July 09, 2005

Too Zealous

I recently had someone complain to me about one of her family member's Christian attitude. It seems that they were behaving too "zealously" for her comfort – things like, offering Christian books, bringing religion into discussions, and making value judgments according to Biblical standards. The sense of the objection was that it's fine for this person to be so committed to the faith, but why must it spill out onto everyone else. Now, this is the kind of objection that one often hears and expects from non-Christians, but the sad thing is that this complaint came from one who self-consciously identifies herself as a Christian. Let me share my response here, with a little hindsight embellishment.

The first thing I did was to clarify why someone would think it important to "push" their Christian beliefs on others.

Christianity is not just a roll-your-own belief system; it's a particular thing, even if there might be some dispute over the details. One of its main tenants is that there is a final accounting at the end of history and many people will not fare so well in that judgment. There is a real danger in being cavalier about your life and metaphysics; God is not just raining love and unconditional acceptance over the creation. Consequently, there is something to fear regarding those who do not seem to be aligned to the biblical view of Christ and salvation.

"Well, that's not quite how I believe" was her response.

"But where do you get your beliefs?" I asked.

"I've always believed...my church taught...I was raised to believe..." she stammered.

I don't think she'd ever really been called to an account of her own beliefs on these matters. Our modern, "tolerant" society tends to give a pass to most belief systems – even the most wild-eyed speculations – so long as it is not classical Christianity, and then, ironically, people become quite concerned about things like reason and consistency. Logic is a servant employed only so long as it favors its master's cause. But I digress.

I mercifully stepped in and explained that in Christianity the Bible is the playbook, and it speaks of things like hell and judgment and salvation in almost every book. If you're not using that, you're not talking Christianity. And if you're only picking and choosing what you want to believe from it, then you're basically building your own ala carte religion, but you can't rightly call it "Christianity." It's only by the authority of your own tastes and preferences that you can claim that you've come to any True conclusions about God.

I pointed out that this person believes that the Bible is actually true and this is why they press themselves upon people so zealously. It may be fair to question things like tactics and timing (it is a delicate business and it is easy to push people away). However, it is because this person thinks that Christianity is true that they are so vocal about it and keen to make believers out of their loved ones. It is a matter of being consistent with their beliefs, and if there really is a danger, then it is a logical expression of their love to try to save people from that danger.

If you were driving your car in a heavy snowstorm and a fanatical man tried to get you to stop, might you not think him odd, dangerous, or an annoyance? But what if you knew that the bridge ahead was out and that he was trying to warn motorists of almost certain death? Might you not have some understanding? Appreciation? You might even think him negligent if he did not do so. Perhaps if you knew (believed) this too you might join him in his task.

Unfortunately, this precious backdoor witnessing opportunity was cut short, but not before I was able to offer the following conclusion, which she comprehended well enough that she nearly finished my point for me. "The real question is not whether [this family member] is being meddlesome or an 'overzealous' Christian; the real question is whether or not biblical Christianity is actually true. To say that their behavior is wrong you must first say that their beliefs are wrong." But standing on the shifting sands of her own murky understanding of Christianity I could see that she was ill-equipped to make such a judgment call. But as Greg Koukl would say, I had left a stone in her shoe.

My questions to the reader are these: When is the last time you shared your faith and pressed into someone's comfort zone? Is yours a faith of any confidence and grounding? Is it a faith worth sharing? If you could ascend into the heavens and see and touch what it is you claim to believe, and then return, would it change the way you handle yourself or interact with the unbelievers around you (or even those who you're not absolutely sure of)?

The story is told of Charles Peace, a great thief and murderer of 19th Century England. He was eventually apprehended and condemned to hang. On his way to the gallows the chaplain walked by his side, offering "the consolation of religion." As he spoke of Christ's power to save, the wretched man turned upon him and exclaimed, "Do you believe it? Do you believe it?" Then with obvious bitterness he cried: "If I believed that, I would willingly crawl across England on broken glass on my hands and knees to tell men it was true!"

How well do we believe it? How much inconvenience or embarrassment, much less suffering, are we willing to invest in this thing we so casually affirm amongst our cozy peers on Sunday morning? It is to my shame that the person I mention was not complaining about me, only to me, who she thought was a fellow Christian of "reasonable" temperament. But I will hide behind my own justification that I had been tactically measured in her presence thus far. Yeah, that's it: "measured." I only pray that Christ is not as measured in His grace and mercy toward me on that great Day.



At 7/10/2005 10:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, that I could have the grace to err on the side of zeal and passion for my God and my faith without tipping the delicate balance and pushing precious ones away from His truths. Thank you for your Post, it is very helpful and encouraging.


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