The Normal Christian Experience
Myths and Realities....
One of the great difficulties of life in Christ is dealing with the many common misconceptions we have inherited from generations past as well as with the new ones that regularly come to the fore. But difficulties are exactly what has He promised us! So, it is with great pleasure that we are attacking this particular challenge today! Knowing that God's divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him (2 Peter 1:3), we can look forward to the task at hand!
Many of our misconceptions are actually reactions of the current generation against the previous one. For instance, I grew up in a day when poverty, suffering and future rewards were emphasized in the church. So after finding out for myself that in Christ there was also joy, victory and prosperity to be found in this life, I joined the chorus with those emphasizing, and sometimes overemphasizing the blessings of the present.
Often we have seen that when the Church tries to correct one imbalance, another one is usually on its way! How fortunate we are to have the very words of Christ Himself to set us straight! Most certainly His first disciples saw the wisdom of preserving in writing His words and actions, as well as those of other important believing figures of that day. Whether we like it or not, in these writings a portrait of Normal Christianity has been left to us, by which we can compare our own concepts, goals and ideals. It is important that we take the entire story, not just our favorite parts. The whole story will help us find the healthy balance, the road to God's desire for our lives.
As one who has been looking for that balance for 30 or so years now, I will now proceed to offer not the ultimate and final answers, but will merely attempt to share what I have discovered has proven helpful to me.
The Real, or the Ideal?
There is most definitely a difference between where we are and where we are going, between our present location and our destination. One modern cliche' is "its not about the destination, its about the journey." I disagree. In Christ we have both a destination and a journey. Paul the apostle put it this way:
"Not as though I had already attained, either
were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend
that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.
Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-14).
We are being called upward towards God in Christ Jesus. Not to a mansion in the sky, but to a higher life, one which is conformed to the very image of Jesus Christ. He is the goal. He is the prize. The thrill of this present adventure is wholly based upon the destination we have in Him. The journey, however exciting it may be, is only exciting as we continue to follow Him to where He is taking us. The greater the vision we have of our destination in Him, the straighter our path will be.
So what is "normal" for us? Should we draw a distinction between what is normal and what is typical? I believe this would be helpful. As we proceed towards that which is ideal, we need to clarify what is expected of us while we are on our way. In the physical realm, typical and normal are often seen as the same. What we see in the majority of humans is deemed as average or normal for the most part. Only the bold and brave are usually willing to challenge the "normalcy" of the majority.
But this is what Jesus actually did. He proved that even those who many considered to be the most moral and "spiritual" of His day actually fell far short of God's idea of normal humanity. The truly normal people were in the minority, and some of them were actually the least religious! So Jesus proceeded to call men and women heavenward, and to miraculously present them as the new standards for humanity!
Yes, Jesus is the ideal, but His early followers became examples of what happens to those who are apprehended of Him! The New Testament portrait of normal Christianity is the story of ordinary people who have begun this incredible journey of following Him! Even Paul did not claim to have arrived at the final destination, but His passion for Christ drove him onward and upward. This is normal Christianity! This is the Christianity that not only stood its ground against incredible odds, but even flourished under both religious and secular oppression!
It is my conviction that many of these unknown, unsung heroes of First Century Christianity would have identified with many of you, and you with them. While on the other hand, some of us and the things that excite us might make them wonder what we were all about. Why, much of what we see as "normal" today might even confuse some of them!
In spite of our misconceptions, God in His grace continues with us. But His grace is also available to teach us "the Way more perfectly." (Acts 18:26). Those of you who are in that category which the first disciples might identify with would likely be surprised to find yourself there. Grand messages, presentations and images presenting a false view of "normal Christianity" have you wondering about yourself. You never seem to be on the "glory train" that others are happily riding. Your "adventures" do not seem worth writing about, much less presenting on the TV screen.
The way things have been going for you, you may ever wonder at times if you are in the will of God. But take heart. You may be more normal and in God's will than you realize! A bit of encouragement from God's Word is all you need, and inspiration from the Holy Spirit to press onward and upward with Paul and all the others into that heavenly life!
Have you faced disappointment, sorrow, and even despair? Well, you just might be normal! Have you suffered grief, loss, sickness or poverty? Sounds pretty normal to me! Have you experienced depression, failure, severe testings? Have you fallen under the load? Have you felt that God has forsaken you? Or have you prospered, been healed, and known great joy? Have you at times felt so optimistic that nothing could get you down? Have you overcome great obstacles, fought and won many victories over Satan, led many to faith in Christ? All these are normal Christian experiences as well!
It's all there in black and white, or black and yellow if you happen to have the oldest manuscripts. In any case we know that Jesus and those who loved Him most suffered deeply and in many different ways. They also stood upon spiritual mountain tops, rejoicing with unspeakable joy! Our common salvation definitely includes common testings and afflictions. We are to rejoice with those among us who rejoice, but also weep with those among us who weep. Yes! It's okay and normal to weep!
Am I saying that everything is okay? Absolutely not! If there is sin, rebellion, or perhaps laziness in your attitude towards God, you need to repent to Him and be restored to a victorious and happy relationship with Him. Any or all of these conditions could actually be at the root of the problems you are facing. On the other hand, some sufferings, especially testings are brought on by the fact of your right relationship with Him! (Matthew 5:10, 1 Peter 3:14).
Now we must examine the difference between the ideal and the normal Christian experience. The ideal is to always obey from infancy to maturity. But God is reasonable. He will obviously expect and ask more from you as time goes on than He did in the beginning, but He knows what to expect from an infant. We know that immaturity itself is not sin. And He has even made provision for sins of disobedience as well as those committed in ignorance or immaturity.
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,
and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful
and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his
word is not in us."
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 1:8-2:2:)
In any case, the normal Christian experience is to stay under the blood of Jesus, keeping ourselves in the love of God (Jude 1:21). That includes acknowledging our weaknesses and failures before Him, our outright disobedience, and even our wrong attitudes towards Him and others. Our aim must continue to be on the target -- Christ! If we miss, we will sharpen our focus upon Him. It might be typical, that is the majority might tend to take their aim off of the mark, but we will never accept what is only typical as normal or as the standard.
The grim reality which is confirmed by every generation of believers from the beginning is that even the most sincere, dedicated and God-loving Christians fail or fall at times. It is very sad that far too many are unable to deal with their failures due to misconceptions and false impressions of the normal Christian experience that have developed in their thinking. The feeling that they have been disqualified, or that true holiness is unattainable can result. How often has the phrase, "I won't be a hypocrite" been used by someone who simply does not understand the grace and love of God, and who has failed to live up to his own understanding of the ideal or normal Christian life?
Those who do not go back into the world are forced by the same misconceptions to cover up their sins and failures. The need to fit in can be very strong, and the pride that prevents one from confessing his need unto deliverance only compounds the problem. This failure to understand our weakness and His power leads to abnormal Christianity, the kind of abnormality that accepts widespread Christian divorce and all manner of addictions from to pornography to prescription drugs.
Many are deterred from returning to the Lord by the false image they receive from our testimonies and preaching as we attempt to be positive at any cost! Certain assumptions drawn from these positive testimonies can even be damaging. For instance, one who answers an "alter call" might come to expect a total and immediate transformation of his or her life that may not actually come at that time. In reality, some struggles might continue for hours, weeks, days, months and even years. Some doubts will persist to the point of robbing the victory that the individual has already won by faith in Christ.
Ideally a dramatic transformation of the heart and life will come right away. We should look for it and continue to look for it from the very instant of our surrender to Christ. But my point is to not lose heart if difficult times, even perhaps times of greater then ever before difficulty are found! All of these situations fall under the realm of "normal" for the truly born-again child of God!
1 Pet 1:3-9:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:
Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls."
Hope is normal. Joy is normal. Testings are normal. Distress, sadness, heaviness for a season are all normal for the born-again child of God. But all of these conditions are kept in balance as we continue to "Look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the Cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Victory in Jesus is also normal for the child of God! The gates of hell will not prevail against His Church! In all of our trials and tests we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us! There is victory today for those of us who are wrestling with bad habits, fears, doubts, emotions and temptations! Even if the symptoms of your problem have not immediately dissipated, you can still have victory today in Christ!
"For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:4-5).
The same faith, that inner conviction that declared itself in your heart when you first found forgiveness from your past life of sin by His death on the Cross, is the same faith that will see you through the present difficulty. While our generation increasingly demands instant gratification, the heart of faith knows that success has already been achieved in Christ, even as we await its manifestation.
A certain man once cried out, " I believe! Lord help thou my unbelief!" What honesty! What humility! What sincerity! What boldness in faith to make such a request unto Him! I challenge us all today to such boldness and courage -- to face our weakness and our Lord and to know He is our Judge but also our Deliverer! Maybe we need to forsake our glib "smile, God loves you" mentality, and face the truth! This Christian life can be very difficult at times, but we have a mighty Lord who will always see us through.
His Ideal Life is ever before us. As we behold Him we are transformed into the very same image by the power of His Spirit! No matter how long this process takes, we have grace and compassion from Him and for one another when we fail. This is the journey, the quest, the Mark towards which we are pressing upwards into Him! Though we may appear to be defeated at times, our faith is the victory that overcomes the world. This New Covenant is the New and Living Way. It is real and manifest. In it there is nothing to cover up, for we are covered by His Blood. We have new hearts with His laws written upon them. Our desire is only for more of Him! And on this journey we can only come to know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death, ultimately attaining to the resurrection from among the dead!
This is no myth! It is reality in Jesus Christ! It is the normal Christian experience!