Throughout most of my Christian life I have been taught that there are two types of people who call themselves “Christian”: There are Nominal Christians who are Christian by heritage but display no evidence of an active faith, and then there are “real” Christians who love Jesus and have committed their lives to them.
While there is certainly a wide spectrum within each of these two categories, I have begun to realize that there is a third category of self-described Christians, and I will refer to them here as Sentimental Christians. I have come to this realization with the help of a former seminary professor of mine, an ethicist named Stanley Hauerwas who was fond of making the following statement:
“The greatest enemy of Christianity is not atheism, but sentimentality.”
I still remember the first time I heard those words, because I was both surprised and a little confused by them. Sentimentality? What exactly is he trying to say? Well the reason I am posting this topic now is that I can think of no better time to reflect on “sentimentality” than the holidays.
I for one am VERY sentimental about the Christmas season. Like every year before this one, I put out my Christmas decorations, I heated up some apple cider, and I listened to my favorite Christmas songs as I sat on my couch and let the feelings of tender nostalgia wash over me. There are certain moments during the Christmas season–when I am sitting by my parents’ crackling fire or gazing at the lighted tree–that take me straight back to my childhood. It’s like being wrapped up in a warm blanket of the sights and smells and memories that made my younger years so magical. And that’s why I get so excited about Christmas–those sentimental elements of the season bring me amazing comfort and joy.
That is sentimentality. For a more clear-cut definition, Merriam-Webster defines the word “sentimental” as “marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism” and “resulting from feeling rather than reason or thought.” And while sentimentality is mostly harmless as it relates to family traditions, you’re probably beginning to see why it’s dangerous as a foundation for one’s Christian faith.
Sentimental Christian faith is one that appears, on one level, to be fully devoted to Christ. A sentimental Christian delights in the Christian faith because of the comfort it brings her. She loves to carry forth the Christian faith in which she was raised, and she is therefore involved at her church. Her Facebook profile probably displays Philippians 4:13 or Jeremiah 29:11. By all accounts, she would seem to be a committed Christian.
But if you dig just a little bit below the surface it becomes clear that her faith is all about comfort. Christianity is familiar to her and makes her feel secure because it is how she was raised. Yet when the Gospel requires the slightest bit of sacrifice, the sentimental Christian shows resistance. The sentimental Christian manifests tremendous inconsistency between what she professes and the personal life she leads. Outside of church she shrinks from monetary generosity or kindness in the face of evil. Sacrifice has no place in her life, not even the smallest of sacrifices such as abstinence before marriage or drinking responsibly.
That is the problem with sentimental faith–it is ultimately self-serving. It is a feel-good religion that is incompatible with the sacrifice and suffering described in Scripture and displayed on the cross. And this inconsistency is glaringly obvious to the surrounding world. Hence my professor’s accusation that the greatest enemy to Christianity is not atheism, but sentimentality. When the church houses thousands of professing “born-agains” whose lives look nothing like Jesus’ and who know very little about the teachings of Christ, the church looks like it’s putting on a sham. Our own shallow faith is our worst enemy.
Although the Gospel is founded upon faith, not works, the book of James is a sobering reminder that our lifestyle still matters. God cares about how we live our lives, not only because He knows what is best for us but because we reflect on Him. So I encourage you to examine your faith and consider whether it is about sentimentality, or a love and gratitude for Jesus that is so passionate you would do anything for him. Talk to your friends about this as well. I have been astonished by how nonchalantly Christians ignore Scriptural commands, and it is a topic we need to discuss. Rather than fight our enemies on the outside, we first need to address the sickness within.