Can I Borrow the Car?

The following is extracted from some of my comments I posted a few years ago on a Christian forum; I found it in my notes and decided to post it here in slightly modified form:

When a child commits a wrong, and feels guilt, Christians often say that this is an example of God’s law written onto the hearts of Man. Purposely avoiding any discussion as to the validity of that claim, I would note that when those same children are quick to accept other people just the way they are, the same Christians might say that this is evidence that children are ignorant of the wages of sin, the need for justice, etc. Given that we have a tendency to view things this way, it seems to me that we tend to view God as having more to do with guilt than grace. And I end up wondering if this view causes us to confuse radical mercy and grace with ignorance or, worse yet, moral bankruptcy.

More to the point, might it be that much of what we see in the world and judge as moral decay is in fact manifestation of God’s grace, albeit unnamed, in the lives of the secular? Must we consider a “liberal” stand on an issue as a lack of morality, or might we instead be able to view it as an abundance of Christ’s compassion, in a form we have yet to grasp ourselves?

Some (e.g., Thomas Merton) have written extensively about the “hidden Christ” and his action in the lives of all people. I favor the idea that God is presenting himself to each and every person every day, in mysterious ways, striving to touch them and reach them. Sometimes, this presentation becomes real enough to move a person to understanding, compassion and mercy. In this sense, such people have already experienced God and been moved by God. They just have no words, symbols, nor doctrine to attach to their experience. It becomes our role, therefore, to reach those people in that place; to offer a name and reasoned understanding to what they have experienced, so that they may cling to that experience and seek it more fully. I have heard time and time again that evangelism is about planting a seed, but I tend to think it is more about believing in and recognizing that seed, already planted by God, in others.

If this is at all correct, then while we help these people put a name to their experience, we can also, if we are free from judgment and being offended, learn from their unique experience of God. The secular world can teach us about the mystery of Christ in positive ways and not just negative, because he is positively presenting himself to the entire world.

It helps me, at least, to look upon and enter a situation/issue centered in this trust that it is Christ striving to work in the lives of individuals that is always happening and is always paramount. Relatively speaking, proving a philosophical, political or doctrinal point has very little to do with anything, and the manifest presence of Christ has very much to do with everything. I have to devote myself to people, to the nurturing of their unique experience of God through Christ, above and beyond everything else. I think we as Christians often want to change the world. I know as well as anybody that it is an easy thing to want to make a big impact with our actions and words. But it is much more likely that the change we are able to make is at this individual level. Mother Teresa, whatever one may say about her, had a wonderful view of this. She was once asked by a journalist (if I recall the story correctly) how she ever expected to be successful in Calcutta, when it was so big and there were so many poor, and she was only one person with a handful of helpers. Her reply was simply, “God does not call me to be successful. God calls me to be faithful.”

Roughly speaking, it seems to me that arguing issues often has more to do with the first part, and compassionately loving people falls into the second part.

I think it’s a sad thing that when people come into Christian community, knowingly or unknowingly seeking to tie their very real experience of God into a group of believers and into some sort of “religion” they can claim, we brush their experience aside and tell them that what they really need is to accept our particular religious teaching before they’ll ever know anything about God. In brutal practicality, what we are telling them is that what they experienced couldn’t have been God, because they aren’t good enough (i.e., enough like us) for God to use them for his purposes; as if God can’t work in anybody’s life unless and until we sanction it. This is the height of arrogance; to think we are the keepers and controllers of God and all his ways, as if he were something akin to a set of car keys. Shame on us.

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