People sometimes make a number of assumptions about what is 'on offer' when I talk about the Christian faith, so I thought it might be a good idea to try and spell out what doesn't happen when you become a Christian.
Here are some of the things you should not expect to find if you start to follow Jesus.
|All the answers|
|All your problems solved|
People often make the assumption that I am claiming to have 'all the answers'. I'm not claiming it, because I don't. I don't know any Christian who has all the answers. And while you might find one or two who think they have all the answers, you can safely ignore them: you get people like that in any group of any size.
Nor am I claiming that you will find all the answers in the Christian faith, if you somehow look deeply enough. Life isn't like that.
Actually, finding answers to the big questions is not difficult. Any bookshop can sell you hundreds of books that will tell you the answers. The difficulty is not in finding answers - the difficulty is in judging between the many different answers on offer. You have to decide who you can trust, and what is the most appropriate method for judging betwen different answers.
I don't think that you will ever find, not even in Heaven, a book listing all the answers to all the important questions. The real challenge, as Douglas Adams pointed out so well, is to fully understand the questions for which you are seeking the answers. I suspect that there is no answer to many of the questions we ask, because we are making some wrong assumptions when we ask the question. A trivial example of this is the classic: have you stopped beating your wife yet? The question has no answer (for me, at least!) because the starting point is an invalid assumption.
Even when we get the right starting point and start to ask the right questions, we find that every answer we get raises even more questions. As in every area of life: the more we discover, the more we discover that we don't know.
I am convinced that Jesus, amongst other things, is the truth. Whatever answers exist, they can somehow be found in Him. But this does not mean that we are capable of finding all those answers - not in this life, at least. The good news is that we will have all of eternity in which to keep learning and discovering and exploring.
I don't have a set of glib answers to the deepest questions of life. What I have instead is a guide and a framework.
Firstly, I have a guide: a God Who wants me to grow and learn and develop and become fully myself, expressing all the potential he has placed within me. He is on my side in the deepest possible way.
Secondly, I have a framework to help me distinguish between true and false answers, and between helpful and unhelpful answers. Most of the articles on this web site can be seen as a way of seeking to understand, explore and use this framework. As a starting point, it seems to me that there are at least four vital elements: the person of Jesus, the leading of the Holy Spirit, the Christian community, and the Bible. There are probably more, but that will do for a start.
When you think about it, whether or not you 'have' the answers probably doesn't matter an awful lot. What matters far more is whether you live the answers you have. If you live it, you will probably learn more; if you don't live it, then it really doesn't matter whether you have the answers or not. That is why the majority of articles on this web site go under the heading of 'Pastoral Theology' - the only theology which matters is theology which affects the way I live.
You could put it this way: I don't have all the answers, but I am learning how to let the answers have me.
I know this sounds like an obvious point, but when you become a Christian, you don't immediately become perfect. In fact, you don't eventually become perfect, either.
Similarly, there is nothing to say that any individual Christian will be living a better life than any individual who is not a Christian.
The odd thing is that I hear these ideas being thrown at Christians on a regular basis. People, when they want to attack our beliefs, will often say things like "You claim to be perfect" or "You claim to be better than me" and then go on to show why the person concerned is not better than them. But I have never made such claims, and to the best of my recollection, I have never heard any Christian making such claims.
Well... if you must know... once or twice, for the sake of an argument, I may have claimed to be a better person than Adolf Hitler. I hope that comparison is not too controversial. But, with that possible minor exception in mind, I am reasonably confident that I have never claimed to be a better person than anyone else: I am too aware of my own weaknesses and failings for that to be worth trying.
What I can claim is that I am a better person than I would otherwise be because I am a Christian, and this should also hold true for other Christians.
The other odd thing is that, in these arguments, the people who are trying to attack the Christian faith often agree with this last point: they generally accept that Christians are, for the most part, better people because of their faith. But they then go on to claim that it is only because of fear.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been told by someone outside the faith what my motivation is for living like a Christian. As if they somehow know! What on earth leads someone to believe they know my motives - me, a complete stranger to them - better than I know them myself?
In any case, the message is always the same, and always completely wrong: they are quite certain that I am only a good person because I am afraid of being punished.
This is very strange, because the core of the Christian message is that God doesn't want to punish us: He wants to forgive us instead. That's that this thing called 'grace' is all about. I don't need to be good in order to avoid being punished, since He has already said I am completely forgiven for everything I have done, or ever will do. This is why the gospel message is described as 'good news'!
They often follow this up with another strange idea. The writer generally suggests that he (and it is usually a 'he') is a better person than I am because he manages to be good without the threat of punishment hanging over his head, while I am only good because my beliefs frighten me into behaving.
I don't have space here to go into a full response to that last point. Obviously, the premise is mistaken. Also, the logic of the argument seems to be that you are morally superior for behaving in a moral way without a motive for such behaviour. But do we do anything without a motive? Why would we perform such an action?
They believe themselves to be acting morally with only the desire to act morally as their motive. But why does acting morally motivate them? And how much does it motivate them? Clearly, since they never claim to be faultless, it does not motivate them sufficiently in all circumstances. And why do they consider some forms of motivation to be morally superior to others? They are never able to answer such questions.
In short, the Christians who are criticised for claiming to be morally superior to the rest of the world are rarely (if ever) guilty of making such a claim, while those who make this criticism of them frequently do claim to be morally superior to Christians. It's a strange world!
A few enthusiastic evangelists sometimes make it sound like all you have to do is to become a Christian, and all your problems will be solved.
To be fair, if you listen carefully to what is being said, I have never heard anyone making such a claim. But, unfortunately, it is the case that sometimes people are given this impression.
If you listen to Christians talking about this topic, the usual reaction is along the lines of: "All your problems solved! Ha! You get far more problems, more like!" But this is also not entirely fair.
The truth is pretty much what you would expect, when you think about it. Many problems are not significantly changed when you become a Christian (but see the 'but' later...), some problems are solved or reduced, and some problems are introduced or made worse.
For me, and for most Christians with whom I have talked about this, many of the deepest and most difficult problems we used to struggle with no longer trouble us - certainly not as much, or as often - problems such as struggles concerning self-worth, concerns about the value of what I do, worries about my purpose in life, and doubts about my value as a human being. All the big questions. They may not be completely answered, but they are no longer problems to be agonised over.
We pick up a few new problems to replace them - often not really new problems, but newly-recognised. I want to love the people around me, but I am now much more aware that I may not have a perfect understanding of what is the most loving thing to do for each individual any any one time.
I am less certain that I already know the answers, or that I know what is best for everyone I meet, which changes the dynamic of almost every piece of social interaction. When people tell me about their problems, I am much more likely now to ask questions than to suggest immediate answers.
And, every now and then, a completely new problem crops up. I ran into real difficulties at work a few years ago when an unimportant training course (out of work hours!) clashed with an important church weekend event. Missing the training was not an issue for the people with 'personal' or 'family' reasons, but for some reason my decision to prioritise a church event was not acceptable to my boss. We worked though it in the end, and despite his threats, it did not jeopardise my career. But it was not the first time, and certainly was not the last, when my faith or church commitment has resulted in conflict or difficulty that had absolutely no rational basis. It happens, but we handle it.
It is true that many problems are not changed when you become a Christian. But - and this is the 'but' I promised a few paragraphs ago - if you look at it another way, the problems are completely changed.
If you have a difficult colleague at work, or a teacher who constantly picks on you at school, things are unlikely to get magically better when you start to follow Jesus. If they dislike Christians, it may even get worse. If you are in debt, this does not immediately disappear; if you are overworked, this is not solved; and while God does still heal sick bodies - and does it surprisingly often - there are still many examples of good Christians suffering from all kinds of sickness.
But - and this is important - while the problems themselves may be unchanged, your attitude to the problem is not. Just knowing that God is on your side can transform how you feel about a problem, and your ability to cope with it. And that is before you start to consider the ways in which God works to build and strengthen you on the inside.
A related issue sometimes causes problems years after people have become Christians. It is hardly ever expressed in this way, but many people have a sort of contract in their minds: they will worship and serve God, but they want things in return.
Primarily, they want God to 'look after' them and their loved ones. They don't expect perfect health and to win the lottery, but they do have a clear idea of what they don't expect to happen.
I get the impression that this is often not articulated or even thought about by the people concerned - not until something happens: they are made redundant or get cancer, and they feel betrayed. This should not happen to me. I'm a Christian! Why doesn't God do something?
Folk who are considering the Christian faith need to be very clear from the start: it doesn't work like that. Go to any church, and you will find people struggling with all the common problems shared by the members of that society. Read the Bible: it is full of people who served God but had a tough time. There is a whole book in the Bible - Job - devoted to one of these stories.
God does not promise to keep us safe from problems, but He does promise to remain with us, to give us the strength to go through them. Almost everyone knows Psalm 23: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me..." As the Psalm says: He does not keep us out of the valley, but He does walk with us through it.