This is the third in a series of postings on my recent trip to China.
The Troubling Surprise
To me, in spite of all the obvious and subtle differences between China and America, and between an atheistic/syncretistic religious environment and a predominately Christian-influenced Western world, I was surprised at how at home I felt in many places we went. The children laughed, played, teased and fought with each other just like in every place I’ve ever lived or visited. Teenagers liked hanging out with their friends, buying the latest style in clothes, and clinging to their boy- or girlfriends in public. Young adults seemed consumed with selling in the market places, getting ahead, and marrying. Older people were concerned about their kids and grandkids, their standard of living, and comforts. People seemed more or less just as friendly as anywhere else, just as courteous (or not), just as forthright (or not), and so forth. On the surface, age, personality, social status and economic means seemed to be just as big determinants of behavior for the Chinese as they are for us in the U.S.
I don’t know what I expected to experience, but why was I so surprised that human beings in China acted like human beings everywhere else in the world? At first I was even a bit crabby to discover how “normal” life could be with virtually no visible or verbal reference to God or faith in Christ anywhere I could see. Again, I don’t know what I was expecting. Was I disappointed that “communists” (or people in a Communist country) didn’t have horns or that their society wasn’t in disarray?
No, what was really bothering me was that my own society, rooted in the Judeo-Christian religious and moral tradition, didn’t seem to be that different or better. My crabbiness came from suddenly realizing that a) Christianity has not transformed our way of life as I had imagined and would hope, and b) what we are transporting to China is not our best selves, but our humanistic, materialistic philosophy of life.
As a Christian, I would hope that my life would be so thoroughly characterized by Jesus Christ that others would be able to visibly see a difference in how I live, what I think, and what I value. I would hope that the love of God would shine through me so vividly that others would experience Christ through me and be inspired to seek out God for themselves.
To be fair, over the years, I’ve seen many Christians live out their faith in compelling ways—generously giving of themselves and resources to help others, faithfully enduring false accusation and persecution due to their faith, serving sacrificially, forgiving and being gracious to others. Not one of them is perfect, but I can see the difference their faith is making in their life, and how others benefit from their spiritual growth. My own life is different as well, because of my faith and spiritual growth over the years. Yet, is it different enough that others can see and feel the reality of God through me? Are our lights shining brightly enough for others who do not know God as a God of love, and Christ as Savior and Lord, to see the reality of God through us?
I suspect that regardless of whatever our official beliefs may be, we Christians often undermine our spiritual vitality and witness to others by our materialism, faith in human capabilities and technology, status-seeking, and power-grabbing. We’re so close to our way of life—I’m so close—that we often cannot see how much these secular and self-serving values affect us.
A Flash of Insight
The flash of insight I got since coming home is that syncretism is simply not just a phenomenon of Asia (or Africa or anywhere else where ancient traditional religions are still widely practiced). And godlessness—not knowing, honoring or serving God—is not just a phenomenon found among atheists or agnostics.
Christians can also be syncretistic. Christians can also live in ways that appear to be godless. I realize that this insight is nothing new to most of us, but the power of its truth hit me a new way while I was in China.
When it comes down to it, I’m not really concerned with the question, why are so many Chinese people increasingly like Americans? What I’m really wanting to know is this: why doesn’t our faith in Christ and relationship with God make us more noticeably different? If Christ is truly the Savior of the world, who calls us to radically re-orient our lives to follow him and serve God’s purposes, and the Holy Spirit is in us transforming us, then why do so many American Christians act so much like nonbelievers?
In Christ, we have forgiveness of sins, a personal relationship with a loving God, hope for eternity, and a sense of God-given purpose—concepts largely absent in Chinese religion. Through the Bible, we have wisdom for personal and community living. Chinese have Confucius, but not the teaching of Jesus, the prophets, and apostles. Most of us wouldn’t trade these huge gifts for anything. Yet, have we gone far enough? Is it time we think more seriously about how to take the next step in integrating our faith and our life?
Jesus warned us in the parable of the sower:
Others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:18-20, NIV)
In the years ahead, I hope many Americans and Chinese will become close friends. It’s already happening through an increasing number of students and tourists visiting one another’s country and through this year’s Olympics in Beijing. In spite of our many differences, we have much in common, too, that can be celebrated and enjoyed.
At the same time, I hope my life increasingly looks different from those who do not believe in God and do not follow Christ—not for my sake, but for theirs. Materialism is empty. Humanism can be misleading. Syncretism is confusing, contradictory and ultimately undermines a healthy relationship with God. Godlessness is false and dangerous, often leading to more suffering. Only Christ can rescue us from ourselves and lead us into the fullness of life God intends for us. My life has hugely benefited from understanding these things and growing spiritually. My prayer is that I can step up my faith and faithfulness so that others will be able to see better what truly makes me tick and gives me hope.
What do you think American Christians need to do differently to reflect the light of Christ more vibrantly in the world?