “working” might not include. It may or may not include a great deal of emotional benefit.
Then, I’m also open about the benefits I have seen for myself in being a believer in Jesus. I do a contrast and compare exercise sometimes to realize how much I am helped by this relationship I’m told I have. Who would I be without it? I try to imagine that life. And I blank out. It wouldn’t be a life. I may not find the Christian life to live up to its hype, but any other is unthinkable to me. If I have no experiential idea what Jesus is talking about by never hungering and thirsting again if we take His life into us, I do admit that there’s at least an intellectual understanding that my life has meaning and point and purpose to it. There is a solid core at its centre in that knowledge. I can’t begin to describe the black hole that my life would be without that understanding. If I thought I had to somehow create and define my own meaning and point and purpose… ? It’s unfaceable. To those who manage to be happy without God and think I’m a weakling in need of a crutch, well, yes, I am. I am not like them. That’s all. I don’t believe what I believe because I need a crutch. But I readily admit my need of a crutch. Yes, I do find some help in Christianity in getting through life with my metaphorical, psychological broken legs.
I also work on the emotional aspect of our relationship by reminding myself that any goodness I see in anything good is an outgrowth of God’s goodness. Whatever enjoyment I find in whatever I enjoy, I consciously attribute to the joy that only comes from the source of all joy. It helps me hang on to the knowledge that God is a good God.
But I admit that my relationship with God is not largely based on my feelings about it. It’s based on fact. It is more of an intellectual relationship than an emotional relationship. I rely on what I’ve been told about this relationship and the good reasons I have for believing it’s there and it’s real regardless of what I feel about it. I go on doing all the things I’m told to do to grow in the relationship: the praying and praising and Bible reading and learning and getting together with other Christians to engage in these kinds of activities. If these activities don’t bear much emotional fruit in my relationship with God, I find I grow in understanding of that relationship. And that’s reason enough to keep on doing them.
Then, I acknowledge that I don’t have to understand everything in (or even the majority of) the Bible. This is not cop-out. This is common sense. This is part and parcel of thinking there’s a God who created and fine-tuned the universe and wove together the strands of DNA that determined my own being. I’m not going to be able to comprehend this God. I can apprehend Him because He makes Himself knowable. But I will not comprehend Him. I will not be able to wrap my head around Him. So I’m okay with not understanding everything He said. I wouldn’t expect to. We can know that the words of the Bible are God’s thoughts dumbed down for human consumption while admitting that we’ll still grasp only bits and pieces of them. There will always be mysteries God keeps to remind us that He’s God and we’re not. And many of those mysteries will be in understanding His communication with us. We can grow in learning to understand, but we’ll never fully get there. Certainly not in this life. And that brings me to my next point.
Then, I fall back on the ol’, “We’ll understand it better by and by.” In this life, there are fluctuations. There are seasons. Maybe there’s still a season of greater spiritual abundance, love, joy, peace, and satisfaction ahead of me. I hope so. But if not, an eternity of perfection is the promise at the end of all of this life’s seasons.
And yes, this does sound like cop-out. Yes, I’m cynical enough to find any belief system offering promises that can be tested only in the great hereafter highly suspect. Which is not what Christianity is. I believe the promises of the great hereafter because of all the testing of the rest of it available to us here and now. But that source that is testable here and now does promise that we’ll see more clearly in a life of perfect bliss after this one. And when I find that source to be my best option for truth-sources, I am comforted by its promises of an afterlife that makes sense of this one.
And ultimately, that “best option” point is the reason I’m a Christian. That’s the part where it “works.” Am I still left with the giant question mark above my head where the principles that make sense (in principle) meet my own personal reality? Yes. Often. These days, maybe even always. But then, I go back time and time again to, “Well, what’s the alternative to the truth of Christianity? Do I believe the universe exploded into existence out of nothing all on its own? No, I do not…” And I run myself back again through the line of reasoning I laid out in these posts. Time and again, I stick with what I believe because of the options available to me.
I’m between a rock and a hard place. I often question if my belief system “works” or what that “working” should look like. But ultimately, considering all my options, I always come back to land on the Rock of truth that I’ve found to be a much better option than any of the hard places that are its alternatives.