The glory of God is a person fully alive," said the second-century theologian Irenaeus. Sadly, that description does not reflect the image many people have of modern Christians. Rightly or wrongly, they see us rather as restrained, uptight, repressed—people less likely to celebrate vitality than to wag our fingers in disapproval.
"What made you so negative against Christianity?" a friend once asked Friedrich Nietzsche. "I never saw the members of my father's church enjoying themselves," he replied. Where did Christians get the reputation as life-squelchers instead of life-enhancers? Jesus himself promised, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." What keeps us from realizing that abundant life?
In some believers, unhealthy family or church backgrounds may have a stifling effect. Adult Children of Alcoholics, an organization that works with families afflicted by alcoholism, identifies three coping mechanisms children learn in order to survive a dysfunctional setting: Don't Talk, Don't Trust, and Don't Feel. Christian counselors tell me that troubled Christians tend to operate by the same rules in relating to God. Emerging from a strict upbringing, or feeling disillusioned by some aspect of the Christian life, they squelch passion and fall back on a guarded, cautious faith. Fearful, they find a haven among people who think like they do, in a "safe" environment withdrawn from the world.
Of course, the church also includes a long tradition of mystics and monastics who viewed the world and its pleasures with open suspicion. John of the Cross advised believers to mortify all joy and hope, to turn "Not to what most pleases, but to what disgusts," and to "Despise yourself, and wish that others should despise you." St. Bernard covered his eyes to avoid the beauty of Swiss lakes. Madame Guyon urged the faithful to mortify self and move toward a state of total passivity. Strive for "nothingness," she counseled; achieve "complete indifference to yourself." Hardly a prescription for feeling fully alive.
After writing two dozen books on a variety of subjects, author Frederick Buechner decided to turn his literary skills to exploring the lives of saints. The first three he chose—Brendan, Godric, and the biblical Jacob—surprised him, for the more he researched them, the more skeletons in the closet he uncovered. What made this unsavory trio saintly? he asked himself. He finally settled on the word "life-giver." Passionate, risk-taking, courageous, each of the three made those around him feel more alive, not less.
When I heard Buechner give that definition of saintliness, I thought immediately of my friend Bob. His parents worried about his spiritual state, concerned that he was spending too little time "in the Word" and in church. But I have never met anyone more fully alive. He took in stray animals, did carpentry chores for friends, climbed mountains, skydived, learned to cook, built his own house. Although Bob rarely used religious words, I noticed that everyone around him, including me, felt more alive after spending time with him. He radiated the kind of pleasure in the world of matter that God must feel. By Buechner's definition, at least, Bob was a saint.
I have known other life-giving Christians. A devout Presbyterian named Jack McConnell invented the Tine test for tuberculosis, helped develop Tylenol and MRI imaging, and then devoted his retirement to recruiting retired physicians to provide free medical clinics for the poor. Overseas I have met missionaries who repair their own vehicles, master several languages, study the local flora and fauna, and give shots if no doctor is available. Often these life-givers have difficulty finding a comfortable fit in staid American churches.
Paradoxically, the life-givers I have known seem most abundant with life themselves. Buechner restates the paradox first articulated by Jesus, that the most fully alive persons demonstrate it by giving away that life:
Inspection stickers used to have printed on the back 'Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own.' That is the wisdom of men in a nutshell. What God says, on the other hand, is 'The life you save is the life you lose.' In other words, the life you clutch, hoard, guard, and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself; and only a life given away for love's sake is a life worth living. To bring his point home, God shows us a man who gave his life away to the extent of dying a national disgrace without a penny in the bank or a friend to his name. In terms of men's wisdom, he was a perfect fool, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of himself is laboring under not a cross but a delusion.
Other Buechner books include Listening to Your Life, Son of Laughter, and Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.
To read more about Jack McConnell's accomplishments link to this short bio from his proud alma mater.
Christianity Today recently ran "Living with Furious Opposites," from Yancey's latest book, Reaching for the Invisible God.
Yancey's columns for Christianity Today include:
To Rise, It Stoops (Aug. 29, 2000)
Lessons from Rock Bottom (July 10, 2000)
Chess Master (May 15, 2000)
Would Jesus Worship Here? (Feb.7, 2000)
Doctor's Orders (Dec. 2, 1999)
Getting to Know Me (Oct. 25,1999)
The Encyclopedia of Theological Ignorance (Sept. 6, 1999)
Writing the Trinity (July 12, 1999)
Can Good Come Out of This Evil? (June 14, 1999)
The Last Deist (Apr. 5, 1999)
Why I Can Feel Your Pain (Feb. 8, 1999)
What The Prince of Egypt Won't Tell You (Dec. 7, 1998)
What's a Heaven For? (Oct. 26,1998)
The Fox and the Writer (Sept. 7,1998)
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