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  • Writer's pictureAmy Noel Green

What does it mean to be a Christian? (Your answer may be wrong.)

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

I've spent enough time teaching Sunday school and youth group through the years to develop some grave concerns about the future of Christianity. When you ask an earnest, Jesus-loving, young person what it means to be a Christian, most of the time, you'll get an answer like this, "Try not to sin, and choose to do the right thing." Sometimes they'll add something about having prayed a prayer of salvation or "believing" in Jesus also... (so you know, bonus points.) I'll save my rant about how weird our notions of transactional salvation have become for another controversial post.

"Try not to sin." "Choose to do the right thing." I'm not picking on young people. If this is what they believe Christianity boils down to, then a lot of misguided older people have these same notions and have been handing them down.

It all begins to sound like a social club with a code of conduct. Has Christianity become a group of people who have agreed to live by a specific set of rules? Is that why we have these lingering notions of being "good" Christians and "bad" Christians? Because the "best" members of the club stick to the rules and the struggling members don't have as much resolve to follow the rules well?

We believe in a God who is living and active! Where is He in these rule sets? Our Savior died for us, taking on all the shame of our failures, rose to life again, and returned to Heaven sending us the Holy Spirit to speak to us, teach us and guide us on a daily basis. Did Jesus do all of this so that we could walk into the revelational freedom of "doing our best not to sin?"

Our life as Christians should be a life of listening to the Holy Spirit and living according to what we hear on a moment by moment basis. We have a living God who speaks to us. What sets us apart from everyone else should be that we listen to Him and obey Him. So why don't we?

I think it comes down to two basic stumbling blocks, well maybe three. The first is that we're afraid that we'll mess it up or that other people will. Couldn't it all go horribly wrong if we trust people to listen to God and do what He says? It sure could.

We are human, which means, we're flawed. I can't always remember a conversation with my kids from 15 minutes ago correctly. How will we all hear from God accurately and obey Him perfectly? We probably won't; but that's okay. Jesus took on all our shortcomings, all the times we miss the mark. He paid the punishment in advance for all the mistakes we're going to make, so we have permission to earnestly do our best, turning back to Him whenever we get it wrong.

But what if we get it really wrong? We have the bible, the written word of God, to measure everything we're hearing against. The bible can keep us from straying from the truth in our efforts to build a relationship with God that we trust enough to live by. So, I can't use "listening to the Holy Spirit" as an excuse to do messed up things. I can't tell you that God told me to commit a hate crime because God says in His word that He is love. John reiterates this in 1 John 4: 7-8. "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."

The bible is full of rules and commands, but our goal isn't to live by them, our goal is to live by the spirit, using the rules and commands as our outer limits. I don't start with unlimited choices, I start with, in this example, "love people" and then I listen to the Holy Spirit to learn specifically how I should love people in this exact moment.

Don't forget that all Christians have access to the Holy Spirit, and we're told to live in community. So, starting with the bible to set our boundaries, and the Holy Spirit to give us the moment by moment specifics, we can rely on the Holy Spirit in others to correct us if things get wonky -assuming we are living in community with each other in a meaningful way that allows other people to speak into our lives. (Yes, that's a blog post in itself.)

The second stumbling block that keeps us from living as Christians with a living God who we make every effort to hear and obey is that we don't know what "hearing" means. The biggest struggle for most Christians is that they aren't sure that they're hearing God, and they don't know how to fix this.

For most people, hearing God is incredibly subtle. So, mostly, we don't actually struggle with hearing from God; we struggle with recognizing that we hear Him. We have a unique thought about how to show love to someone, a surprising, creative idea, and we disregard it. We think, "that was just me, not God."

A great way to "learn to hear God" is to practice obeying the thoughts that we are already having, the ones that line up with the word of God, and seem like a "God kind of thought." A big clue I use to discern if a thought is from God or not is checking to see how my flesh reacts. Often, if I have a thought from God, urging me to do something that lines up with scripture, my flesh will war against it. I will decide it's too embarrassing, or I don't have time, or that it doesn't really matter, or that the person I'm being asked to show love to would never do the same for me. If my flesh is mounting arguments, then odds are pretty good that what I heard was from God. I don't fight my own thoughts that often because my own thoughts tend to be about ways to comfort myself and increase my own leisure time. We probably don't have to practice hearing God as much as we have to practice trusting that we hear God and obeying what we hear.

Of course, I said there was maybe a third stumbling block, and that's simply this: it's hard, and we're lazy. A set of rules, while challenging, is relatively simple to follow. I learn them. I do them. They don't change. And the better I do at following the static rules, the more I'm winning in the "good Christian social club." I always know where I stand.

If the "rules" of Christianity are the jumping-off point, the bare minimum, the outer boundaries, and the real-life of a Christian comes in hearing and obeying God on a moment by moment basis, that's much more challenging. If I'm not careful, I'll take the path of least resistance. I will choose to live my life as a Christian following basic rules and never making an effort to listen to the Holy Spirit and obey Him, gradually refining my discernment over time. But if I take that rule-following path, I won't be a Christian serving a living God. I'll be a person living by a code of conduct, trying hard not to mess it up.

(What have I missed? Let me know in the comments what holds you back from actively listening to the Holy Spirit as a Christian.)

Amy Noel Green is a conference and keynote speaker. She is a writer and game designer who has received international press attention for her work on the video game about her son Joel, That Dragon, Cancer.

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