It’s a good time to ask what advantage there is in being a Christian.
The Christian world is suffering a spiritual crisis in one of its most religious nations—the United States. It’s ironic, because the United States of America is a nation where four out of five people describe themselves as Christian. This same crisis confronts Christians in all nations and cultures. In some European nations, significant numbers of people are not even sure if God exists.
But even in America, those who express belief in God often don't act like it. George Barna, who leads a Christian marketing research company, made a rather shocking discovery. He wrote in The Frog in the Kettle, “The majority of adults say that in difficult times they will put their trust in self rather than in God.” Barna observes that Christian belief is not relevant to many Americans. “Less than half of the public believes that churches and religious faith can help people deal with difficult times in their life,” he says. Yet America is one of the most religiously expressive nations.
It should come as no surprise, then, that many are asking whether Christianity works, or even, “Why be a Christian at all?”
"Religion is something they [baby boomers] become involved with if it fits into and enhances their lives. That’s why they shop around to find a congregation that ‘feels comfortable.’“ —Wade Clark Roof, professor of Religion and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara
Meanwhile, many people are returning to church (while others are changing theirs) because they feel a need to express their faith.
Christian author Leith Anderson, in Dying for Change, says Christians are having a tough time and need their church as an anchor for the soul. “Life is difficult and disappointing, and typical churchgoers are struggling to survive,” he writes. “They come to church overflowing with needs—family, marriage, job, money, health, relationships— and looking for answers,” says Dr. Anderson. Such people need to find hope and meaning in life.
It’s not surprising, then, that there’s so much emphasis on making the church a community of caregivers and support groups. There’s a danger, however, that a needs-based, comfort-zone Christianity can easily degenerate into a materialistic “Me-ism.”
Years ago, a special issue of the magazine Christianity Today declared that precisely this trend would be one of the crises facing 21st-century Christianity. One of the authors, Jon Johnston, explaining this alarming trend, said that Me-ism Christians ask God, “What will you do for mesoon?” They picture him “as the dispenser (and withholder) of life’s prizes— a television game-show host.”
A health and wealth message is popular for obvious reasons. Yet Christians must be more than contestants on a Let’s Make a Deal television game show, with God playing emcee. Christianity must be more to us than a self-improvement, adult education or 12-step recovery program. The church cannot function solely as a social club for lonely hearts or a hospital for hurting souls. Faith must not be stripped of its spiritual dimension. God cannot be reduced, as Dr. Johnston said, to being a game-show host who fulfills our list of desires. If we believe that God must absolutely guarantee us a pain-free, Disneyland life, we are setting ourselves up for a possible crisis of personal faith.
Let’s suppose that our Christian experience did nothing to make this life better. That we received none of the material prosperity or wealth we thought God guaranteed us. Let’s suppose we lost our job and had financial difficulties. Our children rejected our faith—even after we had carefully and in love taught them our Christian values.
When God Doesn’t Make Sense, by James Dobson, wrestles with the big issue: Why do people who trust God experience senseless suffering and tragedy? Dr. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, weaves together dramatic personal examples with penetrating wisdom from Scripture as he throws light on an issue that touches all who have suffered through anguish and tragedy.
What are we to make of cases when Christians have prayed without receiving an answer from God? Dr. Dobson gives the example of a father who absolutely believed that God would heal his daughter of cancer. But God did not intervene and the doctors were forced to amputate his daughter’s leg.
Dr. Dobson is himself no stranger to suffering. He recounts the tragic story of four close Christian friends. All four were killed in a plane crash in 1987. The lives of these gifted men were snuffed out, and their families were forced to carry on alone. “Why?” Dr. Dobson asks in his book. “What purpose was served by their tragic loss?”
Dr. Dobson deals with these issues throughout his book in a concerned and caring way. He points the way to several avenues of understanding without giving the usual simplistic and glib answers.
Often, we are simply not prepared when tragedy or suffering strikes, says Dr. Dobson. Our health may have been good and we were not faced with disappointment, job loss or some personal tragedy. Perhaps we wrongly assumed that life would always be carefree and happy.
The problem of being unprepared for the storms of life is compounded for Christians, says Dr. Dobson. Our Christian theology may overly stress God’s blessings. When someone is hit with sorrows that don’t fit this idealistic view of life, a faith crisis can occur.
To help those who have become downhearted, When God Doesn’t Make Sense offers a way out of despair. The first thing, says Dr. Dobson, is for the suffering person to realize that sometimes things just don’t add up. We should not, says Dr. Dobson, think that we must or can understand what God is doing at all times in our lives. That idea is contrary to Scripture.
Dr. Dobson points out a number of biblical examples to bolster his point. He says, “It is better to acknowledge that we have been given too few facts to explain all the heartache in an imperfect, fallen world.”
Dr. Dobson puts great stress on the fact that as Christians we shouldexpect trials. This, he says, is the message of Scripture—and he explains his thesis with a number of examples. Dr. Dobson takes issue with the “name it, claim it” theology, which “promises God will skip along in front of us with His great Cosmic Broom, sweeping aside each trial and every troubling uncertainty.”
When God Doesn’t Make Sense explains that in our deepest suffering we should “never assume God’s silence or apparent inactivity is evidence of His disinterest.” God does not perform for us as a genie in a bottle. He does not promise to continually adjust our lives for our physical comfort. He maintains his sovereignty and thereby determines what is truly in our best interest.
The message of When God Doesn’t Make Sense boils down to one simple understanding: God wants us to exercise faith in him. “Faith is believing that which has no absolute proof (Hebrews 11:1),” says Dr. Dobson. “It is hanging tough when the evidence would have us bail out.”
Or we became gravely ill or had a terrible accident. Or perhaps that a dearly beloved relative died, one who was a faithful Christian. But God didn’t seem to notice and we continued to suffer, living a life of quiet desperation. In short, that our Christian life as a this-world experience was abysmally bad. Would Christianity have failed to “work” for us? The answer is no.
More than “my needs”
Christians do not have an ironclad pledge from God that they will always enjoy wonderful health, converted children, overflowing prosperity, friendly and caring people in our churches, or freedom from emotional problems.
Of course, almost all Christians will experience some of the benefits they want in this life. If we are so blessed, we should thank God for this good fortune. But Christians must remember that living the good life is not what faith is about. They seek the kingdom of God first and always. The condition of their physical lives neither affirms nor denies their faith.
Some Christians may experience little of the good things of life. Others may be hounded and persecuted for their faith. In this life, they must rely on the spiritual joy and peace they receive from God.
The New Testament is a record of people facing problems. Its pages tell us over and over again that Christians do experience suffering, trials and persecutions. Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). The apostle Paul said, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Peter and James spoke of Christians who “face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2; see also 1 Peter 1:6).
Hebrews speaks of many faithful whom God delivered. It also tells of those tortured, imprisoned and killed. Others were persecuted, mistreated and destitute. All were commended for their faith (Hebrews 11:32-39).
In our time, some Christians struggle with a whole range of problems, including homosexuality, alcoholism, drug abuse, bad marriages, poverty, bigotry, emotional difficulties. A few deal with these problems throughout their lives. Christianity does not guarantee that all such adversities will simply melt away. Not all Christians experience Camelot-correct lives.
If we have become Christians merely to stop hurting or to gain benefits in this life, then we may be disappointed. So we must ask again: Why should we be Christians, and what makes Christianity work?
Gift of salvation
Christianity is not—at the heart of it—about the needs of this life. The core of Christianity is the “good news”—the gospel. In the words of theologian Carl F.H. Henry, writing in the Jan. 17, 1986, Christianity Today,the gospel is, “The announcement of God’s ready forgiveness and provision of new life through personal faith.”
That is a different kind of Christianity. Its good news has to do with the spiritual promise of conversion through the Holy Spirit. The biblical gospel stresses eternal salvation as the big bonus. In the final analysis, this gift is what should make Christianity work for us. This is what motivated the early Christians who faced persecution and martyrdom for their faith.
This essential good news—or gospel—has to do with the work of Jesus Christ. In the words of Dr. Henry, the gospel “is about God’s work in Christ on behalf of all poor sinners. It addresses those whose life and works are bankrupt.”
That work has to do with Jesus’ death to free us from sin, his resurrection to life and his reconciling us to God through the Holy Spirit. This spiritual work is what the New Testament calls “salvation.” The promise of salvation is what gives Christianity meaning and relevance. If Christianity only explained how to make this life better, it would have no special value above any other religion, or even secular humanism.
Paul said it well: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Christianity, then, is about the sure promise of another life—eternal life from God. Salvation is our one and only absolute guarantee (Romans 6:23).
“The roots of the church’s identity crisis are found in the consumer mentality so pervasive in our culture.... People flit about in search of what suits their taste at the moment. It’s what some have called the ‘McChurch’ mentality.... Thus, the church becomes just another retail outlet, faith just another commodity.”—Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, in his book The Body
Christ makes it happen
God begins his saving work in us now—in this life—rescuing us from our own weak self and the world in which evil dominates (Colossians 1:13). But he does it as we continue the struggle on life’s battlefield.
Through it all, Christian eyes focus on the fact that Jesus will save us forever through the resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
We can rightly say Christ in us makes Christianity work (Colossians 1:27). He must be the center of faith, or our Christianity is but a useless facade. Why be a Christian? The reason is so we can enjoy a spiritual relationship with God and Jesus Christ now, and receive eternal salvation in the resurrection.