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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Living Large

“What church do you guys go to?”

The question came out of left field. She had been poking around at her desk, seemingly preoccupied with the day’s business. Normally our conversations were rare, light and usually practical.

I liked her as a person, but we hadn’t had many deep conversations. There was always a brittleness in her manner if any spiritual matter ever appeared on the horizon — not an uncommon happening if one teaches literature, as we both did. A lapsed Catholic, now essentially secular in all her habits, she usually avoided such topics completely. So to foray into spiritual issues so suddenly was very unlike her.

“An evangelical church up the road. Why?”

She shuffled in her chair. “Well, you know I’m going to have a daughter soon …”

Yeah. No kidding. The pregnancy belly was a dead giveaway.

“Yes”, I said.

“… Well, I’ve been watching the Christian kids in the school … and … they do better.”

I was intrigued. “And …”

“I want my daughter to have that. To grow up with beliefs … morals … religion. It helps people. I want her to grow up right, you know? And I haven’t been to church in years, but I’ve seen the Christian kids around here. They do better.”

Doing Better

Yes, it was true, I had to admit. Not every professing Christian kid was a paragon of virtue, perhaps. They were, after all, teenagers, and like all teenagers were developing rather than standing complete in their convictions. So sometimes some of them made mistakes that we as teachers all knew about. But in general, my colleague hit the nail on the head: most were doing quite well. It was rare to find one acting narcissistically, fighting authority, slacking off or doing drugs. For the most part, they just got on with the business of being kids.

On the other hand, they weren’t doing anything particularly spectacular either. Some of them had little groups around the school, but they were keeping a rather low profile. In fact, there hadn’t even been a Christian club running for several years, since most of the kids were already connected to youth groups in nearby congregations. If it was happening at all, witnessing at the school was certainly of the muted, one-on-one sort, not of the overt and collective kind.

But what my colleague was saying was undeniably true. The Christian kids did better.

Do We Thrive?

But did they even know? Could they even imagine that they were being watched this way? And would it ever occur to them that just by living well they had made such an impression on this woman?

I got to thinking about that. I’ve never bought into the nonsense about “lifestyle witnessing” being a substitute for verbal testimony. After all, if all people see are random good deeds, how do they know whether they come from a Christian transformation or mere human goodness? At the same time, we all know a consistent life is key to an effective verbal testimony. So what to think here?

I came to the conclusion that it pointed to something important. We aren’t always aware of what people are reading when they look at us — little things can be the focus of great attention. It is not so much that the circumstances of a Christian have to be different from those of an unbeliever as that whatever their common circumstances, the Christian ought to be thriving.

Now, thriving doesn’t mean that our lives are always easy. It just means that when things go hard for us, our response is a Christian one. My cousin, a doctor, was first attracted to Christ by seeing how his Christian patients responded differently to unbelievers when he had to deliver to them very bad news — like that they had terminal cancer. The consistent reasonableness of Christians under deep grief opened his heart to an evangelist, who later led him to Christ.

It’s about thriving in your circumstances; it’s not about having a perfect life.

How to Do It

Well, how do we do thrive? Do we pretend not to feel what others feel? Do we have to pretend we don’t get hurt, get discouraged, or don’t ever feel fearful or uncertain? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s how we handle those things that really shows whether or not we are thriving. But I think this lends greater urgency to our duty to press on in the Christian life, to learn more about who we are and what we have. We have a moral duty not to remain spiritual infants — for in spiritual infants the evidence of the life of Christ is more muted and indistinct than in those who are actively growing in him.

Yes, that means having a daily devotion time with the Lord. We need to get our sorry carcasses out of bed in the morning, and do it. It also means spending more effort on Bible study generally. It probably even means learning some basic theology, for a start. Beyond that, it means keeping up an active, mutually supportive spiritual life with other Christians in the Church, and not letting our fellowship become routine or shallow.

And it means prayer. Lots of it.

Reality Check

But in addition to all that, it means that if we are not enjoying our Christian lives, something is terribly wrong. If we’re coming across as crabbed, petty, conservative, legalistic or suspicious, and if we think being like that is Christian, maybe we’ve got another think coming. Any maybe we thought our spiritual staleness affected no one but ourselves. Think again: others are watching. They’re looking to see if you’re living in the joy of the Lord or in the doldrums.

Really, Christians ought to be living large — not indulging in wickedness, of course, but drinking deeply, joyfully and gratefully of the new life we have in Christ. By thriving, we show the world that the new life in Christ is real and powerful.

So how’s your enjoyment coming lately? Happy you’re a Christian? Living it out? Sharing your joy with others? Celebrating life? Welcoming strangers? Rejoicing in trials? Good news: you might accidentally also be being a testimony.

As for young Christians (of any age), my advice is this: you may not feel ready to speak up about your faith — you should, but you may be scared. You may not have all the answers to the questions cynics present to Christian apologists. Okay, who does? But what you can do, what any Christian can do, is be known as a Christian, and then thrive. There’s a testimony that the world just cannot refuse to see.

So Scripture Says

It says as much in the Bible. Speaking of himself particularly, but also of his fellow Christians, the apostle Paul writes:
“Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?”
(2 Corinthians 2:14-16)
As we live out the life of Christ, we Christians are a “fragrance of Christ” to those who know him. When they meet us, they catch the unmistakable “scent” of his activity. In contrast, we are to the unbelieving world, an “aroma of death”. For by our very lives, we remind them that what we have is real and living truth; and that consequently, whatever they are depending on for their security is, by comparison, doomed. They can “smell” in us the death of their ambitions and hopes, the futility of their plans and the emptiness of their lives. In our life, they see their own death.

Maybe that’s why they hate us sometimes. Maybe that’s why they’re sometimes so irrationally opposed to the Saviour and to the message of the gospel. Maybe in it they scent the death-to-self that is its necessary precursor.

But maybe, as with my colleague, some of them catch the scent differently; maybe they detect in our lives the vitality so sadly absent from theirs. Maybe they sense there are ways in which Christians are “living large” beyond their own possibilities, and deep in their hearts a longing echoes …

The End of the Story

I told my colleague more about my congregation, and even invited her to come. She didn’t, but I could tell she thought about it seriously. Later I bought her a Christian book on a subject she wanted to study in the Bible. I think she read it. She said she enjoyed it, and she was thankful.

I don’t know where my colleague is spiritually now. She has moved on, and I see her no more. But for a brief time, some of my students unconsciously opened a window in her heart. They were a fragrance of Christ to her. I suspect they still do not know that. But God knows: and since he is a generous rewarder of those who love him, they will know one day.

And I am certain that they will be glad that they were found thriving.

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