Monday, May 30, 2005

To Serve Man...

"Why should I follow Christ?" Is the 21st century paraphrase of this question, What's in it for me? Contrast with the first century question, "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30) I recently heard preaching which included the line, "Jesus looked beyond my faults and saw my needs." Jesus looks beyond my faults? Is this the same Jesus that initially said, after a paralytic was lowered to him through a hole cut in the roof above, "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5)? Or is it the same Jesus who told the sinful woman that anointed him, "Your sins are forgiven" (Luke 7:48)? Perhaps it was the Jesus who told the woman caught in adultery, "Go, and from now on do not sin any more" (John 8:11)? My concern with over-emphasizing the relational and "need-meeting" aspect of encountering Jesus Christ is that we tend towards glossing over the politically incorrect notion that we are sinners in need of redemption. Jesus does not look beyond our faults. He stares right at them and brings them to our attention. Indeed, if it weren't for our faults, there would have been no need for redemption. That He is able to meet our needs is but the downstream result of whether or not we acknowledge our need for redemption.

6 comments:

Tom said...

re: "...we tend towards glossing over the politically incorrect notion that we are sinners in need of redemption.

Jesus does not look beyond our faults. He stares right at them and brings them to our attention. Indeed, if it weren't for our faults, there would have been no need for redemption...."
(Rusty)

I think your point is accurate to my understanding of Christianity, but let me in a moment make a point as an agnostic looking in from the outside.

The Christian view is that humans are born sinners and are in need of redemption. If a person is a Christian, I think your point is well taken, Rusty---it's a silly question for a Christian to ask, "What's in it for me?" You might as well be trapped at the bottom of a well, and someone lowers a rope for you, and you shout up to your rescuers, "Hmmm...how will this REALLY benefit me?"

This is an idea that I dislike intensely about Christianity. It's a truth for you folks, so I suppose it's another silly point to a Christian maybe to be concerned whether a truth is likable or not. I'll give you that.

But I do dislike that Christianity starts with the assumption that people are bad. They're broken. There is something wrong with the tiniest newborn for you folks. Those beautiful children we see playing at school each day---well, they're born defective to you guys. This Christian concept that we're all sinners---black/white thinking---seems harsh, cynical, and scornful to me. I struggle with understanding this view, but I try to be empathetic and to understand that you see it as truth---not an optional scenario.

But your religion claims to have the only answer (Jesus Christ) to the problem it assumes (original sin).

As an agnostic/non-believer, I think we make errors all the time. But we can often fix our errors, and try not to do them again. We can work at improving ourselves every day. How wondrous! That's part of my meaning for my life. Conveniently my view seems to eliminate the need for redemption by a god---in my belief system of course. My Christian friends think I have a blindfold on and cotton stuffed in my ears, maybe. I don't think that makes my world simpler to navigate. On the tightrope without a safety net? But maybe I feel less cynical about my fellow humans to start with, and I think there's something to that.

(BTW, Rusty. I greatly enjoyed the last series of posts re "Jesus, I am so in love with you" and the discussion among your readers. Even if I don't quite get the worldview, the intelligence of the conversation was wonderful.)

John T. said...

Tom,

As a parent of two young boys, I've never found the concept of Man's "sinfulness" all that surprising or hard to understand. I don't recall ever teaching my kids to defy my authority, lie, or refuse to share their toys, but they've both exhibited this type of behavior at one time or another. The fact that I have to teach them that these behaviors are wrong tells me that they come quite naturally.

To say that we're all sinners - "broken" or "something wrong," as you put it - is not to say that Christianity claims Man is incapable of good, that there is no beauty in him, nor that he's incapable of improving himself. Man was created in the image of God. Any "good" or "beauty" or "improvement" you see is because of that. And, while that is all well and good so far as improving Man's relationship with his fellow Man, it does nothing to make us right with God.

You see, Man's "sin" problem is an identity problem, not merely a behaviorial problem. It's in our basic nature to sin (that's why we do it), so no amount of improvement is going to change that nature.

Looking in from the outside, it may seem that Christianity conveniently created "the problem" in order to provide the solution. But every ancient culture/religion has the idea that Mankind is somehow not right with God or the gods, and that some sort of sacrifice or atonement is required. That's somewhat lost in our culture, where we define morality as "so long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, it's fine." But if the concept of sin and atonement is such a universal theme throughout human history, why is Christianity so disliked for calling attention to the truth of it?

Tom said...

re: "As a parent of two young boys, I've never found the concept of Man's "sinfulness" all that surprising or hard to understand. I don't recall ever teaching my kids to defy my authority, lie, or refuse to share their toys, but they've both exhibited this type of behavior at one time or another. The fact that I have to teach them that these behaviors are wrong tells me that they come quite naturally.

Right, I don't find children's defiance, lying, greed surprising either. The wonderful thing is how quickly they seem to learn the power of truth, compassion, and love.

Don't sugarcoat it though. Christianity takes an additional step, doesn't it? This sinfulness of your children deserves eternal damnation. That they are so bad, they deserve eternal torture. That's the dislikable part for me. I have this feeling to shout out to my Christian friends, "Are you guys nuts? These kids are learning. We all make friggin' mistakes!"

re: "To say that we're all sinners - "broken" or "something wrong," as you put it - is not to say that Christianity claims Man is incapable of good, that there is no beauty in him, nor that he's incapable of improving himself.

Agreed. And to me that's the power and beauty of Christianity. To me, Jesus essentially said that the job of life is kindness to others.

re: "You see, Man's "sin" problem is an identity problem, not merely a behaviorial problem. It's in our basic nature to sin (that's why we do it), so no amount of improvement is going to change that nature.

And part of the problem is I wish the emphasis was on self-control and a constant striving for perfection, but it seems Christianity can't get out of the shadow of seeing mistakes as, "There you go again!I told you you were broken and evil!" It's almost like the bad parent that tells a child he or she was born bad and will never amount to much.

Christians see a black and white world, and predict humans can never amount to much without a god. That's my problem with it as an agnostic, but you may not see it as a problem of course as a Christian.

re: "That's somewhat lost in our culture, where we define morality as "so long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, it's fine." But if the concept of sin and atonement is such a universal theme throughout human history, why is Christianity so disliked for calling attention to the truth of it?"

Right, I think the best part of Christianity is an emphasis on searching for truth. There's something outwardly appealing about "...so long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, it's fine..." but I think you're right that it's a loser idea. Just a brief example to tie into Rusty's next post: If I spend 8 hours viewing internet porn today, I suppose I could say it didn't hurt anyone else, so it's okay. But really it's a huge waste of 8 precious life hours. And my worldview is that I only go around once in life. You folks believe you've got eternity sewn up, but I don't see it that way. I don't have 8 hours to waste.

Thanks, John, for your thoughts.

John T. said...

Tom,

Thanks for you reply and your comments.

re: "If I spend 8 hours viewing internet porn today, I suppose I could say it didn't hurt anyone else, so it's okay. But really it's a huge waste of 8 precious life hours. And my worldview is that I only go around once in life. You folks believe you've got eternity sewn up, but I don't see it that way. I don't have 8 hours to waste."

The Christian worldview is the same. Just because I have eternity to look forward to doesn't justify wasting time on Internet porn or any other unfruitful activity. I don't have 8 hours to waste either, not because I know I'm going to die and only have so much time, but because I'm here for a reason and have a purpose to fulfill.

re: "And part of the problem is I wish the emphasis was on self-control and a constant striving for perfection, but it seems Christianity can't get out of the shadow of seeing mistakes as, "There you go again!I told you you were broken and evil!" It's almost like the bad parent that tells a child he or she was born bad and will never amount to much."

Remember that I said sin is an "identity problem"? That's the beauty of what Jesus did. Redemption is more than just forgiveness of sin - it's a whole new nature. I now have the very nature of God. (No, I'm not some kind of a "little god" as some religions teach; but the nature of the divine exists within me and all believers.) That means that I am no longer identified as a "sinner," but a "saint," which literally means "set apart one." That's why I said I'm not just free to waste 8 hours, because God has "set me apart" for a purpose. Make sense?

I know it probably seems as though we can't get past the shadow of being born bad, but what you're hearing is the essential message of salvation. If you never get beyond that, you'll never hear the rest of the message. Let me use my own experience as an example:

When I was a non-believer, I had no compunction looking at porn. (In fact, I had a sizable collection.) In my mid-twenties, I came to believe in God, prayed, tried to have a relationship with him and live right. But I still had no problem looking at my porn collection. At around 28, after believing in God for a few years, I became a Christian. Soon afterwards, I cracked open one of my magazines and something inside me said, "Uh oh, I can't do this any more." No one had told me it was wrong. I hadn't read it anywhere. I knew on the inside that I couldn't live like that any longer. Why? Because of the new nature inside me. Even though I had believed in God for a few years, and even tried to follow him, nothing had changed on the inside until I had accepted Jesus.

When I opened that magazine, I sinned, but I never once heard God say, "There you go again! I told you that you're broken and evil. You were was born bad and will never amount to much!" In fact, I'm told just the opposite, that I will amount to a heck of a lot, because God will fulfill his purpose in me. The Bible has an awful lot to say about who I am because of my new nature and my identity in Christ. One of these is that the power (not just the punishment) of sin has been broken over me - I'm no longer enslaved to it. So the message is of hope. "You'll never amount to anything" is not part of the Christian message, because it's a messgae of hopelessness. The Bible says there is no condemnation (i.e. hopelessness) for the Christian.

re: "Right, I don't find children's defiance, lying, greed surprising either. The wonderful thing is how quickly they seem to learn the power of truth, compassion, and love."

Of course they do, because being made in God's image, we recognize these things as divine qualities. It's just that, merely recognizing or even embracing them does not enable any of us to become perfectly truthful, compassion or loving, as Jesus was. Again, it's a "nature" problem, not a "behavior" problem.

re: "And part of the problem is I wish the emphasis was on self-control and a constant striving for perfection"

There is an aspect to self-control within the Christian doctrine, in fact, it's one of the "fruits" that the Holy Spirit is said to produce in us. And that's where the "striving" comes in. We don't strive for perfection, because Jesus is already perfect and he's in us. We strive and struggle in a different manner. For me, I strive and struggle to let God have his way with me, so that Jesus' perfection can be made manifest in me. And that's a daily thing, because I can still choose to live my life independant from God.

re: "Don't sugarcoat it though. Christianity takes an additional step, doesn't it? This sinfulness of your children deserves eternal damnation. That they are so bad, they deserve eternal torture. That's the dislikable part for me. I have this feeling to shout out to my Christian friends, "Are you guys nuts? These kids are learning. We all make friggin' mistakes!"

Again, it's a nature issue, not a behavior issue. Since we have the same nature as God, there's a relationship - we're now his children. To use an imperfect human analogy, if you were with your family on a deck overlooking a sheer cliff and the deck began to collapse, whose children would you save, yours or someone else's? People rail at God and Christians for daring to say people "deserve eternal damnation." But God provides a way of escape - and it's a free gift, you don't have to do anything to deserve it. If we were on a plane that was going down and I handed you a parachute, will you be angry with me for supposing that you'll die otherwise? Will you be insulted when I tell you that all of your "self-control" and "striving for perfection" will not enable you to survive the crash? Or will you take the "free" gift of the parachute?

re: Christians see a black and white world, and predict humans can never amount to much without a god. That's my problem with it as an agnostic, but you may not see it as a problem of course as a Christian."

I don't believe the Christian message is that humans will "never amount to much without God." In fact, "amounting" is not really the issue. Humanity has made tremendous progress. Without a doubt, overall, the world is a much better place to live in than it was 500 or a thousand years ago. The issue is not about progress or amounting to something, it's about eternal life. What good is it if the whole of Humanity achieves the pinacle of progress, reaches the stars, unlocks the secrets of the cosmos, and creates utopia on Earth and, when we die, we're still eternally separated from the Creator who made us and loves us?

As far as us seeing "a black and white world," unfortunately that's not a totally unfair characterization. Personally, I don't view all of life as completely black and white. It's just that certain things in life are black and white. One day, I will die. You can't get any more "black and white" than that.

Tom, thanks for your thoughts and an enjoyable and charitable conversation.

Tom said...

re: "...But God provides a way of escape - and it's a free gift, you don't have to do anything to deserve it. If we were on a plane that was going down and I handed you a parachute, will you be angry with me for supposing that you'll die otherwise? Will you be insulted when I tell you that all of your "self-control" and "striving for perfection" will not enable you to survive the crash? Or will you take the "free" gift of the parachute?...."

Yes, that is the Christian belief, that there is a cosmic deal that can be cut, essentially for "free" that will save us from eternal damnation.

We're really at two different perspectives on the world, so this conversation becomes a little difficult. I don't think the gift is free at all. To accept the free gift, a person must accept he or she is broken to start with.

You believe you're broken to start with. I don't see it that way. I feel that a belief that says John T is broken just because he's born is a demeaning belief. I have to accept that you see it as a truth, so my idea of a "demeaning belief" doesn't make any sense from your Christian perspective. In fact you find your belief uplifting...like you say, you can take on the nature of God, your Creator.

So the next step, to believe that Jesus Christ can give you a gift of salvation, doesn't make any sense to me. If anything, I think it takes away from the decent, striving, good-hearted person I bet you are. That you can't make it on your own. As though you're almost a cripple that needs supernatural help. Again, you'd see it a different way, that something sublime is going on here.

So anyway, it's odd to discuss since we're almost talking two languages or two distinct perspectives. I can't quite fathom the salvation portion of Christianity, but I look to Christians and Christian leaders for their understanding of decency, compassion, and seeking truth.

Thank you.

John T. said...

Tom,

I appreciate that you consider me a decent and good-hearted person. I think that I am, and that I was even before I was a Christian. I'm certain that you are as well, and not being a Christian doesn't diminish that fact. I merely recognize that my decency and goodheartedness won't save me. And while I may not be a cripple in the emotional sense, in the spiritual sense, I know I am.

re: "Yes, that is the Christian belief, that there is a cosmic deal that can be cut, essentially for "free" that will save us from eternal damnation.

We're really at two different perspectives on the world, so this conversation becomes a little difficult. I don't think the gift is free at all. To accept the free gift, a person must accept he or she is broken to start with."


You're absolutely correct on this point. "Free" may not be the best word to describe salvation, because there is a cost to receive the gift - it will cost you your very life. (Not that your life really belongs to you to begin with, but we'd like to think it does.) Part of that "cost" is accepting or admitting this brokeness. That's what Christianity calls repentance - a surrender. When Robert E. Lee accepted General Grant's terms of surrender after the Civil War, it came with a complete pardon, but it "cost" everything the South had hoped and dreamed of, and required a laying down of arms and hostility towards the North.

On a recent show, Oprah gave away a "free" gift of an automobile to everyone in the studio audience that day. What they found out later was that they were liable to pay a tax on the "free" gift. So the gift, while "free" in the sense of being undeserved, came at a cost.

You're right by stating that we are coming from two completely different perspectives. I certainly understand where you're coming from, because I once thought as you did. Even though, I've enjoyed our conversation.