You've known them — people who only step through the doors of a church on a holiday. Ever wonder what to say to them? Here's one writer's idea.
It was good to see you in church Christmas Eve. This is getting to be a tradition with us, since I ran into you there last Christmas Eve too.
We've been friends for awhile now, so let me get right to the point, and I hope you won't think me too pushy. I wish you'd come back and join us in church sometime other than Christmas — say, next Sunday.
I think I know what your first reaction is; it's the same one I used to have some years ago. The moment you read my invitation, you began to feel cornered, and half a dozen different excuses sprang up in your mind. I work hard during the week and I need to rest over the weekend. I just can't find a church that "gets it right." I'm a Christian, but I don't need to go to church; I can worship in my own time and my own way. And so on.
Forgive me for being blunt, but I don't buy any of it. I think I know you well enough to say that you remind me a lot of me. During all those years when I used to make those same excuses, I always knew deep down that none of them was the real reason. The real reason was that I wanted to call myself a Christian without actually knowing Christ — and I was afraid that if I spent time in church I couldn't avoid seeing Him more than I'd find comfortable.
Frankly, this is an understandable reaction. Lots of us try to tailor-make a religion we call Christianity to suit ourselves. We want it to mean mainly approving of some things about Christianity — feeling good and affectionate toward everyone at Christmastime, praying for people when they're sick, running soup kitchens. And most of all, we want to think our approval of these things confirms our essential goodness.
In this version, Jesus becomes not a Savior so much as a helpful tutor. Not many people say it that explicitly, of course. They'll admit to "making mistakes" or "falling short" from time to time, and they may admit that Christ is needed to forgive these occasional lapses. But they also tell themselves that their own basic goodness is such that they deserve to go to heaven. In fact, they may add, pretty near all of us deserve heaven. (Large numbers of self-proclaimed Christians tell pollsters they don't believe in hell.) In short, we don't really need a Savior, just a little helping hand.
Naturally, no one of us who buys into this self-serving imaginary theology wants to meet the real Christ. The real Christ, after all, talks constantly of our deep and thorough sinfulness, and leaves no room for any conceit about our own virtue. Moreover, He insists that He is the only path to salvation — and He means not merely behaving ourselves in accordance with some of His teachings, but trusting in His atoning work on the cross.
Many people try to get around this uncomfortable situation by speaking of Jesus not as Son of God but merely as a "great moral teacher" — one of many, along with Confucius and Buddha. The trouble with this (beyond the fact that such people invariably present a highly selective and watered-down version of Christ's moral teachings) is that He will have none of that either.
As C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, Jesus was a man who claimed to be the eternal God, both Savior and Judge. Lewis notes:
A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
I've always remembered these words of Lewis because they exposed to me with penetrating clarity just what I had been doing. I'd never denied the divinity of Jesus, but I'd never paid much attention to Him either.
The truth is, I had wanted to keep Jesus on a shelf, to be taken down when I felt I needed Him to settle an argument or meet a perceived need. And I had always sensed that if I were to go to church, this wouldn't fly anymore. I'd risk encountering a Christ who would not merely cooperatively affirm my own opinions and inclinations, but would expose sins far beyond what I wanted to see and demand a price far beyond what I wanted to pay. I feared I'd have to fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.
And once I started attending church, that's exactly what happened.
* * *
So you see, Greg, I know just what it is you're afraid of. But I have good news: Meeting the Christ I feared was also the best thing that ever happened to me.
This part is very hard to explain to anyone who doesn't know this Christ, and yet, it's very easy to understand for those who do know Him. Perhaps the best way to convey it to you is this: You know all the things you try to rationalize that you feel and do every day? You know the constant, uneasy feeling that you're lying to yourself — that you're afraid to face the truth?
That feeling is well founded. But when you know Christ, you don't have to lie any more. You're actually supposed to confess sins constantly. And here's the best part: You can count on Him to forgive you, and to grant you a type of peace and joy you've never known.
Don't think I'm promising you an easy life. In some ways it'll get harder, and filled with new types of tensions. But as Lewis points out, it's harder in the same way that studying for an exam is harder than blowing it off. In the long run, it's the seemingly easy path that's the hardest — and the hardest path that's the easiest.
You don't understand? I don't blame you. There's no human way to take it all in at once. You need continual exposure to the Word of God, and the understanding granted by the Holy Spirit. The best place to find that is usually church. And that's why I hope you'll come back next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.
You might be surprised at what will happen. Take it from a guy who's been surprised, and lived to tell about it.
Copyright 2002 Matt Kaufman. All rights reserved.