Almost 9 years ago, I let Jesus into my life in a way that I had denied Him for the previous 21. Letting Him into my life was one step; desperately calling Him into my heart was another.
HINDSIGHT AND ITS TREASURES
Nine years of asking questions, of challenging the skepticism/doubt of my atheistic years, and coming to understand the difference between knowing about God and knowing God personally has brought me a long ways from where I first began when I moved away from Michigan in search for who I was. Without God, I was without an identity; I had defined myself with the rage in my heart for all the aching of my adolescence: The heartbreaks, my parents’ divorce; the confusion, the pain, and the idea of a loving God amidst the struggle to even consider living another day—these themes smeared my identity like tattoos. I wasn’t bound to religion, I was bound to what the secular mentality taught me was the way life must be lived when faith in something higher than me didn’t make sense.
THE REMNANTS OF A DEAD WORLD AFTER CONVERSION
My heart has been aching again lately. Christianity is not a cure-all pill that makes the world perfect when you accept Jesus. Depression is still depression, moods still vacillate; pain still hurts, loss still burdens—and therefore, most importantly—hope is still imperative. Faith in Jesus doesn’t erase divorce, struggle, cancer, or poverty from existence, but it does give us hope that these forms of worldly suffering are not the conclusion to our story. When I think of my relationship with Jesus today, what hits me as I seek Him more often is how seeking Him has needed to become a lifestyle rather than a bullet-point reference on a “To-Do” list. Seeking Jesus is either who I am, or it’s who I’m avoiding to be.
THE SUNNY-FACED CHRISTIAN FALLACY
One of the distortions I came about believing over the course of affirming myself as an atheist and later converting to Christianity was the fallacy that people need to see Christians smiley and sunny-faced. To me, not smiling and lacking the sunny face meant Jesus mustn’t be as good as people said He was—but that’s just not true. What I had to learn over time is that feelings are feelings no matter what our beliefs are. A Christian can still feel depressed just like an unbeliever can. An unbeliever can feel happiness and express joy the way a Christian can. The main difference is that the joy of a Christian is not based on circumstance, but rather, on the joy of the Good News that Jesus Christ has saved us; that in Him, we have a reason to be selfless and to look forward to the future, making the present moment that much more significantly meaningful and purposeful. That has nothing to do with emotion or feeling, but with faith in our heart. They are separate concepts, and combining the two as one is a mistake that perhaps many believers out there do not yet understand. To understand that difference, and to explain it in more delicate detail, is the purpose of this article.
THE FEELINGS-BASED FAITH MYTH
There is no such thing as “feeling like a Christian.” Christianity isn’t an emotion like being happy or angry is. Faith in Christ is exactly that: A walk of faith. What is the “walk” part? The journey of trusting in God above everything, and the way our trust in Him transforms the way we live into a matured lifestyle based on asking God first before making decisions— whether we “go here or there,” or “say this or that.” (Colossians 4:6) The source of a person’s trust is a huge difference between a secularist and a Christian. While a believer in Christ will pray to God that he or she fully believes is listening, a secularist might not pray at all, or, they may reference praying to the universe (Pantheism), or depend on chance, luck, fortune, or fate. None of these of which are personal, and none of them can merit the weight of trust, which can only be developed through relationship.
FAITH DOES NOT EQUAL HAPPINESS
Some unbelievers have the idea that believers consider themselves happier because of their faith. This is not true. Some Christians also have the idea that all atheists and unbelievers are unhappy, and this is also untrue. Faith, or a lack thereof, does not so much affect a person’s emotional status, but rather—faith impacts the attitude of a person, which is another way of saying that it gives them the hope and joy of a life beyond this world. While on Earth, however, the transformation does not bring about happiness in the way some people believe. The fallacy that believing in God fixes our Earthly problems may be a distortion of the idea that faith in a loving God automatically brings us a sense of hope in our daily adversities. And while God does bring us hope through Christ, our belief in Him and His son does not change that we still experience struggle on Earth.
Jesus even warned us of this:
John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
TWO DIFFERENCES THAT DEFINE HOW WE LIVE
We are not to be fooled into believing everything will be idyllic once we believe. The difference between belief and disbelief is not emotional. The difference is noticed existentially in how we live our lives based on who we trust (God, or the world), and from where we derive our sense of hope. These two differences change the way we live our lives noticeably enough to impact the people who witness the changes in our attitudes.
SHORT-LIVED HAPPINESS AND ALL-ENCOMPASSING JOY
You may be asking, “What do you mean, you’re not happier?! You believe in Jesus!” I am no happier as a Christian now than I was an atheist almost 9 years ago. Why? My soul has been renewed in Christ in that my reason for everything (for example, why I think the way I do, or the reason for my actions and decisions) is now based on my faith in Christ, but the way I feel is still influenced by my current circumstances. For example, I am joyful in Christ even when I have a horrible day and want to scream. My joy is locked in the Good News of Christ that states one day I will no longer experience the hardships and pain that I do now. I am happy when I eat chocolate, or when I am given a hug from someone who truly cares about me. I am happy when I get to go to the movie theater, or when I’m reading a great book.
These moments never last, however, and that is the difference between joy and happiness: Joy is my all-encompassing reality, like the bird’s-eye view of our heart, whereas happiness is the situational, hormonal reaction to what occurs in our day-to-day, hour-to-hour experiences. I can’t stay in the movie theater forever; I can’t eat chocolate all day and night; I can’t read a great book forever because eventually I’ll finish it. This is what happiness looks like in this life. We experience happiness in spurts, the same way we put on a warm coat in the winter while taking it off in the summer. We experience joy the way we live inside of the same body our entire lives. Our choice not to experience joy is the consequence of not receiving the hope and joy in something beyond that of ourselves, and the ephemeralness of this world. Joy results in knowing Christ’s promises are set in stone.
LIVE IN JESUS’S NAME
When I finally understood that sunny faces weren’t necessary and that the best expression of Christ is allowing Him to work through us in every state or phase we experience, I finally grasped that I can still worship Jesus even on a bad day. Many days, I just feel a frown on my face and I don’t have a care in the world to turn it around. But what helps me is when I put Jesus first and help someone in need by doing so in His name. No matter how I feel (transient emotion), I can always live for Christ. When I am angry, I believe in bringing the reality of my rage to the Lord and being honest, surrendering the core reason for the rage and letting go by asking Jesus to take it away. How does that work? Trusting that His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9), calling a Christian friend who supports me, my experiences, and surrendering all anxiety to the Lord (1 Peter 5:7), praying with a contrite heart. A contrite heart can be birthed from humbling ourselves with honesty. When we’re honest with ourselves, the truth usually reveals an intention or motive that we can either surrender to God in repentance, or one that we can accept His grace for in recognizing there is nothing left to cling to in our pain. In these ways, casting our worries, fears, and disappointments to Him can be rectified by His grace.
JESUS CALLS US TO BE REAL
What I would like for you to take away from this article is that if you’re a recently converted Christian and you think you have to wear a certain face to show Jesus to the world, just relax. Jesus doesn’t ask us to wear a facade. When we are real, Jesus works through us. When we are angry, He wants us to come to Him. He asks us to come to Him as we are, not after we’ve figured ourselves out. If this is you, breathe, close your eyes, pray, and surrender yourself to Him. Allow Him to work through the real you. The disappointments, the rage, the bad days— everything. Let Him shine through you no matter where you are in your faith. His will be done, not ours.
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