(It may be that the things I say below will be useless or even damaging to some people at this point in their life of faith.Â I hope those people will ignore what Iâ€™ve written if itâ€™s unhelpful to them.Â Caveat lector.)
Growing in faith is an extremely dangerous proposition.Â Itâ€™s been compared to leaping off a cliff, and thatâ€™s a good comparison: Â We canâ€™t see where weâ€™re going, and we have to trust the result of our choice to someone or something beyond ourselves.
Jesus more commonly talks about dying, especially in terms of dying as a sacrifice.Â â€œAnyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.â€Â (Matthew 10:38)Â (Letâ€™s remember here that the cross is an instrument of execution, not just a struggle in our lives as is commonly taught.Â Jesus is speaking about dying, not bearing up.)Â He also said, â€œUnless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.Â But if it dies, it produces many seeds.Â The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.â€Â (John 12:24 and 25)
Most of us are not going to die for our faith in a literal way, but we do have to face death.Â In fact, we have to choose death.Â Everything we are before we become Christians — all our beliefs, our political stands, our habits, even our sense of right and wrong — is going to have to be sacrificed to God.Â We canâ€™t keep anything of what we were.Â It all has to go up in flames.Â We canâ€™t retain anything to be â€œChristianity plusâ€ — not Christianity plus social action, or Christianity plus conservative politics, or Christianity plus my opinion about homosexuality or women or wealth.Â All of it has to go.Â We come before Jesus as little children, or even more, as unborn children, ready to be born again into an entirely new life, not assuming we can bring anything with us from the old life.
For example, maybe Iâ€™ve generally thought that being a nice person means being tolerant of othersâ€™ differences.Â When I become a Christian I have to reconsider that idea, even put it to death.Â Maybe Iâ€™ve thought that love means infinite gentleness; or maybe Iâ€™ve thought that righteousness means infinite judgment — those ideas have to be thrown into the fire, too.Â Maybe Iâ€™ve always believed that Christians are more properly aligned with the political left, or the political right, with socialism or capitalism — toss â€˜em in and watch â€˜em burn.Â Even when my opinions are actually right, actually aligned with Godâ€™s understanding, I still have to give them up — because they are based on my own righteousness, not Godâ€™s.
God will not be used as a stamp of affirmation for our opinions.Â Our righteousness before him is like filthy rags.Â (Isaiah 64:6)Â Nothing of our own efforts — no idea, no conviction, no stance — can we offer to God and expect him to approve.Â All we can do with all we are and have is to lay it on the altar before him.
This is scary.Â How is the faith Iâ€™m talking about any different from the brainwashing of Jim Jonesâ€™ followers?Â They also were told to scrap their own ideas of right and wrong, to give up their ownership of themselves, to expect to have their own beliefs and habits overturned in every particular.Â And yet we would all agree that the mass suicide at Jonestown was wrong, was evil on a cosmic scale, that the people involved in it were tragically deluded.
Many of the people who followed Hitler also put to death their own sense of right and wrong, which seems to be what Iâ€™m recommending here.Â They were led into unimaginable atrocities (except now we can imagine them, having seen their results).Â These people became less than human.
So what is the difference between what Jesus is saying in the Bible and what Jim Jones or Hitler asked of their followers? Â Some people –many people, I think — say that the difference rests in us.Â We have to be smarter than the victims of these cults.Â We have to weigh claims more carefully, trust less easily, hold back on our impulses to belong and follow, measure everything against what we think is right.Â But I donâ€™t think that we should hold back from trusting and commitment, and the difference between cultists and Christians doesnâ€™t rest in our discernment or our moral strength.
â€œArenâ€™t we supposed to be discerning?â€ you object.Â â€œAre we supposed to be brain-dead cultists?Â Whatâ€™s to protect us from turning into zombies and being exploited by the powers of darkness?â€
Good questions.Â Only one thing protects us from the powers of darkness.Â Only one thing stands as the difference between true faith and perverted cultism.Â That one thing isnâ€™t our moral discernment, or our correct worldview, or our sturdy conscience.Â That one thing, in fact, isnâ€™t a thing but a person.Â The difference is Jesus himself.
It is wrong for Jim Jones or Hitler or even your pastor to ask you to sacrifice your deepest self on their altar.Â But it isnâ€™t wrong because of the sacrifice being asked.Â It is wrong because of the person asking.Â If you kill yourself for Jim Jones, can he give you new life?Â If you humble yourself before Hitler, will he lift you up on the last day?Â No, of course not, and those two were wicked for asking.Â Not because what they were asking for was wrong, but because they were not God to ask for it.
To me this is the most terrifying part of the Christian life.Â For decades now Iâ€™ve been asked daily to put my old self to death.Â Iâ€™ve been asked to swallow and even forgive injustice to myself and others, though every cell in my body screams that itâ€™s wrong.Â Iâ€™ve been asked to give up my own ideas about what is nice, and loving, and proper, and to start wielding a two-edged sword, which really doesnâ€™t make me popular with anyone.Â All this effort and sacrifice, and how do I know Iâ€™m right?Â Iâ€™m either in collusion with an evil, brain-sucking power that will turn me into a zombie, as some in my family would claim, or Iâ€™m in the process of being remade into the image of God.
Both of those processes involve my death, my more or less willing immolation of myself.Â The difference is not in the process but in the person to whom the process is offered.Â The zombie master, whatever face he takes on,Â will make me an animated corpse.Â Jesus will give me a new and more glorious life to replace the one I laid down before him.Â The zombie master will gleefully take my sacrificed conscience and replace it with lusts and desire for death.Â Jesus will give me his own perfect sense of right and wrong, his own balance of mercy and righteousness.
Both of those processes could be stopped if I held back, if I hung on to my own jumble of convictions and individualism.Â Maybe I should hold back, because I sure donâ€™t want to become a zombie.Â But if I hold back, then Iâ€™ll never grow into the image and likeness of God.
Here is where the danger lies.Â This is the great challenge of the Christian life.Â If I hold on to my little self and never offer it up, Iâ€™m like a kernel of wheat that refuses to leave the hopper and will never yield fruit.Â But if I offer myself up, how do I know Iâ€™m offering rightly?Â How do I know Iâ€™ll end up seeing the face of God and not end up a zombie?
I donâ€™t.Â This is the terror of faith.Â This is the cost that weâ€™re asked to consider before we follow Jesus.Â This is the leap into the abyss that Saint Peter, and Francis of Assisi, and Mother Teresa, and you, and I have to face before we can face God.Â This is the death that awaits us every day.