“Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion — it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ.” (Billy Graham)
A lot of Christians seem to be confused about the goal of life for a person who has signed up to follow Jesus. Should we be trying to change people by convincing them that their perspective is wrong and ours is right? Should we be trying to legislate morality for others with whom we disagree? Is our primary purpose to get others to agree with us either by reason, by rhetoric, or by force?
What is the purpose of life for a Christ-follower?
Various writers, speakers, theologians, and churches have attempted to answer this question. They’ve talked about the upward, inward, and outward focus of Christianity. They’ve talked about growing in intimacy with God, community with other Christians, and influence with those outside of the Christian faith. They’ve used five Gs or five Ms or different shapes and colors.
It seems to me that they all point to the same thing: Love God and Love People.
That’s the goal. If you are a Christian, your main objective, your raison d’être, is to learn how to better appreciate, appropriate, and reciprocate love — to be a better lover of God and others. That’s why you’re here. Otherwise, God could have “saved” you and then killed you immediately. He left you here on earth for a purpose, and your purpose is love.
Now, if that’s true then there ought to be a particularly Christian way of reading and watching and listening. When a Christian reads the Bible or, say, a blog like this one, when he or she listens to a sermon on a Sunday morning, or a speech to the United Nations made by the Pope (or some other international leader), when we watch television shows and movies and Presidential debates, when we have conversations with others — how does our main objective affect the way we do these things?
We read and listen and watch not just because we’ve become like Jesus and are behaving like he did; we do these things in order to become like him.
We don’t just do these things to learn more about him — although that is important. We don’t do these things to check the box and make ourselves look spiritually mature. We read our Bibles and devotional materials, we listen to sermons and speeches and music in order to become more like Jesus. In other words, all of these things are a means to an end. The end is Christlikeness.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But it’s not just Christian materials or things found in your local Christian knick-knack and bookstore that help make us more like Jesus. In fact, I could say that some of what you’ll find there might actually be counterproductive if you’re not careful.
It is also possible for you to read the newspaper, watch CNN, go to the movies, and listen to talk radio in a way that helps you become more like Jesus.
Certainly, there are times when we just want to check out, put our brains in park and watch Bugs Bunny thwart the best efforts of Elmer Fudd. Sometimes mindless spectacle is just what the doctor ordered.
But there are important books to be read and important movies to watch. There are funny jokes to be told, but there are also important conversations to be had.
But there is a way to read, a way to watch, and a way to listen that must be unique to those who have signed up to follow and become transformed from within into the likeness of Jesus.
Years ago, a church I served gave away 300 Bibles. People signed up to read three chapters a day to get through the whole Bible in a year. They even created a website to help folks. As far as I know it lasted all of three months.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a good idea to read the Bible on a regular basis. But it can be a hindrance to our spiritual formation if we read the Bible the wrong way. Honestly, some of the meanest people I’ve ever met in my life know a lot of Bible verses and have read the Good Book cover-to-cover. Certainly, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were familiar with the Scriptures, but they had little love for God and even less love for people. They engaged in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting, but they didn’t do them to bring glory to God. They were interested in bringing glory to themselves.
People who want to bring glory to themselves are rarely interested in changing their minds or their behavior.
As we read our Bibles, we must keep our goal in mind. The goal is never to simply get through our daily allotted portion and check the box; the goal has to be bigger and deeper than that. Remember, we’ve said that the goal of life for Christians is to become progressively more and more like Jesus. The most substantial and practical byproduct of that Jesus-like lifestyle is that we’ll find ourselves growing in our ability to love and be loved by God and others.
That’s the goal of life for Christians, and that should be the goal for our Bible reading as well. And our movie watching. And our conversations.
If godliness or Christlikeness is our goal, then we’ll read the Bible in a particular way. We’ll read it with our eyes open, scouting for clues as to what he is like. We’ll conclude our reading by asking ourselves, “What does this portion teach me about the character and nature of God.”
Then, as we attempt to apply the passage to our lives, we’ll ask, “How does this portion help me grow in my ability to love and be loved by God and others?”
This approach to a daily Bible reading differs tremendously from approaches I’ve tried before. And I wonder what might happen if a whole church chose to read through the Bible together for a year with this lens in place.
Now, what if we did more than just read the Bible this way? What if we read other materials this way? What if you read this blog that way? What if you read John Piper or Rob Bell that way?
What if our first question had nothing to do with whether we think the author is right or wrong or agrees with me or not? What if it had everything to do with finding an aspect of God’s character to become enthralled with, and with learning to love and be loved by God and others to a greater degree – even when that lesson comes from an author we don’t much care for?
I’m not saying we have to mindlessly accept and agree with everything we read, and God knows we need discernment. There’s a time to take a stand for orthodoxy, and there’s a time to confront heresy. But I’m concerned that we all too often approach reading material looking for error. We practice what we could call a hermeneutic of suspicion. Like we’re God’s appointed theological spell-check program, we read things to either confirm what we already believe or to gain ammunition in some sort of war of words.
At least I know I’ve been guilty of that.
But can that be considered “reading Christianly”? That answer is pretty obviously “no.”
Being a Christian comes down to glorifying God by becoming progressively more and more like him – particularly in our ability to love and be loved by God and others. If that’s so, then just about anything I read should be read with that end in mind – whether it is the Bible or any kind of spiritually formative material. I should always read with my eyes open to learn more about God’s character and nature, and I should always ask myself how the material I’ve just read can assist me in my efforts to grow in love.
Everything I just said about reading applies to listening as well — especially listening to sermons.
As a guy who speaks in just about every kind of church you can imagine, I cannot tell you how many people seem to listen at me rather than listening to (or even with) me. They sit there, arms folded, listening for error or listening to make sure I touch all the appropriate bases. They listen to sermons the way an umpire watches a baseball game. They don’t listen for personal transformation. They don’t listen to grow.
These are the people who always want clarification on some fine point of something I said in passing that wasn’t even the point I was trying to make. These are the people who want to know what version of the Bible I was reading from and why. These are the people who want to know where I went to seminary. These are also the people who wish their brother-in-law had heard the message. They want to get a copy of the CD for someone at work, because it was just the sort of message someone else needed to hear.
These people never come and tell me that it was just what they needed to hear. They never tell me how they could grow from the message or how they plan on applying it to their lives.
Please understand that not everyone does this. There are also plenty of folks who listen well and humbly seek to apply whatever truth they find in the sermons they hear to their personal lives. I love these people, and I wish I were more like them.
Honestly, I am as guilty of this error as anyone else. One of the things I do – as part of my work – is critique sermons. Preachers often ask me for advice or help or coaching in becoming better communicators. Sadly, it’s become difficult for me to listen to a sermon for spiritual formation now, because I’m always thinking about how the speaker could have communicated his/her points more effectively.
But what would change if I started listening to sermons the way I just suggested we ought to read? What if I first asked myself, “What does this sermon teach me about the character and nature of God?” And second, “How can I apply this sermon in such a way as to help me grow in my ability to love and be loved by God and others?”
Maybe this would eliminate a lot of the bickering and divisiveness Christianity currently experiences. Here, at last, is a way for Calvinists and Arminians to read one another without feeling the need to get all bent out of shape. The Piper-ites and the Bell-eons can listen to and with one another, rather than simply listening at one another. Could a liberal politician or theologian actually grow from something a conservative said? Could an Evangelical learn something from the Pope? Would the conservative be willing to listen to a liberal well enough to find the thing they need to hear in order to love better? Perhaps the farmer and the cowman can be friends.
If they choose to.
Sadly, I doubt they will.
But love believes all things, so I will continue to hope towards that end.
Photo Credit: Stefan Kunze