The Common Good

Can You Really Tell the Difference Between Christians and Non-Christians?

There is an old Christian hymn that has the lyrics "They'll know we are Christians by our love." It was written in the late 60s and was inspired by the Bible verse John 13:35, where Jesus says, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (NIV) 

Religion survey box, alexmillos / Shutterstock.com
Religion survey box, alexmillos / Shutterstock.com

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Really? We're supposed to be able to tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians? And the difference is love?! 

In reality, it's not nearly that simple, and the fact is, there’s no visible difference. 

If you were to go to the grocery store, a football game, the gym, a school, or your work, there would be no obvious way of identifying — through actions — who is a Christian and who isn't, and we should be careful not to judge. 

Some of the kindest, nicest, authentic, and wonderful people I know don't believe in Jesus. Contrarily, there are some horrible, mean, and downright disgusting Christians. 

How can Christians explain the fact that some of the best deeds are done by nonbelievers, or worse yet, atheists?! How should we respond when our “secular” coworkers lovingly help fix our flat tire out of the kindness of their hearts? Or what about when Christians hurt us and cause severe pain and suffering? 

Additionally, Christians can be sad and depressed while nonbelievers can be genuinely happy and joyful. And some believers are hardly spiritual, while many Mormons, Muslims, and people of a variety of other faiths are more passionate about their faiths than we are.

As Christians, we're often blatantly — and subversively — taught that we're happier, more spiritual, and generally better than everyone else. We’re not.

The poor rationale that some Christians use is that nonbelievers are really "hurting deep down" and simply appear happy in order to compensate for their feelings of hopelessness. But this is far from the truth, and constantly propagating the idea that Christians are — and should be — generally "better" than everyone else reinforces many unhealthy habits.

The perpetual message of "being a good witness" and "living out your faith through actions" can promote hiding beneath a facade at the expense of spiritual authenticity, and these overused clichés are often half-truths. God never intended for us to promote the benefits of knowing God, but instead wanted us to promote GOD. 

As Christians, it's OK to sometimes be sad and down, and we weren't created to constantly be on a 24/7 emotional high — there's a season for everything.  

Instead of admitting our fears, anger, guilt, shame, and sin, Christians often pretend that everything is perfect because we've been incessantly told that we’re meant to stand out, live radically, and "be a light to the dark world." Thus, we would rather lie to ourselves and everyone around us rather than fail or be honestly transparent.

This is where Christian often go wrong. We idolize goodness, morality, and actions while completely ignoring Christ. 

There is only one difference between Christians and non-Christians: Christ. This is the most important difference, and Jesus wants us to recognize it.

Because without actually starting a discussion, talking about faith and spirituality, and purposefully finding out if a person has a relationship with Christ, you won't be able to tell the difference between a Christian and non-Christian simply through observation. Nobody, not even a Christians, have the market cornered on goodness, morality, and ethical behavior. 

Yes, theology matters, our actions matter, or attitudes matter, and the example we set for others matter, but in the end, none of these things are more important than Jesus Christ — this is what Christians need to be promoting: Jesus.

Instead of putting ourselves on a pedestal, we need to realize that everyone is created in God’s image, and that God loves all of creation — everyone. The point is to have a relationship with Christ. Are we working on knowing Jesus better, or simply working on trying to visibly act like we do?

Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.

Image: Religion survey box, alexmillos / Shutterstock.com

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