After getting some pretty hefty slag from a few of my fellow Liverpool FC supporters regarding my concern about the appropriateness of utilizing God’s name as a nickname for a mere mortal (former Striker Robbie Fowler is called “God” by many LFC fans), I started to think about what actually drives a lot of the differences – and therefore arguments – between Christians and non-Christians. Obviously there is something lying deep underneath all of the seemingly small and innocuous misperceptions, miscommunications and misappropriations of the words, concepts and ideas the opposite group holds dear. And I’m saying that yes, Christians are messing up in communication too. It’s not just atheists/agnostics/unbelievers who have the problem, we in Christendom have been pretty silly about some of the ways in which we’ve said things, even if not about the content which we’ve conveyed.
I’d very much like to make sense of this and deliver some breakthrough in our ways of communicating with one another, but the fact is that the Christian versus non-Christian divide is the one human divide which is unbridgeable from a cognitive perspective. Instead, the only thing that seems to cut through the dissonance is action – and that’s not in any way unpredictable or ironic because it’s the exact thing we were told was the best communication by Christ (“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” Matt 5:16).
Therefore if we determine that the best communication to non-Christians is action driven by love, mercy and empathy, then Christ’s continuation in His Sermon on the Mount to “not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matt 7:6) seems to indicate that our Great Commission excludes simply standing on the street corner with a sandwich board celebrating the coming judgment of God upon the unrighteous. Instead we are to realize that:
– We are all sinners (every last one of us)
– Any forgiveness we have received is a gift of the Almighty and undeserved by us
– God offers His great gift of forgiveness to all people
– People who are currently unforgiven do not understand the power it has for change
– People who are currently unforgiven do not realize that forgiveness transforms worldview
– People who are currently unforgiven are more receptive to Christianity lived than Christianity preached
– The first true forgiveness the unforgiven are likely to see is that from a loving Christian
Let’s be honest (and blunt): grace and mercy do not naturally occur in this world. The first sin made sure of that because it let loose the basest desires that up until then lay latent within Adam. Grace and mercy are products of a life NOT lived for itself, whereas the plucking of the fruit in the garden was fully self-serving. Adam and Eve took it because they wanted to be “like God”; so they forfeited life, as God had given it, for “life” as their own gods. Since that moment each successive generation – each individual personally – has taken the fruit themselves in an effort to turn their back on the sustainer of true life and in so doing have turned their backs on life itself.
But we also have the power to renounce that fruit, instead choosing the offer of God’s grace – and with it, true life. This action doesn’t just remove the rift between us and God, but also the great rift that separates man from man. At some point these people who have learned that forgiveness is possible – that mercy and grace are available – look at the fruit being passed to them through the millennia of human failure and throw it to the ground in disgust, recognizing that in it is all of the wretchedness and suffering with which man has burdened himself. Powerfully, this renunciation shatters a link in the iron chain that binds that person, and his generation, to that horrible day in the garden. Each broken link, each “broken” person, sends shudders through the entire chain and threatens to undo the vile work of the tempter. It’s no wonder then that he (Satan) works so hard to drive a wedge of enmity between the enslaved and the free man, he can’t afford to have the source of suffering exposed. All of this explains why Satan distracts from, or throws a smoke screen around, the truth. Satan does it to encourage misperceptions, miscommunications and misappropriations of words, concepts and ideas between his pitiful servants and those who know truth’s source because he fears the unforgiven seeing that forgiveness, love, grace, mercy, hope and truth as anything more than fantasy.
I’ve said it before several times on this blog (and I’ll definitely say it again), we are at war! Not at war necessarily with the unbeliever, but with the ideas that Satan spreads in this fallen world; and acknowledging that the war is going on is necessary to be able to effectively engage the lies of the enemy. This is no time to lose heart, neither is it time to waver in our faith or in the assurance of our calling. We are behind enemy lines in a massive conflagration between God – the true King – and the rebellious forces of Satan – the usurper. Satan currently controls the world, but he won’t for long. The true King is coming and will retake what is His. He’s simply given us, as partisans behind enemy lines, a little bit more time to recruit more soldiers for the fight – more citizens for the Kingdom of Christ (a Kingdom “not of this world” – lest we forget).
The hard part is about finding the best way to recruit them. Since we’ve already recognized that actions are better than words, let’s talk about why that is the case.
Most atheists and agnostics will tell you that they don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian God because either 1) they simply don’t think He exists, or 2) they don’t agree with something they think He said/did (note that I said “they think” – often they’re hopelessly misinformed). You’ll notice that these two reasons have something in common: they’re purposeful decisions.
Just as you and I, as Christians, have made a decision to believe in God and His goodness, those who don’t believe have also made a decision. Neither decision is necessarily provably “correct,” empirically speaking. The atheist can’t prove a negative (that God doesn’t exist) and, though I believe that it is possible to prove empirically that there is a higher power out there, we can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Judeo-Christian God is the true God. At least, we can’t prove it apart from the testimony of those who saw Jesus in the flesh or the personal experiences that we each have had. After all, experiencing the renewal and regeneration of the Holy Spirit isn’t really something which lends itself to fleshly comparison or physical empiricism. Can you describe the beauty of a Vivaldi concerto to someone who has never heard a violin? Can you describe the vivid beauty of the high desert at sunset to someone who has never been there? I could talk for hours about the redness of the rock with shadows enriching it to scarlet. I could describe for days the three hundred shades of pink and orange streaking through the deepening blue sky. I could spend weeks explaining how the light greens of Saguaro, Prickly Pear and Ocotillo add a vital luster to the open expanses of reds and browns. I could use all of the words in my vocabulary and all of the time in the world to give every detail of beauty, from the warmth radiating off of the rock to the scent of pine drifting down from the mesas … but I’ll never do it justice because it has to be experienced to be believed. That the one who hasn’t experienced it can’t then believe it does not make it any less true. And though ‘beauty is in the eye beholder,’ truth is not; so you and I may disagree on the beauty of the high desert, but you cannot disagree with the truth that its beauty moves me.
The same can be said about the power of Christ. How can you describe to someone already hesitant and skeptical about, if not outright hostile to, the transformation of the Holy Spirit? Having never encountered the reassurance of knowing that God is there, how can they understand what it means to not be alone? Having always given in to their selfish desires, how can they believe the overwhelming sense of triumph when you are able to put yourself aside for the good of Christ? Having always been a slave to something they don’t even acknowledge (sin), how can they see that freedom is possible, or even preferable?
Therefore, the atheist (and many unbelievers) falls for the most terrible lie: that this life is all there is. As a result, pessimism kills any joy found in the beautiful things God has made and hatred of it all must necessarily follow – as a rejected lover’s heart wilts toward all joy it could find apart from the one who turned them away. Somewhere within men is a deep, pounding, driving desire to want more than what we see and experience physically here on earth. It’s shown in the way that we all want some sort of justice (for ourselves more often than not, but at least it’s something which acknowledges right and wrong). You see it in the way people yearn for love and pursue it ceaselessly, often to their ruin. It’s evident in how dissatisfied man always is in his condition – whether destitute in a favela in Brazil or as wealthy as Sheikh Mansour on his yacht … or his other yacht … or his other other yacht. It is even evident in those who decry the plight of the needy as they grow more frustrated with the incessant march of time; a march which refuses to reveal their dreamed utopia on earth … as if man can escape by man’s power from man’s man-made destiny.
That pessimism, which the atheist might deem ‘realism,’ does indeed kill joy. It kills joy to the extent that joy seems not even possible. Joy becomes a word without meaning … which leads to music without melody, art without substance, politics without direction, sport without passion, science without revelation, life without nourishment. And as joy dies, the soul begins to rot. Regarding this, give a moment to a passage which I’ve quoted before from George MacDonald’s character in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce,
“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity … That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony [of life] into glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say, ‘Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why … the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”
Life is death for those who deny God … and death is life for those who accept Him. Should we be surprised that words that reveal this fact are hated and un-hearable to the one who lives in a hell of his own making? Should we be surprised that the concepts of joy and hope and truth are mocked by those relentlessly descending into torment?
Consequently, the only way for a Christian to break through the hatred and pain of those who are lost is to show that the yearnings of their heart for what they believe to be unattainable can be satiated. And yet, since it is grace, mercy and love which are yearned for – though they know it not – and since God is the only source of those things, we must be the reflectors of God’s gifts upon the unbeliever. They’ll never understand the glory and beauty of God’s mercy, grace and love until they experience the reflection of it through our own mercy, grace and love. As Paul described true, complete love, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). If we then, as believers and followers, only see love via “reflection,” how much more do those who disbelieve need the reflection from us?
To say it another way, if you want to know what god it is that the atheists, agnostics and unbelievers worship, let me tell you: It’s not necessarily some tongue-in-cheek blasphemy like the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” It’s not primarily the god of self – selfish as their deeds may be. It’s not chiefly the god of lust – covetous as their desires may be. It’s not principally the god of license – unbridled as their passions are. It is the god of death that they worship. As they exchange the glory of the immortal God for the physical (Rom 1:22-25), they confer upon themselves the mortality and degeneration of that physical nature they’ve embraced and to which they’ve bowed. How can death bring life?
Or maybe we should ask it this way: How can death be conquered? It seems to be a question asked by many atheistic humanists over the centuries as they search for the Fountain of Youth or The Singularity (of man and machine). But we, as Christians, know that the only true answer to the question of conquering death – of becoming immortal – is: through One who has already conquered death and now transcends it. Thank God that we know Someone who has done just that, Christ our Lord.
Now to wrap things up, let’s think not only about the actions of love which will reflect Christ, let’s also think about what it means then to be purposeful about our Christianity. We must realize that, not only does life itself change when we accept Christ, but our very VIEW or life changes. I love the quote from Chuck Colson that begins the Breakpoint This Week program: “What is Christianity? Christianity is an explanation of ALL of reality. There’s not one square inch of human existence as to which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry out, ‘MINE!’”
If we believe in God’s saving power over death, through the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ, it simply must change our entire worldview. We not only must argue for the sovereignty of God by the honor of His name, misappropriated by demons or men as it may be, we must also argue for His plans and precepts being truth themselves.
If we do argue that God’s plans and precepts are true, by inference that means that all that deviates from His instruction is a lie from the pits of hell! And by acknowledging this … it changes everything! It changes what we believe to be smart, wise and intellectual. It changes the amount of faith we put in politicians, leaders and man-made institutions. It changes the amount of interest we place in the non-eternal (or should I say, “non-essential?”). It changes the very essence of what suffering and pain and evil and death means. All of a sudden, through the light of the glory of the immortal, invisible, incorruptible, unassailable and invincible God of all the earth, we see so much better the pitiful transience of the “life” man tries to concoct without the Author of life. Like a child attempting to create a great city by clumping together the dry sand of his sunbaked sandbox, so our efforts pale in comparison to His greatness and glory.
How sad it must be to argue for transience over the eternal! How sad it must be to argue for lies over truth! How sad it must be to resign oneself to death when life is reaching out so patiently … so unreservedly. Oh to see God’s outstretched hand more clearly! Oh to know more fully the love that causes Him to stand so long-sufferingly and unwearyingly there! I dare say that if we knew it only fractionally better it would begin a torrent of love breaking through from our hearts to those around us. That torrent would sweep away all before us into a flood of grace and mercy. Rising waters of hope would break down the cold, gray dams of hard-heartedness and engulf the deniers of God in the unremitting truth of love’s cleansing power. One might have the foolhardiness to deny the invisible God, but how callous must one be to deny love, fully lived?
Yes, I know that this is partly just naïve hope. I’ve seen too many miracles of love looked at with disdain by the unbelieving. I call them miracles because they should never have happened in a world as sinful and broken as ours. But they did happen: saving someone’s life at the expense one’s own, forgiving the one who has wronged you though they never asked for forgiveness, loving one’s enemies and praying for the one persecuting you – how can these be anything but miracles when all of human existence seems to pivot on revenge and record-keeping? And so call me naïve if you must (I’ve been called much worse). And call me hypocritical, since I’ve not loved as I should. But I know that love is right … and I know that love will conquer the world. It won’t be our (Christianity’s) love which will win – we’re too weak and human for that – but one day God has promised to come and since His nature is love, we will see love in all its power and irresistibility. We will be enveloped by it and through its permeation we will become what we were always meant to be. “Death [will be] swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54) and those who worship it – ignoring love in the process – will be vanquished with death. Love seems to say, “We can’t let that happen. We must warn them. We must save them.” Perhaps we can?
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
And you who have no money, come, but and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to Me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to Me; listen that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for He has endowed you with splendor.”
Seek the Lord while He may be found; call on Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord and He will have mercy on them, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
So is My word that goes out from My mouth: it will not return to Me empty,
But will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.”