A couple of years ago, I underwent a shift in my approach to sharing Christ with non-Christians or apparently nominal Christians. Previously, and frustratingly, such sharing would get mired in side issues: evil acts done throughout history in the name of Christianity; the distasteful example of rigid, hypocritical, eccentric, or judgmental Christians; this or that “irrational” Christian belief or practice; how a good God could send anyone to Hell; or how anyone can be arrogant enough to claim to know absolute truth. Although the discussions generally were cordially conducted, they rarely led the person to a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. I wondered if I needed more convincing arguments or perhaps hadn’t listened as sensitively as I should have. But the problem seemed deeper: the discussions themselves had an intellectualized or dispassionate feel to them.
One day I realized the problem: I and the other person were in fact not discussing the same topic at all. To me, as a committed Christian, it was obvious that the structures, beliefs, and practices of the Church exist for one reason alone: to deepen one’s relationship with Jesus Christ. I defended the former in order to bring people to the latter. But non-Christians or nominal Christians – who, by definition, lack a relationship with Jesus – must see the structures, beliefs, and practices as existing for their own sake. For example, the Christian virtues of chastity or temperance, to them, may flow from the belief that sex is bad, or that relaxing or having fun is immoral. Christianity to them may look like an exercise in joyless sacrifice, and the Christian life dull and straitlaced. If Christians could just loosen up and get out from under their irrational guilt, they’d enjoy life like the rest of us and quit being so judgmental!
For the Christian, of course, this isn’t what’s happening at all. I’ve found the pearl of great price – Jesus Christ – and whatever I need to give up to grow closer to Him is infinitely worth it. As St. Paul exclaims, “But those things I used to consider gain I have now come to regard as loss in the light of Christ. I have come to rate all as loss in the light of the surpassing knowledge of my Lord Jesus Christ. For his sake I have forfeited everything; I have accounted all else rubbish so that Christ may be my wealth” (Phil 3:7-8). It’s not that I’m gritting my teeth, secretly regretting that this albatross around my neck (Christianity-induced guilt) is keeping me from really having a good time. It’s that, ever since I came to know Jesus Christ, any attempts to find joy apart from Him fall flat. It’s not that the world, the flesh, and the devil are too risky or guilt-inducing: it’s that they’ve become too dull. As St. Ignatius puts it, the sting of temptation, like the sting of a scorpion, is in the tail: giving into pride, lust, gluttony, greed, etc. really are very attractive at the outset, but “the anticipation far exceeds the actual event”. When I give in to the temptation, I eventually realize that not only was (whatever I did) wrong, it wasn’t even fun!
I explained it as follows to one person who was considering “taking the leap” into a relationship with Jesus Christ: the change wrought by the Holy Spirit in what we desire and enjoy before meeting Jesus Christ versus after meeting Him is like the change in our food preferences from childhood to adulthood. Children generally like very sweet, not very spicy foods, the sweeter and simpler the better: cotton candy, Captain Crunch, Lucky Charms, or just sugar eaten right out of the bowl! As we mature, we generally find such foods overly sweet and not very interesting; so we branch out into spicy foods as well as foods we before found too sour or bitter. We don’t secretly hanker for the very sweet foods, and eat the spicy or more complex foods out of obligation – we actually like the latter type better.
As St. Francis of Assisi discovered, when we give ourselves to the Lord, He turns what was previously sweet (the pleasures of the world, the flesh, and the devil) to bitterness, and what was previously bitter (prayer; Christian practices; the virtues and sacrifices required in the Christian life) to sweetness. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. For example, Christian friends and acquaintances of mine who swore with abandon before accepting Christ found, to their chagrin, that their consciences made it difficult and unpleasant to swear immediately after their conversions. In my own experience, movies, books, or TV shows I greatly enjoyed in my pre-conversion days I now find myself disturbed or even repulsed by. Before my conversion, apparently, the cursing, amorality, sexual impurity, or general worldliness of such media failed to register – they were just good entertainment. Afterward, any entertainment value was hopelessly obscured by the muck surrounding it.
Conversely, after meeting Jesus, people who formerly would have preferred being flayed alive with a butter knife to sitting in a church service now find themselves looking forward to Sunday meeting! It is likely difficult for non-Christians, or nominal Christians to believe that Christians sincerely, unabashedly enjoy church-related functions, look forward to prayer meetings, covet their prayer time, and get energized by lively praise and worship. Not that every service or prayer time is heaven on earth! But the benefits of closeness with the Lord and Christian brothers and sisters far outweigh the cost of the occasional lifeless sermon or dry prayer time.
Let me emphasize that this transformation of perception is not a function of reading the Scriptures or hearing sermons against immorality. These, of course, nurture and confirm the transformation. It is a supernatural, psychologically inexplicable “change of heart” – the New Testament term is “metanoia” – effected by the Holy Spirit. It is putting on new glasses or getting a conscience transplant. “I was blind before; now I can see (Jn 9:25).”