I once had a professor who took great pleasure in whining about all the short comings of the Christian Church. “Christianity,” he often complained, “is a very nay-saying religion.” He went to great lengths to illustrate how negative and oppressive the Church has been throughout history. It’s curious, but I can hardly remember him ever saying ‘yea’ to anything.
I believe there is, however, something to be learned from these sorts of people. For some reason, whether it be valid or invalid, a significant portion of the world has accumulated a great abundance of animosity directed toward the Christian Church. Of course, we might find it pleasant to focus primarily on the ungrounded reasons for this hatred, or the fact that Satan hates the Church and so it is most natural for his dominion to hate it too, but I find myself convinced that there is also some truth—and perhaps even more than we’d like to admit—in the accusations others lay on the fallen Body of Christ. I think a particular favourite of secularists today is the ‘self-righteousness’ or ‘holier than thou’ conviction. It seems the modern image of a Christian is that of a highly judgmental and proud individual who finds self-worth in following a set of moral principles, or even a set of mere rules, more closely—as that individual perceives it—than anyone else.
I need hardly mention how this image is the product of an unbelievably scrutinising world, the sort of world that perpetually scours the Church for flaws and inflates them to no end—in short, a ‘nay-saying’ world. As Shakespeare observed, “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar III.ii.74-5). Vice is always more quickly made famous among mankind than virtue. But we must nonetheless consider why the Church suffers from this vice, even if it is not as severe as the world may exaggerate it to be.
The most evident cause I see is the same thing that keeps all the secularists out of the Church in the first place—fear. We Christians often fail to realise from the start that if you don’t store up treasures here on earth, you will end up without any treasures here on earth—it’s that simple. A virtuous scholar who spends his life honestly pursuing the truth rather than outputting bizarre liberalism for the sake of acquiring fame and admiration will most likely end his life without either of those treasures; a mother and father who devote their lives to raising children and loving their family rather than pursuing prestige and fulfilment in the work place or elsewhere will probably never have that fulfilment; and a lonely custodian who does nothing more than clean up and offer an understanding smile to the occasional passerby will probably never acquire anything valuable on this indifferent earth.
Human beings are very attracted to the idea of becoming poor for love’s sake, but they don’t like poverty itself. And so the last temptation of a disciple of Christ is to find fulfilment in ‘religious merit’. Once a man is striped of everything he thought he owned and is left naked with nothing but a Bible in his hand, he begins to clutch that Bible and exhibit a possessiveness over it that has only been intensified by being frustrated. But as he stands there, trembling in the fear that he has just thrown away everything of value that he ever knew, he has arrived at the precise moment when his sacrifice ought to be consummated. After all, he didn’t become poor merely for the sake of being poor, but in order that he might become rich. So he is demanded to let go and realise that even his sacrifice is worth nothing in itself, for only the blood of Jesus can save him—and so indeed he has become poor merely for love’s sake. But for some reason, this is among the most terrifying moments of the human experience. This is when we start to realise that the phantasmagorical Jesus-dream we’ve been chasing for so long better be more real than the very beating of our hearts, for all that we are is resting on it.
In John 21:15-7 Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” The Greek word that he uses the first two times is ἀγαπᾷς, meaning “Do you love me unconditionally?” But Peter responds each time with, “yes, I φιλῶ you”, meaning “yes, I am fond of you”, or “yes, you are a friend to me”. So the third time, Jesus asks “Do you φιλεῖς me?”, meaning “Am I a friend to you?” And then something strange happens. The scriptures say that Peter was upset because Jesus had asked him three times “Do you φιλεῖς me?” But this isn’t what Jesus did; Jesus first asked Peter twice if he loved him without limits—that is, if he loved him enough to give up everything for his sake—but it’s as if Peter never even heard this calling.