Gladys Aylward (1902-1970), a British Christian missionary to China, is perhaps best remembered for her role as a “foot-inspector” — someone who was appointed by the Mandarin to travel around and unbind women’s feet, a practice which the Chinese government finally decided to end. So Alyward traveled on behalf of the government as a foot-inspector, tending to the physical needs of women in China. This concern for their needs opened the door for her to share the Gospel wherever she went.
Dr. Kent Brantley, of Samaritan’s Purse, and Nancy Writebol, with Service in Mission, were two missionaries administering medical care to Ebola patients in Liberia when they contracted the disease. They were brought back to the U.S. for treatment, where they eventually recovered. While Brantley and Writebol’s cases received much public attention, they are not the only Christians who have chosen to go to Liberia with the express purpose of alleviating the physical suffering of many.
Christianity was the animating principle for Alyward, Brantley, Writebol, and so many others who have been willing to put their lives on the line for the real, tangible good of others. In both of these stories, people had the courage to live because they knew life is inherently valuable and existence is good. Christianity matters because it is true, and everyone reading this understands that. But these stories illustrate other reasons why Christianity is relevant and matters absolutely. This Christmas season as we remember the birth of our Savior, let us reflect deeply on the difference his coming makes in each of us individually, and in this world in which we live.
Created in God’s Image
Christ’s incarnation hallowed our humanity, and in turn, Christianity validates human experience and says “your life matters.” Atheism and secularism can’t produce a reason for why life matters. And no world religion can convey the same dignity on humans as Christianity does, because they all lack the truth of imago dei, humans bearing the image of God. The woman at the well did not have great social significance, and yet regardless of her background, Christ spoke to the true her — as someone who was not defined solely by choices or social status in life — and in doing so he affirmed her dignity as a creature of God. When nurses treat the sweating, bleeding, dying Ebola victims, they are saying that each individual life matters, regardless of its transient condition. For humans are more than, though not less than, physical beings; and even in our most weakened state are objects of splendor.
C.S. Lewis describes this in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory”: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. … Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat — the glorified and the glorifier, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”
Only Christianity bestows such dignity on human beings, and gives meaning to life.
Summit’s John Stonestreet says, “This idea of the image bearer is never more important for the church to figure out, to preach, share, and bring life to than today. Every social conflict today comes down to the root of misunderstanding of the human person. Christians are saying, ‘I am the image of God’; the culture is saying, ‘I am my inclinations, how I feel, the state that I belong to, what I succeed at.’ Christianity says there is an identity given to us and restored by Jesus Christ.”
Christianity gives purpose to sacrifice. Without the truth of who we are, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have had absolutely no good reason, humanly speaking, to risk his life to stop the evil of Hitler. But because of his devout Christianity, Bonhoeffer knew the endgame. He was willing to risk his life with the knowledge that his patriotism and search for justice might require his fullest measure of devotion to his country and Lord. But Bonhoeffer knew the Christian story is one where sacrifice is not the end.
Recently I had a long lunch with Eddie, a friend of mine who emigrated from Ethiopia. He has an amazing talent for starting businesses and spinning them off to empower others. What is so inspiring is how he discovered this talent.
Eddie’s dad left when he was four years old because his mother had converted to Christianity. With three younger siblings, life was quite difficult for the family. Their stories of God’s provision are inspiring in themselves, but one story from Eddie’s teenage years shows the power of Christ to bring dignity, even through suffering. A lady in San Diego had a vision that she was supposed to help someone she would meet on her upcoming trip to Ethiopia. As you can guess, she met Eddie and gave him money for his family at a point when they were literally dying from starvation. Eddie wanted to make this money last so he bought some food, but invested the rest in a used grain mill that could provide some lasting work and income for the family. Tragically, the mill broke, and within three weeks they were out of food and money again.
At this point, another missionary in Ethiopia had a vision that he was supposed to reach out to Eddie. After Eddie briefly shared his story, the missionary sensed it wasn’t complete, so he asked Eddie to share more details. Once he heard Eddie’s idea to create sustainable income and opportunity for the family, along with Eddie’s willingness to take calculated risks to help his family, the missionary saw the opening. He helped Eddie raise the funds to buy a new mill. Work quickly expanded and Eddie hired others to join his venture, and his talent for entrepreneurship took root.
Today, Eddie lives in an apartment in Denver with his beautiful wife and young daughter. The mill operation is still providing for his family members in Ethiopia. His father, after reconciliation with the family, helps run a hospitality business Eddie started. In addition, Eddie started a transportation company, an oil and gas industry staffing company, a health care company, and is now starting an import/export company. His passion is helping others by providing dignified work for people around the world.
As we take encouragement from every story of the difference Christ has made in our world, it is easy to relate to the author of Hebrews 11 in verses 32-38a:
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them.
Because Christ now lives in us through His Spirit, we each have the opportunity to exemplify the love of Christ. As author and professor Glenn Sunshine said at Summit’s 2014 Adult Conference in his talk about heroes of the faith:
What do all these (heroes) have in common? They bring the Gospel into every area of their life. These (heroes of the faith) understood that the biblical worldview has implications for everything. They looked at the world around them and asked, ‘How can I live that out in my calling, in my place, in my time.’ We should ask then: What are the needs in my community? How can I demonstrate, by my actions, the love of Christ in a fallen world?
Without Christianity, it would be impossible to have meaningful stories. Without Christianity, and Christ’s love ultimately manifested in sacrifice, the virtues that form men and women and create good stories are rendered meaningless. Why would the knight ever gather the courage to conquer the dragon? How could Frodo ever selflessly set aside his comfortable life to go out to save the Shire? Why would Reepicheep ever declare:
My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world into some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.
All great stories are built around the themes of sacrifice, friendship, virtue, forgiveness, justice, love, mercy. And because of the Cross, they all have meaning. Because of Christianity, we believe in Purpose, in Providence. Each and every one of us has a calling. Not a nebulous, limited, impersonal calling. Rather, we each have the chance to bestow dignity and enrich the lives of those around us. Whether through business, friendship, conversation, charity, we are called to enter the stories of others and reaffirm the significance of Christ entering our world.
“Christ knows your story, and my story, every detail and deepest fear,” author Eric Metaxas says in his now-famous Prayer Breakfast speech. “Jesus is not just for Christians, he’s for everyone. The amazing grace of God is for everyone.”
The great truth of Christianity means that we are all part of a great story. A story Christ redeems and a story the world is yearning to see lived with purpose and passion.
Because Jesus came in human form and showed us our true imago dei, we understand the dignity bestowed upon us as beings created in God’s image, and our lives have meaning, a reason why life matters. Because Jesus went to the cross and rose from the dead, we have the great hope of redemption in all things, purpose in sacrifice. Because Jesus saves us, rescues us, and makes us adopted sons and daughters of God, we have the Great Story that provides the themes for every great story that moves us and gives us purpose.
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! Thank you, Jesus, for coming.
Owen Hill is a Summit alumnus of the Understanding the Times curriculum and a Colorado State Senator.