RUNNING AWAY FROM CHRIST
In a recent opinion poll, 94 per cent of the people of Great Britain claimed that they believed in a personal God. But how many of them do anything about him? Almost everybody prays to God in moments of danger, bereavement or crisis. But how many bother about him at other times? Very few. There is a widespread retreat from religion going on in the Western world at the present time. Undoubtedly the church is partly to blame for this; it has been defensive, inward-looking, lacking in social concern, cowardly in speaking out about moral issues, and sometimes reluctant to face the truth The church has gone s long way to make Christianity incredible. It is the church, not Jesus Christ, that is the main stumbling-block for ordinary people.
But when all this was said, and it must be said with deep humility by any honest Christian the current drift from Christianity is culpable. A great many people who are all too ready to dismiss religion with a wave of the hand are themselves unwilling to face up to the challenge of Jesus Christ. If Christianity is wrong about our origin or destiny, the purpose and the meaning of life, the value of persons and the secret of living together in community, then get up sad say so! Say it violently, aggressively if you like: but say it after you have personally examined the evidence. Yet this is precisely what so many are apparently too afraid or too lazy to do. On matters of such vital importance they are content to be guided by scraps of information gleaned long ago in the Sunday school, by the latest newspaper attack on the faith, or by the voice and visiting habits of the local clergy!
I am convinced that the modern apathy about Christianity is nothing less than escapism. People are afraid of facing up to the challenge of Christian standards of behaviour and Christian discipleship. Have you noticed how people avoid sitting next to the man with the dog-collar in a bus or train ? How some of the most militant atheists in a university simply dare not go along to a Christian meeting? How many a working man is literally terrified of being seen entering a church ? Behind all these attitudes lies fear; fear of having to be reminded about the God we would much rather forget; fear of having to let our lives be scrutinized and springcleaned by God; fear of what other people would say if we came out on thc side of Jesus Christ. It is much easier, much more comfortable, to run away.
There are many forms of this escapism current in today's world. It by no means springs always from a conscious attempt to run away from God; often it is the mess the world is in, the mess society is in, the mess our individual lives are in which drives us to take refuge in a fantasy world.
Sex is an obvious way of escape. You have only to go down a London Underground escalator to see advertisement after advertisement which shouts at you 'Sex satisfies. Sex is the way to fulfilment'. But it isn't as simple as that. Not for centuries has there been such overt emphasis on sex as the panacea for all human ills; but what have we to show for it? A sharp rise in VD, in illegitimate births, in psychological disturbances. Nor is this half the story. While Dr Leach is running down the value of the family, and Dr James Henning and his like advocate promiscuity, three-quarters of a million young people in England at any one time are the children of broken homes; and from their number something like 80 per cent of criminal offences come. The result is that we have the highest crime rate in our history; among the under twenties it has doubled in nine years; the prisons are so overcrowded that three people have to share a single cell, and Quarter Sessions have to sit on an average not four times a year, as in the past, but ten. These are the realities of the situation to which a judge drew my attention recently. They are deliberately ignored by many young people (and not so young, too) who selfishly and irresponsibly seek a gateway into Wonderland through extra-marital sex.
The same two charges of irresponsibility and selfishness apply to another notorious form of escapism, the ever increasing drug habit. Talk to people who are hooked on heroin. They will tell you that they don't care about anyone else-all they care about is where their next fix is coming from. And why shouldn't they ? It's their life. If they want to wreck it in this way, why should anyone try to stop them ? This is how they argue. It is sheer escapism, running away from the harsh realities of life into the cosy world of make-believe and the pleasant sensations induced by the drug.
Malcolm Muggeridge gave a scathing exposure of these two forms of escapism when he resigned from the Rectorship of Edinburgh University in protest against the clamour for contraceptive pills to be made available to all students. This he called 'the old slob's escapes of dope and bed'. He went on, 'the permissive morality of our time will, I am sure, reach its apogee. When birth pills are handed out with the free orange juice, and consenting adults wear special ties and blazers, and abortion and divorce.... are freely available on the public health, then at last, with the suicide rate up to Scandinavian proportion and the psychiatric wards bursting at the seams, it will be realized that this path is a disastrous cul-de-sac.' And he solemnly asserted that 'whatever life is or is not about, it is not to be expressed in terms of drugged stupefaction or casual sexual relations'.
Another form of escapism, to which the Beatles gave a boost when for a time they got involved in it, is Eastern meditation. This stands in striking contrast to Christian mysticism which encourages meditation upon and communion with the personal God of-the Bible, not in order to escape from the responsibilities of daily life, but in order to face them with love and compassion for others. Christianity has no use for any supposed communion with God which does not transform the character of the worshipper and drive him out with God's own love and concern for men. The holy men of India have for centuries been practising a type of meditation which withdraws them from the concerns of daily life, and makes them parasites on the community, supported in their idleness by the gifts of the faithful. A Welsh correspondent writing to a national newspaper on the subject put this point very forcibly: 'No wonder that those who meditate feel peaceful, simple and calm. Disregard the world about you and you have nothing to worry about. It is this self-abstraction which is the product of meditation that has landed India in its present state of semi-starvation. Five thousand years of meditation have never ploughed a field or built a house.'
Many people run away from the challenge of authentic Christianity by a very different path. They become conformists; conformists to the shreds of post-Christian decencies and good deeds that still linger around the contemporary ethical scene. They may go to church occasionally- even to Communion, particularly at Christmas and Easter, without having the least belief in what it is all about. Ask them why they go, and they say, 'It makes me feel good.' This is not, I think, hypocrisy. It is simply a form of laziness-the reluctance to face up to the person of Jesus Christ, and decide, like a man, for him or against him. Others try to escape the condemnation of their own conscience by acts of great generosity, or by going to work in the slums for a while. Admirable in a way-but escapism all the same. Running away from God by trying to be decent is a very old expedient. Saul of Tarsus had been doing it for years before his own conversion. So had the poet Francis Thompson. He spoke for many escapists when he wrote:
I fled Him down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
And all the time he heard a Voice, 'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me', 'Naught shelters thee who wilt not shelter Me', 'Naught contents thee who content's not Me'. It was only when he had given in to the 'Hound of Heaven' that he discovered the mistake he had been making all the time. 'Thou dravest Love from thee, who dravest Me.'
There is no shortage of escape routes from reality; for reality seems to be a stimulant which we are able to take only in small doses. We are adept at devising ways of avoiding having to face up too often to fundamental issues. Gambling, drink and smoking are three such methods, with plenty of adherents; together they account in Britain for some 2500 million a year - the equivalent of the defence budget before devaluation and withdrawal from East of Suez. The devising of scientific Utopias is another popular diversion for running away from reality. The 'Men Like Gods' school tells us with boundless enthusiasm of the joys of the technological future when, delivered from the old restraints of religion and conventional morality, and controlled by eugenics ant euthanasia and all the other edifying things determined for us by the Guardians, human nature will reach an unprecedented stature. Fantasies like this looked jaded by the end of H. G. Wells's life; today, with the world hovering on the brink of extinction, they are puerile.
The most popular escape route from reality is the rat race. Get out from school into a well-paid job. Get more money, better prospects. Get a car, and a house and a wife. Get a family and a better house and a second car. Get promotion. Get a good pension . . . and then fill your life up with as much as you can before you die. Whatever you do, don't allow yourself time to wonder what life is all about. It might be too depressing a thought. That is the way a great many people behave, though when you set it down in cold print it looks peculiarly foolish. To turn one's back on human origin and destiny, human purpose and value, is surely escapism that verges on the frivolous. Yet those who adopt this irresponsible attitude to life are frequently heard to complain that the Christians are the runaways!
The inescapable Christ
There is nothing new about this accusation. It was the same in the first century. Peter writes to his scattered congregations in these terms: 'Indeed your former companions may think it very queer that you will no longer join with them in their riotous excesses, and accordingly say all sorts of unpleasant things about you. Don't worry: they are the ones who will have to explain their behaviour before the one who is prepared to judge all men, whether living or dead' (s Peter 4:4, 5, Phillips). Peter's point is very apposite. Whatever the escape route from reality men choose, it will not do. The God of truth, the God who is real, will not allow them to live a lie for ever. In the end illusions will be stripped away, and truth will catch up with us all. The psalmist knew he could never escape from God's presence, hide where he would (Psalm s39The prophet knew that one day God would confront those who have made lies their refuge. Their shelter would be engulfed as the hail of truth beat in upon them (Isaiah 28: '4-s7). This awesome exposure to reality will hurt the church as much as anyone else. It will stand convicted of its lack of care for those who are not Christians, of its shameful introversion, of its pathetic tinkering with canons and liturgy while society decayed around it. Every refuge of lies will be stripped away, arid every falsehood unmasked. Those who have made the church their escape route from reality will be exposed to the truth of Jesus Christ. As Peter put it, 'For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God' (1 Peter 4:17).
But that statement of Peter's continues: 'and if it (judgment) begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey thc gospel of God ?) They, too, will be brought face to face with the inescapable Christ. They too will be assessed by the Ideal Man from whom they have been running away. And what convincing excuses will they have to offer ? 'I didn't believe you ever existed ? What utter nonsense; what culpable ignorance of the evidence I 'I didn't think your life was attractive enough, noble enough'? What manifest hypocrisy: it was rather that the standards of the man of Nazareth were too high too costly, was it not? Or shall the excuse be simply - I did not bother'? How do you think that will look to the Son of God, who became man for you, lived and died for you, rose again in order to take over your life and make a new man of you? No, all excuses will wither and wilt before the truth, the love, the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Final truth about the world, mankind and God has been disclosed by the Other who came into our very midst, the one who declared 'I am the truth'. By our relations to him we shall be judged, every one of us. There will come a final day of reckoning when it will be plain what answer we have returned to the question with which Pontius Pilate toyed, and tried unsuccessfully to evade: What will you do with Jesus?'
Time for action
If you mean to come to terms honestly with that question, may I make two suggestions? If you are not convinced that Jesus is the Truth, then read a Gospel. Read it slowly, thoughtfully, imaginatively. Ask yourself how you would expect Jesus to speak and act if he was mad, or a deceiver, or, alternatively, if he was what he claimed to be. Read it, think about it, and pray to God to show you if it is true or not. Above all, be prepared to follow Jesus if you are convinced about him. God will not give his light for you to trifle with. Jesus once explained the point in these words, to people who were incredulous about his claims and sceptical about his person: 'If any man's will is to do his (God's) will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority' (John 7: '7).
But many of you who read these words have already got beyond this stage. You need no further convincing about Jesus. You believe about him but you don't know him. And you never will, until you yield your will to him, and ask him to take you and make what he wants of you. Without that decision on your part he will not dream of invading the privacy of your personality. God respects your will even when you exercise it against him. He waits for you to act. He has acted: he made you, he sustains you daily, he died for you, he is willing to come into your very being and share the future with you. He will . . . If you will. Pray to him, perhaps something like this: 'O Lord, I have been running away from you for a long time. I have tried to escape your challenge by going my own way. I admit I am to blame. I am prepared for a new start, from now on sharing my life with you, you who gave your life for me. Please come into my heart and life, as you promised you would.' To say that honestly, and to mean it, is to pass through the gateway into adventurous and immensely rewarding Christian living Dare you do it? Or are you going to take the cowards way out, and continue running away from Christ ?
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