It seems like Christians get a bad reputation these days, especially with non-Christians. Can you blame them? The loudest voices in Christianity seem to often fall into one of two camps. You have the “best life” camp, where Christianity is supposed to give you a great life with as little sin as possible (if any), many “blessings” (aka stuff), and happy relationships. The problem with this camp is that it doesn’t leave any room for our sinful nature that still fights hard to express itself. When people outside of the church see Christians sinning it becomes very hard for them to reconcile this image that some Christians portray of “the good life” with the sinful, hurtful, downright bad things that they observe.
The other camp that gets a lot of attention is the “God hates everyone” camp. You know them better as folks from the Westboro Baptist Church and others like them. The only message a person hears from these Christians is how much God hates everyone. There is no Gospel message, no good news, no hope, no forgiveness, and no new life. This is sad because those are exactly the gifts that Jesus won for us on the cross. Most people recognize the folks in this camp as being on the fringe and yet some believe that this is what being Christian is all about.
At one of the congregations that I serve we gather together on Wednesday nights for dinner and Bible study. Since the Fall we’ve been studying the book of Romans. Taking breaks for Advent and Lent have caused us still be studying this book even through summer is rapidly approaching.
This week we looked at Romans 12. Now this is not a long chapter at all, but it is packed with a ton of great (and sometimes challenging) stuff that Paul is sharing with the Roman Christians.
His words struck me for two reasons. First, because right above verse 9 in my Bible, the editors have chosen to include the heading “Marks of the True Christian”. This means that someone apparently believes that the words that are coming next are pretty important. The second reason it stuck out to me is that the words that we find here are difficult and countercultural. Let me explain.
Paul starts out by saying that we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices, not conforming to the world, but being transformed by God. This is important because it is only by the transformative power of God that we’ll be able to do the things that he talks about later. We are not to look and act like the world, but rather we are to look and act like children of the Living God. It will quickly become apparent by Paul’s next words that we aren’t supposed to separate ourselves from the world and live in hiding though, as some are prone to do.
Then Paul begins his description of this new life by focusing first on the relationship between Christians who are living in the body of Christ. Don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought is how he begins. This is tough for us living in a “me centered” society. We’re encouraged to think of ourselves first, to “look out for number 1”, and if something isn’t making us happy we’re supposed to quit it and find something better.
Paul’s words here connect with his writing in Philippians 2 where he instructs the church there “to count others more significant than yourselves.” Can you imagine a world where we did this all the time? Where our constant focus was on the needs of others first before ourselves. It would be remarkable.
He goes on to remind us that there are many different talents and abilities within the church and that they are all necessary. Each person should use his/her gifts to build up those around them.
Then he gets into the part that is identified in my Bible as “Marks of the True Christian.” Here we go!
“Let love be genuine…” It is really easy to love other people who love us back isn’t it? We do it all the time. We pick friends based on who we get along with and who is nice to us. We stay in relationships as long as we’re getting more out of it than we’re putting in and feeling happy about it. Conditional love like that isn’t really love at all if you compare it to God, the source of love who demonstrated unconditional love when he came to save his enemies.
The next part that jumped out at me was the line “outdo one another in showing honor”. What if instead of competing to be number one or to have the most recognition we competed to show more honor to others? Then he goes on to say, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” This is where we see the difficulty with the first “camp” that I mentioned above. There is nothing in scripture that says that your life is going to be better by being a Christian. In fact, there is a lot that suggests that it will be difficult. Yet Paul tells us to rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. No matter how difficult our lives are or what happens to us, nothing compares to the hope that we have. This is why we can rejoice in hope and be patient in our tribulations.
Now if this wasn’t all crazy enough, Paul keeps going. "Bless those who persecute you. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Finally, leave vengeance to God and if your enemy is hungry or thirsty you should feed them and give them water.
This all goes completely against the individualism that we value in our society. We are constantly told that it is more important to focus on doing what is best for us. If someone does something bad to us our first reaction is to get back at them and even the score. Paul tells us to live peaceably with each other and not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. What a remarkable way to live!
So we may read these verses and think that Paul may have had some nice thoughts, but that it is impossible to expect anyone to actually live this way. Can you imagine if Christians committed themselves to living their lives this way? Not because we have something to prove to God or because we’re trying to earn our salvation, but simply because we want to demonstrate the amazing, selfless love the God has already shown to us. Living like this would stand out in a stark contrast to what we usually experience. It would also let non-Christians criticize us for the foolishness of our message rather than the way we live. Give it a try and see how it goes!
My name is Tom. I'm fascinated by the ways that people, ideas, current events and theology interact with each other.