Thursday, March 26, 2009

More than a smiley face

Lent, probably more than any other season of the church calendar, stands against the culture of our day. Its invitation to take up our cross and follow him displeases our modern sensibilities. Our society strives for a suffering-free existence. We want to lose weight without the pain of exercise. We want money without the tiring task of working for it. We want love, Hollywood style, without the selfless commitment marriage requires. We want life, comfortably – including our religious life. As a result, religion today often seems like nothing more than another late night get rich quick scheme, one more sure path towards the American Dream. Just say this prayer, read this book, donate to this cause, and you too can have the 2.5 kids and the three car garage. Think positively, and positive things will happen to you.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to sound too cynical here. Ours is a God of provision. “My God shall supply all your needs” writes Paul to the Philippians. But unfortunately, many people manipulate what this text actually means. They ignore the fact that Paul has just asked the readers to make a huge sacrifice for the less fortunate. Chuck Swindoll explains, “They tell us, 'If you want anything bad enough, you just claim it and God will give it to you. He's a good God, and He's certainly a prosperous God. He owns the cattle on every hill. He'll sell some and make it possible for you to enjoy whatever you really want in life.'" As a result, convictions, which always come with suffering and sacrifice, give way to convenience.

This me-ism seems to have little to do with the gospel of the New Testament. If it resembles anything in scripture, it has the feel of the prodigal son demanding “what’s coming to me” and demanding it now. Like the prodigal son, we miss the point that money is not what makes a life worth living. Instead, as the story reveals, being in relationship with the Father is what endows a life with meaning. But it’s not just that this popular health/wealth gospel misses the point of what is ultimately valuable – life with the Father – it also misses completely what that life is really like. Jesus told the disciples, “When the world hates you, remember it hated me before it hated you. . . . Do you remember what I told you? ‘A servant is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you” (John, 15:18-20). Every life experiences suffering, especially a life lived with Jesus.

I admit, I’m an infant when it comes to understanding and enduring suffering. I don’t know that I’ve ever truly been persecuted for my faith. Even at the first sign of hardship, I usually go scattering for a rock to hide under. But even in my weakness, I connect to the truth of the gospel – the gospel that talks about weakness – the gospel that talks about suffering. This gospel speaks to me more powerfully than any preacher who simply tells me to think happy thoughts. I need a God who’s more than a smiley face sticker. I need a God who’s been to the darkest depths of this life and back again. We have that God in Christ Jesus who suffered and died and then . . . overcame the grave.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead – Philippians 3:10.

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