A basic question every Christian has at one time or another is: so what’s the whole point? What does Christianity DO? Is Christianity working? After I believe in my heart and confess with mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, what’s supposed to happen?
I remember discussing Christianity with a Chinese classmate at Ohio State at the café in Thompson Library. I was interviewing her for a missions class I was taking off-campus, and we were discussing the basic tenets of Christianity. I clumsily explained the steps of salvation and then came up for air.
She nodded: “Okay, but does your life change?”
Chinese classmate: “?”
Me: “Oh. Well. YES! It does! …For example, um, I would say that you become… more… peaceful?”
Chinese classmate: “Okay, but does your behavior change? Like do you stop doing the things you used to do before you become a Christian?” (Honestly, she was being a better missionary than even I was at that moment.)
For some reason, this question jolted me then and has since been one that I contemplate. I might even ask YOU this question. What EXACTLY is the nature of a life affected by Christ?
“To become like Christ,” you fire off. “To be a better person.”
Why, I ask you? And, how? How EXACTLY does one become like Christ? May I ask what are the steps and the methods? Exactly?
This summer I finished a book which has answered for me, in part, that question. It’s called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright.
It’s the sequel to another excellent book called Surprised by Hope (which I also highly recommend) in which Wright doesn’t so much present new topics as he reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible, but have sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important and how that changes how we live here on Earth. But some Christians miss this part about LIVING ON EARTH. (Remember Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird? “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.”) It’s as if Wright notices the same. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening” to the world, and seeking only to “endure” this life until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.” By the end of the book, one begins seriously examining the notion of God’s intention to redeem all creation back to Himself and, against all odds, His inviting us to join Him in that work.
Wright’s not always a light read, but at times his Britishisms and friendly, conversational tone are downright charming. He also provides a fascinating introduction to the landscape of British Christianity, which is in fact the viewpoint from which he is writing. Besides being one of the world’s top biblical scholars, he is also a Bishop for the Church of England.
This is the backdrop for reading After You Believe in which, having firmly in place the idea that all Christians are called to redemptive life works, Wright focuses a little bit more on the how. If all Christians exist for the purpose of uniting with God in His grand design to ultimately redeem all things to Himself, then there must be a way that God intends for us to go about that.
Some points he makes:
- Wright ties worship and mission together with Christian holiness, indicating that two without the other, well, in fact, aren’t:
“The high calling of Christian morality is therefore the necessary handmaid of the still higher callings of Christian worship and mission. The virtues which constitute the former are the vital components of the latter. The only way for worship and mission to become second nature to the followers of Jesus is for the virtues, the Spirit’s fruit, the passion for unity, and the celebration of the multiply varied vocations within the one body all to become second nature as well” (247).
- Wright further expounds on the why of Christian virtue and warns against common misunderstandings. For example, we don’t “put on virtue” to either receive rewards or to avoid punishment.
“Jesus is not meaning either ‘If you can manage to behave in this way, you will be rewarded’ (a kind of legalist solution) or ‘Now that you’ve believed in me and my kingdom project, this is how you must behave’ (the sort of thing some post-Reformation theology might insist on)… What Jesus is saying, rather, is, ‘Now that I’m here, God’s new world is coming to birth; and, once you realize that, you’ll see that these are the habits of heart which anticipate that new world here and now.’ These qualities—purity of heart, mercy, and so on—are … in themselves, the signs of life, the language of life, the life of new creation, the life of new covenant, the life which Jesus came to bring” (106).
Here is Wright’s notion that Christian virtue is an expression of the Gospel (the advent of God’s kingdom) which has already come to pass and is coming to pass.
- Another claim by Wright is that one doesn’t attain Christian virtue simply by “following Jesus’ example” as it is so commonly (and awfully) put these days. (One way that many people approach this question of “How shall we live?” is pointing out Christ as the great example.) Wright has some terse words about this.
“To what extent would this be a helpful, or even possible, line to pursue? At one level, it certainly wouldn’t be helpful and might well not even be possible. Holding up Jesus as an example of how to live a moral life seems rather like holding up Tiger Woods as an example of how to hit a golf ball. Even if I started now and practiced for eight hours a day, it is highly unlikely that I would ever be able to do what Woods can do; and there are many people out there, younger and fitter than I, who are trying their hardest to do it and still find they can’t. Similarly, watching Jesus—with his astonishing blend of wisdom, gentleness, shrewdness, dry humor, patience with blundering followers, courage in confronting evil, self-control in innumerable situations of temptation… makes most of us, all but the most proud and ambitious, feel like we do when watching Tiger Woods hit a golf ball. Only more so” (126).
Wright goes on to explain how expecting virtue to proceed from watching Jesus as example is not only improbable, but also simplistic and untrue to Jesus’ conquering nature:
“It is basically safe: it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform this earth, and us within it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus’s death. Jesus as ‘moral example’ is a domesticated Jesus, a kind of religious mascot. We look at him approvingly and decide we’ll copy him (up to a point at least, and no doubt he’ll forgive us the rest because he’s a decent sort of chap.) As if! If all we need is a good example, we can’t be in quite such a bad state as some people (including Jesus himself) have suggested. Over against all such notions stands the entire tradition from Jeremiah with his warnings about the deceitful heart, through John the Baptist, with his warnings about the ax being laid to the roots of the tree, through Paul, with his warnings that if righteousness had come by the Law the Messiah wouldn’t have need to die, through to Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard . . . and a host of others. And of course Jesus himself. He doesn’t go about saying, ‘This is how it’s done, copy me.’ He says, ‘God’s kingdom is coming; take up your cross and follow me.’” (126-27).
It seems that expecting the appearance of virtue simply from “Jesus’ example” is just bad theologically, not to mention downright unBiblical.
- We can agree, then, that there is a process to learning virtue and it admittedly takes effort. Wright compares learning Christian virtue to learning a foreign language as an adult.
“You will often get it wrong, but it’s worth persisting for the goal… of what lies ahead. If you’re an English speaker learning German, you must continually remind yourself that the verb comes at the end of the sentence. And, even in a language quite like your own (think of an Italian learning Spanish), there will be quite a large amount of vocabulary which just has to be memorized. This requires mental effort, the conscious, acted-out intention to imprint these patterns, with their physical outworkings (the contortions of tongue, teeth, lips, and vocal chords), upon the brain, aiming at the point when they will happen without effort and indeed without conscious thought. It is exactly this kind of complex effort, as we shall see, which the early Christians described when they were urging one another to develop the character which anticipated God’s new world” (40-41).
Certainly, some sort of human patience and “practicing” is necessary.
- But what about “practicing”? In his book, Wright brings clarity to age-old arguments about virtue, especially the one about hypocrisy. He concedes that invariably the question will be asked:
“If developing character by slow, long practice is what it’s all about, doesn’t that mean that for most of that time we will be acting hypocritically, play-acting, pretending to be virtuous when actually we aren’t? And isn’t that kind of hypocrisy itself the very opposite of genuine Christian living?” (58).
But Wright deflects this question (vehemently answered YES! by the likes of Martin Luther) by giving a voice to none other than Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
“‘Putting it on’ is all right. It isn’t hypocrisy, Hamlet is saying. It’s the way virtue comes into its own:
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either curb the devil, or throw him,
With wondrous potency. (lines 165-170)
The alternative is to let ‘custom’—that is, the force of regular behavior which carves a groove in our minds and our behavior patterns—so dictate to us that we cannot see sense (lines 37-38)” (59).
If we never put on, then our custom may be to continually follow a pattern of behavior which is not good. Wright goes on to express the possibilities of changing our custom not only to virtuous behavior but also to the custom of embracing and inviting virtuous behavior:
“Instead, such ‘custom’ or ‘use’ should be turned to good effect, helping us to ‘put on’ virtues which do not come naturally to begin with but which will do so in time (lines 161-165). It is remarkable, he says, what can be achieved by this means” (59).
Thank you, Hamlet.
- Getting back to the how, Wright makes the point that we shall be transformed (to answer my Chinese friend’s question) by the renewing of our minds. “Oh, good!” you say, “now I can finally know how to live!” But I will warn you that Wright refuses to offer a 10-step approach. First, he argues that before a transformation can take place, your mindset must be renewed. To get to this, Wright pulls out Paul’s New Testament vision of Christians being “daytime” people, as it were. First, one has to be utterly convinced that God’s kingdom and redemptive work has already come to pass and is already being worked out in the world. This knowledge gives one the confidence to begin the life-long journey of renewing one’s mind. (Again, read Wright’s first book Surprised by Hope for more on that.) Wright points out that the Beatitudes are a picture of this. The blessings listed there are a picture of God’s ordered world, not how things perhaps are now but ultimately will be, due to God unleashing His blessing on the world. Christians must, then, develop ways of being that ultimately reflect this upcoming ordered world. We must be people of the day.
“For Paul, faith, hope, and love are already given in Christ and by the Spirit, and it is possible to live by them. But you have to work at it. And to work at it you have to want to live in the daytime. You have to understand how your own moral life functions. You have to think through what it all means and how it all works. You have to develop, consciously and deliberately, the habits of heart, mind, soul, and strength that will sustain this life of faith, hope, and love” (138).
(Hmmm, what are these “habits”? Do I have them and how do I develop them?) Then Wright supports his vision that the knowledge of God’s new order is necessary before this virtue appears by quoting Colossians and I John.
Additionally, in these passages, Wright admits the challenges that many of us avoid in our pursuit of virtue.
“What then is Paul saying in Colossians that Christians must do? Answer: he is telling them to develop, in the present, the character which will truly anticipate the life of the coming age… What we need to grasp, as being of the essence of his summons to Christian virtue, is the moral effort involved. ‘Put to death . . .’ (3:5), ‘put away . . .’ (3:8), ‘put on . . .’ (3:14)” (143).
This is a point which I think many of us shy away from. That it actually takes work to define one’s character.
“[Paul] does not say, ‘You might to try giving up a bit of this’ or ‘If it feels all right to you, think about doing without some of these thing.’ He says, ‘Put them to death.’ If you don’t kill them, they will kill you (3:6). This is not, we must stress, because God will suddenly invoke some arbitrary and tyrannical divine prohibition to cramp our style, stop us having a good time, or punish us if we step out of line. Rather, it is because these styles of behavior lead directly, as a matter of necessity, into corruption, decay, and death and hence away from the new creation where heaven and earth come together and resurrection results” (143).
In essence, these particular “natural” ways of being do not foreshadow God’s ultimate redemption of all created things and therefore must be avoided.But Wright does not leave us in a legalistic time-out to think about how bad we’ve been behaving. No, rather, he points to the glorious dawning of God’s new order, reminding us that we are already awake to this new life.
“As we saw, that future state is, for the Christian, the resurrection to a body like that of the risen Jesus Christ, a resurrection to share in the new world, the new creation that has already begun with him, and in which God’s people are to be a royal priesthood, the genuine human beings through whom God’s world is brought into glorious flourishing and order” (141).
Since Christians have been translated into this new world order THAT ALREADY IS AND IS GOING TO CONTINUE TO BE, we can ask ourselves the question how might God expect it to come about. We have already touched on the renewing of our minds, first by announcing that one must be convinced of the this new order and be convinced of one’s own place in this new order, that is, that a Christian has already been inducted into this new life. If you are a Christian, you WILL receive the virtue of God Himself (I John 2:28, 3:2-3).What Wright does is he continually suggests that setting a goal is paramount to actually achieving some sort of Christian virtue.
“This same setting of the goal—the goal of complete and finished product of humaness—drives and shapes the habits of mind, heart, and body which will lead to that finished product and, in addition, drives and shapes the way in which those habits must be clearly understood, chosen, and learned” (167).
This is the mind-renewal which must firmly be in place before one can expect any transformation at all.
- Next, Wright discusses the importance of what I earlier pointed out as “habits.” One of the most important things that I came away with from this book is that what happens after you believe is a new life of new habits formed by a life-giving knowledge: that knowledge of God’s intended order. And I continue to explore ways in which those habits of thinking and being might be formed. For Wright there are a variety of ways (though he does NOT spend his book exploring what to DO to ACHIEVE, this is not his style but rather arguing for a case for Christian virtue) but he does hint at times how these might look for the curious Christian:
“A rich mutual ministry of the word, then, is what Paul has in mind: the word bought taught and sung, telling and retelling the story of God, the world, Israel, Jesus Christ, and (not least) the future hope. The aim is that individual Christians might have their minds and hearts awakened and alerted to fresh visions of God’s reality, of the final hope set before them, and be able to discern in a fresh way what habits of mind and heart and body are necessary if they are to grow into the people God intends” (169).
There are various habits or pathways within which a development of Christian virtue might occur, and Wright discusses these throughout his book.
- But for those of you practical folk, Wright doesn’t leave you hanging and after an entire book of comparing early Christian views of virtue in Pauline writings to even earlier views of morality, in the final chapter, he finally hints at the ways in which a Christian might think of answering this question of what happens after you believe and how it comes about. (Hints, because, Wright does not insult us with a 10 step approach.) In the final chapter he answers the question: “how can virtue be practiced?” Wright offers a circular approach by which these virtues might come about: scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices (260).First, Scripture:
“The practice of reading scripture, studying scripture, acting scripture, singing scripture—generally soaking oneself in scripture as an individual and community—has been seen from the earliest days of Christianity as central to the formation of Christian character” (261).
Being Church of English, Wright necessarily makes a case for the use of liturgy and its ability to impress scripture upon believers. One such passage which I enjoyed and simply have to share with you:
“The church needs constantly to learn, and constantly to be working on, the practice of telling and retelling the great stories of the world and Israel, especially the creation and the Exodus; the great promises that emerged from those stories; and the ways in which those promises came to their fruition in Jesus Christ. The reading of Scripture—the written account of those stories—has therefore always been central to the church’s worship. It isn’t only that people need to be reminded what the stories say (though that is increasingly important in an age where otherwise ‘educated’ people simply don’t know the Jewish and Christian stories at all). It’s that these stories should be rehearsed in acts of celebration and worship, ‘telling out the greatness of the Lord,’ as Mary sang in the Magnificat. Good liturgy uses tried and tested ways of making sure that scripture is read thoroughly and clearly, and is constantly on the lookout for ways of doing it even more effectively—just as good liturgy is also eager to discover better and better ways of singing and praying the Psalms together, so that they come to be ‘second nature’ within the memory, imagination, and spirituality of all the worshiping faithful, not just of a few musically minded leaders” (225).
But Scripture is not the only way to develop virtue, Wright offers.
“Scripture trains us to listen to and learn from stories of all kinds, inside the sacred text and outside, and to discern patterns and meaning within them. And stories of all sorts form and shape the character of those who read them” (264).
Wright goes on to make an excellent argument for the study of all literature, an argument that as a teacher of literature I find highly validating.
“Within the Christian tradition there is special reason to pay attention to stories. Many of the great writers in the world have been deeply formed by the Jewish and/or Christian tradition, and their thoughtful words can help us to reflect on that tradition more deeply. But Christians believe that all human life is itself a gift of God and, however much it may be distorted, a reflection of God. Thus even stories written by writers who are explicitly atheist—indeed, writers whose words were intended to mock or dismiss God—have a strange knack of making crucial points about what it means to be human, about the importance of love and justice and beauty. Living within the world of stories increases—if we let it—the capacity for discernment” (265).
Besides Scripture and stories, Wright offers “examples” as another pathway to Christian virtue. I have already mentioned that Wright discounts “example” alone to be a pathway. It only works once knowledge and a greater understanding of “what will be” are firmly rooted in the believer. However, once these things are in place, “examples” may well be a pathway to Christian virtue. Both the example of Jesus but also countless other Biblical and nonbiblical examples (268-269).Add to examples community, including the large church abroad, the home congregation, and small groups, which Wright breaks down for us:
“It may be a parish church, it may be a neighborhood Bible study group, it may be a group that meets to plan strategy in relation to local social issues, whatever—where sharply focused learning can happen and where decisive action can be planned and taken. Here the habits are formed by Christian friends, neighbors, and colleagues working together, prayer together, sharing one another’s lives and sorrows and frustrations and excitements” (274).
Wright then presents a beautiful pictures of what he means by community—how exceedingly diverse, yet unified in spirit we can expect our smallest “communities” to be.
“Here is Jane slowly thinking through the plan to meet women ex-offenders when they emerge from prison, to prevent them going back to the new habits that got them there in the first place. Here is Jack, full of a new Bible study guide he’s been reading, which he knows will open the whole group’s eyes to vistas of truth previously unimagined. Here is Jeff, who has been talking to the local education authority about starting a preschool for the young children of single parents (of whom there are many in the area) who have nothing to do when Mom goes out. Here is Lisa, who has been writing some new music for use at the Sunday night service for which a motley crew of young people typically drifts in. The point of introducing you to this four, and millions like them in small groups around the world, is that they are learning the habits of heart and life together. The point of ‘virtue’ for them is not that any will become the kind of striking ‘leader’ who will win awards, be recognized on the street, and appear on television chat shows. Nor is the point that they are all just like one another. They are not; they are very different characters, with different gifts and vocations and temperaments and social and cultural backgrounds… In order to work together, these four, and the others in their local fellowship, have to develop the fruit of the Spirit. If they don’t have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, they won’t get very far. Their fellowship will fragment. Each one will go off and do his or her own thing, muttering about the lack of vision of the rest of the church. This is what I mean when I say that the church, the community of God’s people, is the forum within which virtue is learned and practiced” (274-75).
Finally, Wright cites “practices” of the body of believers as the final pathway of developing virtue in the believer. These community practices include the shared worship of communion and baptism, prayer, tithing, and reading scripture.So there you have it:
- (Worship + mission) – virtue = 0
- Putting on virtue is the sign of life.
- Virtue is not attainable by following example alone.
- Virtue is a process that requires effort.
- Practicing virtue is not hypocritical.
- Virtue cannot come about until your mind is renewed.
- There are habits within which virtue is more likely to come about.
- A cycle of scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices is most effective for the putting on of virtue.
Herein have I offered you the best bits of N.T. Wright’s After You Believe. I invite you to read the book for yourself to more fully answer for yourself the why and how of what happens after you believe.