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Armchair Christian

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I’m an armchair Christian. I don’t mean that my beliefs are not sincere or that my faith has not faced trial, but compared to the first disciples, I have done little to advance the good news about Jesus. Like the teacher of the Law in Matthew 8 who volunteers to follow Jesus without being called, I have a home, a wife, a family. I can’t just give them up to go traipsing around the countryside, dependent on the generosity of strangers for my livelihood. And even if I could, what about those who depend on me? Do I have a right to compel them to share a life of voluntary poverty?

Instead, I tell myself that I am doing something just by writing, making equivocal comments on Facebook that might set someone thinking. What more can I do? I’m not really a people person. I have few friends outside my family and none at all outside it that I need to see or keep up with. I like people, but I don’t get close to them. My wife and kids are the only ones who hear my sermons, and they no doubt have quite enough of them. Despite my apparent ineffectiveness, I keep writing.

In part, I keep writing for my children. They are all grown now, but like many today they all struggle with how to square their faith with their knowledge of the world we live in. Such struggles are inevitable, but they are not the central mission of Christian living. The central mission is to communicate the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness through acts of kindness and mercy, through love and care, and sometimes even through words. I hope and pray that they will become better at that regardless what they believe about this or that bit of orthodox dogma. Faith not reflected in loving deeds is no faith at all but a mere mental assent to intrinsically untestable propositions. Can such faith save anyone? If not, what good is it?

In Jesus Christ, God has opened a way into eternal life that no one can bar. But that is only the beginning, the most basic foundation of Christian life and experience. The certainty of God’s fatherly love for us, frees us from all the destructive and manipulative behaviors to which shame and guilt have driven us. Having delivered us, he expects us to become like him, full of grace and truth. When we act out of wounded pride or angry defensiveness or even guilty self-abasement, we are not acting like Jesus. We tarnish the image of God in which we have been made. Fortunately, his forgiveness is not limited to three strikes—or even to seventy times seven. It is a continuous gift that he constantly offers whenever needed. All we have to do is acknowledge what we have done wrong, and God reliably and without rancor forgives us. The only unforgivable sin is the one we pretend not to have committed.

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How to Treat Others

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We use “judge” in two different ways. On the one hand, we use it to mean “condemn” or “criticize.” For example, when one of your friends says they don’t want your judgment, this is the meaning they have in mind. On the other hand, we use it to mean “evaluate” or “interpret.” If someone tells you to judge the situation before speaking, this is the meaning they (probably) have in mind.

Jesus tells his disciples not to criticize others and warns them that if they do, they will be held to the same standard as those they criticize. The point is not to have a critical attitude toward others, for if you do, it causes you to overlook your own failings. We simply have no authority to judge others. Love everyone, and leave judgment to God.

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bible jesus prayer

Pretenders

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Every society has them, people who learned early that your image is more important than your real character. They care about what people think, and not just any people, but people they don’t even like, people they despise, people to whom they believe themselves superior. So they play a part, pretending to be a good person. They hold a press conference when they donate to charity so everyone knows how generous they are and no one questions how they got their wealth in the first place—by stealing wages from their employees, selling shoddy products to their customers, or ravaging the earth.

“Don’t be like them,” Jesus tells his disciples. “When you give, don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Do it in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

Some pretenders have a religious bent. They want people to think they are holier, better, more pious. So they pray out loud on cable television, invoking the name of God to line their own pockets and fund their own lavish lifestyle, while the people they prey on can barely make ends meet. When they fast, as they sometimes do to show how truly superior they are, they parade their misery in front of the cameras, so everyone knows how self-sacrificial they are being, how Christian, how ascetic. They’ve already got what they want, the esteem and envy of the masses.

“Don’t be like them,” Jesus says. “Pray in an inner room away from the limelight. Don’t let anyone guess that you’re fasting. Comb your hair, put on your makeup, and use breath freshener, so no one knows you’re not eating. Then your Father, who sees what you are doing in secret, will reward you.”

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