It’s odd how our culture so often equates Christianity with a loss of identity. The idea runs something like this. To trust in Jesus is to settle into a carbon copy of pretend goodness. His Holy Spirit wipes clean not just our sins, but any nasty traces of personality or passion.
That’s it, my young disciple, unscrew your brain and pop it with your teeth into a glass by the bed, then proceed as directed to cosy mental infancy, clutching the Ten Commandments like a battered teddy bear.
Of course this is nonsense. Time and again Christ reminds us that as we lose our life we find it. It is as we are united to Christ, the Perfect Man, that we can begin to know ourselves and others, to fulfil our potential as those made in His image.
So how do we communicate this to a world that equates Christianity with lobotomy?
I watched a TV programme during the week. In it, a group of passionate (albeit delinquent) teens were pitted against the scheming and cult-like ‘Virtue’ group. The ‘Virtue’ party, a caricatured collection of buttoned-up Stepfordesque automatons, were on a mission to brainwash normal people by encouraging them to get moral. (This included some very funny scenes of young people flushing away their drugs and flinging their sex toys into the ocean – and, let’s face it, we’ve all been there).
The action pivoted around one character’s attempts to free his girlfriend from their fiendish..well, actually virtuous, clutches. He argued that, whilst she had a terrible attitude and all sorts of personal issues (including a conviction for GBH), these things were a part of her loveable charm. To lose them was to lose herself. To become a cipher, a mere outline of a person, rather than a living breathing, all-singing female assassin. The moral (?): Stay a sinner and be yourself or change and lose your identity.
Identity is one of the holy grails of the modern world. Everyone wants to know who they are, why they matter. Yet, ironically, it is only as we lift our gaze to the God for whom we have been made, that we start to make any sense. To know ourselves, we first need to know Him. And so, for all its flaws, the TV programme got some things right. If we’re promoting a system of self-improvement rather than a relationship, then conversion is just a synonym for brainwashing – and just as attractive. The Virtue party’s slogan, ‘you could be so much better’, was accompanied by disgust for would-be converts. Unsurprisingly, no-one actually signed up voluntarily, which is where the brainwashing came in.
So what can we learn?
These people were preaching from such a great height it was surprising they didn’t get nosebleeds. But which of us hasn’t fallen into the same trap?
Perhaps we forget that Christianity is Christ. He is our hope, our confidence and our joy. (You could try to use personal charm, but if you’re anything like me, this will result in quite spectacular failure). Christianity is a relationship, not a system. And that’s what gives us confidence to share it with others. It is because I know Christ’s grace transforming my own wicked heart, that I can dare to whisper it to others. Not as some kind of moral elite, but as one beggar showing another where to find food. Not as a cosy maxim for life, but as part of an eternal relationship of divine love.