I’ve been reading Philippians, having some thoughts… Why follow Christ? Why not any other religion that helps you be a better person? Well, I can’t speak for other religions. I don’t know enough about them. Maybe if I was born and raised in another culture, I’d have a different outlook and different answers. I’m not sure. Maybe someone of another faith can read this and give me some insight into how their world view differs (if it does). And, yes, I already know what the standard Christian answer is: because Christians believe that Jesus was God and that he walked on earth, that Christians don’t have to earn salvation, but it is a free gift. Maybe these are novelties. I honestly don’t know enough about world religions to make that claim. I would hope that if I didn’t know Christ in name, I could still live in the freedom that Christ has given me. What is this freedom? What is it grounded in? I know I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I have the passion and exuberance of Paul in pressing toward the goal. Do I see that freedom in other Christians? Sometimes, not usually, not often. Do I judge them? No. I’m really not sure what others see in me. I know how I feel: empowered. Jesus gives me truth and love, at the same time, and that’s a very powerful mixture. I conjecture that you can only really be given and receive both of those things in unity.
Yet, I’ve been a “Christian” all my life, and I only recently found the freedom of which I speak. Previously, I found myself lost, confused, frustrated, angry. The freedom was there at times, but fleeting. I was trying so hard and continuously failing, in my own eyes. I was hard on myself. I was giving myself a lot of truth (or so I thought) and not much love. I’ve looked at it from a psychological perspective and questioned, “How do people really change?” I think it starts with non-judgmental self-awareness. Isn’t that just another way of saying truth in love?
The God of this universe loves me and knows me personally. His spirit lives within me, his holy temple. He searches my heart. I can open up to him, and he accepts me completely. But knowledge is not enough… the real question is how we act on that knowledge.
And this is the a missing piece of this puzzle that I’m trying to find a way to fit in. Christians can clearly differ on how to apply that knowledge. A huge part of the freedom I recently found started when I began to (1) view my faith as a journey, a spiritual practice, and daily walk, one in which I may stumble at times, but the point is to stay on track and keep trying. Just because I’m “born-again” doesn’t mean I automatically have all the fruits of the spirit all the time. These are attributes I have to practice and work at on a daily basis. And when I mess up, I show myself compassion–I don’t judge myself harshly, doubt my salvation, or punish myself. I consider how I can take better care of myself in order to have the strength and resilience to keep making those good choices. And (2) I started loving and caring for myself, practicing self-care and self-love as the foundation for my ability to love others. Jesus sums up all the law in loving God and loving others, right? Well, we can’t do that effectively if we don’t love ourselves. A lot of Christians want to call self-love ungodly. And maybe that’s the piece I’m trying to make sense of. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “…in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This is the concept that has lead to some dangerous decisions in my life. I wonder if Paul knew his words could be used to abuse and control others. Although, he did also tell all of them to be of the same mind and in unity. Maybe in that communal context it could be safe to always put others about yourself… ? Yet, sometimes loving others means doing things that they might not like or might not even perceive as loving in the moment. Love is hard work! Maybe that’s why Paul writes, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent” (Phil 1:9-10). I like it better in the Message: “So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.”
God loves me. I’m valuable. I’m worthy. I’m worth drawing healthy boundaries with people, saying no when I need to, taking care of myself first so that I can have the strength to care for others. When I’m not feeling very loving, I use it as an opportunity to examine myself and see why I am feeling empty: am I tired? hungry? over-extended? lonely? overwhelmed? anxious? unprepared? What can I do to address these underlying issues? Usually, it involves realigning my life with my priorities in mind: connection to God, to myself, and to others (friends, family, community, and humanity). Why did I miss this concept for so many years of “practicing” the Christian faith? I suppose because this concept came to me from outside of the Church and the Bible, and I had to embrace it and make sense of it through the lens of my faith. I suppose a lot of people struggle with pride and selfishness. I struggled with giving too much (yet, the underlying motives were probably selfish and an attempt to control others while avoiding true vulnerability–see it’s very complicated, this spiritual journey thing). Giving too much can be as detrimental as giving too little. God looks at the heart anyway; that’s all that really matters. Lastly, I began to understand and embrace that (3) my faith is not a checklist, but a relationship. So I don’t judge others (or myself) by holding them to some “Christian” checklist that my culture or environment has dictated to me. Vulnerability (not appearances) is the essential element to any deep, connected relationship.
I’ll end with a quote from Philippians (from the Message) which seems to sum up my perspective well for me:
“I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”
And as far as why Christianity is different. That’s something I still haven’t figured out, and I’m not sure if I really need to. I know why I’m different. That’s a start.