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At Home

I had an interesting conversation this morning where I was asked the following questions: “When people look at Christians, what should they see that sets us apart?  Are we just a club of “nice people?”  There are lots of nice people in the world, after all—Buddhists, atheists, Hindus, and many more.  Why become a Christian rather than some other option?”  It was one of those moments where you think you should have something profoundly insightful to say based on your years of study and unusual sagacity and clarity of thought, but where what comes out of your mouth doesn’t exactly qualify.

Because the truth is, it’s not always obvious that Christians are significantly happier, healthier, or wiser, more well-adjusted, content, or balanced, less prone to depression, anxiety, or consumerism than any other identifiable demographic (religious or otherwise).  What’s going on?  Does Christianity not work?  Are we not doing it right?  What would it look like if Christianity “worked?”  Why do people bother with Christianity if it doesn’t instantly traffic in the “results” we’re looking for?

This conversation stuck with me throughout the day, including as I was reading through a chapter on embracing grief and loss as a part of mature spirituality in Peter Scazzero’s The Emotionally Healthy Church.  Near the end of the chapter I found this list of “results”—things that would come to characterize us if we learned to make grieving a normal part of a life of faith:

  • We become compassionate as our Father in heaven is compassionate… Absorbing our own pain, we learn to forgive.
  • We have a greater heart for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the marginalized, and the wounded.
  • We are less covetous, less idolatrous… Life is stripped of its pretense and nonessentials.
  • We are liberated from having to impress others.
  • We are able to live more comfortably with mystery.
  • We are characterized by a greater humility and vulnerability.
  • We place God at the center of our lives and begin rejecting superficial, trivial pursuits.
  • We experience an enhanced sense of living in the immediate present.
  • We enjoy a new vivid appreciation of the basic facts of life—the changing seasons, the wind, the falling of leaves, the last Christmas, people made in God’s image.
  • We have fewer fears and a greater willingness to take risks.
  • We are kinder.  A love flows out of us that is not based on people’s intelligence, success, money, appearance, or expressions of love for us.  People no longer feel evaluated, judged, or analyzed by us.  They do not feel controlled.
  • We understand that what bonds us as followers of Jesus living in community is our brokenness.
  • We sense the reality of heaven in a new way, understanding more fully that we are only aliens and sojourners on earth.
  • We are finally at home with ourselves and with God.

What do you think of this list?  I would want to question a few of these, or at least hear more about what he means and how he’s using certain terms, but overall it strikes me as not a bad description of what ought to result from a life of discipleship.  Might something like this count as part of an answer to the questions posed above?

The last one, in particular, grabs my attention.  It seems to me to be the most important, the most all-encompassing, and probably the most elusive.  I think that Christians, of all people, should be people who are becoming “at home” in the world.  I don’t mean “at home” in the sense of being satisfied or complacent with ourselves and our involvement in a world where much evil is done.  A huge part of what it means to follow Christ is to actively resist all that falls short of God’s creational intent.

But if we truly believe that our faith is a response to the way things really are—that God really is good and trustworthy, that the world really is in the process of being reclaimed and redeemed, that we really are called to play a role in this process, and we really can look forward to a hopeful future—then perhaps it can be seen as a kind of being “at home.”

An inescapable (and probably appropriate, in some contexts) element of Christians’ self-understanding historically has been that we are not at home in this world (the whole “I’m just passing through this place on my way to heaven” idea—as in the second-to-last bullet point above).  Perhaps, with enough qualifications and clarification of terms, the opposite could also, paradoxically, be true.  Christians ought, of all people, to be most at home in this world if for no other reason than that they belong to God, and they live in a world whose past, present, and future also belongs to God.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think that humanity seeks money, fame, power and sex (and other pleasures) and believes that if they could all be attained we would be satisfied with our lives (just like in Hollywood.)

    Philosophers have maintained that while these things are good they are not sufficient to satisfy us. They cannot be maintained or counted on and even those few of us who attain them find that satisfaction is missing. In addition, the pursuit of these things cause us to lose sight of what can satisfy us. The philosophers do not all agree on what it takes to satisfy us, but they do seem to agree, for the most part, that the common pursuits of money, etc. do not deliver the satisfaction.

    Christianity, for the most part, is in agreement with the philosophers about this.

    I think what Christianity offers is hope. It enables us to connect our lives with what is truly important, now and in eternity, here and in the place to come (the home that is here and the home to come.)

    I don’t think that hope or the connection with what is truly important changes us in a an observable way. We still fail, we still suffer and we still die. The connection and the hope are not perfect.

    January 16, 2009
  2. Paul Johnston #

    …sometimes, I think, when I’m struggling to find a useful response, my real problem is with the question I’m trying to answer…

    1.“When people look at Christians, what should they see that sets us apart?

    On the face of things, perhaps nothing. If as a Christian I view the interior self to be a truer expression of my being than my exterior, more superficial self, that “seeing” a difference, is probably not readily discerned. And in many ways may not even be important.(Comparative analysis, can be full of deceits.)

    Perhaps the better way for a non Christian to come to understanding is to ask themselves the following.

    “If there is a Christian God, how would that Christian God view me?”

    2.Why become a Christian rather than some other option?”

    Salvation. Yours, mine and everyone elses. Both here and now and in the afterlife.

    In closing, let me conclude, (as inspired by Ken’s comment) in this way; Try not to see things as the superficial world around you see’s things. Don’t ask for pay and then do the work. Do the work, secure in the knowledge you will be paid later.

    And remember that the character, quality and timing of your “pay” is wholly the prerogative of a loving and benevolent God.

    It is not for us to say.

    January 16, 2009
  3. Thanks, Ken and Paul, for your comments.

    Ken, I can’t help but think that hope or a connection to what is truly important ought to have an observable effect upon how we live, even if only in small ways. You’re right, we still fail, suffer, and ultimately die, but it seems plausible that the presence (or absence) of hope would affect how we handle these things.

    Paul, I don’t have quite the same inner/outer split that you seem to be advocating. Our inner selves are expressed in outward ways, after all. It seems implausible that someone could undergo a profound transformation in their inner life and not have it make some difference in how they are perceived by others. And I’m sure you can appreciate that your answer to #2 can be profoundly influenced, connected with – even dependent on how #1 is addressed. You may not need to get “paid” before you do the work, but you do need to have good reasons to believe that your “employer” is trustworthy and can be relied upon to honour his “contract” at the end of the day.

    January 16, 2009
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan,

    What I’m trying to say is that I believe true communication with God is an “interior disposition”. I disposition that I believe, in most cases, takes the better part of a lifetime to facilitate. While I agree wholeheartedly with your assertions regarding the complimentary nature of the inner and outer self, (when rightly ordered!…my opinion, not necessarily yours) I have experienced in myself and witnessed in others much contradiction and corruption when we begin to act on matters of faith and life without first being “aware” of God’s intention. Without consciously “echoing” in our interior self, God’s voice within us.

    Meditation, contemplation and prayer, combined with “Church”, community and scripture give character and expression to “His voice”.

    This work, as earlier stated, can be a lifetime in the doing. Demonstrable differences can be subtle and not easily discerned by the observer, unless they are prepared to invest with their time, in relationship.

    If I could advise the casual observer with regard to what to look for, in a more immediate context, I would tell them to look for, and look to become, good listeners.

    His peace be among us.

    January 18, 2009
  5. Ken #


    Yes, I think you are right, in spite of what I wrote above.

    Here is an example.

    I remember talking to someone who grew up in an atheistic culture about a crisis involving her work. I remember observing at the time that she did not have the sense that her life mattered to God (and the associated hope) that I have always had and that affected the way she saw the crisis and dealt with it. I also remember a conversation with friends who grew up without religion and with no belief in God at all. They told me that they told me that they saw something different in their Christian friends. They could not quite name it. They meant a positive difference. Still, belief in God was so alien to them that they just felt like that difference was unavailable to them.

    So, I would say that it is observable. I guess when I wrote my comment above I had not remembered these examples.

    Of course, many people observe a another difference. They think that belief in God is foolish and that Christians are inferior for having such beliefs.

    January 18, 2009
  6. Paul, I think there are a lot worse things Christians could be known for than being listeners. Thanks for the reminder.

    Ken, that’s encouraging to hear of a case where it was more than just a theory – where some people actually did deal with difficulty better because of what they believed as Christians. Of course, as you say, the question of whether these beliefs are true or just psychologically useful remains. As I’ve said before (probably too many times), I think there is a deep connection between what is useful and promotes goodness and peace among human beings and what is true, but I realize it’s not an absolutely straight line between the two.

    January 19, 2009
  7. Ken #

    I have continued to think about the question you have raised here, and about why it is often hard to observe the effects.

    I think for those of us who have had the Christian faith and hope for our whole lives and in countries where that is common, it is hard to imagine life without it and so it is hard to identify all the ways it affects us. For me, when I think about friends who grew up in different cultures, without Christianity, the effects become more apparent. They also become apparent in the testimony of people who came to Christianity later in life – it is clear to them that the effect is major.

    In addition, I think the effects vary among Christians so that it is hard to say if a person is a Christian the effect will be a particular thing. I think we often need to know people very closely to observe the effects and to understand the variations. The many variations involve such things as life choices and ethics, but also things like prayer and worship styles. All of these things have public and private dimensions – they can partly be observed and they are partly hidden.

    At the same time we keep our human instincts and failings and that can make it hard to see the effects of Christianity in our own lives and in the lives of others. Grace is so important, and yet it is often so invisible.

    January 19, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    A very thoughtful and wise response, Ken. I was particularly moved by the last statement regarding the invisibility of grace.

    If grace is understood to mean(among other things)the “touch of God”; consciously known to and experienced by the creature, perhaps invisibility is it’s “better cloak”.

    Experiencing God’s grace in more visible terms, wow…I doubt I could survive it. How inadequate and sinful I would feel in His presence, to the point of a grievous insanity, I suspect.

    Or worse still, maybe I would become self infatuated in such a way that I viewed myself to be better than the rest. In the end, through pride, serving Satan and not our Holy God.

    We all frustrate at times, as St.Paul did, with, “seeing through the mirror dimly.”

    Perhaps we shouldn’t. Maybe our loving God, for love’s sake, understands that we just aren’t ready.

    January 19, 2009
  9. I think you’re absolutely right, Ken. The “effects” of Christianity are sometimes hard to see because (at least for some of us) it’s just part of the air we breathe and it is difficult to pinpoint how, exactly, it’s affecting us.

    I think it’s also very true that a deep understanding of who people are is a prerequisite for understanding how their beliefs affect their behaviour. C.S. Lewis said something about that somewhere – that we ought to be careful about making pronouncements about whether or not Christianity is making this or that person “better” because only God knows each of our journeys and what stage he happens to be leading us through at the moment.

    Maybe this gets us right back to what Paul (Johnston, not the apostle!) said above: Christians ought to be known for their willingness to listen. We need to listen to each other in order to understand each other’s stories. If we become better listeners, maybe we will be more attentive to the visible and invisible ways that grace operates in all of our lives.

    January 20, 2009

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