by Jim Van Yperen
I am a Christian. That is, I follow the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, whom Scripture names Lord.
I do not say now, as I once did, that, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” I have come to hear that statement through different ears, for the unintended but ever-present individualism and hubris the words imply. (Any statement of faith that begins with “I” ought to be suspect, as if what is stated after needed my approval in order to be true.) I did not decide to follow Jesus. Rather, Jesus found and claimed me. The difference is everything.
Decisionist speech introduces the language of transaction and is mal-forming, precisely because the True Subject and object of faith are reversed. “I have decided” suggests a grand bargaining that places Me as subject and God as object; the two of us sitting across some Monopoly table, me the lesser god, cutting a deal with the Dealer, “I’ll give you my three Railroads for Your Park Place and one free get-out-of-jail card.” The initiative is with me, leveraging some value or benefit in me the Other might want, with price and terms negotiated to my advantage.
Of course, this is not what anyone thinks about at the moment of belief if, indeed, there is a moment of belief. For me, the transaction was more stark and foreboding, the voice of God spoken through a pastor or evangelist. “You are a sinner. God hates sin, (but loves the sinner?) Unless you repent of your sin you will go straight to hell when you die. Do you want to go to Hell? Well, you don't have to go to hell because God loves you so much that He gave His Son so you can go to heaven . . .”
I was about eight years old, so you can imagine my confusion. God killed His Son so I could be a son of the God Who kills his Son. I don't know which was more frightening, having the hell scared out of me, or sonship scared into me.
For most of my early years this was the story I learned to tell. The problem was not the telling, but the living. This is because the language of transaction inevitably holds the grammar of fear, guilt and obligation to a God Whose holy love is, or at least appeared to be, unquenchable. If Jesus died to appease God’s wrath, then I owed a debt I could never repay, never satisfy. Of course, I was told this grace was free. Yet, there always seemed to be a “but” followed by a list of liabilities (hidden in the small print) with certain strings attached. Thus, I learned a faith of duty guaranteed to ensure failure. Being good was never good enough. On my best days there was always something lacking, someone or something reminding me of what more I could or should have done. Like Sauron’s eye, scanning the landscape for Sam and Frodo, there was no escape. To be Christian in this sense was a weary journey, a joyless chore. I was sentenced, not free; terminally handcuffed to the ring of my moral bankruptcy until the day I died and could finally cash my get-out-of-jail card.
I know this narrative is unfair, a perversion of the true Christian story. My point is that I did not know it then. This is the story that I learned and one I have heard many others tell—one plot among many in the narrative of Christianity formed by American culture. In America, and throughout much of the Western world, the wheat of Christianity has grown side-by-side the chaff of individualism and the right to self-fulfillment. Indeed, another version of the Decisionist Story points us in the exact opposite direction of my joyless faith. Here the get-out-of-jail-free card is a pathway to self-actualized freedom and fulfillment. Grace comes without the nettling problem of sin, hell or an unseemly cross. Jesus died but it was quick, and must not have hurt much because God is against all hurt. In this story, wealth is a sign of God’s favor; and prosperity is equal to God’s blessing. After all, doesn’t it say in Scripture somewhere, “God helps those who help themselves?” Here, the grand offer is for now and later, a two-for-one. Follow Jesus and be successful now and go to heaven later.
Of course, these stories are not the Gospel; they are partial truths mixed in the dough of modern desire where Jesus becomes the sum of our greatest wants and fears. What are we to do? Perhaps we need, as hard as it is, to clear our minds and listen—truly listen—to the words of Jesus.
Imagine that you are living in the first century. You live, perhaps, in Jerusalem, the hub of worldview clashes, questions and fears; where there is excess of secular power and no shortage of religious zealotry. You know your Torah, what men of old have said, and what God has done. Then one day you hear a man named Jesus, sitting on a mountain, speaking to some of his disciples. And what you hear immediately attracts and repels you at the same time . . .
Blessed are those who are utterly destitute in spirit—thus completely dependent upon God—for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those whose hearts grieve over evil and mourn over suffering, for they will be consoled and comforted.
Blessed are those who do not seek their own, but practice self-effacement in humility, for they will inherit God’s reign on earth.
Blessed are those who long intensely for God’s justice and right relationship, for God will fulfill their longing.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy now and on the last day.
Blessed are those whose heart is pure and without guile, for they will see the wonder of God.
Blessed are those who make peace, actively overcoming evil with good, for they will be called God’s special children.
Blessed are those who have suffering inflicted upon them for following God’s commands. For theirs is the true kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people verbally abuse you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Jesus. Take joy and be very glad, because great will be your benefits in heaven for joining with God’s faithful prophets who came before you. 1
Jesus’ words reverberate through your heart and soul. They are strange and calming; astonishing, yet ring true. You hear God calling you to re-order your life, change your disordered mind. . .
Pause here and read the Beatitudes above again slowly, listening for God’s voice.
Jesus’ timeless truth calls us to a radically new way of thinking, a logic that turns assumptions of ancient orthodoxy and modern individualism on their head. To our Western ears, the Beatitudes present a recipe for losers, espousing recommendations for nice people, perhaps, but impractical and counter-productive to anyone who wants to make a name for oneself. The values are just too impractical, other-worldly. Indeed, all the rewards come later—in heaven—where, presumably, everyone will have good things anyway. Why would anyone choose to grieve, suffer, or be persecuted?
But thinking this way, as we are prone to do, reveals the flaw: we hear proposition and exchange, Jesus offering us a choice where there is no choice. Rather, Jesus is describing the conditions of dependence, “Blessed are those whose desire rests in the One Who is all in all.” Thus, the Beatitudes are not prescribed duties, but descriptions of faithfulness in a world bent on worshipping what we make with our own hands. In this world there will be persecution, but “have courage,” Jesus says, “I have overcome the world.” Following Jesus is living in the present reality of a coming kingdom with the confidence of citizenship where Jesus is King. With such a view of life, I am humbled and am called to faith beyond the fear of man, or dread of God. Rather, I live in the hope of grace and a power of Spirit that proclaims Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. Further, I am not alone. I belong to a family, a community of the forgiven, who claim God’s victory over death by the empty tomb; that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our life has been made secure, filled with purpose and meaning beyond anything we can do or say. Nothing; no power of evil; no cancer, or illness or even death itself; no foreclosure, or firing, or failing; no insult or accusation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In this community, there is something I could never attain alone: inexpressible joy.
I am grateful that I became a Christian at the age of eight, or perhaps better said, when Istarted becoming a Christian as sure as my physical life began one spring day in 1956. That is, I have come to understand that I am a Christian in the same sense that I am a Van Yperen. I have an identity I did not choose and have no power to alter. I am named by forces wholly outside of my control. I belong to a kingdom, a family, a community in and with whom God’s redeeming power is put on display.
I am grateful, also, that salvation is no mere decision, or event in time, but a collective journey I take with others that is both mysterious and difficult, yet over which God reigns and has already defeated all other powers. My only “choice,” if there is one, is how (not if) I will succumb and submit to working out this great salvation with others, in the forgiveness of holy fear. I understand now that submission, like forgiveness, is a gift, and followership is never coerced. So, I follow, often failing, but as one invited and compelled by Love, Who is a Person, not a duty. I am learning that to be a “Christian” is to be both freed and constrained by the love of Christ; that the way of Jesus is a way of life beyond my ability to understand, or to limit by choice; a way of seeing, feeling and acting in a world that has been fundamentally altered by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I am a Christian. I have been claimed by God and welcomed into community to which I willingly and joyfully submit. May Jesus Christ be praised.
Adapted from commentary written by Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew , Wm Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1992