Sometimes the old spirituals said it best. Simple, yet profound, they spoke to the deep longing of the soul for real, authentic faith. This one has been chasing me around for some time…
“Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart.”
And it’s all about the heart, isn’t it?
Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8)
That kind of heart is easy to picture, isn’t it? Outward worship. Public prayers. Much seeming devotion and sanctity. The externals are all there. And sometimes we’re impressed. Look at how God is blessing them…maybe.
But if we peel back the layers of religion, what is revealed? Covetousness? Love for things? Status? The applause of men? Maybe an empty shell?
How very different from those first Christians who oozed authenticity from the inside out. That early cohort of disciples was so attractive in their community of love and radical hospitality that Luke tells us they “enjoyed the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:47)
So much so that the watching pagan world couldn’t help but notice. An early Christian writer named Tertullian quoted a pagan official who said this about Jesus-followers, “See how they love one another.”
Jesus had told his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:35) He went on to say, “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
Paul described that love:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude; it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
This is real authenticity. This is being a Christian “from the heart.” Christian faith is not a disembodied message. It is faith that is “fleshed out.”
That old spiritual song, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart,” likely came out of the Virginia hills in the 1750s based on the story told of a black slave who asked a Presbyterian preacher, William Davies,
“I come to you sir, that you may tell me some good things concerning Jesus Christ and my duty to God, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done. Sir, I want to be a Christian.”
“I am resolved to not live any more as I have done.” That’s a powerful line!
Who comes to mind when you think about authentic, fleshed out faith…the kind where our external behaviors sync up with our stated beliefs? Where our commitment to know, love and serve Christ subsumes all other commitments, desires, and priorities?
I am always taken aback when I read the startling account in Gordon MacDonald’s, The Life God Blesses, of authentic faith revealed in the true story of a black, South African pastor whose home was firebombed and destroyed one night. Early the next morning his Bishop went out to the township and found the pastor and his family standing at the front of their burned-out home. Nothing remained but the chimney. Only the clothes they were wearing were left.
The Bishop said as he looked on the ruins of their home, he suddenly noticed that the pastor had done one thing that revealed his authentic faith. For there on the chimney wall the pastor had taken a lump of charcoal and written the words that were spoken as a vow by all Methodist pastors each year at the District Conference:
Put me to what you will.
Put me to doing.
Put me to suffering.
Let me be laid aside for you.
Let me have all things.
Let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
Authentic Christian living is never easy. It means service over comfort, sacrifice over applause, integrity over accumulation. It means business owners forgiving those who have cheated them. It means spouses choosing to overlook faults. It means persevering generosity when the economy sucks. It means welcoming “the other” who moves into our neighbourhood. It means patiently loving a wayward child.
There is a longing in my spirit. I want to be like that black Methodist Pastor. I want to be like that black Virginia slave. I too want to be a Christian in my heart. And you?