These little comics called ‘Coffee with Jesus’ pop up on Facebook sometimes and make me smile. Here’s one my Dad shared the other day:
It made me smile because it was one of my many ‘Ah, I used to be like that’ moments, when I look back nostalgically, and usually a little condescendingly, on the faith of my younger years.
Zealous was the right word for teenage Claire. She’d probably have got on well with Carl. I used to write Christian song lyrics obsessively across the covers of my school books, and doodle pictures of crosses, crowns of thorns, broken chains and bowing figures. I used to circle, underline, highlight and copy out sections of my Bible, scribbling notes in the margins like ‘WOW!’, ‘Live by this!!!’, and ‘Rid your heart of these!’
And I’d pray earnestly and passionately with friends, that we’d be warriors for Jesus in our generation, that we’d see the devil overcome and our city reclaimed for God’s Kingdom.
What was wrong with my fervour and zeal? Why does it make me so uncomfortable to remember now?
The problem isn’t that I cared and got excited about my faith, or that I was so expressive about it. I still do, deeply, and I still am fairly, although I have fewer schoolbooks to graffiti now.
And it’s not only that the language jars now, although it does – I have no doubt that I’d find my 15-year-old self intensely irritating after just a few sentences of evangelical jargon. But I’ll go easy on myself, because I’m sure I use equally annoying post-evangelical, progressive Christian jargon now, and it’s all just whatever words happen to be trendy in whatever church circles we move in, right?
No, it’s not the passion or the particular phrases it’s wrapped in. There’s something troubling hidden in the attitude that I couldn’t distill… until I heard again a line of the Church of England’s baptism liturgy. After the baptism candidate has been signed with a cross, the whole congregation say to them these words:
‘Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ, against sin, the world and the devil.’
I’ve always loved that first bit, and the tingling feeling you get as the church welcomes its newest member with a call to lifelong commitment and service. But it’s the second phrase that makes me uncomfortable. (And yes I know it’s vaguely biblical. One day I’ll ask Paul and John this same question, but for now I’m asking it here.)
Why are we always fighting against? Why not for?
My teenage zeal was almost always against something. Against my temptations. Against my pride. Against idols, and a culture that encouraged me to worship money, power and sex. Against apathy. Against fear. Against the devil and his strongholds. There was so much fighting against that it was easy to forget what we were pursuing. I just knew Jesus hadn’t come back yet so there was always another battle to fight.
‘Against… the world’ in the baptism liturgy is particularly difficult to swallow. It’s true that the biblical writers, especially John, used ‘the world’ as a category to contrast with the church, the community of faith. Using polarised extremes to make a point, ‘the world’ sometimes represents all that is against God, the realm where God’s creation is distorted and sinful humanity is blinded by darkness.
‘If the world hates you’, says the Jesus of John’s gospel, ‘keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.’
This was the imagery we focused on, as Christian teenagers trying to navigate our way through mockery, temptation, pressure to fit in, and fear of standing out. We were ‘in the world but not of it’, doing battle with the world, and it would hate us.
But even within John’s own writing, there’s another way of talking about ‘the world’. And perhaps we’d do better to let this guide our zeal instead.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
If God is doing battle, it’s for the world, not against it.
If God is doing battle, it’s for people, not against them.
And in all our passionate praying, in all my fervent notebook scribblings, I wonder how often onlookers got the impression that I was for them – that God is for them?
If my teenage zeal had been – to go back to the Coffee with Jesus comic we started with – more directed towards love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, I’d perhaps have spent less time wrestling with selfish temptations and more time pursuing selfless relationship. I’d perhaps have been less scared of a world I expected to hate me, and more ready to throw myself in to a world of God-given gifts and possibilities. I’d perhaps have spent less time praying against the devil’s grip on our city, and more time praying for, and joining in with, all that God was doing there.
So if my faith looks a little less militant these days, I hope it’s not because I care any less. I’m just as captivated by the beauty of the free grace of God, just as inspired by the life and love of Jesus, just as thankful for his death and certain of new life.
But I’m not fighting against anyone these days. I’m running, shouting, giving, spending, crying, working and praying for a world that God loves. For people crafted in the image of their maker. For justice, hope and peace to win out. For a world that will one day be restored, renewed, redeemed. And I want to do it with all the zeal I can muster.