Monday, November 23, 2020

Anonymous Asks (120)

“Does your past play a role when you become a Christian?”

This is another one of those questions whose meaning is a little hard to nail down, but the answer is the same either way we read it: No.

A good past, even a past chock full of good works and moral excellence — if any of us could truly claim one — cannot qualify us for a relationship with God. Likewise, even a past rife with the most wretched sin and excess cannot disqualify us from getting right with God and seeking to live a life that pleases him. There is nothing impressive in our past that we can bring to God for his pleasure: “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” But there is also nothing in our past which will drive us from God’s presence forever if we truly repent: “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people.”

What matters is whether your past is really your present. Let me explain that a bit.

Putting the Past Behind

The past is the past when you have rejected it and moved on. This is true whether the past was full of things the world calls good or things the world calls bad. So the apostle Paul can say about his own hard-earned religious qualifications, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Equally, he says about former thieves, adulterers and homosexuals, “Such were some of you.” In effect, “You’re not that now. You are something else.” If you have written off your own past, counting yourself dead to it for the sake of Christ, then you are ready to move forward in the Christian life.

Of course that doesn’t mean our past goes away. On the contrary, the effects and consequences of past misdeeds and mistakes often remain with us our entire lives. You cannot unlearn sexual experience, disclaim responsibility for a child born out of wedlock, or rewire your brain to be exactly the way it was prior to three years of meth addiction. You cannot un-pickle a liver or totally reverse the damage cigarette smoking has done to your lungs. Your angry ex-wife will still be your angry ex-wife, the abusive father or husband you escaped will still be the same person he always was, and the child who hasn’t called in five years may not call this year either. The past is what it is, and becoming a Christian doesn’t change that.

Or, to take a less emotionally-charged example, if you come to Christ from a “high church” background full of stained glass, choirs and cathedrals, you may find the Christianity of the New Testament a little bit austere and colorless for your tastes. You may miss the lushness, liturgy, pomp and meticulous organization of the institutional church even if you came to Christ because the teaching of the high churches had utterly failed to address your real spiritual needs. The institutional church knows how to stir your soul even when it cannot feed your spirit. In this sense too, the past may not go away. You may find yourself occasionally longing for certain aspects of your largely-empty religious past, even if you have pledged to leave those things behind.

But recurring desires and practical complications that arise out of our various histories need not keep us from living fulfilled Christian lives, even if our past occasionally presents us with challenges other Christians don’t face. So long as following Christ remains more important to you than hanging on to your past, you will do just fine.

The Past in the Present

However, the past is not really the past if you are determined to carry it with you into your new relationship with God through Christ. If that is what you are doing, then what you are calling your past is actually your present.

Christianity is not an option you can “add on” to a full life experience in order to make it fuller and richer. Christ does not tolerate any rivals for the throne of our hearts, whether these rivals are moral evils or things we may consider to be blessings. It is for this reason that Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” It is certainly possible to have Mom+Christ, or Wife+Christ or Child+Christ or Job+Christ, but only so long as those other people and things in your life don’t force you to prioritize them over your relationship with the Lord Jesus. If and when they do, they need to be soundly punted into second spot on your list. As the Lord himself put it, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

If you are willing to follow Christ only so long as it doesn’t cost you a relationship, a position or anything else you deem truly important in life, then you are not really following Christ at all. You are just heading in the same direction as the people you go to church with while it remains convenient for you. When you are finally forced to choose between Christ and the thing you love most, you will find out very quickly how real your profession of faith was.

And believe me, that choice will present itself one day.

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