Know the most dangerous place in America on Sunday mornings? The Church parking lot!
I know this is just a joke, but, like all humor, there is an element of truth in it—a large element. (I’ve certainly had my share of close calls leaving church!) The thing many people find most unbelievable about Christianity is the way so many Christians behave.
It’s a powerful objection: IF Christianity is true, IF believers have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, THEN they should stand out. Their lives should be stunningly Christ-like, breathtakingly beautiful, overflowing with compassion and mercy. But just look around—or visit a church parking lot on Sunday morning—and you will quickly see that this is far from true.
The fact that Christians are just like everybody else, and in many cases, far worse; the fact that they don’t seem to have been changed in any significantly positive way, is one of the most devastating arguments against Christianity.
Of course, many believers would rightly point out that a good number of people who call themselves Christian are Christian in name only. They may have grown up in the church or with a nominal “cultural” Christianity, but they never really “got it.” They never really made a genuine act of faith. They never really opened their hearts to the Holy Spirit. As Martin Luther put it, there is the visible church of outward appearance; and then there’s the invisible church of true believers. And the two are worlds apart. Many so-called Christians aren’t Christian at all. That’s why they behave in such an un-Christian manner.
True, but this doesn’t really answer the objection—there are still many who do claim to “get it”, who consider themselves to be passionate and committed believers, who also exhibit no clear markers of a Christian life.
Of course, many believers would rightly point out that you can’t judge the difference faith makes in a person’s life without knowing what they were like prior to their conversion. I could introduce you to people who are far from shining beacons of Christ-likeness. But if you knew what they were like before believing in Him, you would be amazed. The difference is stunning. People who had previously struggled with uncontrollable rage, or unrelenting addictions, or deep-seated racism, or chronic unfaithfulness have exhibited dramatic changes. They may not be a Mother Theresa or St. Francis of Assisi—yet. But when you factor in where they began, there is no question that encountering Christ had a profound transformative effect, releasing them from these destructive and deeply entrenched behaviors. And slowly but surely, they keep getting better and better—more Christ-like—over time.
True, but this doesn’t really answer the objection—as the largest religion in the world, shouldn’t Christianity be leaving a bigger and better mark? If so many people are really walking around with the Spirit of Christ dwelling within them, shouldn’t we see far more evidence of its impact?
Of course, many believers would rightly point out that Christianity has impacted the world in just the way we’d expect it to. Christian faith has and continues to inspire many believers to make heroic sacrifices for complete and utter strangers; to be prodigally charitable even toward one’s enemies. The church has and continues to be the most charitable organization on earth. In America’s Blessing, sociologist Rodney Stark has made a sustained case for the significant, positive impact Judeo-Christian belief has had on all aspects of American life. Committed believers really do stand out. In a significantly statistical way they are more generous, charitable, faithful, honest, ethical, educated, and contribute more to the common good. Not to mention the fact that they are healthier and happier overall. (Rodney Stark, America’s Blessing: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists, West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2012.) In fact, from our ideals about the dignity of every individual to the existence of hospitals, we feel the positive and pervasive impact of Christianity in our lives every day. This is because, throughout history, Christians have left a significant mark. One of the earliest observations recorded by someone outside the faith notes how distinct Christians were in the effusive quality of their love. They treated everyone with a previously unheard of, radical equality.
True, but this doesn’t really answer the objection—many other religions, secular organizations, and charities can claim to have similar effects. More to the point, for all the good many Christians have done, why do so many more seem so unaffected by their faith?
Despite all these valid points, the objection remains: why are so many Christians so UN-Christian?
The answer is that Christianity isn’t about being Christian; it isn’t about being better or more Christ-like. The real point of Christianity is grace—that God loves us unconditionally, sacrificing Himself to save us even though we don’t deserve it.
So at heart, Christianity is not about measuring up or being good. It’s about falling in love with God.
It’s not about how good we are. It’s about how good He is.
Huston Smith, the late, great scholar of comparative religions, wrote the definitive book about the world’s religions. In his chapter on Christianity, he pointed out that, Ontogenetically, love is an answering phenomenon. It’s literally a response. (Houston Smith, The World’s Religions, San Francisco, CA: Harpers Collins, 1991, p. 334.) In other words, we as human beings can only love to the extent that we have first been loved.
This is what makes Christianity so unique. If love is an answering response, then the only way we can love God is in response to His prior love, is if he first loves us—which is exactly what Jesus has done by becoming human and dying on the cross, the ultimate act of God’s love. This means that the only way we can enter into a loving relationship with our Creator, the only way God can be a God of love, is through grace.
In one way or another, every other major religion, philosophy, or world view says that there is something you must do to prepare yourself for an encounter with the divine; something you must do to become acceptable to God. Christianity, on the other hand, says the divine has already come and freely offered Himself to us.
Christianity is the only faith that truly presents a God of love and enables us to truly love this God in return.
Of course, a loving God won’t leave us where he finds us. In fact, Christianity is clear that you can’t help but be transformed by His grace, though much more slowly than you—or those around you—might prefer! And it won’t be out of fear or the promise of some reward. You will be transformed by love, by a genuine desire to please and be more like the One who has loved you so.
But again, this isn’t the point. It’s merely the by-product.
Even when we put our faith in Him, even as His Spirit dwells within us, we will still fall short and act in very UN-Christian ways. But He loves us anyway. And it’s only by living in this certainty that our hard hearts begin to melt and we are set free to truly love Him—and others the way He loves us.
One last thing. If your experience of Christians or Christianity has not been good; if Christians or the church have hurt you or been unbearably hypocritical or failed to authentically live out this grace, it breaks my heart. I am so sorry. But this isn’t because Jesus or the faith he revealed has failed. It’s because sinful human beings and/or a humanly flawed institution has utterly failed to live up to their own creed and let you down. That doesn’t diminish the damage that may have been done. It is totally unacceptable, and it embarrasses and infuriates me that we in the church so often cause so much pain.
However, I plead with you not to let any person or institution, even the church, get in the way of your relationship with God. He is good; we are not.
E.J. Sweeney is a pastor, author and public speaker whose passion is to show skeptics like himself the overwhelming evidence for the Christian faith. A graduate of Trinity College, BA and Yale University, MDiv, summa cum laude, E.J. has taught theology and scripture in two high schools and has served as a pastor at two churches. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, where he is a volunteer firefighter. You can follow E.J. and his writings at www.RaisingJesus.com and on his Raising Jesus Facebook page.