When one truly embraces the Christian faith, being deeply moved by its holistic nature, they find their way of life is not so much a religion as a way of existing. The Christian fellowship I serve (Emmaus Fellowship) has been exploring the experience of the Christian life anchored in core Christian virtues. I wanted to share some of my reflections with all of you for your contemplation and perhaps practice. It’s my belief grounding our spiritual lives within three solid virtues helps us move closer to the intended way of life express by the early Christians; one which seems to be slowly slipping from the memory of modern Christianity. We need to recapture these “marks” of Christianity to be more effective witnesses to all that is good in Christianity.
The first mark of Christianity is grounded in the virtue of love. Love, when ordered properly leads us to live lives reflecting the divine nature. When we love God first and one another as brothers and sisters of the same Father, we recognize Christianity is less about religion and more about relationships. Christianity doesn’t necessarily start with a set of rules and doctrines, it begins by entering into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ and then learning to live within the context of this new and transformed life. I’m not saying rules and doctrines are without value, only that they’re not the place Christianity starts. I do what I do and believe what I believe because I love Christ and want to know him more profoundly and live a life pleasing to him. Doctrines teach me about who it is I love (God) and moral rules teach me how I can live in relationship with Christ, but when you start the Christian life with rules and doctrines you introduce pure religion. When you start the Christian life with a relationship of love, healing, and transformation you encounter and are inspired by Christ. Yes, you need both but Christianity starts with relationships making you a part of a community grounded in radical love. In psychology a number of studies have shown you can present the most exquisite arguments to justify why someone should change their behavior (i.e. why smoking is bad for you, why you should eat healthier, etc.) and yet people will continue to act in unhealthy ways. This happens because people are in a loving relationship with whatever is hurting them. Whether it’s a person, food, substances, or ideas, people don’t change their lives because of well thought out arguments, they change their lives because they come to love something else. If you love the idea of being a smoker, you’ll never quit smoking. You have to love being something else. Along the same lines it’s interesting to note many studies exploring why people succeed in therapy have indicated it’s not the type of therapy or interventions therapists use that have the greatest results for clients, it’s the relationship they establish with the therapist. Nothing matters more than how much you like your therapist. That’s when you change. Christianity is first and foremost about relationships with a God you come to love and people who love you as well.
A second mark making Christianity unique is the ability for Christians to see eternal things through temporal things. We see with the eyes of faith. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the verse from scripture that says, “We walk by faith and not by sight” found in 2 Corinthians 5:7. Likewise, this ability to see the eternal in the temporal is captured in Hebrews:
“You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering…” (Hebrews 18-19, 22)
This passage reminds us we’ve entered a place we don’t see with natural eyes but with eyes of faith. In the breaking of bread we encounter Christ. In the proclamation of the Gospel we hear the voice of Christ. Water, oil, fire, bread, wine, etc. all give us opportunities to see transcendent eternal realities through temporal earthly things. Christianity is not a faith which abhors the natural, rather it’s an incarnational faith allowing us to see eternal things with temporal eyes. Faith gives new sight to what was once blind to beauty, holiness, and truth.
The last driving force in the Christian life reminds us Christians find meaning and purpose in their daily existence regardless of their circumstances because they accept the promises of God. They believe God has called them to a particular vocation, a vocation of love and service to him and others. Even through suffering and enduring daunting and dangerous situations Christians believe there’s purpose and meaning in life. We can endure suffering because we have a hope that can sustain anything sin throws at us. God gives us hope in something more than what’s evident in the present. Interestingly, there have been numerous studies in psychology that demonstrate people who have a great deal of resilience also have a great deal of hope. Hope allows people to overcome difficult situations like divorce, loss of employment, or severe illness. Hope allows us to accept the promises of God even when it feels like those promises are far from us.
If you’ve been paying attention you realize I’ve simply stated that faith, hope, and love mark the Christian life. I believe these are indeed the most important virtues a Christian can embrace. Yet, I think too often Christians only intellectually ascent to these virtues and are not intentional about making them marks of how they live. Much of what keeps us from allowing these virtues to seep into our bones has to do with how they are fostered. Unlike natural virtues like prudence, fortitude, etc. these three virtues are gifts from God not something you can develop on your own. We cannot “practice” these virtues directly but rather we must receive them. To receive them we must set aside our desires and efforts and allow the Holy Spirit to infuse them into our soul. We become more loving by merely choosing to love regardless of how we feel. We set aside our prejudices and desires and simply love. The more we give of ourselves the more we love and the deeper relationships become. We become more faithful by simply allowing the temporal world to be a conduit to the eternal. We merely choose to believe. We allow reason to be a starting point for what faith shows us more broadly. We must get out of the way so that God can show us the eternal reality awaiting us beyond the temporal. Hope is less about being something we practice and more about giving up our plans for God’s. When we no longer believe we must provide all the answers and solutions and trust God’s promises we become more hopeful. Merely accepting that God has an eternal purpose for us regardless of the current situation allows us to become more hopeful. By actively becoming receptive to faith, hope, and love we become more profoundly expressive of the core of the Christian life.
My friends, we have the opportunity to allow these three marks of the Christian faith to profoundly change how we live. Every day you have the opportunity to be beacons of grace in a world of effort and striving. When you show the world it can trust in God’s promises, that it can see eternity in the temporal, and that it can love in a way that gives life to others and doesn’t selfishly consume them you have shown the world Christ. Be the face of God in a world struggling to find peace.