The Christian Problem

One day I was riding a subway in New York City engaging in my favorite New York pastime—people-watching. You can really study people in subways because they sit in the same place for a while and they almost always avoid eye contact. Across from me sat a Sikh man wearing an expensive suit and a turban. Near him was a Muslim woman also wearing a head covering. Down the car a bit were two Hasidic Jews wearing long black coats, flat-brimmed black hats, and sporting curls of hair on the sides of their heads. The religions of the world, all in one subway car—only in New York. Then I noticed that the man sitting next to the Sikh appeared to be reading a Bible. It was hard to tell for sure. The Bible looked like an ordinary book, but as I peered at it, it looked like the type was small and laid out in two columns on the page.  He looked like everyone else, an ordinary guy reading a book on a subway.

My friend Chris Lowney calls this “the Christian problem.” The problem is: how are Christians different? Our lives look pretty much the same as everyone’s. In everyday terms, what makes us different?

Other religions have answers to that question with visible differences, as my subway inspection showed.  Observant Jews follow the Law, which regulates food, dress, and other aspects of daily life. Faithful Muslims pray five times a day.  Hindus are differentiated into caste groups with distinct modes of dress and behavior. We Christians have few of these outer signs of religious identity because Jesus wasn’t much interested in external signs of piety.  He was much more interested in the condition of our hearts. We act as Christians when our hearts are set on loving God and other people.  We live as followers of Christ when we’re aligned with the work God is doing in the world. This is much more a matter of our inner orientation than outward characteristics.

The answer to the Christian problem is to find God in all things—to see God in what we think, do, and feel; in life with family, friends, colleagues, and casual acquaintances; in our busyness and our rest.  That’s what the Examen helps us do so well.

Adapted from A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer: Discovering the Power of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Examen


  1. For me, a Christian sees God in all creation and this awesome experience fills me with so much love that I want to share this incredible feeling with everyone. It may be a smile and hello, picking up trash, talking with the person in line with me or behind the checkout. A Christian is someone who remembers that they are the instrument of Christ on Earth.

  2. When I travel I love to people watch. It makes me think of how Jesus
    knows every nook and cranny of their being, knows their stories, knows their worries, concerns, joys and sorrows. It gives me pause to whisper
    a little prayer for them.

  3. Diognetus wrote about this many, many years ago:
    “Christians are indistinguishable from other men, either by nationality, language or customs….With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customes of whatever city they happen to be living in…And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives.
    They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be called their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country…”

    • I like that quote very much, Bob. Thank you for it. It’s interesting that Ignatius didn’t especially favor clerical dress for Jesuits. He wanted Jesuits to dress like the people they worked with.

      • That’s validation at its best; gets to the heart of a person right at the get go. Then we look at the similarities (not the differences).


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