Let it be said: the Christian has no absolute claim over morality. Indeed, I agree wholeheartedly with the statement that affirms that people can be quite moral whether or not they are believers. And moreover, such people may often surpass the Christian in the wealth of their benevolence -- which on its own might well be an indictment against the believer's sincere conversion. All healthy humans are cognizant of the moral law or "Tao" (in C.S. Lewis' words) which is why we can even speak intelligently about morality throughout the panorama of time and culture. And if the truth were to be told, some of the most flawed and broken personalities in the world have in fact been Christians. Moreover, we should ever keep in mind that churches are not meant to be stuffy country clubs for haughty souls who have "arrived" spiritually, but hospitals for weary and soul-sick people who can no longer claim the strength and wisdom necessary to tackle the mundane absurdity of living a life bereft of God at face value -- and under their own steam. Nevertheless, is the goal of the Christian merely "being good?"
But so often, the distinction between morality and redemption is lost upon those whose perspective is from the outside looking in. For the non-believer, the Christian church can appear to be a formidable Wall of Judgment: a suffocating penitentiary of insufferable restraints and caveats that vie against the prevailing culture's humanist zeitgeist. And in many instances this may, on its surface, seem to be a reasonably valid point. So often, that putrid stench of the Pharisee rears its ugly head in our corruption of the sublime Gospel message; and law, rather than grace, is unwittingly given theological ascendance for the Christian who still wrestles with the diabolic worm of pride -- that most deadly of sins.
Be that as it may, hypocrisy is not the divine measure of our orthodox belief, for Jesus strongly condemned those who took refuge in their false righteousness and warned those who would erect stumbling blocks for men who dangled over the razor's edge of belief. In his three-year ministry, Jesus was determined to live a life consumed with service, and the objects of his longing were to be found in the destitute, the helpless, the outcast, and the despised. Though He was no respecter of persons, from the Gospels we are told that He was drawn to the lost and the broken. The Biblical Jesus was not an aggrandizer of self, although he called all men to Him. He was and is, above all things, the Hero of a great reclamation project wherein a Father and His wayward sons could be eternally reconciled if the latter consented to being washed, healed, adorned, and made whole. If He discounted men at all, it was those who assumed the air of self-sufficient satisfaction: those whose religion extended only to the minimal limits of their legal obligations -- and not a step further. In this day, the Galilean issues the same warnings he once uttered two millennia ago to the same breed of unreflective charlatans whose soul mirrors nothing that is not their own. God is in the metamorphosis business; and since these personal transformations that God is working in each of us through His Spirit are for the most part silent, incremental, and invisible -- often times even to us, the true character of Christ's Church is frequently misunderstood or slandered through the presumption of outsiders passing their ill-considered judgments.
A Pastor once explained it in this way: Christianity is much like the Gothic cathedral of Chartres: with it rough grey stoned flying buttresses and foreboding spires casting an ominous and rather cold presence to the casual viewer. From the outside it appears formidable and imposing, albeit coldly beautiful in an unearthly fashion, as the sunlight glinting off the structure's stained-glass windows reflects a muted collection of colors that are pleasing to the eye. But it is from the inside that we fully discern their awe-inspiring beauty. Viewed from its interior, the Cathedral's ethereal array of patterns and colors that are displayed as the sun filters through its wondrous stained glass windows is beyond description. Visitors are astounded as the ever shifting light reveals every sublime nuance on the structure's walls and arches. Indeed, it is the very light shining in from without that gives the interior of Chartres its true breathtaking substance: without which the architecture's soul should not have been discernible.
Through this analogy, it is the very substance of the Nazarene's teachings which reveal a comeliness that must be viewed and appreciated from the "inside," so to speak. What appears from the outside as a rigorous mass of "thou shalt nots" are in truth understood quite differently from the vantage point of the transmuted heart. The Word of the sovereign Lord, viewed from the perspective of the Cross, unlocks the boundless concern of a caring Father who desires above all else that His children find rest and happiness in Him: since He is the only sanctuary where joy can be had in the bounds of eternity. If this all seems a mystery, then it is a blessed mystery. If Christianity seems externally to be difficult, it is because all worthy things that the human soul aspires to are fraught with briars and stumbling blocks. And as G.K. Chesterton so wisely observed: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." Like the cathedral windows, the secret is resolved when the light of the divine penetrates the human soul and awakens faculties that were formerly dead or dormant.
I suppose that society in general cares little whether one or all of the restraints found in revelatory command, statutory law, shame, or even guilt will keep a man from absconding with his neighbor's ass or his wife, just so long as he keeps them at a distance longer than the reach of his covetous hand. Perhaps Divine reason or the holy "Thou shalt not" might have been sufficient to draw men to peace in civil society, if the first couple had not become totally infected with the contagion of sin -- or what the humanist might refer to as "unenlightened self-interest." The truth, however, is that many are not disposed to moral virtue, although some men may possess a relative predisposition to justice, mercy and equity.
But the Christian God seeks a higher standard of consciousness in His human children; and their personal claims to righteousness are said in the Hebrew to be as "filthy menstrual cloths" in His presence. It is not man's ethical window dressings that God desires, nor any of the works of our unregenerate hands. He would have us spotless in His presence, and nothing short of Calvary's chrysalis is sufficient for this purpose. A true Christian on the Transformation Road will conform in time to that benevolent morality, but the source of his behavior will be God through the lens of his surrendered life; and the light that shines from his good works will be a light that is not his own any more than the reflection in the looking glass belongs to the unpolished mirror. As C.S. Lewis so aptly describes that Christian prism from which the believer apprehends the world: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." On the other side of Golgotha, the cosmos appears infinitely changed to the redeemed.
When we claw beneath the essence of Christianity, we find that it is less about a moral regimen of "being good" and all about being incrementally, painfully, and lovingly transformed unto the image of Christ -- the mirror reflection of the Father. We find that it is less and less about struggling along the moral continuum of externalities that might lead to hypocrisy or anxiety and ultimately all about traversing the rejuvenating beam of light from death unto life, by way of the enigmatic Cross.
Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be reached at email@example.com and www.stubbornthings.org