Past Tense Christianity
Lieutenant Dan: “Have you found Jesus yet?”
Forrest Gump: “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, Sir.”
The further I drift down this long and winding road called Christianity, the more I come to realize why I had problems with the Christian tradition for much of my life. One thing that has always been troubling for me is the tendency to speak about religion in the past tense. This past tense discourse treats becoming a Christian as a one-time event or like some sort of ATM transaction in which salvation is withdrawn and secured once and for all. We often use phrases such as “saved” or “born-again” instead of speaking about a journey or an ongoing relationship. We ask if one has “found” Jesus instead of asking if a person is seeking Him.
The question “Have you found Jesus?” seems to place Christ on the same level as a lost set of keys which once found, are securely returned to one’s possession. Maybe this is why Forrest responded in the way that he did to Lt. Dan. The question does seem strange when you really think about it. Of course, all Christians want to “find” Jesus. But no matter how hard we try, this is not something that can ever occur in one particular moment. We must continue “finding” or seeking Jesus every day until our last breath. Christ is not a lost wallet or cell phone.
“Are you saved?” Millions of Americans have been asked this question at some point in their lives. This question, like the one about “finding” Jesus, seems to imply that salvation is achieved at one singular instance. The past tense verb “saved” places this event at a prior time in history. But is salvation really that simple? Can a simple one-time prayer “save” a soul for all eternity? I’m sure most evangelicals would say that it can as long as one remains faithful to that prayer and maintains a sincere relationship with Christ throughout their lives. But then again, this would imply an ongoing process. Therefore, the past tense “saved” would need to be made present since it is a continuation. One is “being saved” or “saving” one’s self through a personal relationship with God.
Over the course of this summer, I have been engaged in a serious inquiry into Orthodox Christianity, a topic I discuss here. Orthodox Christians would never ask anyone if they have been “saved.” The Orthodox Church does not expect members to have “found” Jesus, only that they come to church seeking Him. Being “born-again” in Christ is not treated as a one-time transaction. Rather, a Christian in the Orthodox Church is “born-again” at baptism and is continually “reborn” throughout their lives by participating in the liturgy, communion, and prayer. Believers are constantly being renewed or recreated through the organic life of the Church. It is this attitude that makes Orthodoxy appealing to me as someone who previously discounted not only Christianity, but all organized religion.
Past tense Christianity creates two major problems. First, it gives some believers a false sense of security. Some Christians may get the impression that they are already “saved” and thus do not need to continue working on their relationship with God. Second, it fails to account for the many diverse methods God uses to work through His children and therefore, tends to shut out many of those who might otherwise seek a relationship with God through the Church. The idea that one must have a “born-again” experience or be “saved” to be an “authentic” Christian divides the body of Christ and ignores the many other ways in which the Holy Spirit manifests itself in the world. It should be noted that I do not discount “born-again” experiences all together. We have all heard stories about those who God rescued from dangerous lives of addiction and excess. We cannot discount these miraculous experiences. On the other hand, we also cannot discount those whom God works through more slowly or who experience the Holy Spirit differently.
We must be careful when using past tense language to speak about our faith. Doing so could make us complacent about our relationship to God. Changing the way we speak about Christianity by using the present tense, however, can keep us on our toes. It can make us aware that we always have more work to do. Nearly twelve years ago when I married by beautiful and wonderful wife, I did not triumphantly claim victory and stop working on our relationship. Getting married is only the beginning of a long and winding road. It is the start of a life-long journey. Relationships can only grow stronger with time and effort.