Christ, our Light

CQOD Special Archive

Of Rice and Men

Published under the title “Rice Christians”

by Robert MacColl Adams

         Everybody knows what “rice Christians” are, I suppose. People here in the United States have tended to look down upon the beggarly Chinese (or Indian, or what-not) who would crawl to the mission compound and pretend to be a convert to Christianity just for a bowlful of boiled rice a day. But it is a strangely hard heart that will scorn a man for choosing to be a “rice Christian” instead of a no-rice Buddhist, for example... a strangely hard heart, I say, and doubly strange in a Christian, who might be expected to be glad if a man has forsaken the worship of Buddha for that of Christ, no matter what the inducement was.
         But it is no use, you may say (as I did), to give up worshipping Buddha unless you become a real Christian, and these rice Christians cared only for the rice: they had not given their hearts to Christ. Perhaps not. But if not, who is to blame?
         The rice Christian should have realized what is involved in being a real Christian; but it would be easier to condemn his ignorance if he had ever seen real Christians. The rice Christian might be illiterate, but he knew something of the world. He might even know, in a dim way, that for every rice-doling missionary in China, there were hundreds and thousands of Christians back in America whose missionary zeal and Christian love supported the missionary and provided the meager rations of rice he doled out. Can you blame the poor man with the bowl of rice if he got the impression that being a Christian doesn’t make any very heavy demands on a person?
         Of course, the poor fellow may not have known—and the missionary may have omitted to tell him—that, for most American Christians, being a Christian is almost entirely external, a matter of conformity to a certain socially approved pattern of behavior at certain limited times, and that—far from demanding a man’s heart—American Christianity has a hard time prying him loose from his pocket change. However, a lot of the beggars did know this: even among the illiterate, the word gets around. And so the rice Christian may well have thought himself as much a Christian as anyone else.
         But surely, you will say, the hypothetical well-informed rice Christian had seen one real Christian, by anyone’s definition: what about the missionary? All right, what about him? The beggar may simply have thought of him as an exception. If he really understood the price the missionary was paying for his Christianity, he also knew about the many “Christians” who declined to pay any such price... indeed, any price at all. And it is hard to blame the beggar for concluding that devotion is, to say the least, optional for Christians. More likely, though, he didn’t know about the price. You and I know how badly the missionary was supported, and how much he gave up. But the beggar saw him as one of the kings of the earth, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice (didn’t he have food to give away?), protected by unseen Powers, the darling of Fortune. Can any of us appreciate, I wonder, how the average American looks to a man who has never had a full meal in his life?
         All four Evangelists record that, when Jesus had fed the five thousand, they were all filled. You and I might not think much of the chance of stuffing ourselves on dry rye bread and sun-cured herring; but to the people actually involved, it was an unparalleled miracle—they walked halfway around the Sea of Galilee in the broiling sun the next day just on the chance of finding this Jesus again. And some of them did find Him. He knew that they had not followed Him for His teaching, but because of that startling, that mind-shattering miracle of the full bellies. But He did not scorn them: He only went on to teach them the difference between a rice Christian and a real one.
         Those rice Christians who used to come to our mission stations in China—they may have come only because of the rice, but they came to the right place, didn’t they? They came to Christ as He was held out to them, and they were taught there about being real Christians. We don’t have any rice-bearing missionaries in China any more, but there are still Christians there. Not many, you say. Who knows? And who knows how many Christians there would be in our own fair land ten years after the rice was cut off?
         For we all began as rice Christians, you know. All of us came first because we were hungry—no higher reason. Even the mushiest rice gruel is better than hunger pangs. Did you come to Him through fear of Hell? There’s a low motive for you: “Let Jesus Christ save you; following Him is better than an eternity of torment.” But many a Christian came to Christ first for just that reason. There is energy in even plain boiled rice. Did you come to Him because you couldn’t carry your load of guilt any more? There’s another low-level appeal, isn’t it? “Let Jesus Christ bear your burden; following Him is better than total collapse.” Yet this low-level appeal brought many a Christian to Christ, and still does.
         There are vitamins in unpolished rice, unattractive though it is. Did you come to Him because of deficiency diseases in your soul—no hope, no direction, no purpose in living? What a pitifully low appeal: “Let Jesus Christ give you a reason for living; following Him is better than suicide.” A low appeal indeed—so low, in fact, that it reached down to me when (it seemed) nothing else could; and so I, for one, can’t look down on it.
         Well, there are crunchier, flakier, yummier forms of rice. American technology enables rice to be presented in a variety of forms, not all easily recognized as rice. There’s the golden rice flake of Christian respectability: here we are in our proper place of service and testimony to the community; how good it is to know that we are on God’s side! There’s the dainty rice puff of Christian intellectuality: we love those “studies” which require of us only that slight degree of intellectual effort which is a pleasure; how good it is to be learning to understand God! And there’s the fragile rice crispy of Christian fellowship: in this finest of all forms of togetherness there is only the slightest touch of snobbery, sometimes; and the glow we get from being with God’s family may last for hours.
         Now there is some real nourishment in these things, even if they have a way of starting you to wondering about lunch at about 10:30 A.M. But all rice, all grain, all food, is like that. They are only the “meat which perisheth”, after all—good enough to bring us to Jesus Christ, but not good enough to sustain us long without Him. And the yummiest, crunchiest, nuttiest form of rice now being offered to people is, I think, the notion that Christianity is fun: “Become a Christian and all your troubles are over”, is the general idea. The Christian life is presented as one long, sweet song, a triumphal procession of jolly associations, marvelous sessions of prayer and study, happy-happy worship services, the grandest conquest over sin and weakness and error, a successful avoidance of all the snares of the world without missing any of its joys. Everything is great, everything is going to be great from here on in.
         Well, we all began as rice Christians, and not many of us can be sure, even yet, that the rice means absolutely nothing to us. It is not for one rice Christian to say that another cannot be sincere, or that the Lord Jesus may not draw a man to Himself by any means that will serve His purpose. And there is joy in belonging to Him: it is a real joy, a happiness beyond anything the world can give. Looking back, I can see that I was never really happy before I met Him; looking forward, I know that there can be no happiness without Him again, ever again. And I wouldn’t want any prospective Christian not to know this, or not to realize that our final destiny is complete happiness.
         But being a Christian here and now is not all cokes and bowling. In coming to know Jesus, you have come to know yourself, too: naturally, this is more pleasant for some than for others, but to see yourself as you really are can never be entirely pleasant. And when a Christian fails at something he ought to have done, it isn’t just the failure that hurts—there is also the knowledge that he has let Jesus down. And those little shortcomings of ours, that used to matter so little, compared with the glaring faults of others: we know now that our temper, or our gloom, or our selfishness, reflects on Jesus; and knowing that people are judging your Lord by you is not always a joyous thought to live with. Even the growing up to His measure is hard on a man: we have so little aptitude for such a transformation that it always means conflict, and often rebellion. And temptations hurt as they never did before: not just in the conscience, but in the heart. The assaults of temptation are not on our prudence now, or even on our morals, but on the love for Jesus. His love for us has made Him quite defenseless against our hurting Him, and so temptation is no longer an urge to do a bad thing but an urge to hurt a loving Person.
         No, being a real Christian isn’t all fun, and don’t tell anyone it is. You come for the rice, and it’s good... as far as it goes. But it doesn’t last forever. No matter what kind of rice brought you to Jesus, it won’t last. If you have really come to Him, that doesn’t matter. But if you haven’t, you will saunter up to the mission station one day, and the door will be shut. And there you will be with your empty bowl, seeing—just your helpless self staring at the empty place in you where Jesus wasn’t allowed to come.
         Yes, we all started as rice Christians. But if all you have found is advantage, whether it is fun or profit or security, then you haven’t started following Him yet. His way is the way of the Cross. The world can be very hard on those it hates. If it is not hard on you, perhaps it sees nothing in you to hate. But then it doesn’t see Jesus in you, for it hates Jesus with an undying hatred. While your way is still all fun, all easy, all jolly, it is only your way: when you turn from it to follow His way, it will cost. It may cost you everything you have. That is what it cost Him.
         2 February, 1962


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Last updated: 06/05/09