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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

4 Keys to Being a Christian (Instead of Acting like One)

About eight years ago, I realized that I had been making choices in my life based on what I thought was a good Christian response. Instead of living my life in a loving relationship with God and others, I was living according to a complex legalism based on my understanding of what was good.

I wanted to be good, so I decided to act good.

This is the dilemma of someone who lives in a Christian bubble. Do I act like a Christian or do I have an honest relationship with God and those around me?

It is a tough question to answer.

My soul longs for honest relationships, but they are difficult and messy, unpredictable and dangerous.

Acting like a Christian is safer. If we get rejected, it is ok because I know the real me wasn’t rejected. The real me is hidden behind this mask of Christian-ness.

As I got better and better at acting like a Christian, I got further and further from being myself.

It left me feeling like nothing I did was ever good enough. If I did the right Christian thing, I would feel worthy for the moment, but know that it was just an act. If I ever did something questionable, either something I was sure was sin or something I thought people would judge me for, I felt guilty. At times, I felt that the opinions of my most vocal detractors were the ones that determined my value. And sometimes, I was my own worst critic.

The legalism finally broke when I was able to see the lies that I was believing. My worth is not based on my performance. My worth is not based on the opinions of people. And, I began to believe the truth. I am valuable because I was created with value. God’s opinion of me is the only one that accurately defines me. And, His opinion is always loving and accepting even when he is disciplining and correcting me.

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics says, “Much contemporary Christian ethics strives to act Christianly. … It tries to make ‘Christian’ an adjective, an epithet, a style—when what God offers his people is particular actions—verbs—through which they can become and be distinctive nouns—people, disciples, witnesses.”[1]

When deciding what is ethical or morally right, we can begin to think that we should act Christianly. This leads us to lists of right and wrong, legalism.

We begin to believe that there are “Christian” things and “not-Christian” things. And the implication is that if you are a good Christian, then you will do only Christian things.

To act Christianly is to act like people from my subculture would expect me to act.

“What Would Jesus Do?” has come to mean the same thing as, “What would I do if I knew that someone from my church was watching me and would judge me for my actions?”

We tend to believe that Christians should do Christianly things like go to a Christian theater (e.g. the “Sight & Sound Theatre” in Lancaster, PA), go to a Christian amusement park (e.g “The Holy Land Experience” in Orlando, Florida), buy Christian gifts (e.g. the  bobble-head Jesus), hire Christian contractors, and use Christian dating services.[2]

The business world has taken notice. As Christians, we are the target of million dollar marketing strategies.

All of this may lead a child raised in this subculture to believe that being Christianly is sufficient.

The effect on adults in the subculture is just as soul-numbing.

It has become a question of our identity.

4 Keys to Being a Christian (Instead of Acting Like One)

1 - Be yourself

Once I realized that God wasn't calling me to fit into a Christian cookie cutter mold and be the best Christian cookie in the bunch, I felt free to have likes and dislikes, wants and needs. I felt like I was waking up from a long winter and ready to breathe in the fresh air, soak up the sun's rays, see the Spring colors and feel the cool breeze. I was ready to live.

Be honest about who you are, what you feel, what you think and what you do. If you are hiding anything, then you are acting. You are trying to please someone else. You are trying to make someone think that you are something that you are not.

If that someone is your spouse, start going to counseling and get it all out on the table now. Worst case scenario: You may still have time to save your marriage. Best case scenario: you want to build your relationship on a strong foundation and this can only happen if the foundation is real, honest, truthful.

If that someone is your parents and you are living at home, be slow and deliberate and build a strong relationship with them. If they aren't open to that, keep trying, keep being honest.

If that someone that you have been trying to please is anyone else, STOP. Picture your life without them and decide whether your life will be better off or worse off. If you decide that you want them in your life, work on the relationship and be honest with them. If not, stop pretending and just be yourself. They will either leave or try to force you to leave (or change themselves). Whatever they do, it is not your problem.

Be yourself, respect yourself and love yourself.

2 - Be alone

Some of the most difficult times in my life have led me to value time alone with God. It is during these times of desperation that I have learned that I need times of solitude even when things are going well. This book by Ruth Hailey Barton was a valuable resource.

Spend time alone with your thoughts. Listen to your own heart. Be honest with yourself about your faith, your doubts, your fears, your commitments and your dreams. Do all this in the presence of God and listen for His gentle reply. he will not be harsh with you if you are being honest with Him. He will be gentle. Seek Him in the silence and solitude and you will find Him to be loving and gracious.

Honor your commitments to people. Make your marriage and your children and your friendships a priority. Work hard to build these into healthy relationships where you can be yourself and honor who they are.

Reevaluate your commitments to organizations (e.g. work, church, clubs, etc.) Why are you involved with them? Can you be yourself there? Do you feel accepted there? Do you feel fulfilled there? If not, either work to change the organization or find different organizations to be connected to that meet these criteria.

(PS - I wouldn't suggest you quit your job unless God is VERY clear or unless you have a new job lined up already.)

3 - Live

I felt like God said I could have anything I wanted. I could pursue anything I wanted. And, I realized that God had already brought me so much of what I wanted. I had just lost my appreciation for them. I was surrounded by things that I enjoy. I just had to remember how to enjoy them.

There are some things that I would change, but they were minor compared with what was most important to me. I have so much to be grateful for, and now that I am enjoying those things, if I want to make some changes, I can. I can plan a weekend away with my wife or a family vacation or a game night with the kids. I can do fun things because I want to, not because I have to or because I am failing as a man if I don't. My home isn't perfect, but really, it's pretty great. My cars aren't what I always dreamed of owning, but they work.

I am free to enjoy what I have and try to enjoy life more.

What do you enjoy? Celebrate those things. Find new ways to enjoy life even more. Carpe Diem for you Latin lovers.

4 - Love

I spent years of my life trying to do things for people that I thought was loving. I did some wonderful things. I did some sacrificial things. I worked hard. God is gracious and He blessed others through my hard work.

But, in reality, I wasn't loving people, I was acting like I thought someone should if they loved someone else.

Pretty confusing.

Then, God set me free to love. I felt love in my heart that I wasn't expressing because I was too busy trying to figure out what I should do. So, as I was learning to be myself, sitting in solitude wrestling with my thoughts and with God, and enjoying life, I learned to love again.

Loving is very easy, but we make it complicated. We let other motives and past hurts distract us and bog us down.

Sometimes when we treat people meanly, we use the excuse that we are just being honest about the way we feel.

Bull $&*! We are just being mean.

If we were being honest, we would be completely honest about all that we feel including our own pain and prejudices, insecurities and fears. The conversation would leave us feeling vulnerable not overconfident. Complete honesty is love. Love can be painful, but it is never mean.

Loving is desiring what is best for the other person regardless of how it effects me. The greatest love is when we sacrifice our lives for another. But, every time we set aside our own desires in order to do what is best for another, it is love.

Let me be clear. Sacrificing is not love. Setting aside our own desires is not love. Doing what is best for someone else is love and sometimes that means sacrifice.

Christ's love for us demonstrated this beautifully. His love for us led Him to the cross. He died for us, to reap the punishment for our sin so that we would not have to.

As a Christian, for me to love is for me to share Christ with those that I meet. This is what it means to love them. But, until we learn to be ourselves through solitude and enjoy life, loving others is impossible.

May God richly bless you with the grace to love yourself, to enjoy the life that you have and to love others.

1 Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, 1st ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), 13.

2 Sight & Sound Theatres, Lancaster, Strasburg, PA,” (accessed August 28, 2011); “The Holy Land Experience - Orlando Florida,” (accessed August 28, 2011).

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