It was not said in a woe-is-me and poor-poor-pitiful-you way. It was about God's will. It made total sense. And yet it is the sort of thing rarely said in churches these days, when the prevailing theme appears to be God Exists to Make Your Dreams Come True.
A few months ago I listened to a podcasted message by the man I consider my mentor-pastor, and while I can't remember every jot and tittle of his sermon text, one sentence was burned into my brain the moment I heard it and has never left: "To be a follower of Jesus you must renounce comfort as the ultimate value of your life."
Why do statements like these sound revolutionary?
Yes, they challenge our natural bent toward self-interest. Yes, they challenge our cultural premiums on pleasure and independence.
But within church culture, why are they so revolutionary?
Some friends of ours visited a church recently and in relaying the quality of the message, one of them said that, teaching from Philippians, the pastor announced that the normal Christian life is characterized by suffering. My friend, a big smile on his face, concluded, "Which, you know, was good to hear."
It's not about being joyless or gluttons for punishment. It's about, partly, not saying to believers who are growing through some terrible, terrible things "You are abnormal; something is wrong with you or your faith because this is happening."
And yet that is the message many of our churches send.
The more Scripture I read, the more alien to it much of the modern church's message seems.
At its root, this renewed call to Scriptural consistency, this turning back to the message of repentance from our ego, pride, self-interest, and self-satisfaction is actually about being more ourselves, more real. I don't trust anyone who says following Jesus means everything should go great for me, because nobody who's ever lived has ever had everything go great. It is not honest to say one can avoid suffering and defeat and failure.
So which is greater? A message that dishonestly preaches that with Jesus everything can be "total victory" or a message that honestly preaches that in life crappy things happen but because of Jesus' total victory those crappy things are given meaning and significance? One message urges victory in avoidance, which isn't even possible; the other urges victory in the experience.
The following is from Matt Kleberg's great, gospel-blaring post at Common Grounds this week called Real Love is Transparent:
Last summer a certain friend of mine weighed heavy on my heart. I made a point to pray for him and love him whenever and however I could. That same friend later shared with someone else that he simply could not relate to me. In his eyes, I had put on a glossy façade, feigning invincibility and faultlessness. I never revealed my weakness and humanness and thus was not a real person. He saw me as a fake, like a mannequin in Christianity’s window display. My friend’s assessment was right on- my pride and fear kept me from really loving him at all.
I internalize and cover up my sin and weakness because I fear that any failure on my part implies a failure of Christianity. I must be perfect; otherwise Christianity is just a big flop, exposed as an elaborate hoax. The pressure is on and I must perform so that Christianity looks like a good buy.
This assumption is the exact opposite of the gospel. It is anti-gospel. To say that my failures somehow discredit Christianity completely disregards the cross! What pride and hypocrisy! Out of death we are made alive in Christ and our new identities are not bound up in our own righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ. It is by His perfection that we are presented as spotless before the Father. And while the Spirit does begin its healing work on our hearts, it is forever the work of Jesus that makes us children of God. I no longer have to disguise my sin for fear of nullifying the gospel. The gospel, rather, nullifies my sin, and frees me up to live as though transparent. The world can see through me- can see that I am needy and that there is a savior who triumphs over my brokenness.
For His power is made perfect in my weakness, not my prosperity.
His grace is sufficient for me, because my successes are not.
When I am weak, then I am strong.
The message of self-empowerment is the antithesis of the gospel and must be challenged.