Just a quick note about a great resource. If you are looking for articles, sermons, interviews, etc., etc. dealing with the gospel and why it matters, then The Gospel Coalition is a great place to go.
Archive for December, 2010
Christianity in our culture is, generally speaking, of the happy-clappy variety. That is to say, we struggle to process anything other than bubble gum smiles and soda pop sweetness in church. We don’t have much room for trials and struggles, especially those rooted or expressed in emotion. We don’t like to feel desperate. When we experience despair in our lives we feel as if we have committed the unpardonable sin, so we just don’t talk about it. We don’t like it when people in our church feel desperate.
We tend to deal with suffering in the church in one of two ways. Either we treat the symptoms with a set of steps to follow, which is like giving someone with a brain tumor a couple of aspirin because they have a headache, or we unleash everything we know about God’s sovereignty, the gospel, joy, victory, and anything else we can come up with while we are not listening to the person that is talking, which is like a mom rinsing of her kid’s skinned knee with a fire hose. This is a problem.
I am not saying we all need to go the Johnny Cash route and start wearing black and singing slightly edited Danzig and Nine Inch Nail songs; however, we do need to remember who the gospel is for. The gospel is for the broken, rebelling, down-trodden, beat-up, cast-off, insecure, despairing sinners who won’t even lift their eyes, but beat themselves as they call out in desparation, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We need to learn to let people hurt. We need to learn to hurt with people. Then, we need to learn how to graciously and tenderly apply the healing balm of the gospel.
Before I start writing what I actually want to write let me give three caveats.
First, I am not saying that social justice issues are not important. They are. It is a profound societal sin that we so casually trample on those made in the image of God. I am not saying that as Christians we should not be involved in social justice. We should. The mercy of God poured out on us will drive us to pour out mercy on others. However, I am saying the gospel is not primarily about securing social justice. Christians fighting for social justice is a by-product of a life transformed by the gospel and not the prime product of the gospel.
Second, I am not saying that having “means” is necessarily wrong. I am saying that God has not provided worldly means in an abundant way in order for you to feel secure in this world. Further, I am saying that worldly provision (or lack thereof) is not the tell-tale sign of God’s love (or lack thereof) for any person or group of people. On this note we might do good to ask ourselves, “Is the bloody and empty cross of Jesus Christ or the crisp dollar bill in my pocket a more sure sign of God’s love?”
Third, I am not saying that there is not comfort in Christ, or in the gospel, in the face of our suffering. I am saying it is the only place where there is comfort, so we must get the gospel right.
With that said…
Too often in American churches the focus of our preaching and teaching is on the supposed necessary and tangible benefits of the “gospel” for the hearer. The current figurehead of this reality is Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, TX. However, this gospel-of-self-stuff-and-security epidemic is in no way isolated to Houston, TX. It is more of a pandemic. We are absolutely enamored with ourselves and this world, and we constantly make the gospel about us and our security in this world rather than about God’s glory through the redemption of his people. The gospel and the Bible are more commonly understood to be tools for securing a better life than as the self-revelation of the true and living God and the way of redemption from sin that he has provided for his people.
To help us see this, what would we say to someone who described their life in the following way?
I am weak and people don’t think much of me. I am hungry and thirsty. Most of my clothes are torn up and dirty. People fight against me at every turn. I am homeless, but I am working hard. People speak against me constantly. I am being slandered. And I am treated by almost everyone as if I am the scum of the Earth.
Most likely our answer would be, “Well let me tell you what Jesus has done for you!” And by saying that we would mean, “Repent of all that stuff and get right with God so you can get right with life.”
Here is the problem. This is basically how Paul describes himself and the other apostles. He writes,
We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. -1 Corinthians 4.10-13, ESV
When Paul wrote this, he was mustering up all the irony that he could in order to help the Corinthians see things a little more clearly. The Corinthians were a rich and decadent people who apparently put a fair deal of hope in the things of this world. Paul is writing to contrast their life with the lives of the apostles in the hope that they would see where true wisdom, strength, honor, sustenance, provision, blessing, and endurance lie. Paul is writing this to say, the things of this world are paltry compared to the hope and the imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance that has been purchased for us by Jesus and is kept for us by the power of God in heaven (See 1 Peter 1).
So you ask, “Isn’t Paul trying to communicate what Jesus has done for him when he writes this?”
Perhaps, in one sense, you could argue it that way. However, we must admit two things when doing so. First, Saul, who became Paul, was a highly respected pharisee before becoming a Christian. He had it all in his culture. So, what Jesus did for Paul, was strip away all of the worldly and religious accouterments and accolades. Second, when we say, “Well let me tell you what Jesus has done for you!” we typically mean, “If you believe in Jesus, you will get your act together and your problems will go away.” Now, of course, we don’t like to admit that this is what we mean (well…, maybe that’s an overstatement), but this is typically what we mean. People have always struggled with this issue. Paul wrote what he wrote to the Corinthians because they struggled with this issue. Peter wrote what he wrote to those elect exiles in Asia Minor because they struggled with this issue. James wrote what he wrote about favoritism, worldliness, tomorrow, the rich, and suffering because his audience struggled with this issue.
So, what exactly is this issue with which we struggle so greatly? Worldliness. We love this world and all that it has to offer, and we can’t imagine anything better than Jesus securing the benefits of this world for us. Now, when we get really spiritual we admit that the gospel isn’t about us and that our focus should really be on others. However, our goal for others is still worldliness. We want to see others’ lives put back together, in a very specific way that involves worldly comfort, post haste because of the gospel. We need to cozy up to the fact that the gospel is about God securing glory for himself by redeeming a people from sin for himself through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ. The apostles’ suffering in this world was not a sign of a lack of faith on their part; rather, it was the result of their believing and proclaiming the God glorifying gospel of Jesus’ Christ. Jesus’ suffering in this world was certainly not a sign of lacking the Father’s love are walking is disobedience; rather, it was the result of him carrying out his mission. Suffering was what Jesus came to do. If this is the case, then why is our suffering in this world so clearly a lack of faith on our part? or so clearly a sign that we are unloved by the Father?
It is a grand and gross irony that we understand a person’s worldly security to be the surest sign of a person’s eternal security. As long as we think this way we will refuse to spend and be spent for the gospel. Why? If my eternal security is attached to my temporal security, then when I give away my time, talent, and treasures I am giving away my eternal security as well. If the gospel is about security in this world, then all I have to hope in is the things of this world that I can accumulate. However, if the gospel is about something beyond me-if the gospel is about the good news of the sovereign God of all creation securing redemption through his only Son, then I can give and receive, be p0or and rich, be hungry and full, have comfort and suffer, and live and die with the hope and confidence that God’s purpose in the gospel will be accomplished (see Philippians 4.10-13).
If what we proclaim about Jesus and the gospel makes us question the apostles’ life and ministry; if what we say the gospel secures for us isn’t what it secured for the apostles; if what we call gospel is not what the apostles called gospel, then we may want to rethink some things.
Honestly, I find many of the “sports is idolatrous” arguments fairly unconvincing. However, Ray Lewis’ latest Sunday Night Football commercial is a pretty convincing argument that many of our superstars want to be worshiped and we are often willing to lift up our hands in praise. In it he claims that people are depending on him for hope, faith, and love and asks, “Would you give it all up for me right now?” The NFL, NBC, and Ray Lewis all seem to understand the longings of our hearts and how easily they swoon, and they are doing what they can to incite them. In this season of conference championships, division races, and bowl games, “heroes” will emerge. Guard your heart; you serve the King.