I ONCE suggested to an old Presbyterian minister who was a close family friend at the time that it might be possible to be a Christian believer and not be aware of it.
It was in the context of a conversation we were having following a question my older daughter asked. She was studying religion for her A-levels and wondered how God might view people who had never heard the Christian gospel, or those who were born into, let’s say a Muslim country and therefore believed that theirs was the true faith; others are infidels.
The odd thing is that there are reports from what I consider to be reliable sources that we are living in an age in which many Jews and indeed Muslims too claim to have seen visions, or had dreams or visitations as a result of which they came to believe that Jesus is the true Messiah.
However, my old friend the minister shook his head and said, ‘No, I don’t think that is possible. When you know the Lord, you know you know the Lord.’ And his answer satisfied me, until recently when I came across some writings by an old Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, who wrote: ‘A Christian is someone who is animated by the Spirit of Christ, a person in whom the Spirit of Christ can work. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you are aware of what you are doing, or that you even have to know.’
Rohr goes on to remind us that it was Paul who told the Athenians that they had been, ‘...worshipping “the Unknown God” without even knowing it’ (Acts 17:23). Another example he quotes is from Matthew 25: ‘When have we seen you hungry? When have we seen you thirsty? And the Eternal Christ says, ‘Because you did it for these little ones, you did it for me’.
The inference is that they did not do what they did consciously; they just did what they were inspired to do.
I think the defining issue is not that we say the right words, it is whether we live the right reality. Could it be that the Holy Spirit gets most of his work done by stealth and disguise, and not just by those who say, “Lord, Lord!” After all, in the best known chapter in the Bible; John 3, Jesus says an odd thing. Referring to the Spirit as the wind, he said to Nicodemus: ‘The wind blows wherever it wants, you and I can hear it, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going’. The word is ‘unpredictable’.
That, I think, sums up the difficulty with much of organised religion. It tries to organise God, insists on putting God in a box, labelling him, like I have done just now by ascribing to ‘him’ the masculine gender. Someone once said that God has a specific job for each individual to do, which if that individual does not do it, it will remain undone. That’s a bit arrogant, don’t you think? These days, I’m not even sure he has a job for me at all, for I have come to agree with Jack Frost, who reduced the whole of the Christian experience down to one thing; receive the Father’s love... and pass it on.
Isn’t that refreshingly simple, and yet challenging?
Wit And Wisdom is a regular Larne Times Churches Page column by Adam Harbinson