It’s dangerous living in a glorious city.
Our eyes adjust to the blinding light.
What once was grand or bright or pretty
Can dim in our familiar sight.
Many Christians are like Samuel; they grew up in the house of God. Or, if they didn’t, they’ve at least lived there for a while. That has its blessings and its difficulties, especially when it comes to defending the faith. When I was young, I thought people didn’t believe in God because they hadn’t heard the right arguments. Later I thought they didn’t believe because someone had misrepresented the faith to them. Both of those reasons still hold for some people (though in the former case I’m convinced disbelief is at root always a heart issue). But more of my time is now spent thinking of how people don’t believe in God because they don’t see the relevance of God. They’ve imbibed the cultural idea that belief in God is, in the end, superstitious. As Christopher Watkin put it in Biblical Critical Theory, they believe “there are no immediate existential stakes to belief, apart perhaps from having one’s curiosity satisfied that there is, after all, ‘something out there,’ and availing oneself of a psychological crutch. There is no reliance, no risk, no trust required.” This is a very different problem from intellectual doubt.
Where did this problem come from? Is it a perennial one? That’s hard to say, but it seems safe to assume it’s a problem emerging in our time because many practicing Christians have become too familiar with their faith. Others have left the faith behind, claiming to have “seen the light.” In both cases, familiarity can diminish gratitude and joy; it can also be a breeding ground for skepticism. The once grand gift of faith loses its luster. In familiar hands, the great pearl of the gospel can look like a dull ball of wax. And no one puts a dull ball of wax on a necklace, carrying it close to the heart. Wax is only good for burning in the flame of something else. And so faith gets sacrificed for lesser loves. Or, if it doesn’t, it at least loses luminescence in a darkened world.
Wax is only good for burning in the flame of something else. And so faith gets sacrificed for lesser loves.
Put differently, when you live inside the walls of a city that promises to be a light for the whole world, the pupils of your soul can adjust to that light in a harmful way, turning what once was brilliant and radical into something dim and nominal. Hence the poem at the start of the article. It’s dangerous living in a glorious city. What was pervasively precious can be shouldered to the sideline. And that’s precisely where things become irrelevant—on the fringes. Centrality is the only place where relevance can build a home.
In what follows, I want to address this relevance issue and its apologetic implications, and call anyone who professes to believe in Christ into a rediscovery of just how mind-bending and earth-rattling Spirit-given faith can be.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD?
Let’s start with the basic apologetic question: Do you believe in God? There’s a lot living beneath that question.
First, what does it mean to believe? Contrary to popular assumption, belief does not mean only agreement, what’s often called assent. Belief, at heart, is a response. As J. H. Bavinck wrote,
It is possible to believe that religion by its very nature is a response. It is not just a human characteristic, properly part of our equipment. In his religion man feels that he is addressed by a supernatural power, that a god reveals and manifests himself to him. Religion is the human answer to divine, or at least allegedly divine, revelation. This response includes a variety of acts and attitudes. It means faith, surrender, prayer; it implies a feeling of guilt and a craving for salvation; it manifests itself in service and obedience. Religion is never a soliloquy, a dialogue of a man with himself.
We respond in belief, in a dialogue with the divine, and that includes much more than agreement with ideas presented to us. In the context of Christian belief, it means surrender, prayer, faith-led action, renewed thinking, grace-tempered speech (Eph. 4:29), and much more. Christian belief is a holistic response to the conversing God. It’s not, as I’ve written elsewhere, a mere acceptance of information.
Christian belief is a holistic response to the conversing God.
Second, we have to ask ourselves, what sort of God do we believe in? K. Scott Oliphint recalls a story of an evangelist who would say, “Tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. It may very well be that I don’t believe in that God either!” We have to know what sort of God we’re claiming to believe in. The short answer for the Christian faith is this: the trinitarian God who speaks.
Speech isn’t just something the biblical God does; it’s something he is. God is the Father eternally speaking the Word (John 1:1) in the hearing of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). Christians profess faith in the speaking Trinity.
This is critical because it informs and shapes how God relates to us and how we relate to him. In the context of what we might call divine persuasion (God moving us to believe in him), Oliphint writes, “Language is a powerful, perhaps the most powerful, means of connection that the Lord has made. If we recognize that persuasion includes a connection between two (or more) people, speech is the initial, powerful ‘bridge’ that God used and uses to connect Himself to us, and to connect us to each other.” Speech is at the heart of who God is, and it’s at the heart of our belief in him. This is powerfully, deeply personal.
Think about it for a moment, and it’ll make your brain explode. The Father, Son, and Spirit who created and control every square inch of dark matter, every photon of light emanating from ten billion burning stars, every water molecule drifting in the clouds above your head, every muscle movement in eight billion human index fingers—this God has spoken . . . to you. That’s the majesty of simply being a human. All of life is richly, extensively personal. That’s why Cornelius Van Til could say that
The foundation of all personal activity among men must be based upon the personality of one ultimate person; namely, the person of God, if only it be understood that this ultimate personality of God is a triune personality. Within the Trinity there is completely personal relationship without residue. For that reason it may be said that man’s actions are all personal too. Man’s surroundings are shot through with personality because all things are related to the infinitely personal God.
“Shot through with personality”—perhaps one of his best phrases. And there’s no impersonal residue in the personal God. So, the world he’s created to reflect his glory is abundantly personal. That’s the world you and I live in. We’re always addressed by divine persons in God’s deeply personal world.
We’re always addressed by divine persons in God’s deeply personal world.
Put differently, there’s an ongoing I-thou relationship between God and humanity. In J. H. Bavinck’s words, God is
the divine I, the Creator, the Originator, the King, the Father, and we are the created ones, those who are being addressed. He speaks of Himself as I or Me. He calls us thou. The whole Bible depicts the relation between Him and us in this fashion. Right to the last page, He is presented as the calling, saving God and we as the saved ones, the children.
This is the God of Christianity: the talking Trinity, the one who speaks to his children.
And here’s the point when it comes to belief in him: it won’t happen apart from an encounter with the person of the Holy Spirit, through the Word (Scripture). As Oliphint put it, God is the divine persuader and the divine apologist.
That’s worth pausing at. We have this misconception that we are the ones clawing our way through the thickets of doubt, trying to grip belief with white-knuckled tenacity. And it’s all up to us to arrive at the open, light-bathed fields of faith. If we’re struggling, we must need another argument, another piece of evidence, another happy coincidence to suggest that maybe there is a God after all. That’s false.
The one who brings us to belief is not our striving self but the giving God, the divine speaker. You are going to be spoken into faith by the Holy Ghost. We miss this, I think, because we’ve memorized that the call to Christian salvation is belief in the saving work of Jesus Christ. That’s true, but when can that belief happen? Only “in the Spirit.” The Apostle Paul wrote, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Belief, like salvation, is a gift, offered in the same spirit as what Watkin calls “the gratuity of the universe.” We did nothing to earn creation, and we do nothing to earn salvation; they are gifts. And gifts can’t be taken; they can only be received. That’s not to say we’re completely passive, but we fool ourselves when we assume that believing in God is “all on us.” Apart from a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit himself, you and I would never believe. And that’s because “our triune God is, and has been from the beginning, a God of glorious persuasion, from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit.”
The one who brings us to belief is not our striving self but the giving God, the divine speaker. You are going to be spoken into faith by the Holy Ghost.
Now that we know what it means to believe in God (holistic response driven by the Spirit) and what sort of God Christians believe in (the speaking Trinity), we can address the relevance question. Why does faith in this God matter? Put negatively, what sorts of things are Christians doing that suggest it doesn’t? We’ll approach it in three parts, based on what seem to be the most common critiques from relevance: authenticity, hypocrisy, and practicality. In other words, many people disbelieve in Christianity because self-proclaimed Christians are inauthentic, hypocritical, or live in a way that suggests faith in God has no practical benefit. Each of these is tied, I believe, to Christians being too familiar with their faith and failing to see how much it’s meant to shape their ordinary moments.
Being authentic means you’re a coin with the same impression on both sides. Who are you when everyone is watching? Who are you when no one is watching? The answer to those two questions must be the same. When it isn’t, people justly critique you for being inauthentic. If you profess faith in a God who graciously speaks and gives himself (John 3:16) not simply to those who already like him, but to those who hate him (Rom. 5:8–10), you have an obligation to do the same if you want to be authentic. That means people will judge your character not based on how you treat your friends but on how you treat your enemies. Jesus was clear on this (Matt. 5:44). But in our time, “enemy” is a category that stretches to include someone who disagrees with you. How do you respond to disagreement? With anger? Impatience? Self-righteous judgment? Bitterness? Or do you respond with patient listening and sympathy, sacrificing your own desire to defend your integrity for the sake of listening to someone else? And do you respond this way in public and in private? That’s where authenticity lives: the matching of seen and unseen.
When it comes to belief in God, people sniff out a lack of authenticity like sharks smell blood in the water. They know.
How does authenticity influence the relevance of our belief in God? No one wants to believe in a veneer. Veneer is thin and brittle, covering something of much lesser value underneath. And when it comes to belief in God, people sniff out a lack of authenticity like sharks smell blood in the water. They know. And they judge you for it. Who could blame them? The Christian faith is for those who believe in a God who sees and works in secret (Matt. 6:4, 17–18). If we’re one way in public and another in private, we testify openly that we’re false, two-sided, a coin with different impressions depending on what light strikes us in the moment. Nearly all “scandals” in the church result from a lack of authenticity.
Having said that, inauthenticity isn’t an excuse for not believing in God. The corrupt practice of something says nothing about the thing itself. If someone is poor at rock climbing, that doesn’t mean rock climbing is poor. So, while inauthenticity pushes people away from belief in the Christian God, it isn’t “a good reason” not to believe. It’s just a good reason to judge people who should know better.
But, lest we be quick to judge, let’s remember the God of Christianity wasn’t a spendthrift with forgiveness; he was prodigal. And he didn’t forgive a few thousand people who occasionally drop the ball. He forgave hosts, legions, and multitudes for things too foul to name in print. He didn’t help us out when we were trying to be our best; he resuscitated dead people when we were at our worst—spiritual zombies in a raging rebellion. Even his most loyal believers are going to keep needing forgiveness and restoration. And we should be ready to give it.
Inauthenticity is often an issue of consistency, which may not be entirely willful. I can be inauthentic without forethought. For example, I can write about the importance of listening, meet someone for breakfast, and do a horrible job at it. In fact, this happened recently. I didn’t plan it; it just stumbled out of me, even though I’m fully responsible for it. The difference with hypocrisy is that it’s willful, intentional inconsistency. And it all centers on the simple question, “What do you want most?”
This is why Jesus critiques the religious elites of his own day. The priests and scribes and teachers of the Jewish law were supposed to want a faithful, humble, gracious relationship with God above all else. But their actions showed they actually wanted control of the people, along with high praise and respect. This was the spearhead of his rebuke in Matthew 23:1–12.
Hypocrites intentionally act as if they want one thing when they really want another. Christians are as guilty of this today as the Pharisees were in Jesus’s day. There are still some circles (though they’re ever diminishing) where being a Christian is a matter of pride, a claim to moral high ground or ethical integrity. There are even places where being a Christian offers a financial benefit. And we all know proclaiming Christian faith can be a way of appeasing guilt for doing behind closed doors what we know is wrong. In all cases, a proclamation of Christian faith is fronted as most important, when we know something else has preeminence—whether it’s possessions or money or fame or entertainment or lust. God will not share the throne of a human heart. Only one can be first and highest.
God will not share the throne of a human heart. Only one can be first and highest.
How does hypocrisy influence the relevance of our belief in God? When other people look at us and notice the hypocrisy, they draw a conclusion: this whole belief-in-God thing is just a mask, a tool used to get what someone really wants. That’s the corruption of religion we see broadcasted in nearly every display of Christian faith in public media and popular entertainment. The assumption is always, “Look at this joker. He’s using belief in God just to get what he really wants—money, power, sex. Christians are ridiculous.” Hypocrisy takes something sacred and covers it in the grime of lesser loves. It’s repulsive.
Yet, the same critique of authenticity as an excuse for not believing applies here. A hypocrite makes a fool of himself on a public stage. But what he stands on is always entirely different from what he makes it out to be. Christian faith isn’t a tool we can use to get something else; it’s a potter’s wheel. We spin on top of it, shaped by invisible hands. Old longings are excised from our softened substance. New ones are pushed into our core. We don’t shape Christianity to get what we want; Christianity shapes us to offer the world what God wants: a restoration of loving faithfulness in the person of his Son, driven by the person of the Spirit. Hypocrites are rightly judged, but the corruption of something is not the thing itself. The true relevance of Christian faith lives in our ongoing attempt to live consistently for the one thing that matters above all else: a deeply personal and transformative relationship with God.
Authenticity deals with consistency. Hypocrisy deals with willful deceit. But practicality is where many people struggle with Christian faith. “Sure,” they say, “You’re a Christian, but what difference does that make when you do your laundry or shop for groceries or go for a run? Isn’t that all the same? Aren’t we just talking about ideas here?” This echoes the sentiment of Watkin's words from the introduction: there seem to be “no immediate existential stakes to belief.”
These critics make a good point. If we profess to believe in God but then live exactly like everyone else, was there any meaning to the profession in the first place? This is precisely where it’s dangerous to think of the gospel—the good news of the Christian faith—as information or a set of ideas. If Christianity is information we imbibe, then it’s useless: a gathering of pleasant thought-clouds in the sky of experience. But if Christianity is a person we embrace, that should change everything—motives, purposes, routines, interactions, activities. All of life should be colored by faith because all of life is now lived with someone else. Life together (with God in faith) should not resemble life alone (apart from faith).
If Christianity is a person we embrace, that should change everything—motives, purposes, routines, interactions, activities.
But what does life together with God look like, exactly? I wrote Finding God in the Ordinary as an exercise in working this out. What difference does belief in God make when I stare at shadows from a willow tree, when I feel the sun on my face, when I drink coffee, when I hear my children speak? The difference it makes is that we see God through everything we encounter. God doesn’t just give meaning and purpose to our lives in a broader sense; he reveals himself to us and “speaks” to us through everything, in the particulars. We’ve heard the expression, “The devil is in the details.” I say divinity is in the details. In the smallest, seemingly ordinary moments of the day, God is there, saying something about himself. That’s the brilliance of a liturgy such as Every Moment Holy. It turns window washing into an act of worship and prayer:
Meet us now, O Lord,
in the washing of windows.
Your children are the windows
through which the world sees you best.
Ever cleanse and sanctify us therefore,
not that we might be noticed for our virtues,
but that your light through us might
be ever more clearly witnessed,
your radiance and your beauty
unclouded by our sin.
This is where we circle back to our beginning. The sort of God that Christians believe in is a speaking God. But his voice isn’t audible. We do have his voice recorded for us in Scripture, and that should be our primary home for communicating with him (reading and responding in prayer). But God also speaks through the things that he’s made (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1–4). We embrace the God we can’t see by staring through the things we can see. In John Murray’s words, “the visible creation as God’s handiwork makes manifest the invisible perfections of God as its Creator.” God reveals himself, he speaks to us, through the things he’s made. We gain access to the invisible God through the visible work of his hands.
We embrace the God we can’t see by staring through the things we can see.
In sum, practicality means being intentional about how God is speaking to you in everything. Divinity is in the details. But if we put no effort into this, it’s no wonder skeptics look at Christian faith as irrelevant. If faith doesn’t make a difference to how we think, how we speak, how we act, what we observe in the world and how we respond to it, then why would it be attractive to anyone else? In the worst case, people who practice this sort of faith are nominal Christians, that is, Christians in name only. There’s no shortage of them in the world, which is a real tragedy.
Practicality has the most obvious influence on the question of relevance. If Christian faith is flaunted as an attractive set of ideas, with no tangible means of working those ideas into life transformation, it should be left behind. That sort of faith is not real, not genuine, not sincere. The trouble is that many people treat their faith in this way because they compartmentalize it. They speak about God and the importance of faith on Sundays, or during a crisis. But in daily life, their faith might as well be absent. They are indistinguishable in practice from an atheist or an agnostic or a materialist. If we want to change this, we have to find God in the ordinary moments and show how belief in him really does change how we do the everyday mundane, not the occasional majestic.
The relevance of Christian faith is simply showing how it matters. Real Christian faith calls us to be authentic, honest, tangible believers in the God who speaks. At the risk of sounding cynical, if you showed me ten Christians and asked me how many of them lived like this, I would say . . . maybe two. Two in ten. That’s based purely on my own experience, of course. But still, those aren’t encouraging numbers. They suggest how rare it is to find authentic Christian faith. And perhaps this suggests why so many people are critical of Christianity in our time.
Many Christians such as myself who grew up in the church are in danger of living like one of those eight who don’t really believe. For those who have been raised in or around the church, or who have spent years inside its walls, the brightness of faith can dim with routine. The once glorious city of God’s people can fade with familiarity. We can forget just how amazing God is—what he’s like, what he’s done for us, how he continues to speak to us. And if we forget that, it won’t go unnoticed. People are watching, some even waiting for an opportunity to claim that faith in the Christian God is a sham.
Our task, if we’re true believers, is to beg the Spirit to have the speech of God permeate our thoughts, flavor our words, and temper our actions. On the whole, that can be intimidating. But the God who speaks is also the God who persuades. He’ll work with anything. And it starts with one small decision at a time: one act of listening, one act of Christlike service, one sacrifice of the ego, one bold stand on a biblical issue. One decision can show the relevance of our faith, even amidst the thousands of decisions where we fail.
God help us . . . as he’s promised to. Christianity will stand or fall with its relevance.
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