“Being a Christian is too convenient.”
Last week I got to meet up with a high school friend of mine who recently became Christian in college, and this was one of the reasons she quoted from a remembered conversation between herself and two other non-Christian friends for doubting the truth of the gospel. It just seems too good to be true, an easy way out of life’s problems, a fairy-tale made up to comfort the weak and the weary.
With the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we no longer have to live in slavery to sin and death; we’re free and forgiven without having done anything to deserve it, and we can go to heaven to be with God even though we’re terrible people who have done terrible things—that sounds pretty convenient, doesn’t it? And it’s so easy—you don’t even have to be a good person to be saved, you just have to believe. The gospel is in a way “too good to be true,” because God’s grace is so completely undeserved, and his love for us is so vastly incomprehensible.
My friend said that as a believer she now understands that it’s not quite so simple, that living a Christian life is far from convenient, or easy, but it’s hard to explain. We didn’t really talk much more about it, but this morning I remembered that conversation and tried to think about how I would go about answering that question now (How or why is it difficult to be a Christian?), should it be posed by another one of my friends who doesn’t (yet) believe.
I ended up with two answers, 1) persecution and 2) following Christ, i.e. living the way that He desires, according to the Bible. Ultimately these two reasons are one and the same, because according to Paul, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
We know this, but in modern day America, we are hardly ever faced with the kind of persecution that Paul faced; even in China, I’m a privileged international citizen free to believe and worship however I please, so long as I don’t do it too loudly (but that’s another story). The point is, most Christians aren’t obviously or physically persecuted anymore for their faith.
Yesterday I was reading Daniel 3, the story of Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego, who were thrown into a blazing furnace because they refused to bow down to an idol. Now that’s definitely not what I’d call convenient.
Before King Nebuchadnezzar got really angry, he even gave them a second chance.
“Maybe you didn’t know what you were supposed to do before, but let me make it crystal clear now. Bow down to my statue when I cue the music, or I’ll throw you into that furnace over there. Got it?”
It probably would’ve been much easier to obey the king and compromise their beliefs, just once—after all, what use could they be to God’s ministry if they were dead, right? But these three were true men of faith: they knew God’s law—don’t bow down to idols—and they knew God’s heart, that he would rescue them from evil. So they said NO, WE WON’T BOW DOWN TO ANY IDOL! And they were tossed to what should’ve been their fiery deaths, but of course, God saved them. We can say of course now, because we know that the story has a happy ending, but they didn’t. They didn’t know that the fire wasn’t going to burn them. They didn’t know that Jesus, or an angel, or someone “who looks like a son of the gods” would show up to hang out with them inside the furnace. They didn’t know that this one act of obedience would end with Nebuchadnezzar throwing his hands up in awe and promoting them and giving glory to the Most High God. They trusted that God had the power to save them, but they didn’t presume that he would necessarily do it—“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (vv 17-18) Now that’s what I call faith.
So following God in Daniel’s day and age certainly wasn’t easy or convenient, but what about now? As I read this passage yesterday, I thought, “Great, another example of boldness and faith in the face of persecution. But how does that apply to me? I suppose I should stand up for what I believe in. But how do I do that when nobody is trying to make me sit down?” I wondered, “If I’m not being persecuted, does that make me a bad Christian? Is there something wrong with the way I’m living my life?” What is one supposed to do, go out looking for persecution? Even Daniel and his friends didn’t do that; they never went looking for trouble, it just walked in out of the blue and tried to throw them to the ground—*cue screaming goat* (haha sorry, couldn’t help it… but seriously)—all the time because they were lucky enough to live in a time and place where their faith was an offensive counterculture.
While most of us are no longer under the immediate threat of torture or death, as Christians we still face plenty of opposition from popular culture. There are many examples of this, but this is what came to mind:
When I thought about what it means to 2) follow Christ, I thought immediately of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, which happens to have been the subject of the last two days of the devotional packet I’m reading, what a coincidence! Except not, because of course God planned it so that he could teach me this lesson), where Jesus tells us how we should live, and the answer is the most unpopular, countercultural, counterintuitive thing possible: Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. And a variety of other uncomfortable sounding things that were against the culture then, are against the culture now, and will probably always be so (that is, until God finishes restoring creation according to his plan). As my friend phrased it, Christians who really live according to these guidelines will always struggle with either “outward persecution or self-denial.”
Paul also said in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Therefore I prayed that God would teach me something important through every passage that I studied, and I was a little disappointed when I got stumped on Daniel 3—what was the current relevance of this passage?
I also prayed that I could have opportunities to be a light to my high school friends when I met with them this summer—well, God answered both of my prayers at the same time, but I wasn’t ready for it.
I met up with a bunch of high school friends for dinner, and it was the first time I’d seen any of them since winter break, so we had a really good time catching up and chatting about random things. Towards the end of dessert, however, the conversation took an unpleasant turn—in short, my friends began talking negatively about a former classmate of ours who had changed a lot in college. I knew that this was wrong, that it was easily classified as gossip and judgment, that as a Christian I should take no part in such a conversation, and that as a friend I should try to steer my friends in the right direction too. I probably should have spoken up, said something like, “I don’t think we should talk about people like this” or “we don’t have any right to judge her, we don’t even know her that well,” but I didn’t. I was completely at a loss for what to do or say, and the only almost-productive thing I managed was, “Maybe she’s just insecure. We’re all insecure” and soon after announced that I was going home, on account of my jet lag.
While I didn’t necessarily join in on bashing her, my silence and lack of demonstrated discomfort with the conversation basically put me in agreement with my friends and what they were saying. The most difficult part of it was that I probably did agree with what they were saying, and though I did not want to condemn our classmate out loud, I had also judged her in my mind. I could say that maybe I didn’t judge her to the same degree, but what does that really matter? Matthew 7 says, Do not judge, or you too will be judged. And here I was, hypocritically caught in two kinds of judgment—I judged the girl, because I saw nothing false in the criticisms of my friends, and at the same time I judged my friends for thinking they were so much better than her, as if I knew better. It’s probably worse that technically I did know better and went along with it anyway.
In the end I realized, nobody was making me sit down but myself. Nobody is making me worship any golden idol they have set up, but the golden image is my own. I struggle to stand up for my faith and the values that necessarily go with it, even when I am relatively safe, when I know that my opinion is valued among this group of friends. I have so little to fear, yet I fear it so strongly. Why? I can attribute it to habit; never having stood up much for what I believed to be right among this group of people in the past, I am shy of acting different now, perhaps for fear that they won’t like who I am becoming. But if who I am becoming is more in line with who God wants me to be, then it shouldn’t matter so much to me whether they like me or not. And how do I know they won’t like me? Maybe if I had stood up and made a point of not allowing the gossip to continue, I would have looked foolish. But maybe I also would have made them think, why does she care? Why defend this girl that none of us were ever really friends with? What’s different? Maybe I could’ve been a light.
It’s no wonder that people think being a Christian is “too convenient” nowadays, because they don’t see enough Christians actually following Christ in every day life. We can talk all we want about grace and faith and personal transformation, but faith without action is dead. It’s frustrating that I am still so weak, but I praise God for teaching me this unexpected lesson, and I hope that next time I’ll be ready.
I pray that God will help to break me from this pride, and from this fear of offending people. I pray that I will have enough faith to inconvenience myself for the sake of Christ. We make such big promises in our hearts, saying that we will go to the ends of the earth and do whatever God wants us to do, and promise to be faithful even to the point of martyrdom, yet faced with the littlest things like the judgment of our peers, we shy away. We deny Christ, maybe not outright denying our belief in him, but denying his presence in our hearts and our lives and the effect that should have on our thoughts and actions. I think of Peter, and the way that he denied Christ three times even after fiercely swearing his allegiance, and of the grace that Jesus gave him even so, trusting him with his sheep, and teaching him to love. Lord, I am sorry for my weakness. I pray that you would make me strong and fearless in your love. Amen.