(This is another chapter from a book I recently released called “Beautiful and Believable: The Reason for My Hope.” It is available here, and an ebook version is available on Kindle, Apple Books, and Kobo.)
Is the kind of life Christianity leads to beautiful, or ugly? If God is good, then we would expect the way God would have us live should bring beauty and not ugliness. So does it?
Some would say no. In the Margaret Atwood novel, A Handmaid’s Tale, everything is supposedly ordered according to the Bible. It does not take too long for the reader to figure out that this is a very ugly society. Many would say that even without the kind of state control found in the novel, the Christian life is ugly. It is thought of as blindly following many, many rules without any thought as to whether they are good or not.
So is the Christian life beautiful or ugly? People may portray the Christian life as ugly, or even point to a Christian who is living out a life that is ugly, but the writings of the Bible point to a life that is beautiful for the following reasons.
First, the Christian life is a Jesus-centred life.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV)
The focus was not to be on what the teachers of the law commanded in Jesus’ day. The focus is not to be on what the teachers of the law command in ours. The focus is on Jesus and what he commanded. It is not about powerful people or powerful traditions. It is about Jesus.
The focus is on Jesus, even when we are reading the letters of Paul, Peter, James, John, or Jude. The letters of the New Testament are not “here is something new, because Jesus did not say enough,” but rather, “here are the implications of Jesus on our thinking, and here is what the Jesus-focused life looks like for us in our day.” What we have in the letters are the apostles working out the implications of Jesus for first century Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, and so on.
This has important implications. Take slavery, for example. Some would say that the inclusion of slavery in the New Testament demonstrates that the Christian life is ugly. Does the New Testament support the institution of slavery? Slavery was a normal part of life in that day, a fact which was not going to change anytime soon. Since slavery was a normal part of life, Paul offered how a Jesus-centred person should live when they happen to be a slave, or be a slave holder. In fact, there are beautiful implications as we discover in Paul’s letter to Philemon where Philemon is encouraged to take back his runaway slave, Onesimus, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philemon 16 NRSV). Philemon’s Jesus-focused life would be a thing of beauty for Onesimus. Life is beautiful when it is impacted by Jesus, even when society is stuck in ugliness.
We do not read Paul’s letters to find out how to become a Paul follower, or how to be more focused on Paul in our lives. We read Paul’s letters to discover how people were encouraged to be Jesus followers, to live Jesus-centred lives in the first century. This helps us discover how we can live Jesus-focused lives in our day.
A Jesus-centred life is a beautiful life. Of course this is so, Jesus was a beautiful person! Notice the way he related to people, his integrity, his reverence for the Divine, his focus on the spirit of the law and not the letter, his ability to challenge and unravel the status quo, his living out of the great commandments of love for God and neighbour, and his good works. Notice how he offers life to those who took his. Jesus is beautiful. A Jesus-centred life is a beautiful life.
Second, the Christian life is a Spirit filled life.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit islove, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.Galatians 5:22-25 (NRSV emphasis added)
The “fruit of the Spirit” is all beautiful stuff! We would describe a person whose character is marked by such traits as being a beautiful person.
Fruit grows naturally. A beautiful character is the natural consequence of a relationship with God. Fruit naturally grows where the conditions are right. Our part is to see that the conditions are good by keeping our connection with God open through prayer, thoughtful reading of the Scriptures, relationships with other Christians (especially those who are more mature in bearing spiritual fruit than us), and worship. But God is the One who makes fruit grow. A Spirit filled life is a beautiful life.
Third, the Christian life is a life of wisdom.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.James 3:13-18 (NRSV)
The New Testament letter of James has been described by some Biblical scholars as being like the “wisdom literature” we find in the Old Testament. It points to the good life and how to live well. Notice the focus in the quoted passage on gentleness and peace. The wise person knows that being gentle and peaceable is a good thing. A wise person living in wisdom is a beautiful thing. A life of wisdom is a beautiful life.
Some paint the Christian life as being ugly. It is portrayed as blindly following rules without any thought given as to whether those rules are helpful or not. It is portrayed as a very narrow life with no fun allowed at all. But that’s not it! The Christian is to be Jesus-centred, Spirit filled, and wise! The Christian life is a beautiful life, just as we should expect if Christianity is true, if God is good.