Recent political cultural developments have made the worldview differences between evangelical Christians and the surrounding culture very clear. And they have made something else clear as well: non-Christians often perceive “evangelicals” as not very human. Indeed, many in the secular world think biblical Christianity “gets in the way” of being wholesomely human. Unfortunately, Bible-believing Christian culture may contribute to the world’s view.
Practicing our religion is a significant part of evangelical Christian culture. Christians often fail, however, to distinguish the significant spiritual difference between visible acts of piety and the true humility God requires—the humility whose only source is the invisible work of His Spirit. I believe it is the lack of humility in many Christians’ lives that contributes so often to the world’s perception that, given a choice, Christians let religion trump their humanity.
Christians want to be “different,” to set themselves apart from the surrounding secular culture and thereby witness to the difference that Christ makes in their lives; but too often the ways we choose to manifest this difference mask our true spiritual condition. We let the secular world see us pray in public, hear our “twang” evangelical-speak, and see us insist on moral high ground in public debate; but we seldom let the world see our brokenness, our need, our humanness.
I have often reflected on what happened years ago in a crowded college cafeteria when I bowed my head in silent, but obvious, prayer before eating my lunch. I was a young believer finding ways to make my faith real to myself—or perhaps proving to myself that my faith was real while simultaneously witnessing to those around me that I was different. In any case, what followed was a shocking and embarrassing experience in my faith life. I had hardly lowered my head and closed my eyes when a voice, nearly shouting, said, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep!” Everyone in the cafeteria heard the mocking prayer. The voice belonged to an acquaintance who had decided to take the public opportunity to deride my “audacious” practice of displaying my personal piety for all to see. I was surprised, shocked, and red-faced. Over the years, I have wrestled with whether or not I was embarrassed by my belief in Christ, but I do not think that was the case. I was mostly just embarrassed to be the focus of surrounding stares.
I never had the nerve to ask the fellow why he acted toward me as he did, but the memory of the awkward incident has often provoked me to reflect on its significance; and I have entertained various possibilities for why he exhibited such hostility toward my act of silent, personal prayer. Perhaps the fellow was arrogantly sacrilegious and took the opportunity to lash out at my “show of faith” in a public place. Perhaps he just didn’t like me and found a chance to embarrass me in public. Perhaps he saw my prayer not as an act of faith but as a blatant show of self-righteousness, and thus he reacted to the public show of religiosity and piety by which I appeared to proclaim that I was “spiritual” while those around me were not. But my most disturbing conclusion is this: perhaps the fellow was reacting to my public prayer because it symbolized what for him is wrong with “religious” people—that their religion fosters a showy, unselfconscious, narrow way of seeing and living life.
Whatever the fellow’s reasons may have been, the incident was significant because it caused me to ask two questions. First, did my external display of personal piety, though in the moment relevant to my faith, actually reflect a mistaken view of spirituality? And, second, does such publicly displayed piety lead non-Christians to misconstrue the most important inner character of Christian faith? In other words, does public piety by Christians, though often well meaning, tend to lead non-Christians to the wrong conclusions about Christianity? Does it lead the uninformed non-Christian to think that commitment to Christ results in dogmatic, self-righteous, less-than-human beings?
A liberal political writer from the New York Times seemed to answer these questions affirmatively in a recent op-ed piece where he observed how incongruous it was for a “conservative, right-wing, Christian senator from Kansas,” who unswervingly voted “to the right of Attila the Hun,” to be a leading political advocate for “humanitarian issues.” This secular political writer was astounded by what in his mind and experience did not mix—that is, conservative Christian faith and thoughtful, humanitarian concerns. That the writer would not expect biblically-based Christianity and human compassion to go together makes my point—namely, that conservative Christian culture has, however unwittingly, generated the image that those with Bible-believing faith are otherworldly, anti-intellectual, and inflexibly narrow in their view of things human. In the present “red-blue” political culture, secularists see evangelicals as self-righteous, raving moralists whose religion has rendered them incapable of self-reflective, humble sympathy for the poor and for larger social concerns.
Of course, the image I have just described is largely a caricature created by those in the media with distinctly hostile, unsympathetic views of religion—especially the kind based in the Bible. I fear, however, that contemporary Christian culture does, indeed, convey itself to surrounding observers in largely dogmatic, decidedly triumphant, and definitely less-than-humble ways.
Christians can do nothing about caricatures imposed on them by the biased agenda of a very secular culture. We ought not worry about false, unfair, inaccurate portrayals. In fact, we ought to expect them; plenty of biblical evidence shows that Jesus and the first-generation believers had to deal with such hostile propaganda. Nevertheless, we Bible-believing Christians need to reflect courageously and honestly on whether or not our eager evangelical demeanor—our public display of religious language and habits—in fact betrays some mistaken perspectives on the gospel.
In moments of public view and media attention, do we feel compelled to prove to a viewing public and to validate for ourselves that we are pious people and different from the non-Christians around us? These moments in the spotlight parallel too closely those in the gospel narratives where John the Baptist and Jesus confront the Pharisees. This bothers me. The Pharisees, too, were publicly religious, but they were also blind to how mistakenly they perceived what God was asking them to believe and to do. A true understanding of the human condition manifests itself in God-given humility, which may be revealed in what we communicate, but more often is revealed by how we communicate. It reveals itself in the human posture—not the pious posture—we use when dealing with other people, both Christians and non-Christians.
For many Christians, religious habits and practices symbolize the difference between living for self and living for God; they remind us of God’s invisible work deep within our intangible souls. From this perspective, religious practices are external signs of the believer’s internal spiritual commitments. These practices can be sincere and helpful, but they can also be a means to hide from inward, spiritual self-scrutiny. The irony of religious consciousness is its power to create and maintain self-deception; spiritual ignorance and sin can also be very religious.
Visible religion and invisible spirituality can exist in harmony, however, which Jesus and the apostle Paul modeled when they made a radical break with the religion of Israel while simultaneously valuing it and living according to the true intent of its teaching. The result dumbfounded people who sought them out, listened to their message, and watched their lives.
Jesus accepted and practiced the Jewish religion, but he also repudiated its outward practice as a substitute for true relationship to God, who values the flowering of true, human spirituality far more than any form of visible religious piety. When outraged Pharisees told Jesus that his hungry disciples were unrighteously gleaning wheat grains on the Sabbath, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees’ emphasis on external religiosity. He put the practice of their God-given religion in proper perspective; and doing so, he also placed ordinary human need and action in proper relation to religious practice and tradition.
God intends our external humanness to be the vessel of inner goodness. We can all perform what is religious and demonstrably pious by outward standards—even when our inward reality remains shockingly impious. Stripping away religious habit and practice leaves what is real: either true righteousness or self-righteousness. Inner goodness (true spirituality), then, is more “real” than religious practice and habit. Although religious practice can cohere with our essential humanness, it remains fundamentally external to it.
True righteousness is not incompatible with being human. We should remember that the transcendent God embodied a completely human form. The Bible teaches that God created coherence between God-ness and man-ness. Though it utterly astounds us, God’s choice to take on man-ness was completely appropriate. He lost nothing of His identity in the incarnation—the translation of total divinity into simple humanity; Jesus’ identity as the wholly good Creator-God is not corrupted by being human. Indeed, we see in Jesus what true human righteousness is: an inner, deeply subjective commitment to God—not primarily external religious demonstration.
Religion can be a tutor and guide. It can be a reminder, a symbol, and a structural comfort. But religion can also promote the mistaken belief that we qualify ourselves for grace. When religious practices falsely become the “proof” of our rightness and acceptance with God, religion becomes the most deadly kind of darkness.
In the World
From the world’s perspective, biblical Christianity is the kind of conservative religion that skews the “normal” humanness that makes a person alive to the present world and its human problems; from the world’s perspective, being a normal human is incompatible with being a believer in Christ. From a biblical perspective, however, the human condition—the mix of brokenness, futility, tragedy, laughter, and beauty—is the vast common ground between believers and non-believers. We must not forget this.
We believers do not stand above, beyond, and better than the non-Christians around us; believing the gospel does not somehow make us superior. We share the same fallenness, despair, tragedy, and foolishness that characterize the humanity that surrounds us. We will not always make correct judgments, and we will not necessarily have greater success in this life.
What does set us apart, however, is our participation in the story of life that Jesus Christ gave us. That and that alone makes us different from those around us. What renders us truly—and visibly—different are the choices and patterns of life that flow from our growing understanding and love of Christ.
No human activity is intrinsically “spiritual.” A human activity is spiritual when the motive behind it aligns with the desire God is working in our sinful hearts to know Him, to love what He loves, and to hate what He hates. External religious displays, however well intentioned, cannot adequately convey these internal realities. But, as God continues His work in us, these realities show up—in the “human” life we share with the non-Christians around us.