Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Theory of Relativity: Why it’s not good enough to be a better Christian

There is a certain weight to winning.
Chances are, if you are reading this from within the United States of America, you claim to be a Christian.[1] In fact, the estimates of the Christian population in North America are so absurdly high that I can make my claim with great confidence about even those of you who rise well above the averages: I am a better Christian than you are.

Choose whatever metric you want to compare. By just about all the standards that matter, I rank in the upper-most percentiles. True, my spiritual SAT score may not be 1600 (or whatever it is these days that gets you into Stanford). But face it: the average American Christian aspires to be the religious equivalent of a State-school dropout who finishes an Associate’s in Art Appreciation by the time he’s forty years old.

Granted, this is less likely to apply if you are among the twenty-five to thirty-five percent that would call yourselves Evangelicals. This is especially true if you identify as a Born-Again, Spirit-Filled, fully-participating member of the body of Jesus Christ who serves faithfully and prayerfully in your local congregation of theologically-conservative, politically-active and missions-supporting nuclear families. Odds are, though…

First in Class doesn't always mean First in Line.
Let me be more direct. From any perspective I would value, you are not as good a Christian as I am.
Unless, that is, you evaluate me by the one metric under which I fail every test, barely scrawl my name on the most basic assignment, and attend even my class’s kindergarten graduation as a mere spectator from the folding chairs in the back of the cafeteria. There is one standard by which the most meager Christian resume sets you head-and-shoulders above the muck and mire into which I quickly sink when compared with your own lofty status. What is this qualification under which my best efforts are ultimately futile? How do I know that there is no hope that I could ever measure up to your vaunted position of honor and holiness? The reason is simple. There is very little chance that you, dear reader, are a paid professional pastor.

For any and all stature I may attain in the minds of some (myself, primarily), my relatively stratospheric pedestal of perfection crumbles under the weight of being a vocational vicar. Yes, anything you do “for free” far outstrips any accolades I might earn, since I also earn my living by means of being a servant to Christ and others. (Of course, the concept of “earning a living” for a Christian is theologically incorrect, but we’ll leave a discussion of Philippians 4:19 for another day.)

At least in yacht racing, the view from behind
the lead dog is still beautiful.
“But isn’t the ground level at the foot of the cross?” you may ask. And it is. Jesus loves each of us equally. How we respond to that love, however, is where the variables occur, and where we often excuse ourselves to competitive comparisons with one another. But what if we were to choose a different point of comparison?

That’s what E.M. Bounds does at the opening of “The Letter Killeth,” chapter three in his book Power through Prayer, which you can find (as my daughter and I have chosen to) in The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds. He quotes “Bishop McKendree” who, in part, writes, “The coldness of my love to Him who first loved me and has done so much for me overwhelmed and confused me.” He adds just one sentence later that he determined again “to strive and devote myself unreservedly to the Lord.” Not because he felt that he did or did not measure up to the “one anothers” in his sphere of Christian relationships. But because he recognized the disparity that exists between Christ’s love for us and the love we profess to have for Him.

Again, though, there is still that hazard peculiar to my own role in Christ’s body. Bounds writes, “Much of the lax devotion and lazy, irreverent attitudes in congregational praying are attributable to professional praying in the pulpit.” Perhaps it is Bounds that I am remembering, or some other Christian writer from decades ago (probably Leonard Ravenhill, I imagine) who similarly offered that only long seasons of personal, private praying allow for brief and effective public praying. In this chapter, though, Bounds does extend “A plea for short praying, live praying, real heart praying, praying by the Holy Spirit—direct, specific, ardent, simply, unctuous in the pulpit.”

And more so than you, just so you know.
I cannot help but be “the professional” pastor, prayer, and pulpiteer. But perhaps I can help others pray more authentically as I do so. It will still pale in comparison to Jesus’ praying. And my praying and preaching may be compared favorably or unfavorably to others you would hear. But rather than measuring ourselves by ourselves and comparing ourselves with ourselves (see the II Corinthians quote below), I am seeking to more authentically respond to the immeasurably higher love and devotion that Jesus has shown, not only as an example for expressing my love and devotion should be toward the Father, but as an simpler exhibition of Christ’s own love toward me.

The Apostle Paul writes in II Corinthians 10:12, “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves;” (whether to Gallup, Barna, Pew, or any other poll-takers), “but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.” Far more important than whether you or I were graded to be the better Christian, may we seek, “unreservedly,” a devotion that emulates that of Jesus Christ toward the Father, and toward us.

[1] According to ABC News, 83% of U.S. adults are Christians. (July 18, 2015 – “Poll: Most Americans Say They're Christian” - The Pew Research Center puts the figure at 70.6%. (“About the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study” -

1 comment:

Sarah Brackett said...

What a great challenge and reminder (all at the same time) to not compare ourselves to others but to realize that the great love that Jesus had for His Father and the awe inspiring love He has for us is really the ultimate measure for what we strive for. I find that when I start to compare how I love to those around me, I fall into complacency because "I'm good enough" but when I set the bar to love like Jesus did, well then that becomes a whole 'nother situation! I enjoyed reading this post!

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