I used to be a radical Christian. No, I didn’t preach on street corners or drive an RV covered in doomsday verses. But I did drop out of college at age 20 to become a full-time missionary in Africa.
When I told my plans to friends and family, I can’t count how many times I heard, “I’ve always wanted to do that!” While the common complaint is that today’s church is full of lazy and comfortable Christians, I’ve actually found the exact opposite to be true.
In the last few years, books about Christ-centered compassion for the poor have skyrocketed to the top of bestsellers’ lists. Kony 2012, an awareness campaign conceived by millennial Christians, went viral. Katie Davis, a young woman barely older than me, made headlines when she moved to Uganda, adopted a dozen orphans, and started Amazima Ministries.
I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to travel the world and make a difference. But most importantly, I wanted to show God that I was willing to do anything for him.
So I made a foolproof plan. Radical obedience. Helping the poor. African kids. All the things God likes. What could go wrong? Well, as it turned out, a lot. Here are 5 problems with trying to prove your radical love of God.
1. You seek out your own suffering.
Before I went to Africa, I used to sleep on the floor of my closet. Not because I had to, but because I thought the more uncomfortable I made myself, the more I was sacrificing for God.
Some Christians believe that in order to obey the hard sayings of Jesus, you have to be willing to live a hard life. But there’s a problem with the idea that Christians are required to suffer.
For one, it means that God is out for blood — that the days of Old Testament animal sacrifices are not over. God still demands payment, but he wants it in the form of forfeiting our safety and well-being.
Of course, there are Christians in other countries who really are being persecuted for their beliefs. But it’s one thing to experience true suffering and a whole other thing to seek it out.
This is what I call Christian exhibitionism. If you intentionally put yourself in harm’s way, you’ve confused making an impact with making a scene. Manufactured hardship is always for show, and if you have the luxury to choose suffering, you’re really not suffering at all.
2. You constantly feel guilty.
In the Bible, Jesus asks a rich young ruler to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor. The man is unwilling to part with his earthly possessions, and so, we’re told, he is unable to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Christians often tell this story to warn of the dangers of holding onto our lives too tightly. It’s meant to convict us and inspire us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. But all it really accomplishes is making us feel guilty.
As a Christian, I thought I was supposed to be ashamed of my privileged lifestyle. I thought it was wrong to pursue my hopes and dreams when most of the world is suffering, so I gave it all up and flew to Africa.
But here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t use guilt. In fact, he let the rich young ruler walk away. Who knows, maybe the guy did end up simplifying his life and helping others. Or maybe that wasn’t Jesus’s point at all. In the end, it’s grace — not guilt — that gives us the freedom to do good.
3. There’s no room for “ordinary.”
In our desperation to do something big for God, we forget that it’s ok to be normal.
I didn’t need to move to Africa to feed the hungry. There are soup kitchens in my hometown that need volunteers every day. But that felt too ordinary. It didn’t require much sacrifice. And truthfully, it wasn’t as glamorous as moving overseas.
As a Christian, I thought if my life looked normal, I was doing something wrong. After all, weren’t the Christians in the early church always having adventures? Weren’t they getting into trouble and risking their lives? For whatever reason — maybe because they were the first examples — we’ve made them into the examples.
But when we standardize every Christian’s call, what we’re really saying is that it’s impossible to live an ordinary life and still call ourselves Christians. Not only that, but we’re limiting the good we can do right here at home. We can get so focused on changing the world somewhere else that we ignore the people all around us who need our help too.
4. You’re harder on yourself and everyone around you.
For a radical Christian, there’s always more to do, more to give, more to sacrifice. Before long, doing good is not good enough. You have to do the most good. The standard goes from, “love thy neighbor” to “love all thy neighbors” — meaning everyone in the world.
When you’re obsessed with being a “real” Christian, you start noticing Christians all around you who don’t seem to fit the bill. And if you’re like me, you start pointing fingers.
I thought I was some kind of prophet, preaching a lifestyle of sacrifice and self-abandon that I expected everyone to follow. But my concern for the suffering was making me insufferable. I wasn’t being a prophet — I was being a Pharisee.
In my mind, even moving to Africa wasn’t enough. No matter how much I did, I was never satisfied. It’s harder to spot legalism when it sounds like compassion, but here’s a telltale sign: legalism always leads to a dead end, and it always ends in despair.
5. It becomes all about what you do.
My biggest fear was that I would miss God’s call. Or worse, that I would fail his test. I used to measure my devotion to God because secretly, I thought he was too.
For reasons outside my control, I had to leave Africa only four and a half months in. As I’m sure you can imagine, I felt like a total failure. After all, I wasn’t just letting the world down. I was letting God down.
Once I was back home, a friend asked if I thought God loved me less. I said no, but that got me thinking. It’s true, God doesn’t love us any less when we fail. But God doesn’t love us any more when we succeed, either.
The problem with trying to prove your radical love of God is that in trying to prove yours, you end up trying to earn his. Suddenly, your relationship with God becomes all about what you do, rather than what he has already done.
Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, so there’s nothing more we need to do. If we were any good at being radical, there would be no need for Jesus. And that’s the whole point.
Jesus was radical so we wouldn’t have to be.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Lead image courtesy of Amanda Sandlin.