Why Be a Christian?
by Ralph Martin
Why be a Christian? Have you ever asked yourself that question?
You might ask it for any of a number of reasons. Maybe someone has been talking to you about "giving your life to Jesus," and you're wondering whether and why you should. Maybe you come from a Christian background and wonder whether all that religious training you received as a child still has any meaning for you. Maybe you've been trying to live a dedicated Christian life, but lately you've been tempted to give up and you're wondering if it's worth the effort to "hang in there."
Getting to the Essence
I found myself asking the question when I was in college. I had grown up in a good family, a Christian family. As a boy I had a good relationship with the Lord: not that I understood everything about Christianity, but I did think of myself as belonging to God in some meaningful way.
By the time I reached high school, however, I was beginning to wonder whether life at home wasn't a little stifling, whether my parents' views on things-including religion- weren't a little narrow. I wanted to get out, away from home and parents and family, and find out for myself what life was all about. After graduation, I got as far away from my New Jersey home as I could, which turned out to be the University of Notre Dame.
As an undergraduate, my high school questioning grew into full fledged collegiate cynicism. This was largely because I was searching for the truth, and every alley I turned into seemed to be a blind one.
I started out studying international relations. My plan was to become a career diplomat and work for world peace. I took courses in Russian and political science. But before long I became disenchanted. International relations seemed so petty and superficial: just a long string of crises brought on by greed and treachery and fear and stubbornness.
I decided I needed to get in touch with the deeper human values; literature looked like the realm to investigate. I changed my major and threw myself into investigating the great themes of literature: life and death, love and hate.
By now, I had stopped going to church, and I no longer was looking in the direction of Christianity.
It wasn't very long before I realized that studying literature wasn't getting me to the essence of things. Literature addressed some helpful questions, but it didn't really tackle the ultimate questions: What is truth? How can you come to a sure knowledge of it? How can you know that you know? How can you know that you know that you know? To really get to the bottom of things, I thought, I needed to study philosophy. And so I changed my major yet again and immersed myself in the writings of the great philosophers. Two of my special favorites were Plato and Nietzche.
Why Should I?
I had walked away from Christianity some time before, but since I was attending a Catholic school people used to ask me occasionally, Ralph, why don't you be a Christian?" I would always respond, 'Why should I? What's the point? Why be a Christian?"
I was given a number of answers. People would say, "You should be a Christian because it helps you be good." To this I could only reply, 'Why be good? And what is 'goodness' anyway?" (Philosophy majors are always asking maddening questions like that.) Even aside from those kinds of retorts, I had to wonder what Christianity had to do with living a good, or moral, life. I saw lots of people who were living apparently moral lives, being generous and caring toward others, and they weren't Christians. I even saw people who adhered to other world religions who were living good lives. So what did Christianity have to do with being good?
Other people would say, "You should be a Christian so you can help the poor." But I could see there were lots of people helping the poor who weren't Christians. Any number of government agencies helped the poor. The United Nations helped the poor. If helping the poor was what I wanted to do, I could certainly do it without being a Christian.
Still others would say, "You should be a Christian in order to have meaningful religious experiences, to encounter the Absolute." Again, I wasn't impressed. From what I could tell, having a meaningful religious experience meant sitting in a church, listening to guitar music and hugging people. I could certainly listen to guitar music and hug people, if that's what I wanted to do, without being a Christian. As for encountering the Absolute, I thought I'd rather do it outdoors amid the glories of nature than in a church.
None of the reasons people gave for being a Christian seemed very compelling to me. They seemed to be saying that Christianity was just a means to something else: to personal morality, to social action, to emotional experience. But clearly it wasn't the only means to those ends-and maybe it wasn't even the best means.
God and Group Dynamics
During my senior year in college, I was sharing a room with a graduate student who was a committed Christian and who very much wanted me to be one, too. We had a lot of interesting and heated discussions on the topic. At one point, Phil invited me to go on a weekend retreat that his Christian group was sponsoring. To humor him, I said yes. I didn't really take it that seriously. The retreat was several months away, by the time it came around we'd probably both have forgotten about it. I proceeded to do just that.
Imagine my surprise, several months later, when Phil burst into our room with an excited smile on his face and said, "Ralph, it's all set! You can go!
What's all set?" I asked him. "Go where?"
"The retreat!" he beamed. This weekend! They've accepted your application! You can go!"
Not only had Phil not forgotten about the retreat, he had actually taken me seriously all those months ago when I had said, off-handedly, that I'd go.
This weekend?" I said, fumbling for an excuse. Well, uh, gee, Phil, I mean . . . I couldn't possibly go this weekend. I'm way behind schedule on my senior essay, and my girlfriend is going through a crisis, and . . . well, I'm sorry, but it just won't work."
There, I thought. That ought to settle that.
It didn't. Phil began to plead with me. His expression had changed radically. I had never seen him so distraught. "But, Ralph," he said, "don't you understand? You told me you'd go, and I turned in an application for you, and they didn't want to take you because they know how you feel about Christianity, but I talked them into taking you anyway, and now it's all set and you can go and...."
And then I thought I saw some tears. That was too much. My girlfriend and my senior essay would just have to get through the weekend without me. "Okay, okay, okay," I said in exasperation. "I'll go. But I warn you: I am not going to pretend to have a religious experience just to make you happy. I know what's going to happen. You're all going to sit around and sing songs and be nice to each other, and you're going to call it God. Well, I'm not going to call it God. I'm going to call it clever group dynamics. I'll go, Phil, but I won't sacrifice my intellectual integrity."
The Mind of God?
The retreat went pretty much as I had expected, at least in its social aspects. To my surprise, I found the content of the talks-revelation, salvation, death and resurrection, eternal-life rather interesting. I was especially intrigued by the Gospel of John, which I had never seriously read. As a philosophy student I had read the works of some of the world's greatest minds, and I had to admit that whoever had written the Gospel of John had a pretty impressive intellect.
The fact, it seemed to me that whoever had thought up Christianity had an impressive intellect. The uncomfortable thought began creeping into the back of my mind, "Maybe it was God who invented Christianity. Maybe this profound intellect I'm running into here is the mind of God." I tried not to think about it.
I was further intrigued by the way people talked about Jesus. Actually, it made me a little uncomfortable. I wasn't used to hearing people call him by his first name as though he were someone they knew well and chatted with from time to time. I was used to people discussing "the second person of the Trinity" or rattling off the creeds. But these people talked about Jesus as if they had a relationship with him, as if he were a real and regular part of their daily lives. "Either these people are crazy," I thought, or else they've tuned in to something that I've missed up until now." Somehow I didn't think they were crazy.
In spite of myself, I was actually beginning to find the whole business of Christianity rather attractive. Love, unity, eternal life, cosmic reconciliation, a personal relationship with a wonderful, loving God-these were attractive concepts.
Then they ruined it. They started talking about sin.
"Now, why did they have to go and do that?" I thought to myself. 'Why did they have to start getting negative just when everything was going so well? Just when I was starting to get interested?"
The worst part was that what they were calling "sin" was what I called "learning experiences." I prided myself on my openness, my "authenticity, my readiness to take in all that life had to offer. Now it appeared that some of my favorite learning experiences were the definition of sin. These people were suggesting that there were things in my life that weren't loving, weren't right, weren't authentic, weren't true, weren't helpful for me or for others and I was beginning to see that they were right.
I also prided myself on being an honest seeker after truth. Now I began to see that I had so fallen in love with the search that I couldn't-or wouldn't-let myself find the answer. As long as I didn't find it, there was nothing I had to submit to, nothing I had to conform to, no reality to which I had to relate on its terms rather than my own. As long as I kept searching and never finding, I could be my own god.
Searching or Hiding?
Clearly, something had gotten into my search that wasn't honest at all, a selfishness that wasn't interested in the truth as much as in preserving its sway in my life, no matter what the cost to me or to other people. Under the guise of "searching," I was actually fleeing; under the guise of "seeking," I was actually hiding from the One who was seeking me.
I saw all this, and I didn't like what I saw. At the same time, I saw that if what I had been hearing on the weekend were true-if there really was a God who loved me, and who sent his Son to die for me and then raised him from the dead, and who even now was ready to forgive all my foolishness and rebellion and sin, and take me back as his own adopted son-if all that were true, then I had discovered the most important truth that anyone could ever know. I had discovered a teacher more wise than any I had known before. I had discovered a book, the Bible, more valuable than the greatest book written by the greatest human author. I had discovered the key to everything, the source of all life, in the person of Jesus Christ.
By the grace of God, I was able to kneel down at the end of that weekend, repent of my sin, and surrender my life to Jesus Christ. I didn't know what all the implications would be. I didn't know what I was going to do about my girlfriend or my senior essay or my coming graduate studies in philosophy. But I did know that the essence of Christianity wasn't morality, or helping the poor, or religious experience: it was Jesus Christ himself. And I knew that from that time on, my life had to be based on knowing, loving, and following him as Lord of my life.
The Truth of the Matter
Why be a Christian? I'm able to give a much better answer to that question today than when I was back in college.
Why be a Christian? Because Christianity is true. In fact, Christianity is the truth. It's a revelation of the structure of reality: a revelation of what is, of what has been, of what will be. It's the definitive answer to all those questions of human existence that are so awesome,-so mysterious, that we hardly know how to put them into words: Why are we here? Where are we going? How does it all fit together?
Why be a Christian? Not because it helps us be good-although it does. Not because it helps us to serve other people-although it does. Not because it helps us have an experience of God-although it does. The reason to be a Christian is because Christianity is the truth.
Psychologists tell us that the root of mental illness is a refusal to deal with reality on its own terms. If that's true, then the only way to be fully sane is to be a Christian because only in the revelation of God given by and through Jesus Christ are we able to see reality as it is and to deal with it as we must. The only way we can know what reality is, and integrate ourselves into it in a meaningful and fulfilling way, is to discover what God tells us about the universe and our place in it. Listen to what God tells us through the opening words of the letter to the Hebrews:
In times past, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways to our fathers through the prophets; in this, the final age, he has spoken to us through his Son, whom he has made heir of all things and through whom he first created the universe. This Son is the reflection of the Father's glory, the exact representation of the Father's being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (Heb 1:1-3)
What a crucial revelation of the nature of reality'. It was through and for the Son that God created the cosmos. It is by the Son that the that the cosmos continues in being. And it is in the Son that the cosmos finds its ultimate meaning. Talk about relevance! There would be no universe, no human race, no life, no hope, no meaning at all, if it weren't for the Son of God. If we miss that utterly fundamental fact, how can we possibly understand reality? How can we possibly relate to it meaningfully?
The Structure of Reality
St. Augustine said, "Thou hast made us for thyself, O God, and our hearts are ever restless until they find their rest in thee." We were designed to be in a relationship of love, obedience, and service to God. We will never be fulfilled, we will never know peace, we will never overcome rootlessness and alienation, until we find the relationship with God for which were designed. That's the way reality is structured.
The truth of the matter is that we have no lasting dwelling place here on earth. This world is passing away. There's a new world coming, a new age, when Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. Our time on earth is given us so that we can align ourselves with him and be found on his side when he comes again. That's the way reality is structured.
It follows from this that we can't possibly understand reality-we can't hope to make sense out of the world around us-apart from the revelation of God given to us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
We can't understand what's going on in the world, what's really important, what forces are really in play, unless God reveals it to us. "Eye has not seen," Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, "ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him. Yet God has revealed this wisdom to us through the Spirit" (1 Cor 2:9-10).
The natural man, Paul goes on to say, unaided by God's Spirit, cannot comprehend reality. Only the man or woman who has taken on the mind of Christ, who has embraced God's word in the power of the Spirit, can see things as they really are. We are literally in the dark unless we walk in the light of Christ. We can't see where we're going unless God illumines our path. We are forever trapped in a blind alley unless the Holy Spirit opens a door through which we can see what's real, what's true, what's ~important.
Why be a Christian? Because life makes no sense apart from Christ.
A Matter of Life and Death
The decision whether or not to be a Christian literally makes a life-and death difference to each and every one of us. Our very life depends on coming to know Jesus Christ, to receive the forgiveness he offers us, to obey him as his followers. He himself told us so:
"I solemnly assure you, / the man who hears my word / and has faith in him who sent me / possesses eternal life. / He does not come under condemnation, / but has passed from death to life. / I solemnly assure you, / an hour is coming, has indeed come, / when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, / and those who have heeded it shall live. / Indeed, just as the Father possesses life in himself, / so has he granted it to the Son to have life in himself. / The Father has given over to him power to pass judgment / because he is Son of Man; / no need for you to be surprised at this, / for an hour is coming / in which all those in their tombs / shall hear his voice and come forth. / Those who have done right shall rise to live; / the evildoers shall rise to be damned." (Jn 5:24-29)
There are many things that Jesus says to us in the Gospels, and all of them are important. But some of them are so vital that he calls our attention to them by beginning with the phrase, "I solemnly assure you." It's as though he were saying, "Look, if you don't remember anything else I,ve said, remember this. Pay attention to what I'm going to say next, because I'm about to tell you something extremely important. Don't miss it. Don't pass it by. It's crucial." Let's look more closely, then, at what Jesus tells us in this passage. He tells us that all men and women will rise at the last day and face judgment. On the basis of this judgment, he says, some will rise to eternal life, others to eternal damnation. Who will do the judging? The Son of Man: Jesus himself. On what basis will he judge? On the basis of whether or not we have "done right," whether or not we have heard Jesus' word to us, heeded his voice, placed our trust in God. Don't let it take you by surprise, he tells us. Don't miss this utterly crucial, life-and-death decision: the decision for or against Jesus Christ, the decision whether or not to be a Christian.
"There was a rich man who had a good harvest. What shall I do?' he asked himself. 'I have no place to store my harvest. I know!' he said. 'I will pull down my grain bins and build larger ones. All my grain and my goods will go there. Then I will say to myself: You have blessings in reserve for years to come. Relax! Eat heartily, drink well. Enjoy yourself.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life shall be required of you. To whom will all this piled-up wealth of yours go?' that is the way it works with the man who grows rich for himself instead of growing rich in the sight of God." (Lk 12:16-21)
It's easy to update the words of the man in this parable. "What shall I do? I have degrees, and a career, and houses and cars and investments-I've made it. I'm secure. Where am I going to put it all?" Isn't that the mindset that pervades our society? Isn't that the gospel that's preached to us on television and in magazines? Isn't that the ideal that energizes many of us? "Relax! Eat heartily! Drink well! Enjoy yourself!"
Lord Jesus Christ, I want to belong to you from now on. I want to be freed from the dominion of darkness and the rule of Satan, and I want to enter into your kingdom and be part of your people. I will turn away from all wrongdoing, and I will avoid everything that leads me to wrongdoing. I ask you to forgive all the sins that I have committed I offer my life to you, and I promise to obey you as my Lord I ask you to release in my life the full power and grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.