(What follows is in the literary form of a sermon, though I don’t ever expect to actually preach it — for one thing, though it’s a nice length for an essay, it’s too long to actually preach to any American audience, as no American congregation is going to sit through a fifty-minute sermon. It is the result of several conversations I had while in China with Helen and her father; I wrote it down, at her request, after I got back to the States. Writing it down helped pass the time in some way other than desperately missing Helen, who doesn’t get back until late August…not that I want to complain about how much I suffer, in this of all posts.)
Here’s an old joke you’ve probably heard:
Q. Why are lawyers like ventriloquists?
A. They get paid to talk out of both sides of their mouths.
While I was in China this summer, I had two different conversations in which the subject of Christian personal testimonies came up. First, I gave a sort of informal kitchen-table talk to a small church fellowship group about praise, and in that talk I defended personal testimonies as a good and necessary thing. But a day or two later, in a conversation with Helen about why her father is not a Christian, I called them dangerous and often outright destructive.
Let me stop right there and reassure you: I have not surreptitiously enrolled in law school.
Of course it is context that makes the difference — but what context, exactly? How do you tell when “God did such-and-such for me” is a good thing to say, and when it is instead something to be said only with caution and restraint?
Well, there are a couple of questions to ask about the personal testimonies we give and the situations in which we give them. I think these questions will help you to see both why I value personal testimonies and why I think they can accidentally cause trouble.
The first question is this: am I telling a story about how God changed my circumstances to make things easier for me, or am I telling a story about how He changed my character for the better?
If you are a Christian, then you presumably believe certain things that make it possible to praise God under all circumstances. For one thing, you believe, presumably, that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (James 1:17), and that therefore God should be praised and thanked for all the good things that happen to us. That much is easy.
But you are a Christian, and so you also recognize that this life exists merely as a prelude to eternity, and that not only will eternity be infinitely longer than the blink of an eye that is our eighty or ninety years here, but that its intensity will overwhelm the intensity of this life as well — whether it holds an unimaginable degree of bliss in Heaven or an unimaginable degree of torment in Hell. You presumably recognize that suffering can help make us fit for Heaven rather than Hell, and you presumably agree with Jesus that “it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). And you presumably understand that the sufferings of good people often are used by God to minister to others, and to lead those others off the road to Hell and onto the road to Heaven.
Being a Christian, you presumably believe, as did those apostles who “rejoiced that they had been counted worthy of suffering” (Acts 5:41), that suffering itself can be a disguised blessing, and that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). (This does not mean that you enjoy pain and suffering, which hurts us Christians as much as it hurts atheists. It only means that you believe that you will rejoice one day to have suffered, when you see what God uses the suffering to accomplish.) You believe that you and your fellow Christians need not fear death, as “death has been swallowed up in victory” (I Corinthians 15:54). Indeed, you, the Christian, believe that death is a promotion, that the new life is unimaginably better than this one, so that death is actually something for a Christian to look forward to, that to die is gain (Philippians 1:21). (This may not keep you from feeling fear as death approaches, especially if you are a new Christian – like animals, we come naturally equipped with an instinctive fear of death. As a Christian, you may still feel that fear. It’s just that you believe that this instinctive animal fear is groundless.)
Being a Christian, you fully recognize that “your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Being a Christian, you know with absolute clarity that Jesus Himself fulfilled His mission only through the suffering of the Cross; and you know perfectly well His words, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). So, being a Christian, you fully accept that you have been called onto a hard and dangerous and probably painful road; and no matter how hard or painful the road He calls you to, you are committed to following Him to the end. Like Jesus Himself, when faced with the possibility of a bitter cup, you pray that it might pass from you; but like Jesus Himself, your ending plea is always, “Nevertheless, Thy will be done.”
You believe all these things for a simple reason: if Christianity is true, then everything I just said is sober truth. And you believe that Christianity is true.
Let’s assume that you are absolutely correct, as in fact I believe you are: Christianity is true, and therefore so is everything I just said. Now this puts you in an interesting (and enviable) position. To begin with, every time something obviously good happens, such as that your daily commute is exceptionally easy, or you are miraculously cured of cancer — every day that God says, “No cross for you today” — it’s an unexpected bonus. This day, He actually did let the cup pass from you. And since every day we start the day prepared to shoulder whatever cross the day holds for us, it is easy to be grateful on the days that have no cross.
By contrast, most non-Christians (especially if they are rich, which by any global and historical standards practically all Americans are) start each day with the assumption that they have some sort of right to a completely pain-free life — that somehow they have earned immunity from the ails that flesh is heir to. So on the days when nothing bad happens they don’t feel grateful like a child who got an unexpected day off from school. They just take that as their natural due, rather the way a typical employee doesn’t write a thank-you card to his boss every time he gets his paycheck, or the way a typical Chinese husband (as I am told, perhaps with less than perfect objectivity, by Chinese wives) doesn’t say thank you every day when he gets home from work and dinner is ready. Somehow the natural human attitude is that if there is indeed a God, then He owes us life without pain; and so the good days generate little gratitude.
Here are a couple of examples from my own life. My wife is an extraordinarily diligent and unselfish person, but also a very humble one. She constantly does her duty to God and to fellow creatures, but it’s not so much that she chooses to do her duty as that with her deep sense of compassion and her deep integrity she can’t imagine not doing it. So she tends to assume that other people are like her, and therefore that doing one’s duty is a simple baseline expectation. I, however, am quite a bit older and more experienced in the world than she is, and my own experiences have made me much more cynical than she is, which is to say I have much lower expectations of people than she does. So we frequently have conversations like this:
ME (with deep sincerity): Thank you very much, sweetheart, for doing such-and-such.
HER (in bemusement): You don’t have to say thank you; I was just doing my job.
ME: My dear, the world is absolutely full of people who don’t do their jobs; so I am always grateful to the ones who do.
The secret key to joy, you see — I am quite serious when I say this — is gratitude: joyful people, without (in my experience) exception, are people who notice and are grateful for the things that most people take for granted. And what is the secret key to gratitude?
Here’s another example. I once was asked to go into my office in the middle of a vacation week so that I could have an urgent conversation with two of the people who reported to me. And I was very unhappy about it, not because my vacation was being interrupted, but because what I was going to have to say was, “Our department has been hit with budget cuts, and I’ve been told by Human Resources that we are laying you off, effective immediately.” I arrived at work, and found a message from my own supervisor telling me to hold off on talking to them — because we had found jobs for them in another department and weren’t going to lay them off after all. And I was filled with joy over the simple fact that I was not going to have to tell them they were losing their jobs.
Now here’s the thing: every day for the previous two years I had gone to work and had not had to tell anybody, “You’re losing your job today.” But that day, for the first time, I was immensely grateful — because every day before that one, I didn’t expect to have to lay anybody off. And most non-Christians go through most of their lives, if I may put it this way, never expecting to have to lay anybody off in the first place, and therefore never particularly grateful on days when they don’t have to.
We Christians, however, having been told by God that we should expect every day to pick up our cross and follow Jesus to Calvary, are perpetually like I was as I drove into the office that day. We are like those children who go to sleep expecting to have to spend the whole day at school and wake up to see three feet of snow on the ground (in remembering my own childhood, no two words evoke more universally felt joy than the words “Snow Day”). Or we are like infantry soldiers who are told on the eve of an invasion that the enemy has unexpectedly surrendered. We were prepared to do our duty. But this time, God decided to let the cup pass from us; and naturally we feel joy.
Now it’s been a long time since I was a non-Christian; so I might not be right about this next bit, in which case I ask my non-Christian friends’ pardon. But I suspect that a lot of non-Christians, if they were to hear what I have just said, would have one of two reactions here. One is to say, “Well, that’s just a simple self-help technique of adjusting attitude; you don’t have to be a Christian to tell yourself at the beginning of every day that something bad could happen today so that you can feel happy at the end of the day when it didn’t.” And my first response would be to say, “You are absolutely correct, so far as that goes; you don’t have to be a Christian to take this attitude toward life.” Then I would have a bit more to say…
…but I’ll postpone that momentarily to turn to the other group of my non-Christian friends, who are instead responding like this: “Wow, so what you’re saying is that the reason Christians feel joy, is that they think life is awful? They’re happy because they’re pessimists? They’re only happy because they’re so gloomy? What kind of bogus happiness is that? I’d rather have a positive outlook on life, thank you very much.” There are a couple of answers to this. One is that the pessimistic view is, you know, TRUE. It’s not as though Christians are the only ones who have noticed. “Life is pain, Princess. Anyone who says anything different is selling something.” Do they think that when Westley so bitterly says that to the Princess Bride, he’s saying that because of his evangelical Christian fundamentalism? I doubt that I understand Buddhism very well, but everything I have read about that philosophy says that the very starting point of Buddhism is that to exist as a human being, is to suffer, and that when life seems sweet it’s just setting you up for the inevitable sucker-punch. So in saying that “man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7), we aren’t being gloomy pessimists. We’re just being realists.
But the deeper answer — and this is where I will bring our first group of non-Christian friends back into the conversation — is that while we do, in fact, believe that life in this fallen world can be expected to be a life with a generous share of pain and suffering, we are not therefore gloomy pessimists. We believe in the Cross, to be sure — but we also believe in the Resurrection.
When the cup does not pass from us, you see, we do not therefore fail in our joy. When the cup does not pass from us, that is precisely when the goodness and wisdom and power of God are most important. For this is where the Cross and Resurrection fully come into play. This is Philippians 2; this is Romans 8: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us…Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If we genuinely believe this, then our hope is unshakable. We are the very opposite of gloomy pessimists; on the contrary, we are the most cosmic of optimists.
And that conviction is most definitely not available to atheists. A vaguely agnostic American can tell himself, “Human life is full of suffering; so I’ll probably suffer today,” and then be happy at the end of the days when he doesn’t end up suffering. But what about the days when he does end up suffering? On the day when his doctor says, “It’s cancer,” he can hardly tell himself, “I consider that the sufferings of cancer cannot be compared to the glory that will be revealed in me…Christ has conquered death, and death is swallowed up in victory…” When his wife and all four of his daughters are in a shipwreck and his first news after the disaster is a telegram from his wife that says simply, “Saved alone,” he can hardly sit down and write (at least with sincerity) anything like the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.” Granted, he can try to talk himself into trying to believe it through some sort of self-hypnosis as a happy-thoughts self-deception self-help trick. But a Christian can simply say, “This is actually, literally true” — or, if he is both a Christian and a poet, he can write what Horatio Spafford wrote in exactly that situation:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend —
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, oh my soul!
“Gloomy pessimists”? Nothing could be further from the truth — the sky, not the grave, is our goal, and even at the grave we make our cry, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. If we genuinely believe this, then our hope is unshakable in the times when the cup has to be drunk, just as our gratitude is overflowing on the days when the cup passes from us.
Now the reason we give personal testimonies in church with our brothers and sisters in Christ, is simply to spread this gratitude and this hope.
Sometimes a cup appeared to be looming, but then we were spared; and we naturally want to share the moment with our brothers and sisters. It doesn’t have to be a big cup, as far as that goes. After all, we teach our children to say “thank you” even for small kindnesses, because life holds much more joy for those who have trained themselves to notice the small acts of everyday grace done by those around them. The same holds true even more for God, which is why a wise pastor I know in America encourages us to go on a “God Hunt” every day, deliberately looking for the little things God does for us. Then once our children have learned to say thank you, if we are wise we try to teach them not just to say thank you to the person who did the right thing, but also to point it out to other people so that the other people can appreciate it as well. We try to teach our children, in other words, not just to thank people in private, but also to praise people in public. (You perceive that this is how the subject of Christian personal testimonies made its way into a kitchen-table talk about praise.) And this is what we are doing when we tell our brothers and sisters that some cup or other has passed from us.
For example, a few weeks ago, through a combination of circumstances, I found myself desperately needing to get a visa for China, and (here was the tricky part) I had only a single day to both apply for and receive the visa, as the earliest chance I had to apply was at 9:00 a.m. the Monday morning before my 5:30 a.m. Tuesday flight. Helen and I arrived at the Chinese embassy around 7:00, which was early enough to put us fourth in line. A little while later, the professionals showed up — you know, the people who arrive with satchels holding forty or fifty applications on other people’s behalf because that’s what they do for a living (since the Chinese consulate in Houston is where Americans living as far away as Florida have to go to apply for Chinese visas, there is plenty of scope for this kind of business to thrive). Helen, as is her wont, started chatting with one of the professionals and mentioned that I was going to pay for the same-day service mentioned on the consulate website — and then the professional informed us, “Oh, they don’t offer that service anymore; they only offer the standard four-business-day service.”
Helen and I looked at each other, and then we started praying, because four days was not really an option in our case.
About half an hour later, as more and more people filed up and joined the queue, Helen suddenly heard a familiar voice call her name. It took her a minute to place the face, but then she got it: this was a person we knew from our church. It was not a person who actually attends our church, though. This particular sister lives in New Orleans, 400 miles away. But she works for a charity that helps Chinese orphans and poor Chinese families whose children have life-threatening diseases that can only be treated at places like the Houston Medical Center. Our church helps that charity with its orphanages, and Helen personally is heavily involved in helping the families whose children are brought from remote Chinese villages to Houston for life-saving open-heart surgery. And that’s why we know each other. Our friend happened to be about to go back to China and needed a visa, and people who live in New Orleans have to come to Houston to get Chinese visas…and that’s why she was there that day.
We shortly found out a number of interesting things about the current process for getting a Chinese visa. Number one, the professional was half-wrong but also half-right: the Chinese consulate personnel still retained the option to grant one-day or even same-day visas, but only under emergency situations, and at the discretion of the Chinese consulate staff. Number two, they were sticklers for exactly the right paperwork — even though (because I deal with bureaucrats a lot) I had brought every even remotely relevant piece of paper to the consulate with me, I still had to give up my place in line and go get my passport copied, because they insisted that they had to have a copy as well as the original, and their copy machine was broken. Still, I felt pretty lucky compared to other people — like the ones who were told that it didn’t matter that they were an eight-hour drive from home, they had not brought the right documents and couldn’t be helped. Number three, if you wanted an emergency visa (as many of the people ahead of us in line did), then you could expect to have a miserable time of it as they demanded that you fill out formal statements as to why you had the emergency, and demanded documents to prove that there really was an emergency, and wanted to know why the emergency wasn’t your own fault (in which case it would be your own problem).
But number four: our friend from Louisiana turned out to know some of the consulate staff personally.
So while we were waiting in line, our friend went up to the window and had a word with the girl at the window, explaining our situation (and presumably explaining that we were good people and true friends of the Chinese people in general and of poor Chinese children in particular). And when my turn came and I stepped up to the window, the young lady took all my documents, looked intently but quickly at each one of them, waved her hand at me to stop my attempts to explain the situation — and about sixty seconds later, she stamped my paperwork “SAME DAY,” walked to a back room, returned shortly thereafter and told us to come back for my visa-equipped passport at 3:00 that afternoon.
And my wife and I walked out of that consulate at 3:00 that afternoon, visa in hand, praising God — and you can bet we’ve told that story to fellow Christians so that they could rejoice with us.
Now, testimonies like these are the “cups-passed” testimonies of how God let a cup pass from us; these are the testimonies of how God changed our circumstances to make things easier for us, and they encourage our brothers and sisters to share in our gratitude and to praise God along with us. I prayed, and God answered; I am very grateful and want you to be grateful on my behalf — isn’t our God awesome?
But there are also “cups-drunk” testimonies, telling of how God declined to change our circumstances, in order to change our characters (or the characters of people around us) for the better. These are the testimonies that are conceived in our pain and sorrow.
Sometimes we share openly with our fellow Christians that we are in difficulties that we don’t yet understand, and we simply reaffirm our faith. We say something like, “I don’t know why this is happening, but I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purposes” (2 Timothy 1:12, Romans 8:28). We encourage our brothers and sisters to join us in holding fast to hope – we are saying, to steal the informal but insightful phrasing of Carman Licciardello, “It may seem like Friday night — but Sunday’s on its way.”
But then sometimes it happens that we pass through the suffering and come out on the other side and begin to see the fruit of our past trials — we begin to see, with our own eyes, exactly how God has used our suffering to transform either our own lives or those of others. And in that day, we can take the stand to give the most powerful of all Christian testimonies. For we are not testifying now that God spared us the Cross. Nor are we still hanging on our own personal cross, clinging with Jesus to the words of the Twenty-Second Psalm or saying along with Job, “Even if he slays me, still will I trust Him” (Job 13:15). No, we are now bearing triumphant witness to the fact that God has brought us through Calvary to Resurrection. And such testimonies as these encourage our brothers and sisters BOTH to hold fast to hope in their own trials AND to share in our gratitude from our vantage point on the far side. There is hardly any limit to the power of Christian testimonies such as these.
There is a quite wealthy pastor here in Houston whose wife is a trophy-wife blonde and book-selling money-making machine in her own right, and in a notorious incident the details of which I remember only vaguely, she got sued by a flight attendant who accused her of behaving with abusive rudeness toward the airplane staff, naturally in the first-class cabin rather than back in economy with the common folk. And if I remember correctly — which I quite possibly do not — the pastor’s wife defended herself publicly by saying that she was not in fact rude and that she was only being sued because the flight attendant recognized her and had a prejudice against Christians and knew she had money. I’m not mentioning names because I genuinely don’t know whether I’m remembering the story accurately and wouldn’t want to do the pastor’s wife an injustice; I just want you to imagine the situation clearly so that I can use it to illustrate a point. Let’s say that such a pastor’s wife really was in a situation such as the one I have described, and she really did get sued and harassed because she was a well-known Christian public figure. And suppose her well-paid lawyers were able to resolve the situation so that God was able to “make her righteousness shine like the noonday sun.” Now imagine her trying to testify to how God helped her in her suffering for the cause of Christ…her suffering, that is, in having been so rich and famous that her flight in first class was ruined by a rude and lawyered-up flight attendant. Don’t you think that the instinctive reaction of an ordinary audience would be to laugh that pastor’s wife out of the room?
But I can guarantee you that no audience ever laughed Corrie ten Boom out of a room. You remember Corrie ten Boom, author of the memoir The Hiding Place, I hope. (This is one of the books that absolutely every Christian should read, no exceptions.) For those of you who don’t know her story: Corrie ten Boom and her devoutly Christian family were Dutch citizens who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis during World War II. They were eventually caught and sent to the concentration camps. Corrie never saw her father again after their arrest; he was dead within a few days, his body dumped anonymously into a mass grave somewhere. And she watched her sister Bessie die inch by inch in the camps of illness and starvation — but Bessie never lost her joy, never lost her hope, never lost her faith, and most importantly never lost her ability to love and forgive and pray for her enemies, specifically the Nazis.
Then, a few days before everyone in Corrie’s own dormitory was sent to the gas chambers, Corrie was told out of the blue that she was free to leave. Only later was she to learn that this was the result of a “clerical error” — that is, exactly the sort of “cup-passing” that Christians gratefully ascribe to Divine mercy and that atheists scornfully ascribe to coincidence and blind luck. In the decades between the end of the war and Corrie’s own peaceful death from old age, millions of people heard Corrie’s testimony in books and in person, and there is no way to count the number of people who came to know Jesus through her testimony, or the number of emotionally scarred Christians who found their way back to peace with God through her message of love and forgiveness.
But it wasn’t the testimony of her “miraculous” escape that those millions of people came to listen to. That bit takes up, I think, about two sentences in her book. What changed their lives was the testimony she gave of her father’s and her sister’s unwavering love for others, including especially the very Nazis who were persecuting and killing them, their joy that no physical misery could destroy and not even death could defeat. Or again, practically everyone who has read the book has been deeply moved by her story of how a former Nazi guard came up to her after one of her speeches, told her he had become a Christian since the war, expressed deep sorrow for the wrong he had done her, and asked for her forgiveness. She would explain, in later years, how she discovered in her own soul, as he stood there before her, that she hated him from the bottom of her heart and had not the slightest intention of forgiving him. She would tell how she had to force herself out of sheer obedience to God’s command to take his proffered hand and utter words of forgiveness — and how the instant she took his hand in hers, she was overwhelmed by a wave of love and peace greater than any she had ever known before.
It was these testimonies, not her testimony of how God spared her life, that touched and transformed hearts across the globe. The only thing that made it possible for those millions to hear her testimony was the clerical error that saved her life. But the suffering she and her father and sister endured is the only thing that made that testimony worth being heard by millions.
This, you see, is what I was talking about when I asked that first question: am I telling a story about how God changed my circumstances to make things easier for me, or am I telling a story about how He changed my character for the better? Is this a testimony about a cup that passed from me, or about a cup that it was God’s will for me to drink? Is this a testimony about how God radically improved my surroundings (which is not, after all, the point of Christianity in the first place), or a testimony about how God radically re-created me (which is precisely why Jesus came and suffered and died)? Is it a “cup-passed” testimony that encourages other Christians to thankfulness, or a “cup-drunk” testimony that calls them to hope?
And with that distinction clear, we can now ask the second question that determines the context of a Christian personal testimony: am I talking to fellow-Christians for the purpose of encouraging them to share my gratitude and my hope, or am I trying to convince non-Christians to put their faith in Jesus?
If the latter, then the “cup-passed,” God-cured-me-of-cancer-and-He-can-do-the-same-for-you type of testimony is fraught with danger. In the first place, it will probably be much less effective than you expect. This is because, although most non-Christians could not tell you what the terms “special pleading” and “survivor bias” mean, they can spot those two fallacies in this evangelistic tactic. If God’s having cured you of cancer goes to prove that God exists and loves you, then it would naturally seem that God’s having not cured millions of other Christians of cancer goes equally to prove that God either does not exist or else did not love all those dead Christians. Any reasonable sample size of American Christians is going to include a bunch of Christians whose prayers were not answered. That puts the Christian evangelist in the position of saying, “Well, it proves something when God does answer prayer, but it proves nothing when He doesn’t.” As it happens, I think that this is actually somewhat true – albeit in a very, very, very strictly limited sense that would require lots of explanation and qualification. But surely it is obvious that the instant, instinctive first response of a non-Christian to such an argument is derision and contempt.
But the real danger of this type of evangelism, is that it may actually work. And in order to know why that is dangerous, we have to understand the different ways in which different people approach religion, and we have to understand what kind of person would rush into Christianity as a result of hearing how God can miraculously solve our problems.
How you feel about religion depends upon something you’ve probably never noticed about yourself. When you think about religion, you instinctively tell yourself stories about it – human emotion is always based on a story, even if it’s one we’re not aware we’re telling ourselves. If a man accidentally trips us on a train, but we assume he did it on purpose, we get angry. If we assume it was an accident, we don’t get angry. If he really does trip us on purpose but we assume it’s an accident, we still don’t get angry. It’s the story we tell ourselves, not the true facts of the case, that determine our emotions. And when it comes to religion, you can classify people into four basic groups.
First, there are the passionate atheists who think of religion as Superstition, and therefore cannot even think about religion without an implicit sneer at all us foolish benighted Dark-Age-holdover bitter clingers who still believe in it. This is the kind of person who blames religion for all of the problems of the world.
Second, there are people who think that religion is about Fact – they want to know what is true about religion, and if certain religious beliefs are true then they want to believe them whether they are pleasant or not, while if other religious beliefs are false then they don’t want to believe them no matter how nice it would be. This is the attitude of all New Testament Christians, and it is not possible accurately to understand the New Testament if you do not agree with St. Paul that if Jesus did not really and truly in actual fact rise from the dead, then we Christians are more to be pitied than anybody else in the world – no matter how nice believing in a mythical Resurrection might make us feel.
Third, there are those who think that religion is essentially about Loyalty – you should be a Jew because that is your heritage, or you should be Eastern Orthodox because you’re of Slavic ethnicity, or you should be Muslim because you’re Kazakh. I know of a Jewish convert to Christianity who converted because she thought of religion as being about Fact, and upon examination of the evidence concluded that it was true that Jesus had risen from the dead and was the Messiah. Her mother, for whom religion was a matter of Loyalty, was enraged, and told her, “If you had converted because you were marrying a Christian, I could understand that. But to convert because you think it’s true, that’s spitting in your family’s face.”
Now, none of these three kinds of person is likely to convert to Christianity because of a cup-passed testimony. The Superstition people aren’t going to convert to Christianity because they are certain that religion is the great curse of mankind; the Fact people aren’t likely to convert on those grounds alone because they’ll see the gaping logical holes in the argument; and the Loyalty folks would rather die of cancer than Betray Their People. But there is still one class left, and the people in this fourth and final class might well be converted by a cup-passed testimony.
As far as we can tell, the most natural kind of religion – the kind you find as you go back to the early history of our race – is what I would call Magic. Magical Religion is a purely practical exercise. The world is full of things that happen to people and that seem unpredictable and uncontrollable. What religion has historically been, for very, very many people, is simply an attempt to get “the gods,” who can influence the things beyond our control, to like us and help us out, or at least not to hate us and not to try to do us harm. It is, in short, a way to make our life be more the way we want it to be. For these people, religion is a means to an end, and the end is to make life – by which I mean, this present life – more satisfactory.
This is why the Israelites were constantly sliding back into idolatry. For most of the Israelites, the god of Abraham was simply the most apparently reliable of the available idols. So, say you have tried praying to the god Yahweh for good harvest for the last three years, and you’ve gotten nothing but bad harvests out of the deal…well, why not give the god Ba’al a chance? That is the natural reason that the majority of the human race has, throughout history, turned to religion. It is hard for any person who knows the human story of the past 3,000 years to be very surprised that American “pastors” are able to get obscenely rich by preaching a “prosperity gospel” – they are simply saying, as did the priests of Apollo in 500 B.C., that the secret to getting the money and comfort you want is applying the proper techniques for getting the gods on your side.
But in most modern American society, you see the Magical attitude manifest itself most often in a minor variation that I would call “religion as Therapy.” We have figured out, most of us, that being obscenely rich and good-looking doesn’t necessarily make you happy. Partly this is because the tabloids and TV gossip shows are constantly full of the divorces and drinking problems and sudden deaths of rich and good-looking celebrities; but mostly it’s because we Americans are, not to put too fine a point on it, the richest and most materially comfortable people in the history of the world…and yet there’s little reason to think we’re any happier than our grandparents were. So an entire industry of therapy, which didn’t exist a century ago, now does a booming business, as we give people money to try to help us feel good about ourselves and be happy. And for the majority of Americans, religion serves precisely the same purpose as therapy. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not; all that matters is whether it makes me, subjectively, happier. The typical modern American goes to church, including to such obviously absurd and ludicrously false churches as the Church of Scientology, for the same reason he would go to his therapist: he thinks that playing this particular religious game will help him feel happier. Whether it happens to be true or not is beside the point; he only wants to know whether it works. He is dissatisfied with his present life, and he turns to religion as a means of getting what he wants. He turns to religion, in other words, for precisely the same reason that Agamemnon, frustrated by his failure to win the Trojan War, asked the pagan Greek priests what he would have to do in order to the gods to help him defeat Troy, and then did exactly what they told him – though we may surely hope that, unlike Agamemnon, our modern friend won’t go so far as to have his daughter ritually killed as a sacrifice.
In short, if I am a Magical Religionist, then I am at Point A, I want to get to Point B, religion is the cab I hire to get me there – and God is my cabbie.
Now this attitude of Magical or Therapeutic Religion is not at all compatible with Christianity, because the whole point of Magical Religion, is to get the gods to keep you from suffering; while the fundamental requirement for being Jesus’ disciple is to pick up the cross. Religion as Magic, or as Therapy, is meant to get the gods to do what you want them to do. But Christianity uncompromisingly demands that we deny ourselves and say to God, “Nevertheless, Thy will be done.”
But what if the only thing a Magical Religion person hears about Christianity is that God has miraculously cured so-and-so’s cancer (which often is perfectly true)? What if we point out to him that people who have served God long and faithfully are unusually joyful and unusually free from self-disgust and despair (which, as a generalization, I think is also quite true)? What if we go to hours of trouble to convince him that people who manage their personal finances based on Biblical principles are generally in much better financial position than people who don’t (true yet again as a broad generalization)? If the only thing the Magical Religionist hears about Christianity is a bunch of cup-passed testimonies, it becomes quite easy for such a person to “accept Jesus.” That is, it is easy for them to agree to recite the Magic Formula “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior,” to start going to the Magic Temple with the cross on it, to eat the Magic Wafer and drink the Magic Purple Juice, and to dutifully read the Magic Book ten minutes every day.
But such a person is not, in fact, a disciple of Christ. For his whole point in being a Christian, is to avoid life’s crosses.
Now when a Magical Religionist becomes one of these Magical Pseudo-Christians, he is not going to live happily ever after. One of three things (assuming he doesn’t get hit by a bus and die the day after his “conversion”) is going to happen.
First, it could be that, through going to church and reading the Bible, he comes to understand what Jesus really requires, and what it is that Jesus really promises. That is, he comes to understand what it really means to be a Christian – and he accepts it, and becomes a true disciple of Christ. You never know what can happen if a man starts hanging out with people who are true servants of God and who tell the truth about the Way; many a false conversion has turned true down the road a bit.
Second, he could come to understand what Jesus really requires, and what it is that Jesus really does promise – and he could then say, “Wait a minute, that’s not what I signed up for.” Having never been a Christian in the first place, he could come to realize, “Oh, if that’s what it means to be a Christian, well, turns out I’m not a Christian.” And that is progress, of a sort; at least he now knows he is lost and not yet found.
But what happens tragically often is the third outcome: nobody ever gets around to explaining to the Magical Religionist what it is that Christianity is really about. And sooner or later, God declines to respond to the Magical Spells the way he is supposed to – the cancer comes back, or the chronic sin doesn’t go away, or the troubled marriage goes ahead and fails, or the promised prosperity never materializes. And then the Magical Religionist walks away from Christianity, and when you ask him why, he says simply:
“Christianity just didn’t work for me.”
Let me tell you this, very clearly. If any man tells you, “I used to be a Christian, but it just didn’t work for me,” then you can be 100% sure that that individual was never, in actual fact, a Christian.
But the tragic thing is that this man will be quite sure that he has tried Christianity and proved it a failure. Not that he’s proved it false, mind you; the Magical Religionist doesn’t think truth matters in religion to begin with. He wouldn’t mind if his religion were false as long as it delivered. What he thinks is that he has proved that Christianity doesn’t work, because it didn’t do what he expected it to do. He gave God a trial period and God didn’t make the cut; so God gets the pink slip. And of course he probably has plenty of Magical Religionist friends who never bought into the whole church thing to begin with. They will take great satisfaction in telling him, “I told you so, didn’t I? I told you Christianity doesn’t work; I knew all along it doesn’t work, because I’ve seen too many Christians lose their businesses and have their children die tragically and die themselves of cancer.” I know people – there are people I care deeply about – who think Christians are stupid for precisely this reason: they’ve seen too many Christian prayers go apparently unanswered to think that Christianity works, and they think it obvious that any intelligent person would rather trust science than Christianity because science works better.
And you know what? They are quite right that Christianity doesn’t always deliver on Magical Religion’s promises – God feels not the slightest obligation to keep promises He never made in the first place, and thus they are 100% right that God doesn’t always deliver on those particular promises. But they are 100% wrong in saying that Christianity doesn’t work. They just don’t know what Christianity is trying to do in the first place. They are like men who tell you derisively that windmills are a stupid idea and they don’t ever work:
YOU: “Wait a minute – windmills do, too, work. What makes you think windmills don’t work?”
MAGICAL RELIGIONIST: “Hey, there are ten windmills on the hill outside of town. They’ve been there for five years now, and their propellers have been turning ever since they were first built, and not a single one of them has managed to move an inch.”
If a man doesn’t know the difference between the vanes on a windmill and a propeller on an airplane, then it’s not surprising if he thinks windmills are just a really bad kind of airplane. And if the only thing he’s interested in is flying, then certainly it would be foolish for him to go sit in a windmill and wait for takeoff. If, on the other hand, he would like to be able to get water out of the ground to irrigate his wheat, or if he would like to be able to grind the wheat into flour so that he can make bread, he will find a windmill considerably more useful than he would find a Cessna. A man who says, “I see lots of Christians who pray and have bad things happen to them anyway; so I’m not stupid enough to be a Christian,” is rather like a man who says, “I see lots of windmills stuck on the ground and not getting anywhere; so I’m not stupid enough to try to fly one of them.” I am happy to reassure such a person that he is, indeed, smarter than a person who thinks windmills can fly. But the fact that he thinks that the people who built the windmill were trying to build a flying machine, is no great testament to his intelligence.
So to the people whose whole reason for turning to Jesus is that they think Christianity is the best brand of Magic on the market, it is the duty of every Christian evangelist to throw up a huge caution sign and say, “Stop! The way of the Christian is the way of the Cross. Christianity is not a way to get God to start doing what you want; it is a way to help you become the kind of person who finally, at long last, can do what God wants.” And to the people who say, “Christianity is bogus because it is not very effective Magic,” it is not the duty of the Christian to start arguing, “No, wait, God answers lots of prayers; it is, too, good Magic.” It is instead the duty of the Christian to explain that Christianity is not effective Magic because it is not Magic at all, and that Christianity accomplishes God’s purposes for religion spectacularly well even though it doesn’t accomplish the Magical Religionist’s purposes for religion. In dialogue with the Magical Religionist, the Christian has to challenge his friend’s most fundamental views about what religion is all about – views his friend usually isn’t even aware that he holds because they seem to him self-evident. The Christian has to challenge his friend to face the fundamental questions: Why should God be obliged to answer our prayers and do our bidding, rather than our being obliged to pick up our crosses and do His bidding? Why should God be measured by how prosperous He makes us, rather than by how virtuous He makes us? Most of all, why should we think that God owes us a life without suffering, when God Himself was so willing to suffer on our behalf? Until the Magical Religionist has confronted those questions, he is not only not yet ready to accept Christianity – he is not yet ready even to reject it. He has no clue what it is in the first place.
Thus you see why it is that there is such a difference between sharing a cup-passed testimony with a non-Christian, and sharing a cup-drunk testimony. The one thing a cup-drunk testimony is not going to do, is to create the misconception that Christianity is a sort of Cosmically Magical Vending Machine. The cup-drunk testimony bears witness to the true nature of the Christian walk, which is one of joy and triumph not instead of, but rather in the midst of, our sufferings. I do not for a moment say that you should not tell your non-Christian friends what God has done for you, and if you have been miraculously cured of cancer, then by all means tell everyone whom you meet. But just remember, when you tell your story, that you are not called to invite people to come to Jesus so that he can cure their bodies and fill their wallets. You are called to invite people to pick up their crosses and follow in the path of Jesus, even if that path leads – as it has led hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters before us – to Calvary.
For it is only on the far side of Calvary, that one can find the empty tomb.