Archive for November, 2008

My Light Switch Faith

Posted in Faith Experience, The Narrow Path on November 24, 2008 by RWZero

A Lesson in Surrender

I would be hard pressed to speak separately of the conscience that I have by nature, and the conscience that has arisen through faith, as I have only one life to speak of. Yet I feel as if the experience I am about to describe derives largely from faith, for a simple conscience does not make such demands.

Evangelicalism has inundated me with the rhetoric of surrender and abandon at every moment. One must completely surrender one’s life; one must not hold anything back. At its heart, the concept is sound—a commitment can only be commitment if it is evidenced as such. There is an undertow in the stream through which I wade from source to mouth, and it tells me that I shall never get there unless I am pulled under.

It is not a matter of doing the right thing, but of relinquishing the right to do the wrong thing. What is a good deed, if the doer has not committed to that which brings the doing? What is it to give all that is required of me, if I gain the will only upon knowing what is required? This is a system we apply to strangers to keep from being cheated, but for those we trust, it dissolves. And there’s no sense in believing in God if you can’t trust him.

Throughout my life, I’ve felt two distinct, diametric choices within me. One of them has been to do the right thing, rather than the wrong thing. The other has been to commit, rather than retain the right to abstain.

People have shown great distress over moral dilemmas and gray areas, but I have never been overly riveted by this. I have not always known what is right for others, or even what the right “thing” is—but I have often felt sure of what I ought or ought not to do.

It has often seemed as if the right thing were just one decision away. Nothing complex, nothing requiring thought. The right action itself may require these things, but my commitment does not, and that is what I have valued.

It has seemed that I have often, if not always, reserved the right to observe a situation, calculating the effect of my choice before committing to the action that would follow from the principles I claim to live by. If my sacrifice is small, then certainly I can live as I ought. But what if the reward to me is great? Perhaps I could spare a detour from the path I walk. What if the sacrifice is high and seemingly senseless? I can’t say just yet. Let me see the details. I will always endorse the right thing, though I may decide not to do it this time. So just bear with me. Do as I say, but not as I do.

This might all have little impact on one’s actual behaviour. Perhaps the dilemma lies farther beneath many things I’ve done—perhaps I have not been litmus tested in the ways that would make it clear. But it’s all very real, like a light switch. I just have to reach out and turn it on.

It is not so much about the mistakes I make, or the wrong things I may do, but where they came from. If this light switch is on, I might only pore over my reading material in a slightly different way, lay my fork beside my plate just a little further left, and greet my friend with a new inflection in my voice. Nonetheless, I would know that all my actions were like those of a soldier’s in war—one who accepts that he has already died, yet still fights to live. I would know that my commitment to what I believe is right is unconditional and irreversible. It’s no different from deciding to love someone without ever asking yourself if you’ll stop feeling like it one day.

I don’t know for how much of my life this switch has stayed on, I don’t know if it runs on a timer, spring loaded, turning off periodically and automatically. I know only that each time I reach for it, I hesitate, and I rue the hesitation.

Many matters may be gray; I myself am often black and white.


Of Crosses both Roman and Red

Posted in Evangelism on November 10, 2008 by RWZero

Weighing the Social and Spiritual Gospels

I did an internship at Engineering Ministries International (EMI) in the summer of 2006, living in Colorado for 3 months while I worked at their office. The organization primarily does engineering design work for Christian ministries that provide some form of assistance to the poor overseas. During one meeting I made a comment to my supervisor, Craig, asking him what he thought about the integration of the social and spiritual gospels. He drew a cartoon ghost and a cartoon body on the white board, and turned to the rest of the group for their thoughts. A moment of silence followed.

Christians in general do a great deal of humanitarian and social aid work. They also do a great deal of preaching. These are sometimes denoted as the “social” and “spiritual” gospels, respectively. But there is a denominational and traditional bias in these activities—some groups do much more of one than the other. Perhaps the reader wonders: how do these two things fit together?

Doing humanitarian work brings religious and secular people into close contact. Despite their differing perspectives, there seems to be an understanding that helping those in need is a positive act. Where does this understanding come from? Although the inclination to help others comes naturally to many of us, many such inclinations are not actualized, and even our most natural inclinations undergo justification. This justification—the impetus for our actions—is at the core of this issue. Christians have a seemingly dual mandate to love others, and to share their faith. Additionally, the question of why this is done may be raised: is it “true altruism,” [1] or is it solely the belief that behaving appropriately leads to heaven?

Though there is no additional cost to evangelize, but it can be seen as a barbaric and condescending act that can even diminish the effect of a good deed. Critics have scrutinized acts of charity accompanied by evangelism, portraying the deed as little more than bait on a hook. In one case, the inclusion of one small tract with an otherwise (here unnamed) completely selfless act had critics “questioning the altruism” of the work. Does preaching really negate the altruism of an act it accompanies? And just a moment–if the senders of tracts really believe what they do, why do they invest effort in helping people physically? The obvious solution is also a complex one—answers to these questions depend on our interpretation of the meaning of life, and the foundational assumptions we make about what has value.

Let’s not beat around the bush. It makes a difference if you believe that this life is (or isn’t) the end of all things. A Christian ultimately cannot value the temporal above the spiritual. Nonetheless, the efforts and effects of such a person can still exceed those of one who believes that existence ends with this life, and who values it higher. This may seem paradoxical, but it is not. It derives entirely from a holistic mindset—one which, when grasped, yields dramatic results. It’s a mindset in which expressing faith and helping others are an expression of the same principle.

The struggle to integrate the two is familiar to anyone who has tried it:

What is the point of me believing these things if someone who denies them can do the same deeds as I? What is the point of doing these deeds if what I believe is not clearly expressed in doing so? What is the true objective value of doing good deeds?

Some Christians have responded by leaning entirely towards the social gospel. The effects are immediate, and favour with secular efforts of the same type is easier to come by. Some emphasize only the spiritual, ultimately deciding that nothing temporary can be prioritized: we cannot “save” a life; we can only extend it. Pain can be reduced, but never eliminated. Pleasure can be amplified, but never perfected.

The answer is not in a middle ground that lies halfway between the two, but in a faith that is expressed across the entire spectrum. The Christian does not attempt to earn God’s favour by works, but evidences faith by works. Both humanitarian effort and evangelism are altruistic acts in tandem—an expression of love for others. Evangelism can be criticized as misguided or false, but there is no personal gain to be had, and its altruism cannot be denied [2].

The relationship of humanitarian work with evangelism is twofold. Firstly, those who preach the gospel cannot be believed unless they are accompanied by the raw, tangible compassion that they preach (note James 2:14-17). Secondly, Christians helping others cannot be expected to do so while showing no expression of the faith that has motivated their work. Critics need to understand that the situation is not that of a salesman slipping his advertisements in with a free sandwich. It is one person explaining where he found the food that he is presently sharing with another. There is no secular equivalent. [3]

This is not to say that Christians cannot serve others without thumping them with a Bible–many individuals and organizations make very little show of this, and are even able to get more done by avoiding the controversy that can follow from it.

There is a reason why Christians are able to perform well in this area, and it is not founded entirely upon zeal or adrenaline (though some are decidedly influenced by this). The doing of these works is enabled by faith, as it provides a reason for committing ourselves to the work that our conscience inclines us towards. Our natural desire to help others is coupled with a natural greed, and desire for self gratification. The beliefs we have allow us to give up material wealth; they reduce our tendency to clutch our comforts as tightly as we otherwise might have.

One of my best friends said of his faith that it “allows [him] to do” what he would otherwise feel was right. C.S. Lewis remarked that we might say “what we believe is useful,” perhaps adding under our breath, “If not true.”

After the moment of silence in that meeting at EMI, Craig recounted a story in which women were being auctioned as slaves in a particular country. There were people working with EMI who bought and freed them. He then said that a gospel of atonement resonates much more strongly with someone who knows first hand the experience of having their freedom bought—and that makes a good deal of sense.

To those involved in secular humanitarian efforts, this religious business may induce any number of responses. Some may say that anything goes, so long as the needy are helped. Some may say that religion is as poisonous as the ailments it seeks to cure. I do not claim to know the philosophy behind secular philanthropy, and I imagine it varies widely. But I believe that while our ultimate values may differ, Christians can still work well with atheists, agnostics and people of other faiths to help others in a tangible way.

This is not because we are putting aside our differences to address what we all believe is most important. That may still differ. It is because this value—however we may conceive of it—is a value that we all share.


[1] The nature and existence of said altruism constitutes a separate, future post.

[2] Some people admittedly do get a raw sense of self-satisfaction for being the best preachers and do-gooders. I cannot apologize for these people; they are responsible for their own motivations. It is my personal opinion, however, that this illusion cannot be sustained. A difference in mindset inevitably translates into a difference in behaviour.

There are also objections to con artist evangelists, who rake in obscene sums of money, but these cases have nothing to do with the situations described here, and that topic deserves its own essay.

[3] When you find me the charities that are helping people precisely because of their disbelief in God, I will concede this point. Moreover, I will be quite surprised if they aren’t excitedly explaining it to the people they help.

(Even if there were a charity labeled “Atheists for Orphans,” it would not necessarily be a case of this. Atheism may be a rallying point or commonality, but I’d find it strange if it were the direct cause of the effort.)

Note: The title of this entry is not meant to suggest that the Red Cross has Christian ties (it is secular). I was simply setting up a dichotomy.