Monday, June 15, 2009

"Strong Christians"

"One wants to look for Christ only within oneself and will not be satisfied until one has supposedly found him there. One is always wont to ask only ‘Do you have Christ in your heart? Do you feel how He works in it?’ If the answer is ‘Yes!’ only then is there to be [any] comfort and hope; then one can say that he believes...Woe to him who trusts in that! For doing that is the same as creating a false Christ for oneself and rejecting the Christ who hung on the cross and gives Himself to us in the Gospel. A tree remains a tree, also in winter when it shows no fruit, even no blossoms or leaves, and seems to be completely dead. Likewise a Christian remains a Christian so long as he seizes the merit of Christ by faith in the Gospel, even if in his heart he feels nothing of Christ, in fact nothing but death."[emphasis mine] - C. F. W. Walther


"...and you know me, I'm a very strong Christian!"

Thus closed a friend of mine by way of explaining how surprising it was that he had gone through a period of intensely doubting his faith. Randian objectivism had thrown him for a loop, and (methinks for the first time) he had begun to perceive a degree of dissonance between the totalizing, rationally coherent ideology of economics favored by our school's Economics department, and the Gospel of Christ. Yet where before he had merely ignored the conflict and continued with his mind divided, this time he had actually considered the possibility that the whole of Christianity was, well, bunk. After relating his struggle to me in some detail, he paused, and then added, "and you know me, I'm a very strong Christian!" as though he were conscious of the fact that I was flabbergasted that he had doubted his faith (I wasn't), and unable to comprehend how this could have happened.

I wasn't flabbergasted, because I, too, have doubted my faith before--struggled pitifully, feared hell, wondered if Christian revelation was all a grand hair-brained fabrication. I've read Hume, I've read Nietzche, I've read Hegel, Marx, Spencer, and, more recently Rorty and Dawson. I've questioned, I've stared at the abyss and been tempted by it, for the chasm is in my soul, too, as I am but a man. I've looked at the perfect systems dreamt up by the great ideologues of the post-Enlightenment West, those "systems so perfect, that no one will have to be good" of which Eliot wrote. I have been tempted to slavishly bind myself to logic, over and above the Word of God, Christ, and the testimony of Scripture. Yet Christ's grace has availed, and His Holy Spirit has strengthened me in these intellectual and spiritual struggles. Yet I would never say that I am a strong Christian.

Quite the opposite. I am a weak Christian. Where does my strength lie, or rather, in what way am I strong? I am strong in my sins, strong in my unrighteousness, strong-willed in the service of myself, rather than my Lord. I am a strong sinner, and a weak Christian. Yet Christ is strong. My faith in Christ is a gift, a working of His Holy Spirit in me, for by my own reason and strength, I could not have come to Christ, nor could I continue to come, except He draws me. My faith is not of myself, but is Christ in me.

Christ, the object of our faith, is far greater than our faith. Faith is then a means, not an end. It is the means of our union with Christ. I believe it is known as fideism when one elevates one's own faith to the level of a work, and sets faith above its very object, which is Christ.

We delude ourselves if we think that our ability to triumphantly, happily and assuredly say "Yes! I have Christ in my heart, and I feel him working there!" is the measure of our faith. Such was a very troubling standard of measuring my faith when I was in high school. I didn't feel the feeling, and I was bothered by the constant quest at the different churches my family visited to find ways to generate that feeling. Some churches are more subtle in this quest for "meaningful faith" and don't even know that they are on such a (perpetual) quest. Most who are would certainly not describe it that way. Still and all, such is the substance of so much modern Evangelical church practice. It's as if the goal is to get to a point where you can say, "Well of course, that's obvious! How could anyone think otherwise?" of the Gospel of Christ. After all, when something is obvious, one doesn't need any supernatural assistance to believe it, or even to exercise one's reason discursively until one is convinced: it's just true--"self-evident," you might say--and verified by a burning in the bosom.

But then what do you do when the burning stops? Uh-oh. Wait a second. Maybe you were never actually saved to begin with! Because if you had been--or "gotten", as the saying goes, saved, naught but a river of life would ever flow from your heart, nor would the burning cease. Because once God presses 'play' (whenever He actually does...and this is sometimes difficult to verify) you're just going to cruise from now 'til the rapture. You will then be what is known as a strong Christian. You will essentially operate on your own power. Sweet release!

Wow. How can I get saved? I'd like to be a strong Christian.

But it's impossible. We do not know our own natures or the nature of our strength if we think that our will and our strength is so impervious. Yes...the wills of those who are in Christ are free. Do we know that that freedom is a burden, and should sober us, not send us into fits of glee or make us utter sighs of relief? The freedom to act apart from Christ is quite simply the freedom to wreak one's own destruction. The myth of the strong Christian who proudly, or even matter-of-factly self-identifies as such is problematic, to say the least.

Yes, I'm using a certain operative definition of the term "strong Christian." As unfair as it may seem to do so, I'm quite simply extrapolating what necessary attends the usage of this term among those Christians whose understanding of the life of faith is anti-sacramental, highly personal, anti-creedal, and consciously or unconsciously progressive. I do not wish to villify any and all who make use of the term, as I am aware that one could argue quite oppositely than I have done for a different signification. Regardless, the myth of the "strong Christian" which I have offered my thoughts on here, joins such novelties as the "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" as a more or less innocuous sounding Christian phrase the meaning of which is often more or less heterodox.

To iterate: we are strong sinners, and weak Christians. We are weak Christians because the image of Christ, the new Adam and the perfect Man, is not fully formed in any of us who claim the name of Christian, and we daily work to the tarnishing of that incorruptible image. That is why we must daily remember our baptism and remember that we have put on Christ, that He has put His name on us, and that in Him we are new creations. We must bind ourselves to Christ's Body, the Church, where our faith is strengthened and renewed, where forgiveness is always already there and freely delivered in the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. What a loss it is when the sacraments, the "things of this world" which Christ has ordained for the feeding of our souls as his means of grace, are traded for spiritualist notions of self-sufficiency and "strong Christianity."

St. Paul sums up the matter more beautifully and succinctly than I could ever hope to:

"For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, 'He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.'" - I Corinthians 1:26-31

I pray that we would all be made more willing to trade our autonomous self-acclamations, whether they be "strong Christian" or some other badge, for Christ, who is our strength.


  1. Thanks Trent. I've struggled with similar difficulties in my own faith and reached a conclusion very much like yours. Learning to boast in ones weaknesses is one of the hardest things we are called to do as Christians. Not surprisingly, this is not a message being conveyed by the modern American church.

  2. Wow, someone read this!

    Thanks. This topic takes up an inordinate amount of my thinking. Glad to know that it's on your mind, too.

  3. Hi Trent!

    I just stumbled onto your blog because you're a follower of Lutherans and Procreation.

    This is an excellent post. I tried to convey a similar point in Bible study earlier this summer when a fellow parishioner made a comment about some people having a "stronger faith" than others. I probably wouldn't have had to raise my hand if Pastor James hadn't been out of town that Sunday. ;-) Dan and Rosie could tell you more about the episode, as they joined in as well.

  4. Wow Trent! This is Ben Haymond, I am following your blog now and have just finished making one myself.
    This is a beautiful personal and humble entry. I believe that consistently taking an inventory of one's faith (as you do so wonderfully here) is an essential part of following Jesus Christ. We must "watch and pray lest we enter into temptation," all of us can and will fall unless we take care and "work out our salvation with fear and trembling." The initial fire of conversion is a springboard to a disciple's life as romance is a springboard to marriage.
    I have thought along similair veins and it was great to read your thoughts.