I said in my last letter that these final two missives would focus on faith. In the previous letter, I ended up largely focusing on the role of faith in the abstract. But on this Christmas Day, I want to hone in on exactly what I believe, and what that belief means with regard to my hope for you.
First off, I believe that every word I’ve written in these letters is derived from – or at least, is not contradictory to – a worldview based in the Christian Scriptures.
Let me be clear, I know many, many people who would disagree . . . people who would say that some of the things I’ve written in these letters are directly counter to Scripture. I respectfully disagree with them, and I hope in this final letter to explain why.
The foundation of my faith . . . one of the reasons I love being a Christian, was summed up beautifully by Jesus Christ himself when he said, flat out, that the entire religion he founded was rooted in two things: First, love God. Second, love everybody else.
Of course, wars have been fought over what, exactly, that means. Reasonable people (along with, sadly, a lot of unreasonable ones) can disagree over the answer to that question. Here’s what I think:
I think “loving God” requires the same thing that I’ve shared in these letters about loving another person: I think it requires first knowing yourself, and then unreservedly sharing yourself.
That’s not to say that people who haven’t performed an in-depth self-analysis, perhaps through years of therapy, can’t love God. It does mean that different relationships with God are going to look different for different people . . . because we are all in different places with regard to knowing ourselves, and different places in overcoming human nature’s natural reluctance to be vulnerable . . . vulnerable enough, for instance, to share oneself without holding anything back. This is, I think, one of the first distinctives about Christianity as I believe Christ intended it to be practiced: There is no cookie-cutter set of answers . . . no expectations we have to meet in order to “measure up.” Either we love Him enough that we are willing to share everything we know about ourselves without reservation (while simultaneously digging deeper all the time to know more and share more) . . . or we don’t. And the choice between those alternatives is up to us.
“But wait!” you might protest, “What about all the expectations in Scripture about how we’re supposed to behave?”
I think, if you drill down to their roots, such expectations are a result of reading Christ’s intent exactly backward. In I John 5, the disciple who was among Jesus’ very closest friends during his time on earth wrote, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”
Note well what John does not say. He does not say “If you want to love me, you have to keep my commandments.” It’s not a precondition or an expectation or . . . as the second half of the verse makes explicitly clear, a burden.
Rather, he says, “If you love me, you’re already keeping my commandments.”
And what are those commandments? Well, we already saw them boiled down: Love God; love others.
“Not burdensome,” indeed.
This gets at the next concept we’ve talked about here, which is another distinctive, I think, of Christianity: intrinsic motivation.
Other religions tend to operate via “should.” You “should” do this because God (or gods) will be angry if you don’t. In fact, this accounting of religion is so pervasive that for most of human history after Christ, people have attempted to imprint this view on the God of Christianity as well. We already saw in the previous few paragraphs that Christ never intended faith in him to be a burden, but even more explicitly, he overtly rejected the external leverage of “should.”
He didn’t coerce. He invited. Zaccheus, Bartimaeus, Nicodemus, the woman at the well . . . all of them were offered the chance for a relationship with Christ. And while all of them had issues (because after all, who doesn’t?) that relationship wasn’t precondition on “dealing with their stuff.” It wasn’t “do this, or else.” it was “Will you let me help you?”
As I said, many Christians have attempted to imprint external motivations on an individual relationship with Christ. This is most apparent in the notions of heaven (seen as a reward for such a relationship) and hell (as punishment for the lack of such a relationship.)
And that’s not to say that any particular view of heaven or hell is wrong. But it is to say that the notions of heaven as a “reward for doing good” and hell as a “punishment for doing evil” don’t necessarily even play into a genuine relationship with Christ at all. I don’t want a relationship with Christ because I want a mansion in heaven and a pair of angel’s wings. Nor do I want a relationship with Him because I’m frightened of burning in hell.
I want a relationship with Him because I love Him, and I trust that He loves me. The rest is purely incidental.
This brings me to the final reason I just love being a Christian. It is the one religion on the planet that is rooted in empathy.
I think, to truly love someone, you have to see the world through their eyes. I think, to at least some extent, that’s why God had to be born as a human being, to suffer the same pain and temptation and weakness we all suffer.
To empathize with us . . . to love us enough so that He could die for us.
Most of the Christians I know believe that Christ died for us because of our harmful choices and counterproductive decisions – our “sins” in the vernacular of typical Christianity. I used to believe that myself.
I don’t anymore. And I know plenty of people who likely believe that makes me something other than a Christian altogether.
But as I read it, the notion of a vengeful God who wants nothing more than to punish someone out of blind anger – and who is willing to take that anger out on his own son . . . because after all He has to take it out on someone . . . is inconsistent with many, many of the things we read about God in Scripture, to include the passages I’ve already mentioned here.
Rather, the God I see in Scripture is an empathetic God . . . one who sees the world through the eyes of some of its most downtrodden and hurting individuals, and who empathizes with them enough to heal them, both body and soul.
God is called many things in Scripture, by way of analogy to help us understand Him: Father, Shepherd, Lord, King . . . these are all pictures that help us associate Him with ideas that are familiar to us.
For me, the most compelling analogy is of God as the Great Physician.
Most people I know see sin as a result of the wrong things that we do every day . . . the ways that we harm each other or fail to be true to ourselves. Personally, I see it in reverse . . . I see the times we fail to love God, love others, and love ourselves as a result of sin.
I see sin as a horrible, insidious disease that is eating at us all the time. Its chief effect is total separation from God without any possibility of relationship with Him, and it is a malady we are totally incapable of eradicating on our own. Its infection and mortality rates are both 100%. All of those “wrong things” . . . the sins that so many believers obsess over and place at the center of the story? I think they’re just a natural result of a life unmoored from God . . . the inevitable result of not having Him there with us, speaking into our lives and hearts on a daily basis. They’re part of the story, yes . . . but far from its central plot point.
I see God, the Great Physician, as someone unwilling to let that condition stand . . . unwilling forever to suffer separation from the creations that he treasures so deeply.
So He determines to work out a cure for what ails us . . . a chemotherapy to kill that which pervades us.
But just like a particularly virulent chemotherapy, His cure is something so strong that only someone with a hardy constitution and a fully whole immune system can handle it without dying . . . without the cure killing them faster even than the disease will.
And in a world that is completely infected by sin, who will serve as that first test subject . . . the one whose body can be used to work out the cure so that it won’t kill anyone on whom it is used?
Enter into the world of time and space the empathetic Christ . . . the one who has forsaken the trappings of God-hood to spend time with the very lowliest of the low-lifes.
The one who was willing to donate His own body so a cure could be worked out . . . a cure that could end sin and its consequences for all time, even retroactively defeating the death of the test subject Himself.
The one who now holds out the syringe and offers to us the cure worked out in His own body . . . and who only asks that we take it.
That is what I believe. I believe Jesus Christ is a person . . . a person who not only lived, but lives . . . a person who gave up everything He had, for the ability to have a personal relationship with me.
And with you.
This is why I choose to write you these letters, culminating on Christmas Day . . . the day we set aside to celebrate the time when God pierced the fabric of space-time and entered into it at the most vulnerable place in all of human experience – the experience of a newborn infant, born of a destitute family in a downtrodden and conquered culture.
Of course, I can’t prove a single word of this. I can only tell you that it is what make sense to me . . . using all of my powers of reason and observation, along with a healthy dose of hope, all wrapped up in faith.
You may come to believe the same thing. You may not. My hope for you isn’t that you come to think what I do . . . but that you come to believe what is true. I believe this is true, and because I believe that, I hope you come to believe it too. But more than that, I hope you are able to work out and discover the truth for yourself.
This is why I hope you become a powerful, capable person. This is why I hope you learn how to think and process for yourself rather than relying on others to make your decisions for you. This is why I hope you learn how to discover and share your full and complete self. This is why I hope you learn how to love, seek, and discover truth. This is why I hope you learn how to use not only reason, but also faith and feelings to discover that truth.
Most of all, this is why I hope you learn empathy . . . empathy for yourself, and empathy for others.
Because the relationship I want with you is the one reflected in these letters: a relationship of two complete beings in harmony with one another, not because of expectations met or agreements negotiated, but because of intimacy . . . because they are fully known to themselves, to each other, and ultimately, to the same God who created and loves them both.
Because I love you. I love you so very, incredibly much that even after expending thousands of words in these letters trying to express how much I love you, I still feel inadequate to the task.
And despite my inability to express how much I love you, I hope you never doubt for one second that it’s true.