Failing the Sniff Test


The last few days, I’ve been unable to shake this thought: In what ways do American Christians appear different from their non-Christian neighbors?

I’m sure each of us knows of people who volunteer their time to help the less fortunate, take opportunities to seek out deeper meaning in life, are kind and considerate, who engage in common rituals, pay their taxes, love their kids, help their neighbors, work hard to better their community, shun the obvious sins, and are generally nice, fine people.Yet those same folks make no pretenses of being born-again believers in Jesus.

For some reason, though, we apply those same traits and qualities to Christians and ascribe them a passing grade for being a good follower of Christ.

The Bible says:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
—2 Corinthians 2:14-17

Any guy who has wondered about the suitability of a garment worn once knows about the sniff test. Stick a nose in that shirt and inhale. If it doesn’t smell like Satan’s backside, it’s still wearable.

Christians have their own sniff test to pass, though the aroma is far more pleasing than a simple lack of BO. At least it should be. The sniff testWhat really bugged me as I thought about this passage is that I’m no longer certain if the Church in America today smells any different than the world.

In a lot of ways, too many Christians in America ARE little more than peddlers of God’s word. In fact, we’ve somehow made being a peddler of God’s word a good thing, as if it shows commitment to a spiritual life! Even worse, too many of us aren’t even devoted enough to be a peddler of God’s word. We just kind of exist. Just like that nice, fine non-Christian who pays his taxes and volunteers to read to elderly people a few times a week.

Seriously, I think that too many of us have substituted rituals for genuine knowledge of Christ. And for those who claim genuine knowledge of Christ, what of their lives makes them smell different from the rest of humanity? What does genuine Christianity look like in America 2010?

I like Keith Green. His music has meant a lot to me. In one of his live recordings, he says that the defining quality of a true Christian is being bananas for Jesus. Again, I like Keith, but the tepid applause on that recording to his definition underlines his swing and miss. Being bananas for Jesus simply isn’t enough.

What I cannot escape is this passage:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
—Romans 8:14

Ask any Christian about being led by the Spirit of God, and you’ll get a million different replies as to what that means. Most of those answers, sadly, will fall into a category of vague impressions about decision-making or about being nice to people—again, the kinds of motivations that stir non-Christians. That’s not good enough to pass the sniff test.

Consider this:

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.
—Acts 9:10-19

Isn’t that the “led by the Spirit of God” that Paul is talking about in Romans 8:14? How ironic that it serves as part of his own conversion story.

Now we can talk all we want about visions and miracles and so on, but part of us doesn’t believe they’re real. We’re hardcore rationalists in America, and if someone came up to us and shared the story that God said to go down to such and such a place to pray over a blind enemy so that enemy would receive his sight again, our deflector shields would be cranked up to 11. The first thought we’d have is that this is a dangerously unstable individual. A religious nutjob.

And that’s why we no longer pass the sniff test.

If we’re to be the aroma of Christ, then we have to smell—and act—in ways that look nothing like the world. I’m not talking about being an anti-culture warrior, either, but living supernaturally.

Too many of us have lost that aroma because we have no place in our lives for being led by the Spirit. The only thing that separates the person with Christian sympathies from the genuine believer is the presence of the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer. No religion on this planet makes the contention that Christianity does about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That IS the mark of the Church.

Yet the average “born-again Christian” in America exhibits no signs of being indwelt by God Himself. There may be plenty of signs of being a “peddler of God’s word,” but next to nothing that shows evidence of the genuinely supernatural. And if that’s the case, that person won’t pass the sniff test.

The only hope for the American Church is that we get serious about rectifying the lack of presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Christians are not of this world. Our Kingdom flows from the supernatural and penetrates the natural. If that’s not how we think, work, and live, then it’s no wonder that we smell like this decaying world.

14 thoughts on “Failing the Sniff Test

  1. casey

    I was just having a similar discussion with a Christian friend a few days ago. We were marvelling at how frequently non-christians act so much more christlike than the folks we go to church with who profess to be christians. We were wondering if perhaps it was the busyness of belonging to and being involved in a church that was interfering with our spiritual lives. Sounds crazy, but let it sink in for a minute.

    • Casey,

      Institutional church does have its own overhead issues that suck away time. But perhaps we are too into this idea of “Hey, I’m going to heaven because I said the right words—now its party time!” We end up crawling onto a shelf somewhere and that’s as far as we go. Problem is, the Bible never says that we should act or think that way.

  2. Diane R

    Its interesting that many third world Christians do pass the “sniff test.” No wonder there is such a plethora of books now-a-days about third world Christanity as the new center of the faith.

  3. Laura W.

    I think it was Bill Gothard that said, when speaking of Christian witness, that “No difference means no conviction.” I was reminded of that when reading your post.

  4. Dire Dan: “…Our Kingdom flows from the supernatural and penetrates the natural.”

    Do we want the supernatural? It seems that lots of ministers don’t, not really. The supernatural is just too unpredicitable; you can’t write a budget for it. When it’s afoot, “unrespectable” things might happen; it’s liable to create a “scene” or draw attention. The News media might ridicule it. That could get embarrassing. Better still, the supernatural should be kept safely overseas, in some far away country, such as the deep interior of China. That way we can occasionally tell stories about it in our sermons, especially when we need to beat the congregations over the head again about giving more in the offering…how else are we to pay for this enormous “big box store” megachurch facility of ours? The supernatural might be okay for Yuan Xi in some remote province of China, but, no thank you, the supernatural is definitely not desirable here in America, and we’ve been getting along just well without it. Yes, we’re getting along fine with our current “discipleship” program which is getting everybody nicely regimented in our closely monitored “small groups.” We provide the scripts for them to read. Everybody follows the script, so everything is safe. So far our track record has been one of success, and all without getting mixed up with anything “controversial.”

    People who suggest a need for such things as the supernatural are definitely suspect. We suspect they must be “arrogant” for suggesting there is something more we supposedly “need.” No, we’ve got it right.

    Just look at the numbers.

  5. Dan,

    You quoted the passage “They that are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God”.

    You said “it [the lampstand] has been taken away already”.

    Both of these speak to things that have been in my mind and heart lately. As you stated regarding the lampstand, so is true regarding His body being the salt of the earth. The salt has lost its saltiness, and is worth only to be trampled underfoot. What makes us salt? By living our lives by Kingdom principles, which are drastically different than worldly principles, which is what you are saying, obviously. Living in this manner makes us look and act different than the world. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the institutional church fosters this, because it is built on worldly principles and not kingdom ones.

    Regarding being led of the Spirit, I agree with what you said. I would also add that being led by the Spirit entails being willing to think outside the bounds of our own lives and mindsets, and being willing to do the radical thing when He asks us to. I can speak from my own life that He has led me down paths I never would’ve taken, but having taken them I am so glad I did. His ways are certainly higher than our ways, and His thoughts higher than our thoughts, and as such His plans may seem strange and foolish to our natural minds.


    • Mark,

      One problem with being led by the Spirit is that too few churches have a body that functions as a correcter and limiter of “led by the Spirit” experiences. Many of such unmentored leadings end up being disastrous for people who heed them. Too many of us believe that we are perfect analyzers of what our leading is and means, but I would offer that the church as a whole—and its leadership in particular—are supposed to help people correctly discern leading.

      Too few people hear the Spirit clearly. Then they go off on wild goose chases that blow up badly. For those who are receiving leading but don’t know what to make of it, that’s where the church as a discerning body is vital. Yet do we do that kind of discernment in our churches? Hardly. It’s almost a lost art.

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