Like several other posts, this one was trggered by something I saw on Twitter, asking those who call themselves Christian, or “follow the Jesus way”, why they do so. I have to say I’m a bit embarrassed as to how long it’s taken me to respond; the question was asked over three weeks ago. After all, it is the first thing I have on my Twitter bio, and we are advised that “if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.” (1 Peter 3:15, NLT)
Part of the reason for the delay in my response has been my health (always a handy excuse!). But I’ve also found it difficult to find the right words, as everything I thought of saying seemed to lead to more questions. So hopefully in this post I’ve been able to answer some of them.
Anyway, here is the short answer:
“I am a Christian because I want to live my life in response to what I believe about God and about Jesus Christ.”
There: nice and easy; except that the next questions will be about what it is I believe – so see below. I’ve tried to be fairly concise; there is a lot more that could be said, and these may only be the starting point for any discussion. The advice given by Peter really envisages a face-to-face encounter rather than a broadcast.
I need to be clear at the start, though, that not all Christians will believe in exactly the same way that I do; many will have much more specific beliefs than the ones I describe, and some will criticise me for what they see as a lack of orthodoxy.
I believe in God
I believe in God as the ultimate reality, the “ground of our being”, the creator of the universe. Not everybody will, but to me creation as a deliberate act of an eternal God is a good, reasonable explanation to the question of why there is a physical universe bound by time.
I believe that God can be experienced as personal, and that something can be known of God’s character and purpose through God’s own revelation. And I believe this even though my own direct experience of God ranges from the vague to the non-existent. It would be great to have the certainty of some of the people of the Bible, who can simply say “God told me to do this”; but that’s not how it works for me. I have to rely almost entirely on second-hand revelation, and the reflection on God found in religious writings of all faiths, but for me especially the Christian Bible.
As a result of this revelation and reflection, I belive that a fundamental aspect of God’s character is love: love for all creation, especially where this has life and consciousness. This love means that God wans the best for us; but also that God places expectations on us, how we behave, the way we live.
I believe in Jesus Christ
Many people might broadly agree with my basic beliefs about God, whether they are Christians or not, or even whether they would describe themselves as being religious or not. But my Christian faith is more specific.
I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. This is the turning point in the development of the Christian faith, an event that was extraordinary, almost unbelievable, certainly contrary to reason, yet could not be denied by the first disciples. And this resurrection was not the same as the miracles of raising the dead that were done by Jesus and even some of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures: it was something new, a new quality of life, eternal life, that somehow we can all share.
I believe that Jesus had a unique relationship to God – so different in quality that he could be referred to as the Son of God even in his own lifetime or shortly afterwards, and which people struggled to describe and categorise adequately for hundreds of years, leading to the doctrine of the Trinity, which is still not the last word. It might be said that this is the most important aspect of Jesus; but I think it was the resurrection that demonstrated this, that Jesus could really be called the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One.
I believe that this relationship, however we might try to define it, means that it is in Jesus that we see most clearly what God is like: the God I believe in as described above, the personal God, the God who is love, the God who cares for creation.
I believe that in some way, it is through the death of Jesus that we can have ‘salvation’, however we might define that: forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, atonement, ransom from death. I think I need to say a bit more about this, as it is described in many different ways in the New Testament, which generally are metaphors to help us understand what is going on. However, the idea that this was in some way God punishing Jesus because of our sins is one that I find inadequate and unhelpful. It suggests that God cannot forgive without punishing, which seems to me to be placing limitations on God; it is also contrary to many of the other pictures of God’s forgiveness throughout the Bible. As a better picture, I think we need to recognise that our sin, our failing to live up to God’s expectations, is hurtful to God; and that Jesus’ death shows in a very clear way just how hurtful this is. And perhaps forgiveness can only be real if the one forgiving feels the full depth of what needs to be forgiven.
There have been a couple of recent tweets from @BrianZahnd that express this much better and more succinctly:
- The crucifixion is not what God inflicted on Christ, the crucifixion is what God suffered in Christ.
- The cross is not the satisfaction of a vengeful monster God. The cross is the full revelation of a supremely merciful God.
These things that I believe, described briefly, are what drive me to try and life my life in a certain way. I said that God places expectations on us, that are sometimes described as laws or commandments; these are like a parent giving a child guidance for good living. People often think of commandments as being negative – “don’t do that!” – but the most important ones, as Jesus himself said, quoting the Hebrew scriptures, are positive, and are a response to the fact that God is love:
- Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength
- Love your neighbour as yourself
I am the first to admit that I’m not very good at these. It is also sadly true that many Christians are better at judging and condemning others for their sins than expressing this love. But I firmly believe that this is what should characterise those who seek to follow the Jesus way.
And I would guess that many people would recognise the second of these as the basis of good moral behaviour, even those for whom the first is meaningless. I would certainly not claim that only Christians can be good!
Which leads then to the question: if “love your neighbour” is a good universal standard guideline, why bother being a Christian? Again, I can only speak for myself; but I do specifically Christian (religious) things – going to church, reading the Bible, praying, etc. – because I find that they help keep me on track for living the right way, and also provide opportunities to express my faith and put it into practice.
Some Christians have a “life verse” – something from the Bible that summarises their faith and life and how these two are related. Mine picks up some of the ideas I have expressed here:
“We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honour and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.” (Colossians 1:9-10, NLT)