There are two ways to follow Christ.
Actually, there are more, but overall, they can be grouped under two general categories: true ways and false ways. Here are just a few false ways:
If I fast for three days, I will force God to give me that job … if I run into five red traffic lights in a row, God is telling me not to buy that used car … the examples are endless.
And when, pray tell, did God agree to be our personal wizard? Can you see the similarity between this kind of thinking and casting magic spells? Is that really what Christ was all about? Oh, you will answer, but didn’t He promise that if we ask we shall receive? Yes, but is this the kind of asking He was talking about? What if two pious supporters of opposing football teams both ask God to give their team a win? How can God answer them both? (A draw is answering neither).
No, this promise cannot be understood as casting God as some kind of supernatural vending machine in our lives: put your prayer in the slot at the top, press the button, and out comes the fizzy answer at the bottom. We feel wronged when a vending machine swallows our money but doesn’t give us our product – is that how we should think of God? That would be degrading God to the level of our menial servant and it is not how a loving relationship works. A loving relationship is about uniting in spirit and thought and desire. It is about trust. It is about freely choosing to conform our limited will to His infinitely wise and loving will. And most of all, it is about loving the Beloved for His own sake, and not for what He can give me, or what I can benefit selfishly from Him. When we ask for things from God within this framework, it works beautifully.
There is a powerful pressure on us to create God in our own image. Rather than letting the Real God be who He is, we create a kind of false God in our minds, and expect Him to always act the way we think He should. This is the kind of thinking that leads judgmental Christians to see the punishing hand of an angry God in tsunamis that kill thousands, or read God’s approval of me into the fact that I am more materially successful than my neighbour. It makes Christians adamant that God is a Republican or a Democrat. Or even that God is Catholic or Protestant, or Coptic Orthodox.
A moment’s reflection should be enough to convince us that God is Himself, and above all merely human prejudices. You cannot change reality just by thinking it different, and God is real. He does not conform to our image of Him; it is we who must alter our image to fit His reality.
I don’t need to create a God in my own image to feel good about myself; to validate myself. That is living a lie. In fact, God loves me, not because I am a jolly good chap, but in spite of who I am. He blesses my life not because I have earned such blessing in any way, but because He is love: gracious, generous, and constantly compassionate. Forget earning God’s approval – that is wishful thinking. Accept that God loves you because He is God, and love Him back because you come to be in his image, the image of love.
An example of this is our tendency to reduce our relationship with God to a nice clear set of rules. This ‘by the letter’ approach is very appealing to many people because it is so simple: so long as you carry out a list of simple instructions like pray every day, read your Bible every day, and go to church on Sundays, you are fine with God (and a jolly good chap to boot). Tick the boxes and you can sleep soundly.
Another example of oversimplification is the way we stereotype people along racial lines, because that is so much simpler than taking the trouble to see each individual for who they are. “All Muslims are arrogant fanatics who want to take over the world” – such beliefs make it so much simpler to deal with a Muslim (just hate them, they deserve it), but it is a lie. It denies the reality that there are many decent, kind and good Muslims in this world who only want to live in peace and get on with their lives, just like us.
Reality is complex. Any approach that ignores this fact is doomed to end with lies. We crave simplicity so we can understand our world, so we can feel some sense of control over it, but it is a false security.
And as for living by the letter, anyone can carry out all those ‘duties’ outwardly, perhaps even do them while convinced they are being sincere, yet their heart may still be far from God. The Old Testament is full of such cases, and in the New Testament Christ warns us more than once to beware lest on the last day He say to us, “Assuredly I say to you, I do not know you”. I fear that many of those who will hear those words said to them will be people who trusted in a comforting lie.
Following Christ is not easy and it is not reducible to a list of duties to be fulfilled. It is more about who you are as a person, the person that you become over your years of life with Him, constantly changing, constantly putting to death old ways of thinking and behaving and replacing them with new ways that are closer to the example of Christ. The practices we have called ‘duties’ can certainly be most helpful, but do not confuse the means for the end – that too is a lie. Practiced out of sincere love, things like prayer are no longer ‘duties’ but free and loving gifts to God.
There are many more examples of false ways to follow Christ, and all of them have this in common: they are based on an untruth of one kind or another. Magical thinking relies on the lie that God is a vending machine and that my desires are more important than the will of the Creator of the universe; wishful thinking relies on creating my own false image of who God is; and oversimplification relies on falsely reducing complex matters to an unreal and often unfair model.
This is not Christianity in its true form, the form for which the eternal Logos took the trouble to incarnate to reveal to us. When the Samaritan Woman in John chapter 4 asks Jesus about the right place to worship God, Jesus characteristically gives her more than she asks for:
But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. John 4:23-24
It is self-defeating to try to follow Christ who placed so much emphasis on Truth and yet evade Truth in ways like those described above. To do so is to betray one of the core foundations of what it means to be Christian. Yet by nature, we humans like security. And we feel more secure when things are simple and easy to understand. But reality refuses to be tamed. Like Aslan in CS Lewis’ Narnia books, Truth is not a tame lion, and those who hang around with Truth must be prepared for some wild, unpredictable and sometimes downright dangerous behaviour from it.
Personally, I find comfort in that thought. God has created me with an inbuilt sense of adventure, and I find that ‘wild adventure view’ of Christianity far more appealing than the sanitised, simplified, codified and pasteurised view. I also find it far more consistent with the reality I experience every day. One of the problems with a faith that accepts falsehoods is that sooner or later it must unravel as it comes into contact with reality, much like a bad scientific theory that falls apart as more data comes in. I genuinely wonder how a person who takes the false path can continue to do so without feeling that something is terribly wrong. Sometimes, to preserve our false faith, we add more and more unlikely beliefs to protect it against the evidence of real world. Eventually you end up living in a fantasy world of your own creation.
Here, strangely enough, I agree with the atheist who sees religion as little more than a fantasy created by humans to meet very human needs. A religious faith that does not include as an integral component a dogged devotion to Truth often ends up earning that criticism quite deservedly. But of course, what the atheist is criticising is not true Christianity but a ghostly parody of it. If we want to be true followers of Christ, He asks us to take off our seatbelts and trust His driving (but please don’t do this in your actual car – after all, there it is you driving, not Him). He makes no promises of safety nor of things turning out the way we would like them to. Often, they don’t. But the nice thing is that when we trust ourselves to Truth, things turn out the way HE wants them to, which is far, far better.
For me, to follow Christ is to follow Truth, since it is seeking Truth that has led me to follow Christ. I am inspired and motivated by Christ precisely because His words not only make an awful lot of rational sense, but they ‘feel’ true. More on this in my next…