If being a “Christian” means not being open to embrace doubt and confusion, then I am not a Christian.
The earliest lesson I learned in my walk with Jesus was the importance of being open and honest about your doubts and questions. I had grown up in a very Christian environment. I lived and breathed youth group and prayer group and worship team. But doubts started creeping in around the time I was fifteen, and I never felt safe to disclose them, to the point that they festered so much I became sort of a “closet atheist.” It was only when God met me in my doubt and I felt freedom to be open about it that I really was able to step into a vibrant faith.
We talk so much about “doubting Thomas” as though he was such a bad example, but we forget how Jesus dealt with and even honored his doubt: he showed up and said, “Look, here I am.” (Click to share on Twitter)
God can handle your doubts, your confusion, your pain, even your anger at him - if you’re just willing to own them and disclose them in prayer. (Click to share on Twitter)
I think there are basically two options with doubt: you can let it become a cop-out excuse to stop trying to understand, or you can let it spur on a genuine search for Truth. To this day, when I struggle with doubts and confusions at various times (there always seems to be at least a couple on my plate!), I remember that as long as I am genuinely committed to seeking Truth - even if I'm not sure on the details yet - then it’s okay. And I want to emphasize this: that commitment has always been met with God's faithfulness in helping me find more of Him.
If being a “Christian” means having God figured out, I am not a Christian.
Apart from the fact that we never could have God figured out, I’ve still got plenty of issues I struggle to understand - even after seven years of theological education and Biblical studies. I know I love Jesus, I know Jesus changed my life, I know I want to follow him, but I also know there are lots of things people consider “essential” that I find myself unsure about. Sometimes these things change from season to season, month to month, or even day to day. And I have to be reminded: it’s okay not to have it all figured out.
If being a “Christian” means not being with “sinners,” I am not a Christian.
Some of my most treasured moments have been times with some of what most Christians would call the worst of the worst. The times I went clubbing with a group of party-going friends, totally sober and totally untempted by the scantily clad dancers or the sexually charged atmosphere. One of those times, I went outside with a friend, a hopelessly drunk young single mother. As we smoked a cigarette together, I asked her about her daughter and her life, only to comfort her as she broke down crying and told everyone I was an amazing pastor - which, by the way, has never been an official title of mine.
One of my favorite memories is the time I sat with five hippies around a fire at a music festival in Vermont, while they were drinking, smoking (cigarettes and weed), snorting cocaine, and taking tabs of LSD. Over a beer and a cigarette and none of the other things, I shared from my own broken experiences about how Jesus had changed my life, and soon I was affectionately (not sarcastically) called the “preacher man” and still had their love and trust a year later when we sat around the same tent at the same festival.
If being a “Christian” means being good at being a “Christian,” then I am not a Christian.
As you’ve seen above, it took me almost nine years to quit smoking. I went through a period of heavy solo drinking where I thought I was on my way to becoming an alcoholic. I cuss like a sailor with certain groups of people. The first two, I deeply regret, but I don’t think the acts of smoking or drinking in and of themselves. Show me that in the Bible?
But I do think addiction and dependence are way outside of what Jesus wants for his people, and as someone who has gone through and been brought out of both while being in ministry, I know it’s a whole lot more complicated than what I was taught when I was young: “Christians don’t smoke, drink, or cuss.” I’m not proud of some parts of my past, but I’m willing to own all of them.
If being a “Christian” means using only the Bible for my spiritual formation, I am not a Christian.
The Bible has of course been central to the development of my faith, and I am committed to living my life as part of the story of God calling a people for his name and redeeming the broken universe. But I’ve also found tools to help me become a more whole, healthy, integrated, and yes, spiritually mature Jesus follower from plenty of other sources. Not just Christian books and devotionals. I’ve found a lot of wisdom and growth from all writings from totally different contexts, and having the freedom to do so has really helped me flourish spiritually.
Most recently, I’ve been captivated by the Tao te Ching, an ancient Chinese book of spiritual wisdom that didn’t draw me away from Christ-centered faith, but actually helped me hold onto it. The TTC was never meant to be a religious book anyway, even if some have made it one, so I have had no problem learning from it when so much of what it says lines up with and complements the character of Christ. In fact, in the next few weeks I’m launching a brand new podcast, “A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching,” that will go through the TTC chapter by chapter with stories and exposition about just how transformative it can be - even (or I might say especially) for Jesus followers.
If being a “Christian” only means not being Catholic, then I am not a Christian.
I grew up among evangelicals and Pentecostals who had grown up with what they described as a very dead, overly religious, meaningless Catholic faith. In our neck of the woods, you would always say, “I’m not Catholic. I’m Christian.” What a ridiculous statement. Pre-1500, the Catholic Church was the only Church (in the West, I mean) and even the early Protestant churches still looked very “Catholic” in their practices.
I’m sure dead Catholic faith exists, but so does dead “Christian” (i.e. evangelical) faith. And sure, you might have problems with Catholic theology, but maybe you should talk to some of my devoted, Jesus-loving Catholic friends about why they believe what they do. And it also helps to read a book outside of your own slice of the Christian pie to see some things that are problematic with your own brand of faith.
If being a “Christian” means thinking the United States is a “Christian nation,” I am not a Christian.
This deserves a whole blog series, or a book, or a series of books. Luckily there are plenty of good ones available. Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation is an excellent one. I know lots of Christians who compare the USA to Israel in the Bible, but a much better comparison is that of the Roman Empire.
Nations can’t be Christian, even if their Constitutions are written by faithful Christians (debatable) and on “Christian principles” - whatever those are supposed to be. Usually those principles don’t have much in common with the Sermon on the Mount, which is the most concentrated collection we have of Jesus’ teachings. Which makes perfect sense, since a nation run on those principles would almost instantly collapse. I pledge my allegiance exclusively to the Kingdom of God.
If being a “Christian” means believing everyone who has not accepted Jesus into their hearts is going to be eternally tormented in hell, then I am not a Christian.
I don’t know exactly what I believe about hell, but it isn’t that. In no way can I reconcile the heart of God revealed in Jesus with the eternal torment of billions of people who never even had an opportunity to hear about him, much less an opportunity to deny him. And for those who think eternal conscious torment is clearly and unquestionably taught in the Bible, a little digging and reading outside of that bubble will show it’s a lot more muddy than that. Sadly, many Christians have made doctrines about hell "essentials" of the Christian faith - as though if we get the details of eternal judgment wrong, somehow we are excluded from salvation.