Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Are Christians Sincere Believers?

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This blog entry is in part a response to the following YouTube video. Warning: the YouTube video contains strong language that is unsuitable for children, socially conservative non-maverick Christian old ladies, and bosses peering over your shoulder.

While he raises some good points, I don’t think the basis he uses for his conclusion of Christians not really believing that e.g. the Lord of the Universe offers his hand to salvation and paradise is particularly good (I know, you’re shocked). Being a monk may be an honorable occupation, but it’s not the only noble one for sincere Christians. The world still needs doctors, police officers, schoolteachers, etc. and it’s perfectly reasonable for a sincere Christian believer to serve the world in those ways. Still, the YouTuber has a point; Christians often don’t really act out what we believe. Why is that? One idea is that Christians deep down don’t really believe what we say we believe. But there’s a different and more natural explanation: we humans tend to get desensitized to what we have. The YouTube video below gives a nice illustration of this:

We tend to have a sort of self-centered greed where we focus too much on our wants and what we don’t have in the present moment rather than being grateful for all the cool stuff we do have.

This isn’t new. Think back to David sleeping with Bathsheba when Bathsheba was somebody’s wife. When you think about it, why does David need Bathsheba anyway? It’s not as if David was a poor single loser who couldn’t hook up with any other lady; this man already had multiple wives, and before you start making bad jokes about married life in the bedroom, keep in mind that David also had many concubines as well, at least some of whom had to be pretty hot (if any man in the land could get hot concubines, it would be the king). So by all available evidence, this was not a man who had trouble getting laid. But he ignored all that and wanted more, sleeping with somebody else’s wife.

To illustrate the point of self-centered greed further, consider this excerpt from my blog article We Are the Depraved:
We may say we value our fellow human being as much as ourselves, but how often do we buy things we don’t need when that money could go to clothe the naked or feed the hungry? For definiteness, consider a hypothetical man named Smith who buys an expensive big screen television. I being the occasionally unpleasant fellow ask Smith, “Do you value having a big screen television over starving children being fed?” Smith answers, “Of course not.” I reply, “Then why are you spending a sizable sum on the big screen television instead of donating that money to feed starving children?” Smith might say that such an act would be supererogatory rather than morally obligatory. Perhaps it would be supererogatory, but that doesn’t change the unpleasant fact that Smith is valuing having a large television over feeding starving children. Smith has a choice between having children desperately in need of food being fed and having a big screen television, and Smith chooses the television.
Smith doesn’t donate to charity and instead buys the expensive TV. Does this mean that he doesn’t really believe that there are starving children? No, he’s just self-centered, focused more on the luxuries he doesn’t have and less on the necessities that others are lacking. A similar focused-on-what-we-don’t-have attitude infects our everyday lives, a bit like, “Yeah Jesus died for my sins, but that doesn’t help me get a new car does it? Why doesn’t Jesus give me a bigger house or a higher paying job?” Even Christians can be materialistic, hence the prosperity gospel heresy. When I wrote We Are the Depraved I was focusing on how we undervalue our fellow human beings, but it seems to me that we undervalue God also. Sure, we may believe God exists just as Smith believes starving children exist, but in both cases we undervalue what’s important.

What to do?

We have a lot to be grateful for and often we don’t focus on it. That’s true of dishwashers, phones, hot showers, and yes, even God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice for us. So what to do? Perhaps the first step in being grateful for what you have is to notice what you have. We do in fact have cars, computers, hot showers, etc. Another thing is this: look down, not up. Imagine Alice living in a third world country. She lives in a tiny house with a dirt floor, no toilets, no dishwashers, and no showers. She has to sleep on the floor with no pillow and is often worried about where her next meal will come from. One day she meets Bob the American who is frowning. “Why are you sad?” Alice asks Bob. Bob replies, “It’s true I have a refrigerator full of good food, a house ten times bigger than yours with a dishwasher, hot shower, and comfortable bed where I watch high-definition TV, but looking at Jones having a bigger house and higher paying job makes me sad.” If Alice were to get what Bob has, she’d feel as if she won the lottery. Alice thinks Bob’s complaint is foolish and that he’s oblivious to what he has. Moreover, Alice is right to think that Bob’s complaint is foolish. Having his house, car, dishwasher, refrigerator full of good food etc. is a lot to be grateful for as Alice recognizes and Bob doesn’t. Imagine yourself not having your great stuff (like poor Alice) and you’ll more clearly see how much you have to be thankful for.

Of course, the same goes for God and Christ’s sacrifice. To illustrate, consider a man who’s won the lottery complaining that he lost a dollar on his way to collect his winnings; the lottery winner would seem to have lost sight of what he has. We Christians do the same with petty complaints, acting as if we’ve forgotten the beautiful story: the incarnation of God—the infinite being that is the locus of goodness—becomes truly human, and with nails in his limbs he dies for us so that we might inherit a blessed eternity we do not deserve, an inheritance far better than any lottery. Though we can enjoy the love of God in this life and the next, we don’t act on it like we should. We are people who’ve inherited incalculable wealth complaining over a few missing pennies. Perhaps heaven is largely about finally noticing what we have and being grateful for it. But why wait?