The first and most obvious answer to the question is that I am a Christian because I believe in Christ as the redeemer of the world. I believe in the reality of Christ’s redemptive powers because of the ways in which devotion to and trust in Christ has helped me to have more love for others, more forgiveness toward those who have hurt me, more patience in suffering, and more hope for humanity. Most importantly, this faith leads me to repentance of my sins, whenever I become aware of them, and it has helped me to feel real forgiveness and real power to move forward into new ways of living. I think sin feels often like being a slave to oneself, unable to escape one’s own psychology, genes, upbringing, habits, or personality even and especially when we are aware that life calls us to better habits and deeper commitments. I don’t think I have experienced true and lasting and permanent freedom from myself, but I do feel that belief in Christ gives me a margin of freedom that empowers change and puts me onto a path of progression that feels liberating and hopeful. I have at the very least been able to look back on my life and see that certain patterns of my life have been changed for the better and seemingly for good. I remain vigilant, however, because I am sure I can lose what I have gained.
Of course, belief in Christ remains challenging for at least one reason and that is the reality that I continue to sin, I continue to find my errors. In fact, the quest of Christian living is really just a process of putting ourselves onto a path of discipleship that then reveals ourselves to ourselves, warts and all. Being a Christian means that I must continually be willing to see and accept my own blemishes without giving in to the impulse to feel repulsion toward myself or to want to hide what I see in myself from others. Belief in Christ seems to require that I remember his unconditional love for me, love that I must learn to feel and act on, starting with myself. So what belief in Christ has given me is a palpable increase of love for myself and for others, a kind of love that does not conform to natural instincts, nor does it seem built in to my personality in some way that makes it easy to sustain. At some point, my natural inclinations and affections prove insufficient, my natural reactions to my weaknesses and to the weaknesses of others cause my love to flag, and I feel the temptation to pull away, to judge, and maybe even to condemn either myself or others. I generally know I am not close enough to Christ when I do not feel unconditional love and forbearance and when I am incapable of the feeling of joy that comes with the discovery of what a gift bare existence is. I believe being a Christian makes it more possible for me to feel such joy more often. And when I feel that love, it seems unmistakable to me that it is a gift, beyond my natural capacities. It transcends inclination and affections and starts to feel like a godlike appreciation for every person, every personality, each and every individual idiosyncrasy, and all the bare facts of geography and circumstance. In such moments, I want to love everyone and everything. Maybe I recognize this this as a divinely given power precisely because of how rare and unusual it is to see things this way. I slip into this, but I also slip out, especially when I think too often and too much of myself. Being a Christian, as I see it, is primarily a relationship with a loving and divine personality and power, and this relationship provides both motivation and power to change, peace in accepting what, for now, seems unchangeable, and a method for helping me to see myself and to see others more truly.
I didn’t come to this belief first and foremost as a matter of taste. In other words, I don’t recall that I thought things through and decided that Christ’s teachings made the most sense to me. I didn’t choose to believe in him on the basis of a rational decision, in other words, but on the basis of a series of experiences in the angst and struggle of coming to terms with myself that cast me upon his shores. It was more like the experience of falling in love, rather than, say, choosing a college or a career. I admit that this might not be helpful to those who wish to be persuaded of the rationality of Christianity before they are going to believe in it, let alone respect it. But I think that Christian belief stems first and foremost from the personal quest of profound self-understanding, of understanding both what we are capable of becoming and just how much we are already worthy of pure love.
So what difference does such a belief make, beyond a healthier ability to examine and know myself? As I see it, being a Christian means feeling called to a life of compassion, humility, forbearance, and love. I believe I have a duty to feel what others feel and to seek to understand the burdens of life as others experience them so that I might then begin the work to relieve those burdens, if I can. I believe this requires listening, patience, and a willingness to put myself in the shoes of others and to not judge. I must remember that repentance is a way of life, that Christ has already given and done so much for me, and that I waste the gifts he gives me if I expend my energies in judging and condemning others. It is hard enough to stay focused on overcoming myself. Christ’s call seems to me to be engaged in the work of relieving suffering, especially of those who are easily forgotten—the poor, the ill, the friendless and marginalized, those whose lives have been broken by circumstance and by harm done by others. I must learn to strengthen the weak and feeble whenever and wherever possible.
I must also stand as a witness of Christ. I know that the idea of declaring one’s beliefs, especially Christian ones, is not all that attractive to some people. I know it might seem like a kind of arrogance. But I remember one day as a young missionary in Venezuela looking down a dusty street filled with milling people, young and old, stray dogs, and the sounds of young children in the humid tropical air and feeling almost overcome by love for total strangers. It was a spectacular and sudden gift to feel that, and if it hadn’t been for my effort to declare my beliefs, I don’t suspect that gift would have come to me. Sharing belief is important, but I believe its value is the lesson it teaches of love and our universal kinship in the human family. It was incredibly humbling to understand at that moment just how much love I was capable of feeling for so many and how much joy I could feel in discovering it. We so rarely see ourselves in this way, truly belonging to each other. It is a paradox to feel this way, of course, because although it stems from my Christian belief, my Christian belief requires me to love all people as Christ loves them, as they are. Obtaining this love is the objective, even if serving and sharing belief are the means.
I do not believe Christianity is an excuse for arrogance, for efforts to manipulate or control the choices of others, nor is it justification for feelings of judgment or condemnation or smugness in being right. Christianity certainly transcends political parties and platforms. I squirm whenever I hear Christians describe how easily, in their view, Christianity translates into politics. I don’t mean to suggest that Christianity should be irrelevant to policy, but I am rarely persuaded by Christian defenses of policy when they do not stem first and foremost from compassion, humility, forbearance, and love or when they seem more interested in negative protectiveness than in proactive building of a good society.
It is an important question to ask where Christ is in my church or in other churches. We want our beliefs to make it more rather than less likely that such love flourishes in our hearts and in the world. Christian beliefs, in other words, should make a difference and a positive one at that. When I contemplate what Christ meant when he said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also,” and when I think of the men on the road to Emmaus who discovered his presence in their midst as they walked and talked and ate together, I think the burden is on us to see Christ in the countenances of others, to see him in the mundane circumstances of our lives, even and especially when we also see each others’ failings. If all we can see is how the Church falls short or how human we are in our efforts to be saints, then we are only looking for and seeing the most obviously facts. We are gathered together in communion precisely so that such weaknesses might be made manifest. So if we see them, we are issued a challenge to be better, not to cry foul. And we can’t hope to be better if our vision is focused on shortcomings and cannot see evidence of Christ working in and through and all around us. William Blake said that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” Only by seeing with the eyes of love can we see the weaknesses of a Church or a congregation or of an individual family and understand them not as obstacles that stand in the way of our growth and progress but as a cause for wonder that, human as we are, Christ remains among us, working, waiting, loving, and forgiving. Christ clearly taught that we bear the primary responsibility for how and what we see, and until and unless we learn to see others with love—love that truly transcends ourselves—we cannot expect to ever see ourselves shining any more brightly.