The word “Christian” is not a registered trademark, so anyone can claim to be a Christian. It is hard to tell who is a real Christian and who is a fake Christian, because some of the fake ones claim to be real, and many real ones make no claims about themselves at all.
There are self-labeled Christians who profess to love the people they obviously don’t, and in doing so, they deceive themselves and puzzle everyone else. They know they that Jesus commanded them to love everyone, but instead of changing how they treat people, they just rename whatever they do as “love.” If they help someone, it is Christian love. If they don’t help someone, it is Christian love. If you look even closer, you can see that they are spiritual contortionists who do their Christianity backwards. Instead of using the commandments to measure themselves, they use themselves to measure the commandments.
You’d never guess that they were high-quality Christians if they didn’t point to the name tags they printed up for themselves and proudly pinned on their shirts. They claim to be experts, but when they begin to teach, it is clear that they are not. They call their insecurities faith and their opinions facts.
Don’t be discouraged. It is actually easy to identify a truly spiritual Christian.
Spiritual Christians are so busy being Christians they don’t have time to brag about it. They don’t crave the notoriety, and the shy away from the spotlight. Spiritual Christians rarely complain that they are under persecution, even if they really are. They welcome the challenge and the opportunity to suffer for the cause of Christ. Spiritual Christians assume their behavior is imperfect, and look for ways to improve it by obeying Jesus’ commandments. You can find their characteristics in Galatians 5:22-23 and their lifestyle in Matthew 6.
Spiritual Christians treat you as a long-lost best friend, even if they’ve never met you before. They create a positive, affirming environment in which it never enters your mind to do anything less than your best.
They know that love does not come from the loveliness of the thing being loved, because anyone can love something that is lovely. Only a loving person can love what is not lovely—and they are loving people. We’re not talking romance or sentiment, here. They have the kind of love that is evident from their affirming words and providential deeds. When you reflect on it, you realize that your life is better when they are in it. They love their friends, they love total strangers, and they love their enemies. If a person from a faraway land moves into the neighborhood, they are the first to befriend them.
Spiritual Christians prefer to encourage you in the things you do right and to praise you for the things you do well, because encouragement and praise are expressions of love. They don’t chastise you for what you are doing wrong, and they don’t criticize you for what you do poorly, because chastisement and criticism require them to judge, and it is not their place to judge. Have you ever noticed that when someone says, “No offense, but…” they go on to say something offensive? This is why spiritual Christians aren’t big fans of “tough love” or “constructive criticism,” because to the recipient, there's no love in tough love, and nothing constructive in constructive criticism.
Spiritual Christians don’t warn of the darkness, they point out the light, because people, like moths, are naturally drawn to the light. Where there is light, there is no darkness, and thus no need to point it out.
We judge people to reduce the number of people whom we have to love. We eliminate the ones we esteem as unworthy, then we love the ones who are left. For spiritual Christians, any method of cutting down on the workload, including this one, is improper. You or I might spot a person who we think is clearly worthy of condemnation, and we might think that the spiritual Christians are daft not to notice. Spiritual Christians, however, know that judging people is both an act of disobedience and a lack of faith even if the judgment is correct. It is an act of disobedience because Jesus commanded us not to judge, and it is a lack of faith, because if we have faith in Jesus to judge, there is no need for us to do it.
Spiritual Christians do not storm the gates of heaven, seize the divine throne, sit on it, and override Jesus’ prerogative to judge with their own.
If a great tragedy befalls your family, your neighbors might tell you that they are keeping you in their thoughts and prayers. The neighbors who truly care about you will bring you a casserole, too. That's a good metaphor for spiritual Christians. You never wonder if they care about you, you know they do. They love, not just with kind words, but also with providential deeds. They never withhold love from the ones who need it, even if someone else might think they do not deserve it. They extend their providential love to the people who are unlovely: to the outcast, the downcast, the despised, the hated, the ostracized, the feared, the atheist, and the sinner.
In high school, if you sit at the table with the unpopular students, you'll become unpopular too. Adult life isn’t much different, because people judge you by the company you keep. Spiritual Christians aren’t afraid to love unpopular people, not caring whether that will make them unpopular, too. They seem clueless sometimes, but they are shrewd. At the end of all things, popularity with people won’t matter. Only obedience to Jesus will.
Spiritual Christians are pious, which means they go to church, pray, and do all those other religious things you’d expect, but it is never ostentatious, disruptive, or competitive. They are never trying to show that they are more pious than you are. They don’t make a show of religion and rationalize it as witnessing. They don’t make a big spectacle of prayers in a restaurant and they don’t pepper their speech to excess with religious slang.
Their piety is apparent from the character of their life, not from showy religiosity. However, they don’t make a nit-picky distinction between religiosity and spirituality, disclaiming one in favor of the other, because that would be boasting. They don’t need to assert themselves, because they know that they are the soldiers, not the general, and that God is strong enough to prevail on His own without their help.
Peace and Joy
Spiritual Christians strive to be at peace with all things and all people. They don’t confuse peace with resignation or joy with hilarity, because there can also be contentment in unhappy times. They do not wear a plastic smile under crying eyes. They are generally content with their life. After a hiccup of resentment or anger (they’re only human), they take even tragedy in stride. For a moment they may take something fatalistically as “God’s plan,” but they quickly recover and see it as God’s providence in inscrutable disguise. In general, their joy is a kind of quiet, confident contentment, not the sort of fake joy that froths over into a nitrous-oxide smile and forced joviality. No matter what adversity they face, no matter what their frustrations may be, their quiet confidence and optimism always rises to the surface.
They actively seek to be reconciled with all people and never carry a grudge. They are quick to forgive, quick to trust, and quick to suffer when others take advantage of them.
Spiritual Christians are patient with you. They are willing to give you time to develop your virtues and your spirituality, because they are confident in the Holy Spirit’s ability to transform you and don’t criticize His schedule.
Spiritual Christians know that God gives everyone the freedom to sin, because otherwise they could not turn from it, repent of it, or be saved from it. So they see sinners as beginners on a journey of transformation. One person might arrive at the destination immediately after beginning; another might not arrive until after it seems that all is lost, and still another might go the long way around, seemingly going in the wrong direction before suddenly arriving. Spiritual Christians don’t pretend to have divine insight into the details of your journey, and since they have not yet reached their own destinations, they cannot judge whether you have reached yours. They are patient with you.
Spiritual Christians nudge you toward righteousness and faith with acts of love and providence, but they never presume to know all things. They never leave you by the side of the road, Bible-whipped and resentful. They believe the Bible is infallible, but they know that they are not. They don’t pretend that reading the Bible gives them all knowledge or infallible insight into God. They also know that God created the universe and pronounced it good and that the sky declares the glory of God. If their understanding of the Bible doesn’t match their understanding of the universe, they are humble to know that the problem is not in the Bible or in reality, but in the limitations of their understanding.
Spiritual Christians are generous. They tend to give you something rather than to recommend it to you. They give your needs a higher priority than their own, often to your surprise and their own disadvantage. They’d rather shiver than see you go without a coat. They look out for you, trusting God to look out for them. Christian men and Christian women know that they are God’s adopted sons, which confers responsibility, not privilege. They are the agents of God’s providence in your life. They always have time for you, no matter how busy they are, because for them, people come before things, and other people come before themselves. They are generous with their money, too, but since church donations are confidential, and because they do not brag about their generosity, you can only guess. In fact, you would never find out that they are generous until someone tells you about it or you find yourself benefiting from it.
Spiritual Christians are faithful to others. They never let you down out of spite, even if you have done bad things to them or said bad things about them. They give people material help in their time of need.
They are faithful to God. At those times in life when they cannot see God’s presence, they accept it as a spiritual exercise that teaches them to walk by faith and not by sight. Even in those times of spiritual drought, when they can’t see the point of obeying Jesus’ commandments, they do it anyway.
Spiritual Christians are gentle. They know that God is in control of all things, no matter how things appear, so they never see cause for anger or outrage. In moments of human weakness, they might become angry or outraged with you, but they quickly recover and apologize. They take everything in stride. They know that the person with the most emotion loses the argument, so in discussions they are calm. They are approachable and affable, even with people that you or I would think do not deserve the time of day.
Spiritual Christians have a discipline of self-control. This might be fasting, to make sure that they are in control of their stomach, and that their stomach is not in control of them, or they might keep themselves spiritually fit in some other way. They do not despise their body, nor do they worship it; they seek to break it in like a wild horse, to tame it and ride it in service to the Lord. They do physical exercise, not so that people can admire their physique, but to keep themselves in good health.
They are disciplined in everything they do, but you can only see its outward effects, because they never talk about their own virtues. If you ask them why they only ordered a salad, they just say they don’t feel particularly hungry, even if they are really fasting. They are in control of themselves. If someone is rude or angry, they don’t see it as license to be rude or angry in return.
Spiritual Christians are forgiving. They don’t just say, “I forgive you,” they really forgive you. They never say, “as a Christian, I forgive you, but there are some things I can’t forget,” because for them, that would be an attempt to get credit for it without actually doing it. They don’t even count the number of times they forgave you for the same thing, because each time they forgave you, the counter went back to zero. They never worry that you might do it again, and you don’t have to avoid them.
If you happen to remember something that you did wrong, your embarrassment fades away quickly, because they don’t worry about things that no longer matter.
The Greatest of These Is Love
It all comes back to love, doesn’t it? Spiritual Christians believe that the test of their spirituality is not in giving to those who deserve, but to those who need. There is no such thing as a despicable person for them. They might not like them, they might feel queasy about them, they might even have opinions about them that are not flattering, but when the chips are down, they do for them what they would do for anyone else.
For they know that these people are given to them as a test of their love, and that the measure of their obedience is how they treat the people whom they regard as the least of all. For them, “Christian” is not something to be so much as it is something to do.