I was at a loss for a title for this post, so simple is best. As I was lying in bed, awake, early this morning a few thoughts wandered across my mind pertaining to one central question: What, exactly, characterizes a Christian? The Bible is very specific on the requirements to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. But how is a Christian supposed to look and act? While the answer may seem obvious, let me try to explain why it is not.
There’s a wide variance of opinion both in the world and among believers themselves about what characterizes a follower of Jesus Christ. They fall along a spectrum from intolerant bigots and hypocrites to spiritual warriors and everything in between. In many cases how individual Christians choose to define themselves is influenced by the world around them. I believe the Bible gives clarity to what defines a Christian and a disciple of Jesus.
At this point I recognize that some, or much, of what I’m going to say is influenced by my own thoughts and opinions. This post springs from my own desire to be more fully aligned with God’s expectations for his followers. Self-examination finds me wanting in many areas, a direct result of being born human and under the influence of sin. But my desire is to be as close to God as I possibly can.
It sometimes seems as Christians we think we need to do big, flashy things for the kingdom. We like the image of being warriors for God, standing up and conquering the forces of evil through the power of the Spirit. It makes us feel powerful and important. But Jesus’ teachings weren’t like that; if anything, they were the exact opposite. Those who received his highest praise were those who performed small acts of kindness with a sincere heart and great love.
The woman who gave two small coins to the temple treasury, even though it was all she had. The giving of a cup of cold water to a thirsty one that would help in securing your salvation. Small, kind, generous acts done for those who could never return the favor. This is what you read in the Gospels and parables again and again. If you think about it, that’s exactly how God treats us. How many small blessings do we receive each day that go largely unnoticed by us? And all that’s expected in return is “thank you”.
Christianity is best seen in those who know they’re sinners and are broken but accepted salvation by God’s grace through the death of Christ with their obedience and surrender. They believe God can transform them into something that glorifies Him and reflects His power. They live in an ‘attitude of gratitude’ for what God has done, and it produces a humility that comes from realizing they could have never done any of this by themselves; the power comes from God alone. That gratitude in turn builds a desire to be obedient to God’s word because it is our nature to please the ones we love the most.
Christians function best when they are noticed the least. Like the leaven in the lump of Jesus’ parable, our influence is designed to be subtle but infiltrating. Like salt and light, we don’t need to be the thing that is front and center. Too much salt or too much light is irritating and overwhelming, but both are essential for life and health. Christians are to be known for one thing: their love for one another, for the lost souls and for their enemies. That was, and still is, their defining characteristic.
The place where Christians are to be bold and uncompromising is in living according to the commands of God and in presenting the Gospel, the message of God’s reconciliation offered to all who will receive it. We’re not to be obnoxious or aggressive in spreading the Gospel, nor are we allowed to judge and condemn those who reject it. We are to approach all with the love for those who are, like us, created in the image of almighty God; that includes everyone. And when we are inevitably rebuffed, even hated and persecuted, by those who reject the message, we are to still love them.
I’ve rambled through this so far, but it shows how difficult I find this to pin down. Let me attempt to summarize what I see in scripture. Christians are to be loving toward all mankind, friends and enemies alike. At the same time they are to be holy, that is, set apart by their obedience to the standards of living set forth in the Bible. They are to be known as loving people, but uncompromising in upholding God’s word and bold in presenting His Good News of reconciliation. If we neglect the latter, the church becomes just another social agency that lacks the power of God which makes it unique. If we fail to practice the former, we become modern-day Pharisees, and like them are subject to Jesus’ harshest condemnation.
We are to practice charity toward all, and do good to everyone as we are able. It’s not to be done in a way to draw attention to ourselves; in fact, anonymous good works may be the best of all, since they defer all the praise to God. As the church, the body of Christ, we are to be characterized by a deep and abiding love for one another, one so attractive as to draw those outside to seek what we have, and allow us to ultimately point them to Jesus Christ as the author of that love. Our Christianity is not simply what we believe, but what we are. It’s so much a part of us that we live it without having to think about it, like breathing.
The questions that remain are these: as nonbelievers look at us as individuals and as a corporate body, what do they see? Is it something desirable to make them want to know more? Do we reflect the One we claim to love? Or does a lack of love and unity make us look just like everyone around us? If so, why would they believe our message? I pray these thoughts will be worth your time to consider.