Imagine you’re a Chinese guy comfortably living in China, and suddenly some white guy with nicer clothes than you tells you about eternal life, a better way, and an intimacy with the Creator of everything through a man named Jesus Christ. But in China you could get arrested or shot up for believing that. It would be easier then to just believe that stuff in private, but no: Jesus has commissioned all followers to share the truth, because after all it’s the only truth that saves people from eternal hell. That sounds serious. Your friends call you crazy, foolish, brainwashed. But you go to the underground meetings, read your Bible in secret, and even attend public worship services that could tarnish your immaculate record.
Your friends ask: Is this really necessary? Do you have to be a Christian?
Millions of Chinese have chosen Jesus. Not quietly, either. At the outset this looks ridiculous; religion always flies in the face of our luxurious rational comfort zones full of Sun Chips and never-bother-anyone except for when-it-bothers-me. These Chinese must be crazy. They don’t have to be Christians, says the inoffensive whitewashed politically correct champion of tolerance. One thing is for sure: any public Chinese Christian is unequivocally the real deal.
Uncommitted: God, can we be friends with benefits?
We circle back: Is it necessary to be a Christian? This is a peculiar interrogative because it sounds like a manner of profession. A job is necessary because of its basic provisions but we can choose to change jobs. It’s like putting on clothes or leveling up an RPG sorceror. To interpret Christianity as a pair of jeans is dumbing it down to a fringe luxury. This is exactly what has happened with nominal, non-serious, hypocritical believers.
Needs and wants are a weird thing. Many of us feel we need God but don’t exactly want to need Him. That’s the opposite with all our pretty toys, which we want but don’t really need. This detachment, like intermittent cell phone reception, throws us into all kinds of goofy reasoning. The average Christian says we must pursue God because only He diverts hell and opens up Heaven, but this is detached from our daily reality: both of these motivations are guilt-driven and unsustainable in our day to day grind. Hell as a driving force breaks down pretty quickly. Imagine your wedding vows say, “I want to be with her because I don’t want to be alone forever.”
The prospect of Heaven does not fare better, either. As an incentive it’s ethereal, ephemeral, and so distant that we can hardly articulate how this impacts us. I’ve met plenty of Christians who complain, punch walls, and mope morbidly down the hallways as if Heaven doesn’t exist. I want to tell them, “Don’t you know this earth is not your home?” But then we’re back to guilt-driven, unsustainable motivation.
While we would need God to get into Heaven and avoid hell, this is only the basic need. It doesn’t supply the continual needing. So we think beyond this. Maybe we need God to help us in our difficult days, our valley moments. We need Him for life purpose, a sense of meaning, a fulfilled existence.
This comes up short, too. I’m going to steal an illustration from Dr. Timothy Keller: he says imagine you have quite a lot of money to your name and you get married. Sooner or later, you lose your money and your spouse then divorces you. You discover that your ex-spouse was in it for the money. More than just the pain of someone leaving you, you’re hurt because of this humiliating revelation. You were used for your bank account, and not just for your good looks.
Many times we marry God for the money. Christ is then an accessory and not a necessity. You go to church because it looks good with the rest of your charitable deeds. Somehow church makes up for all the wrongs you did, or it’s a social club, or it gives you the warm fuzzies. It’s for everything and anything else except intimacy with God Himself. I don’t blame you: plenty of churches cultivate that babysitting mentality. It’s a playground.
The God I prefer: Make me rich and popular and four inches taller.
If it’s true there are no unselfish motives, could we ever just need God? It appears impossible because we are a people wired for transaction: I give, I get back. Then I look at the Chinese, and Muslims-turned-Christians, and North Korean refugees, and the rest who give and get back nothing. Less than nothing: brutality, or death. But it’s almost like they can’t help it. More than just needing God, they want Him, and only Him. Somehow they’ve redefined their wants and needs.
What makes it so hard to need God is not because of inability, but because we think we need so much else. We see this play out in church. We need this specific sound mixer, this type of lighting, this air-conditioned room, this comfortable seating, starting at this time and ending at this time. We need these specific conferences, revivals, retreats, books by professional Christians, and music by Christian rockstars. If we are minus any of these, then the want disappears. Must we pray only in a dim room with a soft piano instrumental? Must we read only from this one Bible translation? Then we’ll always feel a disconnect in our core connection with God.
I try not to be sickened of the Christian gloss we’ve put on our American church culture: I know judging is for bitter crotchety old men that complain and do nothing about it. But occasionally on Sundays, when I really want to need God, I find it almost impossible with all the glitter and glamor. I wish we could turn off the speakers and stage lighting. I don’t want all this extra garbage: I just want God. I want to be a Chinese guy running from gunshots in the dark holding an illegal Bible in my shaking hands and singing to God in an abandoned warehouse in fear of my limited life. I don’t want eleven a.m. on a Sunday. I want everyday, every moment, in need. Just give me Jesus and kill the noise.
This isn’t to blame anyone else for a lack of consistent faith. It is what it is. We will always be bombarded by the fake. Knowing this, I can either allow that to drive me away or drive me in. It can make me despise what’s not authentic or make me push for the authentic. How to keep that balance: I’m not always sure. But together we strive anyway.
Is it necessary to be a Christian? We’ve again come across a wrong question. That’s asking, Is it necessary to be married? or Is it necessary to have a job? No, so now we’re down to: Why should I want this? Why do I want Christ? If it’s not strictly for Heaven, to avoid hell, or for a life purpose, there must be a level deeper. Or really something that encompasses every level.
Part One is here.
Part Three is here.
Part Four, the conclusion, is here.