Early in my adult life, I listened to teaching from a Bible teacher who used to say that God made us to live “supernaturally natural” lives. I’ve always liked that phrase. To all appearances, and in truth, those who follow Jesus are no different from anyone else in the world. However, God’s declaration that “Christ lives in me” means that somehow and in some way the new creation has broken in upon my life and there is something more, though it may be difficult to put one’s finger on it.
The anonymous author of the second century letter, The Epistle to Diognetus, made this point.
For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.
Indistinguishable, yet at the same time giving “proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.” Supernaturally natural.
Here are a few of the “proofs” that the author tried to impress upon his reader:
They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring [i.e. “expose” — commit infanticide]. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity.
To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world….
In other words, followers of Jesus are not out to impress. They are quietly, naturally flesh and blood like everyone else. They do not stand out as different or special in any particular way. At the same time they give evidence of a supernatural depth to their lives.
This is one reason I became so dissatisfied with evangelical culture, which in my experience has been all about marketing, attracting, impressing, enthusing, and getting people to participate in various forms of churchianity, promising “transformation” that will lift them out of the realm of the ordinary. It has not, by and large, been about simply living responsibly in the world as regular human beings, supernaturally natural in character and bearing.
In a 1944 letter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed his own sense of discomfort with the outwardly religious life, preferring, he said, to walk among the “religionless.”
I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.” While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people — because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) — to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course.
I was visiting with a patient the other day for the first time. I could tell he was uncomfortable. After going through my usual spiel and asking about his faith background and what kind of support he wanted in that respect, the room grew silent. I wondered if we had reached the end of our conversation.
Then, I simply began to ask how he spent his days and what he liked to watch on TV. Turns out he is a huge sports fans, and even played on a professional level and coached at university. It was as though a floodgate opened, and we talked for at least another half an hour, as he shared stories from his experience and his family. All hesitancy completely disappeared, and from then on he seemed happy to have the company. By the time I left, I felt as though we had begun the process of becoming friends.
We may never talk about anything else. Or we might. Who knows? All I know is that if I make a big effort to push “supernatural” matters on this guy, I’ll run face-first into a wall and fast. On the other hand, if I just sit down with him as ordinary, natural Mike, another guy who loves sports and talking about them, then he will respond and might at some point see something of Jesus in and through our discussions. Call it the sacrament of sports-talk.
That’s my daily goal now. To be supernaturally natural. To be a quiet, natural, genuine human being, trusting God to reveal the supernatural depth of his Spirit in my life.
Thomas Merton got it right:
A saint is capable of loving created things and enjoying the use of them and dealing with them in a perfectly simple, natural manner, making no formal references to God, drawing no attention to his own piety, and acting without any artificial rigidity at all. His gentleness and his sweetness are not pressed through his pores by the crushing restraint of a spiritual strait-jacket.
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Photo by Hamid Najafi at Flickr. Creative Commons License.