American individualism has led you to believe that your sin only affects you. I’ve been trying to convince you that the Bible teaches exactly the opposite. Today I had a conversation that might help to connect the dots.
I met for lunch a new friend of mine – a graduate student from the Middle East who was dramatically converted to Christ 2 weeks ago. He was radiant with new life in Christ and brimming with questions – about God, about the Bible, about Christianity, and about what it means to follow Jesus. Over lunch at a Mediterranean cafe, he told me his story: raised under Islamic law by a Muslim mother and an atheist father, in a culture where conversion to Christianity is often a death sentence. For years he was intrigued by Christianity. Something about it felt deeply true. Now that he’s come to faith in Jesus, he’s anxious to soak up all the wisdom he can. An obvious starting point is to read the Bible.
“I’ve always understood the Bible as a book of good moral stories,” he said. “But now I see it’s primarily the story of God. You showed us on Sunday how even the Old Testament points to Jesus. How do I learn to read the Bible like this?”
I answered that the Bible itself points the way, if he will give himself to reading it patiently. I suggested that he start reading and studying the Bible in a community of Christians – perhaps even some of the people in our church.
“This brings me to one of my troubles with Christianity,” he said quizzically. “It seems to me that there are many people who say they are Christians, but don’t live the kind of life Jesus talks about.”
I asked him to explain further what he was discerning.
“All the Abrahamic religions share a basic moral code,” he observed. “For instance, all of them frown upon adultery. I have not read much of my Bible, but I remember it saying something like ‘Even if a man lusts after a woman, it is like committing adultery in his heart.’ Did I translate that correctly?”
“Yes,” I replied, mildly fascinated as I realized that he was reverse-translating the Sermon on the Mount from Arabic – in which he’d read it – to English.
“But I have friends who say they are Christians, yet they sin grievously against this command. For instance, one of my friends spends the night with his girlfriend, and then they get up and go to church together. Doesn’t this displease God?”
I assured him that it did. I clarified that “practicing/professing Christian” and “converted Christian” were two different categories. When I said this, his face lit up with joy.
“I am so glad you are telling me this! This is one of the things that led me to doubt the Christian gospel. I have ‘practicing Muslim’ friends who give lip service to the Qu’ran, but don’t actually follow its teachings. And so far, I’ve seen the same from Christians. That made me doubt whether the Christian gospel was true. But now I understand – not everyone has experienced conversion, like I have.”
I felt a twinge of what Jesus must have felt when he marveled at the centurion: “Surely I have not found such great faith among anyone in Israel” (Matt 8:10). I assured my friend that he was more Christian than many “Christians.”
“So,” he continued, “I would be happy to read and study the Bible with some other Christians – but only if they’re the genuine kind. I don’t feel I have anything to learn from those who claim to know Jesus but don’t follow his teachings.”
“The name of Jesus is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).
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Wow, this was amazing to read. It makes me wonder truly how often people distance themselves from Christians, because they see inauthenticity and actions that don’t match up with what they read.
I need to check myself more often.