Several weeks ago, I found myself in the grocery store check-out line behind a family that seemed to be shopping for the End Times. They had dozens of bottles of water, giant containers of condiments, and enough sandwich bread and cold cuts to feed a small army. The clerk noticed, too, and must have heard them talking to each other in foreign accents, because she said, “Where are you all visiting from?”
“Germany,” came the response. “We’re here for two weeks.” Immediately, I had an existential crisis.
The first part of my crisis was harmless enough: I looked at their food again and found myself wondering how their choices jibed with what I know (or think I know) about Germans. Interestingly—or, perhaps, revealingly—there was no bratwurst or sauerkraut in their order. No enormous steins. No lederhosen. Who were these people? I was confused.
Interestingly, though, it wasn’t actually the Germans’ order that captured the largest percentage of my attention, it was my own. And it was this internal personal crisis—again, over the content of my grocery list—that was damaging to me.
Since I was judging these German tourists on their planned food consumption for the next two weeks, I had to assume that they were doing the same to me. I looked at my food in a panic: was there anything really fattening? I know (or think I know) that everyone thinks of Americans as overweight. Was I perpetuating that stereotype? (I mean, in ways other than my actual weight?) Did I have any fresh fruit? “Yes!” I thought. “Oh, thank God, I have some apples. And no Oreos! Thank God I still have a half-full package of Oreos at home and didn’t need to restock today! Oh, but I have Nutella! That’s not healthy…but, hey, at least it’s European! Maybe they’ll think that’s cool!” I was stricken.
Here’s what I was asking myself as I surveyed the groceries that I was planning to purchase: am I representing America well right now? Are these tourists—assuming, as I was, that they are looking at me as Johnny Q. American—going to think highly of America? Or am I ruining everything? All of this went through my head in a flash, and I felt immediately and powerfully oppressed by it. It was a great relief to me when the Germans eventually walked out of the store and I could escape their implied—but probably non-existent—judgment.
Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Whenever I read this verse, my first thought (before I move on to other, better thoughts) is of another sentence that never appears in the Bible, but which was equally familiar to me as a younger person: “If being a Christian was illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
For many readers—and many Christians—Jesus’ words here become a litmus test for the quality of our Christian “walk.” I remember telling a member of the youth group that I was running that he didn’t need to worry about evangelism…he should just live a life holy enough that his friends would eventually start to ask him why. If this sort of thing is true, it will necessarily turn Christians (especially young ones) into the sort of neurotic self-doubters that I became in the grocery store check-out line. Are we representing Christ well enough? We look frantically at our lives, hoping to find the “fresh fruit” of good works, loving outreach, and care for one’s fellow man. Instead, all we find are Oreos: selfishness, animosity, and ill will.
Are we representing Christ well enough? Of course not. If being a Christian was illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict me? Not unless they caught me actually coming out of church (and, ahem, I spent this past Sunday morning at Marvel Universe Live).
But we misunderstand Jesus’ words.
When Jesus says that people will know we are his disciples by our love, he doesn’t mean—at all!—that a lack of loving behavior disqualifies us from discipleship. What he means is something much more profound: that true love is only possible in him! If, by some miracle, we ever actually love we must be in Christ! Indeed, we only ever love because he first loved us! (1 John 4:19)
So, when you find yourself in the grocery store check-out lines of life, wondering what people—German or otherwise—are thinking of you and of the quality of your spiritual life, don’t fear your lack of love. Don’t be surprised to look down and find that you’ve bought nothing but Oreos…again. Jesus Christ came for those who do not love—for you and for me. He came, and because he did, a chain reaction of miracles is set off, the final firework of which is a love that comes from us to others, unbidden and usually completely by surprise. When it happens, when you look at your life and find yourself loving someone who isn’t you…you, and those around you, will know that you are in Christ.
It’s the only way such a love is possible.