A couple entries back I asked the question "is Christianity beautiful?" No doubt there are many people who'd answer in the negative and I think the impression that Christianity is oppressive may be one reason driving this. I can recall a discussion about Christianity emerging on a music forum I used to participate in and many folk were chipping in their reasons for their belief or disbelief. One guy's response has stuck with me ever since. He said that Christianity stifled, or quashed, or generally demeaned the human experience. What he meant by the human experience he didn't specify, but I took his complaint as suggesting that there are certain activities, emotions, or engagements which when carried out, deeply enrich or fulfill a person's life, but which Christianity forbids or discourages.
A wide-spanning complaint indeed but I think so on the money in terms of how Christianity is popularly perceived; Christians are backwards, sheltered, restricted (and wanting to restrict you), aloof, joyless, prudish, and pathetic. They. need. liberating.
Perhaps there are professing Christians for whom this is true. Perhaps there are entire Christian institutions for which this is true. After all stereotypes don't emerge without reason. My concern isn't with them however, but with the Christian message itself, the core of it I mean, what Christians would call "the gospel". Is the gospel conducive to this sort of ugliness?
To answer this question we'll need to unpack the gospel's content alongside the various aspects of the objection at hand. The whole gospel won't be visible at once. They'll be loose ends. But as we keep coming back to it bit by bit, together the layers will form a discernible whole. So let's begin.
The weight of moral obligation
Y'know I really hate olives.
No, really. Can't stand 'em. In the past my parents would try and sway me to them by elucidating their nutritional benefits; "they have vitamin so and so, and are X amount of your weekly this." Although I understood that they were good for me, I just plain disliked them and so to eat them was a real chore. It required much mustering of will, and it was generally quite burdensome to my dinner table experience. I often failed to carry out my dietry duty and left them on my plate.
Isn't so much of our moral experience like this? We often know what's good for us, but what's good seems so contrary to our desires. Oh I know I shouldn't talk to her again, I'm a married man. But she is so pretty ... and I know she wants me ... Oh I know I should give this change to the Oxfam lady outside. But I really want that CD ... Our own moral codes are hard enough to live by, let alone the code of a perfectly good, morally flawless superbeing. With this sort of experience being normal we can hardly be blamed for thinking that the ethical demands of Christian living would crush us more than enrich us.
The gospel has much to say to this fear but one thing the gospel offers is a tongue transplant. What if I were given a new tongue that loved the taste of olives? Would I not gladly consume them? Surely I would. What then, if I were given a moral 'tongue transplant'? A new set of attitudes and dispositions that delighted in doing good and pleasing God? Would I not gladly follow God's commands? You'd have to say, surely yes.
Such a tongue transplant is exactly what the gospel promises. The gospel says, "trust in Jesus and you will literally be made a new man." That's not to say that your individuality will be destroyed. Rather your heart's attitude toward God will change from aversion to affection. Something very real changes in your being. One of the Biblical authors describes the effect of being a new creation like this:
You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness (Romans 5:18)
You might think the use of the word slave describes exactly the state of oppression you fear! The word slave didn't mean the same thing then as it does to us but at any rate the imagery describes how the pull towards what doing what we know is wrong is instead exchanged with a pull toward doing what we know is right. And if what is right is what we delight in and what is right is also good for us then it is a joyous "slavery" indeed. But does this actually happen? Or is it just an empty promise?
Well the truth of this promise hinges on whether Jesus really rose from the dead bringing new life or not. Although I think the evidence for the actuality of that event is good, I shan't be exploring that here. What I will say is that my experience is consistent with this promise. That isn't to say I always do the right thing. Old habits die hard and other desires can loom strong. But I do desire to please God. And sometimes this desire takes me by surprise.
A couple years ago I was in love with a girl. I was blessed enough to have her return the affection! But after being in relationship together, while our affections remained we considered it would be wise to split up. Being a tad silly I didn't let go of her in my heart. She, being a tad wiser, let go of me! She was also blessed a few months after with another partner. When I found out about this I was still very much in love with her. Needless to say, "ouch" and my own fault really. I can recall not too long afterwards attending a church service with them also being present. Seeing them provoked all sorts of bitterness and animosity within me. I stewed in this for the first ten or so minutes of the service. And then the time of worship began. As I sang praise to God my attitude instantly changed. Not to merely being okay with them being there, but being happy. Not only being happy, but wanting to do good to them, to see them prosper and do well. At attitude like Jesus'.
I'll close this part by sharing one of Jesus' parables to ponder over.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:44)