Believing Becomes Strange
As a Christian for a long time already, you belong to a dying minority. And that becomes clear not only from the annually published data about church membership and religion in our country (the Netherlands). You notice that from the entire atmosphere of our society. The Christian stamp that characterized our culture is disappearing rapidly. Of course there are always elements left that remind us of that, but just as remnants of an unknown past, they call up estrangement. A high percentage in our country does not know anymore the meaning of Easter and Pentecost.
“God-obscuration” is not an exaggerated characterization of our society. In our world God is no longer present in most people’s awareness.
In such a society you can as a Christian feel like a stranger. It is often suggested to you that with your faith in God you are actually not part of this age anymore. You wonder how you should react to that.
It sometimes seems very obvious to just keep quiet about God and your life of faith. When your colleagues, for example, can only belch out or chuckle secretly when you print on a birth announcement that you received a child from God, it does not seem to be the right atmosphere to speak seriously about it. You cannot keep talking non-stop about your faith and you don’t want to act as an evangelist in your work.
On top of that, you don’t want to throw pearls before swine. We are sometimes inclined to withdraw. When your neighbours, your colleagues, the people you interact with, are not interested in it, it seems wiser to be silent in those circles.
After all, you still have your church contacts. In bible society meetings, in church, on home visit and with your acquaintances from church you live in a totally different atmosphere. You know how to appreciate each other.
Eventually, you save the expressions of your faith for that circle.
In practice this is the reality for quite a few people. It is not that they are ashamed of the gospel. In their work context and their wider environment they clearly acknowledge that they believe in God and want to live for him. But when in that situation you get snubbed every time, you will automatically withdraw. One will know that you are a believer. But what that means exactly is enacted only in your private life. It therefore remains largely invisible to the people around you.
It is clear that in this way something of a split will come into your life. You don’t deny God and you don’t want to do that. But in a part of your life it does not matter much anymore that you believe in him, that he is present in the world where you are. It therefore looks as if he is absent in that part of your own life (for instance, in your work environment).
From God or without God
Now there are always people who deny that as a Christian you always have to act different. I think you cannot state it that way either. The well-known example states that with Christians two times two makes four as well, just like in the world around them. And that counts for most professions. A carpenter or a computer specialist will likely not get different results than non-Christians.
But we cannot act as if a person can only be measured by his value in the workforce. There is more to be said about our functioning in this world. When it says that of the two women who grind grain, one will be accepted and the other left behind, then that most likely would not have been noticeable in the way they were grinding the grain. But it must have undoubtedly become clear in their lives whether they derived their strength from God or not. That should be important to us. Can and may we accept that God’s presence in this world is obscured in many ways? I think that we are taking a great risk when we allow our expressions of faith to be relegated to the private area of our lives. To say the least, we create the impression that believing in God is not really so essential that it puts a stamp on all our doings. But it will at the same time diminish our own relationship with God. For we are depriving ourselves of possibilities to give shape to that relationship.
If our faith becomes a private faith, it right away affects the situation of education. For the private area of education has everything to do with the life parents show in the outside world. It always remains decisive for the children what they see from their parents. The example speaks louder than a thousand words.
It is true that the work situation of most parents is not directly within the view of the children, but they still become aware of the way in which Dad and Mom experience their faith. But just at that point the example will be missing. That of course does not stimulate children to understand what it means to live as a child of God. In practice most parents seem to find it difficult anyway to discuss life with God in a open and easy way. But when on top of that they often do not succeed in being a living example, that is disastrous. Blind spots will surely develop because of this. At the very least the effect will be that the children grow up with the notion that it is normal if your faith in God is not always visible.
A Spiritual Island
Once you allow your faith life to be pushed back to the private sphere, whole areas of your life suddenly become neutral. Family and church can then still be an island in which you have room spiritually. But it is a known fact that islands become smaller due to the erosion by the current in which they lie. In this case too that is not imaginary. When you adjust the pattern of the greater part of your life according to the neutral environment, it will have an irrevocable influence on the rest of your life.
Especially on this point it must be clear that we should not acquiesce in it that we declare a part of our life to be neutral. For whoever lives neutrally in his work environment will not take off his neutral coat as soon as he comes home and put on his “spiritual coat.” That is not how it works.
In practice it often shows that people who in their relationship with others do not add spiritual colour and flavour to their conversations also have difficulties to really speak spiritually with their brothers in faith.
With “speaking spiritually” I do not mean the kind of conversations in which one Bible text after the other is being brought up. That is rather over-spiritual. But it should be possible to speak with one another in common sense about everything that has a place in our lives, through which it becomes clear that we live with the Lord. Still, there are signs that indicate that this type of conversation sometimes threatens to become scarce. Many an office-bearer observes that at home visits. For many people it is not common to mention the name of God in an ordinary conversation. They only come to that, for instance, in a discussion at a Bible study.
I think it is related to our entire pattern of living. When in a greater part of our activities we are satisfied with a neutral way of living, the life for God as we experience that in family and church becomes a spiritual island. You are then together with fellow believers and understand one another. But the true fellowship can then also quickly break down, because actually you are not used to a real spiritual conversation.
It is clear that in this way the island will erode more and more. The smaller it gets, the narrower your relationship with others becomes. That can work in different directions. It can mean that you no longer want to justify your faith choices to someone else (for instance, your ward elder). It can also mean that you don’t feel obliged to address someone else when he needs that. In short, the island can slowly become so small that only you remain on the island. Your faith has become an individualistic faith.
That is of course not possible, if we really want to experience in the church the unity of faith, that Christ himself makes a reality through his church-gathering work. Still there are enough people who do not see that as a problem. And that is exactly because the world around us forces that upon us: if you want to believe, fine, but let everyone do that by themselves and for themselves.
Is the World Approachable?
There is yet another aspect that plays an important role here. As Reformed people we are often used to taking action via Reformed organizations in order to express a Christian position in this society.
But lately the question comes up more and more, to what extend it is still useful to give witness through these Reformed organizations. Because of this, people start to doubt the value of those organizations and even their right to exist:
“We know now that we have a government that does not take God’s law into account. You should therefore not appeal to the Bible in order to justify political or societal choices.”
The question whether the world is still open to be addressed from the Bible becomes the criterion for the question whether we should speak out of faith. But also in that way, the life of faith is being erased from public life and pushed back to a private area, where no one else has any business.
Life Is One
So far we have seen: when in a large part of your life you take a neutral position, it will increase. You cannot split your life into a spiritual part and a worldly part. Private faith is no faith!
The only way to have a defensible answer to the challenge of secularization therefore is to let the unity of life be determined by a living worship of God. That requires a strong personal bond to him and at the same time a willingness to join in the great work of the gathering of his church.