Several years ago, I spent some time in Ireland and had the opportunity to serve as a youth camp counselor for a few weekends up in the mountains. The camp received all kinds of youth groups from a pretty wide age range of students and, aside from all the fun stuff to do like team challenges, zip lines, kayaking, and rock walls, the main point was to challenge the kids spiritually. (There’s a really well-done video about Ovoca Manor here.)
Part of the conversation we had with those kids (who were almost entirely raised with Catholic ideologies) was meant to get them thinking about who God is to them–about what made them a Christian, or what questions caused them to not be so sure.
One of the most common answers we received for how the kids knew they were Christian was, “Because my family is Christian.”
Another common but very similar answer was, “I was raised in the church.”
These were just kids, but their reasoning was not far off from many adults all around the US who unknowingly view Christianity more as a social class than a subscription to personal faith.
At the youth camp, our automatic response to those reasonings was often the same: “What’s personal about that kind of Christianity?”
I was convicted this week during one of my small group meetings when I imagined myself standing before God one day– something every Christian believes will happen eventually. But instead of feeling like I was standing before a familiar God I had already gotten to know, it felt more like I was standing before an enormous mystery.
To a high degree, this will remain the case regardless of how close I feel to God during my life, and with good reason. Isaiah, the man who arguably enjoyed the closest relationship to God in all of Israel during his day, immediately declared that he needed to drop dead at the sudden sight of God on His throne (Isaiah 6). He’s simply that holy.
I see enough reason to trust God despite the mystery and all my questions about things I just don’t get. But I want to believe that there is a certain level of communion I can enjoy with God right now– through prayer, worship, and service– that would later allow me to feel like I’m standing before my God and not the god of some textbook I studied a lot. Holy, terrifying, mysterious, and awesome, yes. But familiar.
I know I can reach a deeper level of familiarity with God by spending more time with Him. It’s a worldview that recognizes God is always there for me to turn to, talk to, and most importantly listen to. Maybe that’s why Paul told the Thessalonian church to rejoice always and pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17).
When it comes to how we know we are Christians, many people also get their answers by whether or not they think they should go to heaven. It’s easy to take offense and say, “Why would God reject me? I’m a decent enough person. I’m friendly to most people…”
We venture into some ambiguously gray areas when someone cites that one time they were so heartbroken or desperate that they prayed this special prayer after hearing that Jesus could help them (glossing completely over the fact that they haven’t thought much about it or let it impact their life since). Or even when they talk about their church attendance most weekends, or possibly their ability to reference a few memorized scriptures and a heightened understanding of ancient Jewish culture.
It’s interesting to think about how, in Jesus’ day, many of those who were most often found in the temple or synagogues, and those who had memorized the most scripture were the ones who wanted nothing to do with His teachings, which fulfilled the scriptures but criticized the Pharisees’ extra-biblical commentary and rules.
Just as an example, there was actually a dispute about whether or not it was obedient to spit into bare dirt on the Sabbath day. The fear was that it could disturb the soil and technically constitute plowing, which was forbidden on this last day of the week.
There is really one way that we are to know that we are Christians, and that is to submit ourselves daily as disciples of Christ in pursuit of a personal relationship with Him. The definition is built right into the name. We look to Him, learn from Him, and follow Him in every area we can– even when it’s a little uncomfortable or inconvenient.
When it comes to how we live outwardly, and how others are supposed to know what we believe, I think it basically comes down to three traits:
- God-centered values
“And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” -Deuteronomy 6:5
- Love for others
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” -John 13:35
- Courage to acknowledge His name
“Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, the Son of Man will also acknowledge in the presence of God’s angels” -Luke 12:8
Social class Christians weren’t the ones who turned the world upside down in the first century. Others may have thought it was just a social class… until they saw how their beliefs genuinely affected their lives (and not just in a ritualistic way).
Paul himself admitted that he wasn’t an eloquent speaker, and yet he was one of the greatest evangelists of all time. Why? When he came into a new city, he spent just as much time focusing on being an example of his beliefs as he did acknowledging who it was that made him want to live that way.
He didn’t reject or discourage others from looking to him as an example of faith proven by his life and worldview. He welcomed it. He knew that was where the real power of the Gospel rested– to prove that it really is the best way to live.