I experienced a lot during my trip to Rome. But here is something I didn’t expect to experience: horrific air quality.
This is, I suspect, because Romans like to smoke. A lot. Everywhere.
This isn’t unusual for Europe, which has quite a different smoking culture than what I’m used to here in the States. Still, traveling to the Czech Republic and Ireland hadn’t prepared me for the lung-scraping air of the Eternal City. Perhaps it was the combination of the smoking with loads of vehicular traffic and the typical city pollution. Either way, every time we left our hotel I went out armed with Claritin, a whole pack of tissues, and a hacking cough.
And the thing is, it couldn’t really be helped. Cram enough people and cars and cigarettes into a space and the natural by-product will be air that’s less-than-pristine. The scent is a natural product of the environment that produces it. Go to a forest and you’ll inhale pine and crisp air and wet moss; go to the center of Rome and you’ll inhale…well, something altogether different. It just happens.
I found myself thinking of this recently when I read 2 Corinthians 2:15:
For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.
I see a lot of believers trying to give off that aroma. In fact, an emphasis on giving off that aroma through godly behavior and spiritual fruit is a large part of most spiritual programs, churches, and groups that I’ve been a part of. Be godly, we say to one another. Represent Christ in the world. And especially in college, when I was younger, I watched believers around me going through all sorts of contortions and attempts to be godly, to look godly, to sound godly.
But here’s the thing: a godly aroma is a natural by-product of a godly environment. It can’t be faked, and it can’t be forced. It is something that is created with us, not something that we can imitate.
The other day I was walking around a shop and ran into a set of candles with labels like “sea salt,” “pine,” “tobacco,” and “wood-burning smoke.” I sniffed them all, because I very much like candles, and the results were mixed. I mean, one of the candles certainly smelled sea-salt-ish. And there was a vague familiarity to the scent of wood-burning smoke. At the same time, none of them could compare to their authentic counterparts: they were a person’s very good attempt at what those authentic scents should smell like. Close, but no dice.
As Christians, I think we have a similarly tendency to imitate rather than to create. We put the cart before the horse. To be Christlike, to give off that aroma in a world that is perishing, we try to come up with a list of behaviors, actions, and ideologies that will make us look and seem Christlike, while neglecting the simpler and more meaningful truth: it is the believer’s relationship with and growth in Christ that creates that scent.
Anyone can imitate the actions of Christianity. They can purify their web browsing and try to speak kind words and give generously and live according to Biblical principles. They might even come close to being authentic. But, to quote Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:3:
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is what renders the Christian “scent” authentic, and that love emerges from a loving relationship with God. A loving, growing, active relationship with God. In the same way that Rome cannot help but smell like cars and cigarettes and the ocean cannot help but smell like salt water, Christians carry the distinct aroma of love: it differentiates them, identifies them, marks them among both the saved and the lost.
I think this is why I spend so much time banging on about cultivating an individual life and relationship with God. At times in modern Christianity I fear that we’ve occluded that, or rendered it less-important, and acted as though simply acting godly, or doing godly things, equals being Christlike. But we can only be Christlike if our actions are leavened with love, and our actions can be leavened with love only if we know Christ well and develop that relationship over time. He is the source; He is the beginning.
When I was in high school, I knew teenage boys who desperately sprayed on oceans of Axe to cover up the general scent of sweat and feet and locker room. It didn’t work. And when believers attempt to force or imitate godliness, rather than developing a relationship with Christ that grows godliness from within, we run into the same problem: a lot of artificiality and very little understanding of Jesus at all.
Everything we are as believers must start from Christ, and move out from there.