Is she a Christian yet?

Question Girl

Dear John,

I came across your website a while ago and have been impressed and sometimes moved by the wisdom you show in your responses to people. I wonder if you might offer your opinion to a question I have that has been pressing on my mind.

I was raised in a non-religious family and until recently was quite happy being agnostic. I was interested in religion from a philosophical point of view only. But 18 months ago I began a relationship with a Christian, and I started going to church with him and reading the Bible, because I wanted to support his faith and make our relationship work. Over the past few months, I have realised that it has turned into more than just supporting him, and I want to become a Christian too.

My problem is, I don’t quite understand what being a Christian REALLY means. I know the essential ‘requirements’ are a belief in God and a belief that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be saved through our faith. But what does belief really mean? Is it enough for me to speak the words ‘I believe …’? (Surely not?) Or if I make a conscious decision to live my life in a way that tries to be true to God’s word, is that enough? That makes more logical sense to me, but not when I consider the Bible passages that you can only be saved by faith and not by your works. I understand that faith is just that—faith. I’m not looking for hard evidence or certainty. But I am looking for ‘something more.’ I’m just not quite sure what that something more is, or how I can reachit.

I have been praying to God and I will continue to do so. But I suppose at this stage I don’t feel like a Christian. I don’t feel like I have a ‘real’ belief; something that resonates with me. I don’t feel quite comfortable enough (or have enough confidence in my verbal coherence) to go up and ask one of the ministers at church, and my boyfriend has been unsure of what to say, I think because he doesn’t want to unduly influence or pressure me.

So if you have any advice for me I would very much welcome it. Thank you.

All right. Sweet letter. Lemme do that bracketed-in-blue thing where I just … jam my comments in as I’m reading.

Dear John, [oh, no! she's breaking up with me!! wait. never mind.]

I came across your website a while ago and have been impressed and sometimes moved by the wisdom you show in your responses to people. I wonder if you might offer your opinion to a question I have that has been pressing on my mind. [sure! i'm just sitting here enjoying some toast and a glass of peach kefir.]

I was raised in a non-religious family and until recently was quite happy being agnostic. I was interested in religion from a philosophical point of view only. But 18 months ago I began a relationship with a Christian, and I started going to church with him and reading the Bible, because I wanted to support his faith and make our relationship work. [Wow! Awesome girlfriend! Good job! You must really like this guy. I once liked a girl so much I went with her to a Sunday morning service at her Southern Baptist church. After the service I still liked her very much, but I have to admit that I was also pretty sure that she was perhaps significantly stupider than I had previously thought.] Over the past few months, I have realized that it has turned into more than just supporting him and I want to become a Christian too. [Wow again! Sounds great!]

My problem is, I don’t quite understand what being a Christian REALLY means. [Neither does anyone else. I don't think I know two Christians who agree on what Christianity "really" is. The Bible is so huge and dense, is why.]  I know the essential ‘requirements’ are a belief in God and a belief that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be saved through our faith. [Actually, only the first half of that is right. There are tons of so-called progressive Christians who do not believe that Christ died for anyone's sins. They often hold that Jesus was more like ... a super-inspired social worker who got executed by the state for being a startlingly effective insurrectionist. There's a whole world of Christians out there who believe that. And that's a long way from "Christ was God incarnate who came to die for our sins." These days that view is considered almost quaint. I still believe it, though: see my Unfundamentalist Christians.]

But what does belief really mean? [As I say, it means different things to different people. Of course the important question here is what belief in God-as-Jesus might or might not mean to you.] Is it enough for me to speak the words ‘I believe …’? (Surely not?) [Enough for what? To feel mega-inspired and filled with God-as-The Holy Spirit? Saying those words alone certainly won't engender such a feeling. So ... right: surely not.] Or if I make a conscious decision to live my life in a way that tries to be true to God’s word, is that enough? [Well, that would depend on what you mean by "God's word." If you believe following God's word means, say, bashing homosexuals or oppressing women, then for you trying to obey God' word would be a horrible idea. Bottom line: one hardly needs to be Christian in order to strive one's hardest to be a good and altruistic person. Goodness is a universal value, not a Christian one. So ... no.]

That makes more logical sense to me, but not when I consider the Bible passages that you can only be saved by faith and not by your works. I understand that faith is just that—faith. I’m not looking for hard evidence or certainty. But I am looking for ‘something more.’ I’m just not quite sure what that something more is, or how I can reach it. [Everyone, no matter what they believe, is forever yearning and reaching for that ever-illusive something more. Being a Christian won't change that attending truth of being human. Nothing can change that. We're all hardwired to desire more than we have. But more specific to what you're asking relative to Christianity: you're thinking way too far ahead, about stuff that right now you don't have any real reason to care about anyway. If God really did incarnate himself as a human chap and live out the stories related to us by the Gospels, and you're already reading the Bible and going to church, then one thing is for dead certain: sooner or later you will know exactly how you feel about Christianity. Christianity will either prove itself true to you, or it will prove itself to something less than divinely inspired. If it does prove itself to you—if at some point, be it sudden or gradual, you are moved by the Holy Spirit to understand the story of Jesus Christ as being true and of genuine and lasting value to you—something that's actually worthy of your mind, heart, and devotion—then somewhere along that line you'll find that you have no choice but to call yourself a Christian. If that doesn't happen, then eventually you'll move on. Either way is fine—and none of that journey is over until your dead (if then). Just give it all some time. If Christianity is real and true, you'll know it. No need to rush to a place that's moving toward you anyway.]

I have been praying to God and I will continue to do so. [If I may suggest it, don't pray. Instead, meditate. In other words, don't ask, but rather simply listen. Sit down, close your eyes, quiet your mind and heart, breathe deeply and evenly, and ... there you'll be. Just stay in that place a bit. If you want God to talk to you, try not talking to him. I'm not being smug about that, but you know what I mean? Allow him to make his way to you.] But I suppose at this stage I don’t feel like a Christian. [Why would you? You're not. And that's fine. For all you know, that means you're still sane.] I don’t feel like I have a ‘real’ belief; something that resonates with me. [Again: you don't. And God bless your boyfriend for not pressing you to feel anything that you don't. Pat him on the back for that. Twice.]

I don’t feel quite comfortable enough (or have enough confidence in my verbal coherence) to go up and ask one of the ministers at church [then don't. if you want to later, you can. this is between you and God anyway; it's no one else's business], and my boyfriend has been unsure of what to say, I think because he doesn’t want to unduly influence or pressure me. [Yay boyfriend! Tell your boyfriend I said, "Dude: Way to be an actual Christian."]

So if you have any advice for me I would very much welcome it. Thank you. [You're welcome!]

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter. If you shop at Amazon, help support John by entering the site through this link right here--Amazon will then send John 3-4% of the cost of anything you buy before exiting the site again.

 

  • Tim Northrup

    Let me second the Yay Boyfriend! part.

    Also, this is bound to be new to you emotionally, dear writer. Take your time. Like John said, no point rushing towards whatever certainty is already headed straight for you. If you’re like me, you’ll still be interested in Christianity (and other religions) in a philosophical way, if and when you do “convert” (I hate that term).

    Until then, my only other advice is to take stock of whom you think the God and Jesus of the Bible are claiming to be. What you think/feel/speculate will be just a shade different from the closest believer you could ever find, so don’t measure your feelings or thoughts by anyone else’s yardstick.

    Good luck on the process.

  • http://rindle.blogspot.com/ Lyn

    I wholeheartedly agree with John that for Christians there is some point where you step over the threshold and say, “Okay, I’m a follower of Jesus.” Each denomination and each person has a different way that they mark and maybe even celebrate that decision, much like wedding ceremonies vary with culture, sect, and individual. It may be a simple prayer and mental acknowledgement or a public ceremony or anything in between. For many denominations that encompasses some sort of vow or expression of belief and a baptism ceremony (either being anointed with or immersed in water) to represent cleansing, a fresh start, and a death of the old self-focused attitude.

    Humans seek rites of passage for all sorts of events, and identifying with a belief system is no different. Just like a wedding, this ceremony is to mark your commitment. It is not the thing, however, that makes you a Christian, merely the way you have chosen to mark that fact. When the time comes, find what is meaningful to you and do that.

    Until then, God bless you on your journey.

  • http://www.susanirenefox.com Susan Irene Fox

    I “third” the Yay Boyfriend kudos. Becoming a follower of Jesus is a very personal journey. He leaves the door open for us, and when you walk through that door, you’ll know it.

    The important thing for me has been to not get messed up with a bunch of rules, but to follow the only two commandments that Jesus himself told us were important:

    1. To love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength.

    2. To love your neighbor as yourself.

    He said that if we mind these two, everything else will follow.

    The other thing to remember is that being a Christian doesn’t mean that life gets all happy and wonderful. It does mean that we have someone bigger than ourselves to rely on when we’re in the messiness of life.

    I tip my proverbial hat to your lifelong journey, and wish you well.

    • vj

      “It does mean that we have someone bigger than ourselves to rely on when we’re in the messiness of life.”

      Oh, this is so very true – wonderfully put ;-)

  • debi

    After living for 18 years as a PC having evangelical crap force fed to me for party line regurgitation, I don’t consider myself a Christian, I don’t ascribe to labels — but John I love your writing! In this I especially love the part about “Don’t pray… listen.”

  • Sharla

    I sort of think “believe” means committing your heart and life to someone or something, not so much agreeing to some set of statements. And to me being a Christian means choosing to follow Jesus. Start, as noted upstream, with the two commandments Jesus said were the most important ones (neither of them, nor the idea of these as the two greatest commandments, were original with him; both are from the Jewish Law and other rabbis of Jesus’ day were in agreement with him about those two being the greatest). Then take a look at what we know of how he lived and what he taught, from the Gospels.

    Something else to keep in mind is that if any interpretation of any Scripture leads to the conclusion that “God hates” anybody, or appears to justify oppression or abuse, it’s a misinterpretation.

  • Joanne Elliott

    As usual John, your writing is inspirational. You are compassionate, empathic & have a real gift of encouragement. I believe the boyfriend is saying & doing all the right things.

  • Matt

    I cannot say enough kudos to Letter Writer’s boyfriend. Seriously. On those grounds at least, this is one solid relationship. Not a bad place to start.

    My partner and I are both Christian, but we approach it very differently. My partner’s theology is kind of…out there, and squares very neatly with her passions for physics and astronomy. I’d have to be way better at Calculus to really grasp how she sees things God-wise. Not to mention she’s a rocket scientist and a crazy-awesome computer programmer (can you tell I’m intellectually out of my league over here?). Whereas I grew up soaked in Christian culture but didn’t actually own my Christianity until adulthood, and that influences a lot of how I experience it. Just to give you more of an idea that there is no one way to be Christian.

    I second meditation. Just try letting Him in instead of reaching out. You may be pleasantly surprised at what happens.

    Lots of luck!

  • charles

    As John has so ably been demonstrating with his home-run postings this week, He is that sort of an older brother / sister’s semi-mysterious best friend who was like a walking Yoda. You know the type- you ask them some crazy complicated thing and they come back with a concise observation that is just pure, simple, and perfectly on target.

    He seems to have a great collective of equally wise sages like Lymis who make this experience spiritually sublime.

    sorry to perhaps gush- but thats what this all means to me.

  • http://kingmaalbert@hotmail.com Al

    Thanks for answering this letter-writer’s questions in such a kind and generous (and yes, funny) way. These are questions I ask myself constantly as I stumble to find my way, so I’m glad to know this all might eventually lead somewhere.

    You do say this tho, and it gives me pause:

    “…if at some point, be it sudden or gradual, you are moved by the Holy Spirit to understand the story of Jesus Christ as being true and of genuine and lasting value -something that’s actually worthy of your mind, heart, and devotion -then somewhere along that line you’ll have no choice but to call yourself a Christian. If that doesn’t happen then you’ll eventually move on. Either way is fine -and none of that journey is over until you’re dead (if then). Just give it all some time. If Christianity is real and true, you’ll know it.”

    It causes me grief (and may, too, for the letter-writer) that I might seek and not find, that the way forward may just be more striving for the “something more”.

    You’re right tho, there really are only the two paths to take here; not everyone is destined to call themselves Christian and that really isn’t the goal anyway.

  • Lymis

    Nailed it, John. Wonderful!

    Even in life, Jesus didn’t pass out Bibles. He encountered people and said, “Follow me.” That takes different people on sometimes wildly different paths.

  • textjunkie

    I am somewhat amused by and definitely sympathetic to her question about “what being a Christian really means.” I was raised in a fundamentalist household and “gave my heart to Jesus” every few years as a child up through adulthood, because I wasn’t sure I was a “real” Christian or that the “conversion” for me was real. I knew the Four Laws and the ABCs and all those formulations about “how to be saved”. I was praying in tongues and singing all the clappy songs for hours on Sundays and going to Youth Group and memorizing Bible verses and tithing and trying to do good works, have a personal relationship with the Lord, etc. Still couldn’t tell, is it “real” (the way the Velveteen Rabbit was “real”, maybe?)?

    But after all the faith and works discussions, after all the mountain-top experiences and soul searching and worry–what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? :)

  • Jen Henley

    Thank you, John. I don’t know how you do it, but once again, you answered a question I didn’t even ask yet. And thanks to the letter writer for providing the impetus.

  • Donald Rappe

    Do I renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways? I think it not important to call myself a Christian, but, if others do so because they think I’m following the way of Jesus, I’m cool with that. If I trust God’s hands with my body and soul and everything that I hold dear, that’s what I mean by faith. If I join with others and let God touch me in the sacraments, I might be a Christian.

  • Linnea Sommer

    LIKE, LIKE, LIKE, LIKE!! Thanks, John.

  • http://coolingtwilight.com Dan Wilkinson

    A couple of thoughts:

    Being a Christian, like pretty much everything in life, is a process. Faith is a process. There are ups and downs and shifts and changes and you have to learn to appreciate that journey — enjoy the ride and don’t become overly-focused on the destination.

    Beware of people that have too many answers. New Christians (or almost-new Christians, or whatever) are like magnets to the sort of people who want to over-explain everything and lay out lists of do’s and dont’s and tell you exactly what you should be doing. Instead, pay attention to those people who will guide you (as John has above) without dictating to you. People who will respect you and your questions, but are also willing to say “I don’t know” or “You’ll have to find that out for yourself.”

    • Barbara Rice

      Fabulous reply.

      Of course, you’ll always get The True Believers who insist that answer is heresy and that it is all Spelled Out for you in the Bible….

    • http://Fordswords.net David S.

      Love this. I would also add: beware of anyone who says “the bible is absolutely clear that…”

      The bible is rarely absolutely clear on anything. That’s not only OK, it’s good. God is revealed as we work out way through the contradictions and ambiguities.

  • Brian

    Great piece John. I don’t know that I qualify as a “Christian” according to the popular definition of the label. I consider myself a follower of Jesus. I given my life entirely over to him, but I don’t consider myself to be a Christian or a catholic. In the past two years (after I came out) I discovered that the church of my youth and the majority of mainline Evangelical (right wing) Churches were more idolatrous than they were rooted in the teachings and Love of Jesus. I can’t go there any more.

    • Erin_D

      Yes! Like the label of belonging to such-and-such a denomination is more important than just belonging to Jesus? That’s when I start to break out in hives and get as far away from those “Christians” as possible.

  • http://revolfaith.com April K

    I think one of the traps people fall into these days is the one of “feeling.” We judge so much by our emotions–by how things “resonate” within us. Growing up a charismatic Pentecostal, I was definitely caught in that trap for a long time. Now, I’m not here to claim that faith is completely divorced from feelings. At times, yes, there will be an inner resonance and belief will feel alive and real. However, people too often assume that if such a feeling isn’t present at all times, then something is wrong: i.e., faith wasn’t real to begin with, or the “magic” has worn off, or God is angry about something. That isn’t the case. Faith, aside from that inner resonance, is a practical, logical state of day-to-day living for God. It’s not always exciting. At times, it can be downright embarrassing and painful. (It’s a bit like marriage in that regard.) If you’re not “feeling it,” just keep searching, asking and pressing forward. As God begins to reveal Himself to you, the surety will come.

    • Lymis

      Wonderful point, April.

      I’d take it further and say that if your faith hasn’t yet gotten to a point where you live it without particularly feeling it today, it still has quite a way to develop.

      That doesn’t mean trying to force yourself to believe a particular thing in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, but to allow yourself to trust that you don’t have to have constant emotional reassurance in order to continue to choose.

  • Erin_D

    I believe a lot of people think it isn’t true Christianity if it isn’t hard, complicated, and if you aren’t persecuted for it. I think of my Catholic family and all their weird Latin phrases and sacraments that have to be done just-so and canon laws that are numbered like city ordinances (436.23.64.4.) Whyyyy? Such a waste of energy.

    Then you have the people who are gleefully defensive about their faith. They think they get “bonus points” if people dislike them for being Christian, so they go out of their way to be the most annoying Christians possible. I’m looking at you, Facebook friends who can’t go 20 minutes without posting something about Jesus, then whine that people are blocking you because you are Christian. (Psst—it’s really just because you are friggin annoying.)

    It doesn’t have to be hard. Jesus came to tell us it didn’t have to be so hard. We don’t need to overthink it. Just assume you’ll never have all the answers, live the best way you can with the tools we are given, and trust that it’s enough. It’s all we can do.

    • Elizabeth

      Honestly almost fell out of my chair. I don’t block anyone on FB, I read them all because I take that ‘friend’ part literally, and yes, sometimes I think they’re trying to torture me. Thumbs way up.

  • AI

    Letter writer here (not sure if that can be verified or if you will have to just take my word for my it). Thank you John for your response, and to people who have commented. It’s given me some things to think about (including not over-thinking or over-complicating things!). And actually last week at church, one of the ministers shared a story about when she was questioning her faith and touched on some of the same issues.

    Oh and I’m glad to read all the yay boyfriend comments because obviously I think he’s pretty great and I do so appreciate him not pressuring me, or taking a minority of people’s negative comments (about our apparent incompatibility) to heart.


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