Closet Closet Christians

This article appeared in the January issue of our Thinking Matters journal. The author, Elisabeth Marshall, has a MA in English and teaches Medical Humanities at the University of Auckland. For more articles from our journal, head to our Journal site.

None of us was born a Christian. Some of us were saved in almost imperceptible tugs, drawn quietly into the kingdom of God. Some of us entered more theatrically, kicking and screaming, or running for dear life into God’s presence. For most of us, our conversion was shepherded by people who challenged us—whose lives, perhaps, made us start thinking, whose teaching changed our understanding, and who became our spiritual family. So why, after being given salvation, do some of us shrink away from engaging with the world around us? Outside the supportive limits of the church, we are cautious with our faith; though there are pews full of people who know how God has changed us, there are many more in workplaces and social groups who have never encountered our salvation. We become closet closet Christians.

At the root of our unwillingness to be heard and seen and held up as Christians, all too often, is pride. The rest of the world may be an important factor in the way we perceive our own unwillingness, and consequently in the way we behave, but the problem is not fundamentally between us and the rest of the world—it is between us and God. In an effort to settle our lives comfortably, we can retreat from those situations that require us to deeply examine and nourish our relationship with God; we shy away from interaction.

But, in God’s mercy, we cannot escape it. The world engages with us. People are looking for answers and guidance left, right and centre, flocking to buy the latest self-help books, taking advice from You! On the Privy and Seven Habits of Highly Attenuated, Upwardly Mobile People and marveling that Indo-European Women Don’t Suffer Debilitating Heartburn while they consult their horoscopes, their blood types, their progesterone levels, their learning styles and their season on the color wheel before committing themselves. We live in a world that in many ways is ripe for answers. Yet all too often Christians are the ones waiting for the feng shui to blossom into risk-free perfection before we open our mouths. A little reflection might help us to realise that, contrary to expectations, the world (and our friends) will likely not explode when we unleash our counter-cultural perspectives.

Aren’t friendships among the most difficult of circumstances within which to engage with the gospel? Of course, our friends are in need of the honest witness that we are called to provide, but to approach every person with friendship as a prerequisite is not always wise. It can lead us into the trap of setting ourselves—our own personalities, abilities, questions, and resources—above the God who saved us. The efforts of a number of student ministries of my acquaintance, whose primary (some might say only) focus involved the consumption of junk food while making group plasticine sculptures—all done 4, of course, Jesus—spring to mind: when God is not the focus, any attempts at friendship can become hollow.

The gospel, after all, is offensive. Before it can be good news, it must be bad news. Before it can be a refuge from accusation, it must first be accusatory. It’s not going to comfort those who are outside God’s grace, but challenge and charge them as sinners to take hold of grace so that they may be comforted. It’s never our task to be deliberately unpleasant or needlessly argumentative, as if people will be compelled into the kingdom by sheer ornery force, but neither are we told to avoid confrontation—there is more at stake than friendship.

In order to truly engage with the world, and genuinely share our faith, there are things we need to understand, and to accept, and to do.

Know God

He has blessed us with revelation. He has given us his own Spirit to literally live within us. We can know God. This fact is shockingly simple, and utterly revolutionary. Devotees of many other religions would be baffled by the opportunity to know God—not just to know for sure that he exists, or experience the spark of him in nature and the spirit realm, but to know him as a person. It should unsettle and excite us simply to be in communion with him, and not merely because out of that excitement will flow a genuine desire to share the news of him with others. We were created to be in an intimate relationship with God in his first earthly garden, and we were saved to glorify him by the same relationship magnified in his heavenly city; the relationship that we have right now, even though we still grieve him with our sin every day, is utterly vital for us, and expresses God’s character in a way that is utterly essential to him. We need to value it above all things.

Know the truth

We need to understand the truth of our own salvation in its simplicity. This requires both a clear understanding of the gospel, with all side-issues and tendrils of confusion pared away, and a deep assurance that God has, indeed, worked effectively in us. Often, we need to let go of tangential things, to be able to present the essential truth of the gospel in a world whose basic philosophies make it difficult for many people to understand Christianity. We should strive not to present our faith as mere cultural baggage. This requires a clarity and humility of understanding as we examine our hobbies, our politics, our personalities and preferences, and seek to illuminate them with the light of Scripture. Paul valued his ability to “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Don’t be ashamed

God promises that “He who honors me, I will honor” (1 Samuel 2:30). We are not to be ashamed of the gospel emotionally, as if we will be harmed by criticism or ridicule. We are not to be ashamed intellectually, as if we believe that the foundations of our faith will crumble at skeptical objections. We are not to be morally ashamed, as if we have not been forgiven, or as if God’s grace is not enough to cover us. We are not to let our sinful weaknesses bring shame upon our witness by indulging the temptations to pride, condescension, anger, and laziness as we interact with people. In short, we are not to be ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

Engage boldly

My own spiritual background is resolutely Calvinistic. With the passionate Reformed conviction of God’s absolute omnipotence, his complete authority, there can be the tendency to become passive in evangelism; we rely on God so much for our salvation and our very lives that it’s possible to drift away from the responsibilities he has given to us. We understand all too well that we can do nothing without his direction, but sometimes we start to doubt that we should do anything at all. But that is not the way God guides us to act—doubtfully, provisionally, hesitantly. His commands are direct: Make disciples. Go. Be holy. Walk in the light. Be not unwise. Work out your salvation. We need to remember that God has promised to save everyone he chooses, and that he has chosen that we should deliver his words. Faith will come, he promises, as people hear the word of God.

Evangelism requires boldness in prayer, and a willingness to question some of the things our world holds most basic. It requires that we use the faith that God has given us, and trust that his word “will not return to him empty” (Isaiah 55:11) of power, but will transform the lives of all whom God calls to salvation.

With boldness, we must also be humble, always ready to question ourselves, admit mistakes, and demonstrate grace as we speak with people. There is a place for directness, perhaps sharing books and podcasts as we try to challenge others, and finding out about other religions and philosophies so that we can more fully understand the distinctiveness of Christianity. But directness and assurance must not lead to complacency; we should be restless as we wait on our Lord, never forgetting his grace, striving to make certain that our own lives are seasoned with the salt that will give others a thirst for the water of the living God. He is truly the one who sustains and will finally perfect our faith, and we must remain in him—in practical apologetics, in the conversation on the bus, the visit with a friend, the footpath chat with a non-Christian missionary, the letter to a relative. We are not simply engaging with other people; we are engaged with God in those moments, serving him and experiencing the blessings of his salvation. And God will act, he promises, as we boldly go into the world and offer ourselves, uncloseted, as members of his beloved body with good news to share.