Wednesday, January 26, 2011

If you believe in forever, then life is just a one night stand

We are talking about a book called Thoughts for Young Men by J.C. Ryle in our men's study group right now (yes, that's right, young men). It's a pretty compelling book, and it serves as a reminder (along with the Bible itself, of course) that people don't change that much over time, even though the surroundings might. It also makes him sound a little bit like a very smart stick in the mud, which at least help battle one stereo-type of Christians while reinforcing another: Christianity is not necessarily anti-intellectual, as it is often portrayed, but sometimes we get painted as anti-fun. One of the reasons for that second one is explained in the section we discussed last night had the heading "Never forget that nothing is as important as your soul."

I got into a [losing] argument with my peers over this, because I felt like it wasn't a terribly effective evangelism tool to approach somebody who is agnostic on the subject and say, "By the way, your eternal soul hangs in the balance." My colleagues' basic reply was, "Of course eternity is important, and how can you avoid it?" While they are right, there is still something bugging me about it. I feel like a few other arguments need to be made first (and to be fair, this is a section in a book; this headline does not appear in a vacuum) and if you appear as a stick in the mud, what's so compelling about spending eternity with lots of other sticks in the mud? Like Billy Joel said, "I'd rather laugh with the sinners and cry with the saints; the sinners are much more fun."

The things that I think need to be articulated first is that Christianity, the faith Ryle is defending, is not simply a list of rules to follow. Other religions look like this (I think -- I might be just as guilty of ignorance as the people who look at Christianity like this), and knowing the Ten Commandments and all, it makes this an easy way to appear. "Don't do sinful things because it harms your eternal soul" can ring empty if a convincing reason as to why waiting until for sex is worthwhile or it is important not to spread gossip, for instance. Those things are satisfying now, and if the whole message of Christ is forgiveness, what's the big deal?

The big deal is that what separates Christianity from those other religions (as I understand it) is approachability. Our sacred text tells a story of an almighty God trying to reach out to us, to interact with us, and how we spurn those advances. In addition to being almighty, he is also good, and is the only thing that is so; Christ even explains that He is not, only the Father is.

The "list of rules" aspect becomes easier to follow when you begin to learn who Christ and God are, and realize that they know you, too, and want things for you. Disappointing them takes away from the satisfaction of sin as you grow closer, even though sinning is still inescapable. The consequences of sin are not, thankfully, do to the efforts of Christ Himself.

If there's no reason to care about eternity, no positive outlook for what happens, then looking at life is not especially different from looking at your 401K. Retirement is as much an abstraction for me as the afterlife right now. Could I save an extra 1% a month? Yes. I don't, because I don't know what difference it'll make. I know in principle I should save more, because saving more is better. If I engage someone who does not have relationship with Christ about how he should go to church or read the Bible, he or she typically knows in principle it's a good thing to do, but doesn't know specifically what that good is.

What do you think? How does the eternity part fit into this understanding? I was just looking back over this to see if I could add a joke because I was starting to sound like a stick in the mud. Sorry, I'll try better next time.

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