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Youcef Nadarkhani is a Christian pastor in Iran who has been arrested and imprisoned for converting to Christianity from Islam. He has faced the death penalty for apostasy. Born as a Muslim, he is not permitted to become a Christian. When Mr. Nadarkhani was told he must recant his Christian faith he responded, “I cannot.” [i] His “I can’t” speaks volumes to us here in our society and to what it means to be a disciple.
We inhabit a world where everything is negotiable. The time and place we live in does not clearly understand the concept of deeply held convictions. Deeply held convictions are convictions that one holds so near and dear that someone would actually alter their life to live out these convictions or even lose their life to hold on to these convictions. In the present culture this type of thinking is thought of as extreme. Those who would embrace something so strongly that they would drop anything and everything to fully embrace that something are thought of as extremists. If this is done in the name of what is perceived as religion, one is then labeled the worst kind of radical: a religious extremist or zealot.
We are a part of this world with its semi-agnosticism that says we can’t know anything for sure. Thus there are no absolutes. It is not difficult to understand then why serious followers of Jesus Christ are misunderstood. After all, how can you have these absolute convictions when you can’t know anything for sure absolutely? Our convictions are considered extreme because compared to the rest of society we are overboard in our expressions of faith.
Beyond that, those who call themselves serious followers of Jesus Christ are often times not so good at following Jesus. In other words, we don’t always walk the talk. This is why those who claim to follow Christ aren’t always taken seriously. When we say we are following Jesus and then don’t attempt to do what Jesus would do, the world that is watching us has reason to doubt whether or not we truly have deeply held convictions.
In this context I believe it is necessary to explain first what it means to be an authentic follower of Jesus Christ. Following Jesus Christ is partly holding to the teachings of Jesus Christ and to the teachings of those He directly taught, the Apostles. At this point it is important to note that this is not a smorgasbord or an a la carte activity. The genuine follower of Christ doesn’t get to pick and choose the teaching of Christ he or she may like and then shape their belief system as they please. It’s more like dinner when we were kids and we are told by our parents to “eat what’s on our plate.”
The faith tenets of a serious follower of Christ are spelled out quite clearly in the Scriptures (when in doubt, read the Gospels and the Epistles) and must be taken as a whole. I may like Jesus’ teaching to love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:39) but not like His teaching defining what marriage is (Matthew 19:4-6). I can’t accept the one and ignore the other. I most embrace both.
A second aspect of what it means to be an authentic follower of Christ is relational. It involves a personal relationship between the follower and Jesus Christ. This may indeed seem strange to the outside world since Jesus Christ walked on this earth some 2,000 years ago. Since Christians see Christ as having risen from the dead and as being active and present in their lives every day, it doesn’t present a problem for us. Christ lives as it were in our hearts.
A follower of Christ loves Jesus Christ. It’s that simple. This love goes beyond the mere saying of words. This love causes us to desire to know Him and His teachings. This love fosters a desire to obey and please Him. Being a follower of Christ is not simply trying to follow a set of truths. It is also carrying on personal relationship with the One who gave us the truths.
A third and final aspect of what it means to be a Christian is the idea of commitment. Liking the teachings of Christ and being an authentic Christian are not synonymous. It is possible to be a fan, and not a follower. The conditions of being a follower are spelled out in Luke 9:23 where Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” When an individual decides to follow Christ this way one is called by Jesus “a disciple” and the process of life transformation begins.
Will the sincere follower of Jesus Christ falter and stumble and sin and mess up? Absolutely. Will the Lord restore Him as He did Peter and the other Apostles? Absolutely, as well. Because we all sin and because we all fail, the follower of Christ should never be arrogant or condescending. Christians are forgiven sinners, not perfect saints.
This leads us to the question of what a real disciple should strive to be doing. Please remember, for the follower of Christ there is no negotiating our belief or our commitment. We can’t “sort of” believe or “sort of” be committed. The individual in that situation is a fan, not a follower. Clearly as authentic followers we should be seeking to live out our commitment to our Savior and His teachings regardless of the cost.
There are things a follower of Christ simply can’t do. This is different than saying “I can’t, because I won’t” do something. A person can say “I won’t” based on a preference or a desire. That is not the kind of “I can’t” invoked by Pastor Nadarkhani. He and other serious followers of Christ are trying to communicate the same thing when they say “I can’t”. They are saying that there are some things, because of their commitment to the tenants of their faith, and because of their commitment to the person, Jesus Christ, who authored those tenants, that they just can’t do. They can’t. Even if it will cost them dearly.
This means we won’t recant the tenants of our faith. It also means we won’t deny our relationship with the Founder of our faith. This plays out in a very realistic manner. As a Christian I hold to the sanctity of human life. If I am a doctor, I will not abort a child or prescribe an assisted suicide pill. If that is a requirement of the job, I will resign my position. As a disciple of Christ’s and a lawyer I won’t participate in certain types of divorces that are against my faith. If participating in those divorces is part of the job description, rather than do something I can’t do, I will close my practice. As a Christian owner of a “Mom & Pop” pharmacy, there are drugs I won’t carry, like the “morning-after” pill. If I am forced to carry such drugs I will close the store rather than violate my conscience. As a pastor, I won’t marry two people who can’t get married Biblically speaking either because of unbiblical divorces, unequal yokes or because I am being asked to marry two people of the same sex. If marrying said individuals is part of the baggage a state or city requires for me to do marriages, I will get out of the marrying businesses. I can’t violate my commitment to my Lord.
When serious Christ followers say they can’t, it means that if they do what they are being asked to do it would do damage to their relationship with God and their soul. The activity or action they are being required to participate in would require them to become hypocrites. Their action would do damage to their soul because it would violate their deepest convictions and their consciences before God. This may help to explain the tension now occurring in our culture. This is why the devout Christian florist will close their shop if forced to do a same-sex wedding or the serious Christ-following baker or wedding planner would do the same. I tell you sincerely it is not that they won’t because they are bigots, but is that they can’t because of deeply held convictions.
To some this may seem extreme especially in a world were “deeply held convictions” have been replaced by “lightly believed feeling” that can fluctuate with the wind and public opinion (see President Obama’s position on gay marriage for instance). Before we kick individuals with deeply held Christian convictions out of public life as extremist we might do well to remember what exactly these people with deeply held convictions have brought about.
Our world is a much better place because of Christians with deeply held convictions. Was it not William Wilberforce and his deeply held Christian convictions that ended the practice of owning another human being in the British Empire? Please also remember that these people with deeply held Christian convictions have built countless hospitals, founded thousands of orphanages, have created myriads of institutions of higher learning (have you ever heard of Yale and Harvard?), have produced an innumerable amount of feeding and relief ministries and reached out to every area of the world and our society in the name of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Oh, and by the way they founded a nation we call the United States of America because they possessed the deeply held conviction that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
They have earned the right to be taken seriously when they say “I can’t.”
[i] Thankfully, through the grace of God and the prayers of God’s people Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was recently released.