A CHECKLIST FOR NEW CHRISTIANS
The author Nick Hornby once wrote that making lists is a very male thing to do, especially when it’s the best ten or the worst nine of anything. Since then, Buzzfeed and other internet sites have popularised the making of lists for both men and women.
So, here’s my own list of things for new Christians to watch out for, hoping some of them might help. And they are in no special order.
1. It’s OK to have doubts about what you believe
Having doubt is a part of having faith. These feelings come to all of us and if anyone says they’ve never doubted God, well, I don’t believe them. These doubts will show in different ways. It doesn’t help that the world is messed up and that God seems to value our freedom so much that he gives us space to mess it up. We’d rather he made everything right immediately. But he has not. Do not feel guilty if you have doubts, and do not suppress them. God knows what you’re thinking anyway, so why not level with him? He is a very engaged parent to us. We need our churches to be honest places.
2. Don’t become isolated from other Christians
We usually don’t give up being a part of a church overnight. It happens slowly, like an inflatable drifting away from the shore as the tide retreats, until what feels like the point of no return. We are made for relationships; and they need encouragement and support. Making our way in life alone on a faith that’s made for community is like snacking in our bedroom every day and not sharing the family meal. The Christian faith isn’t believed by everyone and if it’s portrayed in drama, it’s often to present Christians as a bit weird and bigoted. This is pretty much the opposite of how Jesus was. We need other Christians to remind us of this and to inspire us in our faith.
3. Be bold in what you ask for when you pray
We can become cautious in how we pray and it goes like this. We become afraid to ask for big things in case we don’t get the answer we’re hoping for. Because if we ask and don’t receive, we expect this to hit our faith and bring in more doubts. And we imagine these doubts will make God even less inclined to hear us next time round. It is, of course, ridiculous for us to expect God to answer some prayers – that our lottery ticket will come up or our team will win the cup final, perhaps – but the stuff we ask for that sits well alongside what we know of God can expect to be answered. But if your prayer isn’t answered, relax. You’ve in great company. Jesus prayed for his life to be spared the night before he died and it wasn’t. Sometimes we don’t get the answer we’re looking for, but don’t be discouraged. Go again. No sports team wins every game they play. God is looking for bold prayers. And those who are youngest in the faith can be the most fearless.
4. What you do in life matters to God
There’s no hierarchy of importance in the faith, with the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury vying for pole position like a Formula One grid. It’s easy to think this because institutions like the Church are quite formal. But our different roles in life are equally important to God because we are equally important to him. In a list of jobs that includes: mechanic, waiter, doctor, childminder, refuse collector, church minister, chef, model, software coder, home maker and personal carer, the church minister is not the most important to God. This takes some getting used to, but cracking this fiction is necessary for seeing that God is devoted to what each of us does in life and how we do it for him.
5. Don’t cut yourself off from people who think differently to you
This might be people inside the Church or outside it. It always seems to stun us when people express an opinion that’s totally different to ours. We take it surprisingly personally. And there’s a trend today to separate ourselves from others who think differently to us. It’s nicer to be surrounded by people who see the world the way we do. Jesus spent a lifetime mixing with people that others had rejected; the kind of people that didn’t reflect well on him in company. To build community in this world, we need to reach out to others. There are some people we probably shouldn’t hang out with in life because it will end up harming us, but most people are perfectly OK to be with even if they take different views on social, political or religious issues. Make sure you keep friends who see things differently. You’ll learn from them, and they will learn from you, and hopefully something about God.
6. How you are with people really matters
Character is important to God. We all have bad habits and moods that can make us less attractive to be around. It may sound trite to say this, but it isn’t: God wants to make us better people. And he has given us the gift of his Holy Spirit to live in us and change us from within. He’ll only do this to the extent that we let him, but it should be a non-negotiable part of following Jesus. I sometimes wonder if everyone gets this when we see some people kicking off. For all I know, others may have thought this of me. A Christian who is selfish or mean or bullying is not living for God. He is looking for ambassadors who are being changed by his Spirit. And if you feel like a work in progress, don’t be discouraged. Trust me, we all do.
7. It’s OK to be down sometimes
Faith gives us lots of great emotions, like love and joy. But this is a messed up world and this messed-upness plays out in our minds. Our standing before God does not depend on how we feel. It depends on what he has done for us in Christ, in his death and in his resurrection. We can’t add to that or take away from it. At times in the Bible, we don’t hear much about how people felt. A proper search tells us something else. The Book of Psalms should be the diet of every Christian. In it, we are given access to the psychiatrist’s couch, learning all sorts of eye-opening things about other people. In one part of the Bible, St Paul says we are more than conquerors in Christ. Too often in the Church, this is taken to mean if we’re not on top of things, we’re letting God down. The point about being more than a conqueror in Christ is that we are more than a conqueror in Christ no matter how we feel. Being down at times is part of being human, and of being a Christian. We just need to talk more about it in church.
8. You are loved with an everlasting love
That’s what God says. Our minds can play tricks on us. We have certain voices that we hear loudly. Sometimes they make us feel guilty or unworthy and emerge from our time growing up. Those voices are not from God. Yes, we have things we need to put right with God. That doesn’t stop. But he is not there trying to catch us out, saying I told you so or I just knew you’d do that. Think of the power it takes to make a universe this size. It’s impossible to get our heads round it. Then remember this, the love God has for you is as strong as the power it took to make creation. It never faulters or fades, and it’s yours to enjoy and to share with others.
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