There’s this idea in Christianity, particularly in American or Western Christianity, that God would never want us to undergo any kind of problem. “If God is for us,” then He would naturally want to protect us from any and all harm or discomfort. He would never will for us to be killed, or expect us to go anywhere we couldn’t be happy. If God is on our side, we should be the ones doing the killing in order to protect our rights.
To some, this will sound ridiculous. And that’s good, because it is. But this is still the message and goal that is somehow resonating with many people who consider themselves to be Christians.
If that’s the version of Jesus you’re after, you better not read the Bible. Just stick to the single-verse devotionals that talk about happiness a lot. That’s where you can count on receiving constant comfort and encouragement while avoiding the dirty, inconvenient parts about sacrifice and suffering.
America has slowly formulated a widely-accepted yet false gospel that teaches prosperity, safety, and happiness. We see these things as signs of God’s favor. In this version of Christianity, we are each rightly content to live the rest of our days in a gated community where we hardly speak to our neighbors. We’re satisfied with simply attending a church that feeds us basic relational and financial lessons that lead to a happy, healthy, wealthy life.
The focus of that life is entirely on financial success, a blissful marriage and career, and then raising a set of kids who will themselves be financially and relationally successful. Happiness is the main goal, and we’re willing to do anything to attain it. Safety is the main prayer, and we’re willing to avoid anything to keep it.
You might think it’s harmless. But this view of Christianity leads to many serious problems:
For people who have been taught that God only wishes for them to have pleasure and happiness, the unavoidable presence of even basic suffering easily brings into question God’s goodness and sometimes His existence altogether.
Within other cultures and those before us, this was never the case. People understood that suffering is simply part of life. Tell me, when has life ever not involved pain and hardship? Since when has death not been the only guaranteed thing about this life? It shouldn’t be some kind of horrible surprise. Unpredictable? Maybe. And, yes, it’s most definitely painful, if not only for the remaining family. It’s surely terrifying and inconvenient– but a surprise? Hardly.
As science chases concepts of immortality, they’ve over-sensitized us to the fact that life still comes to an end eventually. While we’ve worshiped and focused on physical longevity, we’ve lost sight of the need for spiritual preparation. But no matter what we want to think about, the end of our lives and those of our loved ones are each inevitable. It warrants preparation.
Inconvenient surprises that we’re not prepared for easily lead to resentment and, as we are seeing, rejection of the perceived Source of that inconvenience. We would much rather ignore what we don’t like. And I’ll admit, ignoring death sounds a lot better than preparing for it because the world tells us we should do whatever we feel like– as if our feelings are somehow trustworthy.
I don’t mean to downplay hardship or sound insensitive, but using the fact of pain and death as a reason against God’s very existence should be a massive red flag to show us that something about the way we view life is broken. Death is the most natural, most guaranteed part of life. Its mystery is the very thing that is meant to draw people to God. Without it, we would pay even less attention to Him than we already do. And yet many people now take it as this great offense that they would ever die or go through any sort of hardship, or that someone they care about would be taken from them, whether it’s a child or a grandparent.
What this reveals is a sense of entitlement– the view that we are in control and that God’s only purpose is to cater to our sensitivities. This can only indicate a sign of subtle self-worship. And when things go badly, we quickly resent the fact that we are unfortunately not the gods we’ve subconsciously pumped ourselves up to be, even while many of us call ourselves Christians.
Happy, healthy, wealthy (and convenient) Christianity is absurdly unbiblical. This reason could stand alone without any added support of the others. Jesus never hinted to anything about indulging in God’s current glory when He described what a life that was devoted to Him would look like.
All those times Jesus talked about loving just like He loved were to men who eventually suffered gruesome deaths (just like Jesus did– go figure). And all those great promises of comfort, inheritance, and fulfillment in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 are each paired with a form of natural suffering and disappointment as a result of our current life’s circumstances and faith. All these promises Jesus gave are aimed at the coming age, while getting us prepared to embrace the cross during the current one.
Paul’s teachings on how to apply faith in Christ to our lives and relationships are no different. You know that time he wrote about no power of hell nor scheme of man being able to take us out of God’s hand? It sounds so flowery, poetic, and encouraging. Well, those verses are in the book of Romans, which was likely written from inside one of the jail cells that eventually led to Paul’s own beheading. And if he didn’t write Romans inside a jail, then this righteous and faithful man had been recently released and was only on his way to a different jail after already surviving a series of Roman rod-beatings, Jewish lashes, a stoning that should have killed him, and a dramatic shipwreck. And that’s a conservative timeline. By the end of Paul’s life, he would have survived three shipwrecks and surely much more violent abuse.
The direct verses from Romans 8 read like this:
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Those first two parts change the perspective a little bit, don’t they?
In verse 37, it says we are conquerors of “these things.” What are those things? He was thoughtful enough to provide us with a list of them in verse 35: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword. These are the unavoidable aspects of a Christian life that Paul is helping us to cope with– not avoid. He goes as far as to quote Psalm 44:22 and say we are simply sheep led to the slaughter. As Christians, we should get the sense that our life as Jesus followers will not be more convenient and safe, but rather far less. Jesus Himself never tried to prepare us for anything different– He said the world would hate us as it hated Him. And we know unfortunately well how it hated Him.
The oft-quoted Philippians 4:13 doesn’t build a much better case. Yes, we can do many difficult things through Christ. But based on verses 10 through 12, we see that Paul is proclaiming that he can find contentment through any kind of hardship or difficult life circumstance through his faith and joy in Christ. This famous verse is not the superhero’s motto that even I considered it to be in high school.
What you’ll find in scripture is a disturbing record of suffering, martyrdom, anguish, and abuse– even for the ones closest to God. So it’s a tough case to build that having a relationship with God is supposed to keep us safe, especially by our own standards– whether we use the New Testament or the Old Testament.
What about Jeremiah 29:11? God having a plan to prosper us and not to harm us has been one of the most commonly used passages of comfort to explain how God must not be the One who allows suffering. How can He, if His plan is not to harm us? But context is key, and Jeremiah 29:10 throws a very big wrench into that theology. Just one verse before, Jeremiah’s reason for giving that comforting promise is found. God had just sentenced Israel to 70 years at the hands of the Babylonians. That famous eleventh verse is merely to give the nation some sort of confidence that there’s an eternal benefit in play, which they themselves won’t even get to see because of an impending exile from their homeland.
We gather an even more disturbing picture from the very first followers of Christ.
John the Baptizer introduced Jesus and even baptized Him as a public beginning to His earthly ministry. Yet he spent his last days in prison (for righteous reasons, mind you) before being beheaded as a drunken concession to the request of a half-naked teenage temptress.
Peter, the rock of the church who Jesus directly commissioned to take care of His sheep, was crucified upside-down. Legend has it that Matthew, the man who left behind his wickedness as a tax collector for the sake of following Jesus, was burned at the stake. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved so much and said would outlive the others, was banished to an island and lived a wrecked and lonely life as a living martyr. Extra-biblical tradition has it that John’s banishment was only after a failed attempt to kill him, some say by poison and others say by being dropped in a pot of boiling oil. Regardless of how it happened, the loving favor Jesus promised for John still has an unexpected bitter taste to it.
Before I go on, I feel the need to explain a few things that are still very much biblical, even as we live compoundly more difficult lives as a result of a faith that goes against the world’s values:
Death’s mystery is terrifying, but the promise that Jesus fulfilled at His resurrection takes away the worry that we have about what will happen on that impending day. Thanks to Him, we can have confidence that we will be with our Father in Heaven, taking advantage of all eternity to tell Him how amazing He is.
We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). God gave His Son as the ransom our sins justly required to be forgiven (Matthew 20:28). Our response is to love others in a way that helps them realize this truth so they can know the hope that we have. And our peace and love with each other is meant to make this dangerous and persecuted life seem true and worth it.
Because we have hope, and because we know we are loved despite what painful or inconvenient thing God asks us to endure, we can celebrate. He can have the contentment that Paul speaks of in Philippians 4. We can celebrate that Jesus conquered death and gave us a way back into relationship with God, even as we wait eagerly for these sufferings to pass away (Romans 8:18-21).
The expectation of enjoying all of God’s gifts and showers of love and wealth on this side of heaven has the natural side effect of seriously neglecting the Great Commission. If we honestly let our lives be about hunkering down and dancing in the prosperous rain of God’s worldly gifts (that may honestly never actually come), what motive is there for us to intentionally take up the last command Jesus gave us? What room is there for that difficult, inconvenient, and dangerous task of proclaiming the gospel to the nations and helping others to be obedient to Christ’s teachings?
When Jesus sent out His disciples in Matthew 10, He neglected to do the one thing that would have likely been the first thing prayed for at most churches today. Not once did He promise safe passage and easy roads for His followers. He actually gave them a bit of gritty advice, like what you would expect a boxing coach to tell his athlete before sending him into the center of the ring. He said to be as shrewd as serpents, or in some translations, wise as snakes, even in their innocence. They were about to be sheep among wolves, He promised, and would be dragged into courts and flogged. He gave them instructions on how to leave a town after being rejected, not a wink and a nod that all would go well and cheery.
That doesn’t sound like the gospel we hear so much about from the casual Christian community, which is mostly masked as a motivational seminar on why Christian life is so much better than the alternatives. It is better, but that’s not why. We must decide which gospel we want to embrace– the one that has Jesus with it, or our own version, which is about comfort and convenience.
From Jesus’ perspective, it seems like the idea of giving our lives away was entirely the point. He went so far as to tell his followers to count the cost of being His disciple (Luke 14). He said in John 13:16 that “a servant is not greater than his master.” And yet somehow, many Christians today expect to be treated far better than Jesus was.
Well-versed readers might be thinking of John 17 right now where Jesus prays for His current and future followers. Indeed, He does pray for their safety. The interesting part about this prayer for me, however, is verse 18. Jesus compares the way He was sent into the world to the way He had sent His disciples into the world. The prayer relates Jesus’ life with the disciples’ lives. He is asking the Father to protect them under the same name that Jesus Himself was protected under.
We also know that not long after this prayer, Jesus Himself was brutally killed. And within a few years, most of the disciples had been brutally killed as well. The only “safe” assumption about this prayer is that it has a much higher, more eternal perspective than merely physical safety. Protection from the evil one, as mentioned in verse 15, can be equated to the same protection from the evil one that Jesus was given– which was not a protection from persecution, but rather protection from the effects of sin. You can read fluffy prosperity into this prayer all you want, but you cannot ignore the circumstances and events that immediately followed it.
I heard a conference speaker recently say that he heard an American pastor proudly declare that the gospel message means that we can finally “have our cake and eat it, too.” By that, he meant that we get to experience God’s glory and favor now just like we will in the age to come. But that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus said to embrace the cross daily and be willing to lose our lives (Mark 8:34-35). He said to help reach the lost even if the price to do it seems steep (Luke 15). He said that the present age is going to be rough, and include a really uncomfortable amount of martyrdom (Revelation 16:10-11, Matthew 5:10-11). The age to come is where we were meant to inherit God’s glory (Matthew 5:12).
This is all over the parables that Jesus told. They’re written so elegantly that maybe we gloss over what kind of picture they really paint of our current lives.
The prodigal son (Luke 15) depicts one son’s life of rude and wasteful spending, and another son’s life of backbreaking and toilsome work in the field. Comfortable fellowship with the Father is only the final result.
The good samaritan (Luke 10) was expensively and very unsanitarilly inconvenienced in order to help a hurting enemy. He was the one who decided to not ignore the obvious fact of a suffering citizen in the sewage-filled gutter, unlike the two religious men who passed by before him, ironically.
The men who discovered the treasure and the pearls (Matthew 13) each allowed their lives to be marked by sacrifice in order to one day own the coming glory of the treasure they had discovered.
HOW HAVE WE MISSED THIS?
I’m honestly just as guilty of it at times. The research I conducted for this article was often very convicting for me. Being from a culture whose idol is wealth, humanism, and pleasure, it doesn’t surprise me that there is a very natural tendency to let these aspects filter into the way that we read the Bible. We think of wealth as a blessing for ourselves rather than an opportunity to be generous and bless others. For us, wealth is for material gain rather than a tool to build strong relationships (Luke 16:9).
For example, having a mansion is perfectly fine. But what do you do with it that gives glory to God? How are you using what God has given you to acknowledge Him and help others meet Him? As a LIFEGroups pastor, I’m a little biased about what our homes are for.
Lisa Chan, in a book she published with her husband, Francis, writes, “Life is about Jesus. We are not here to tell our story, but His. We are here to live His story, not ours” (You and Me Forever). This isn’t an optional or extreme version of following Christ. It seems really extreme compared to what I think most of us have assumed the Christian life is about. But in fact, this is the most basic and biblical version of following Christ. And life is short! James 4:14 refers to our lives as a mist that appears and then vanishes. So there’s no time to lose with pursuing our own comforts and seclusion.
No doubt, this gospel doesn’t preach very well. It doesn’t bring hoards of people in to hear about how they, too, can surrender their lives to Christ and be baptized into a changed life that will likely be shaped even more by struggle.
Or does it?
We find a historic account of the early church in the book of Acts. The gospel was not being shoved down people’s throats under threat of death. No promises of happiness were being issued. In fact, it was just the opposite. Death was very obviously more of a danger for those who put their faith in Jesus. Persecution was a promise. And yet thousands at a time were giving up their lives in order to acknowledge the truth of what Jesus had done. It wasn’t out of some motivation or expectation of a blissful, pain-free life. It was out of relief that, finally, there was assurance of eternal salvation. And it warranted a response, no matter how dangerous.
The gospel has always communicated God’s mercy to the undeserving. Until the coming age, suffering will not be an aspect that His mercy consistently saves us from. Instead, our suffering will continue to be a tool that His mercy is displayed through. Let me explain.
Through Jesus’ suffering, those who are already Christians understand how much God loves us. And now, as representatives of Christ with the Holy Spirit, our suffering displays God’s love to those lost people we are seeking to give witness to. They don’t know or understand Christ’s suffering yet, so it’s our suffering they immediately see and are hopefully impacted by.
Think of Stephen’s reaction to those who were stoning him– forgiveness, down to the final stone (Acts 7). No doubt there were people standing there who were amazed at how much danger Stephen was willing to face just to share the news of what Jesus did. Maybe that picture of mercy and forgiveness extended by Stephen to his killers was the seed that allowed an onlooker to understand just how much God must love him or her. And in the end, God’s kingdom gained two souls rather than one. Despite the tragedy of Stephen’s murder, eternal life was multiplied, not robbed.
Think of Paul’s interactions with his Roman jailer in Philippi (Acts 16). The guard was so astonished by Paul’s honesty and the way he lived that he put his trust in Christ and immediately led his entire family to follow suit. Through Paul’s willingness to suffer, life was multiplied.
Paul is the one who penned the idea of God’s power being made perfect in weakness. This is exactly the point. People notice when things aren’t going well and we are still found worshiping. People lean in a little closer when they see how we are willing to suffer just so they can understand who God is. “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
As uncomfortable as it is, suffering displays a level of God’s love that simply paying for the person’s coffee in the drive-thru behind you just can’t do. That doesn’t make paying for people’s food a bad thing. It’s a cool and convenient way to be nice to a stranger. I just wouldn’t equate it with sharing Jesus with them. And considering they’re already in the drive-thru line ready to spend their own money, I don’t know if it could count as feeding the poor, either.
Francis of Assisi is famous for many things, but probably most famous for something he said that is unfortunately profoundly unbiblical: “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”
I will gladly give him the benefit of the doubt. He probably said this with a beautifully-intended purpose of showing love at all times while also taking every wise opportunity to share the gospel. But it’s been hijacked by this American gospel and used as a flowery excuse to trust that our smiles and good deeds somehow communicate who Jesus is. We encourage ourselves by thinking that our silent good deeds will explain to others how trusting in Jesus will overcome the separation from God we naturally suffer from as a consequence of sin. That concept unfortunately can’t be conveyed through a smile, or even through handing a homeless person your spare change.
Paul puts it well in Romans 10:14 when he says that no one can come to believe in Christ without first hearing.
Should we love others? Of course. As I said earlier, that’s how we are to be recognized and admired by others, even in our sufferings. But that’s just it. Our love is primarily meant to give us credibility for the testimony that is supposed to be readily shared at every opportunity.
Society has an expectation for the church to do good– to assist with the orphan crisis and care for the sick– to be light to the world. You can even argue that the church invented the hospital altogether. But the church has unfortunately started to abide by society’s wish that we keep our mouths shut while we do these good works. We’ve started to forget that the entire purpose of these good deeds was to give people who see them a reason to consider God (Matthew 5:14-16). In order to do that, they have to know who believes in Jesus. And for them to know that, we have to tell them unashamedly.
Our compulsion to love is only supposed to be the starting block to a conversation that leads to Jesus.
Which gospel will we embrace? Only one has Jesus in command. It’s the one that puts God so far above our family members that, by comparison to how we love God, one would think that we hate our family (Luke 14:26). It’s the one that may very well cause division among families and friends (Matthew 10:34-35).
Would you still be a Christian if it meant that your family would literally write your death certificate or legally disown you? And that’s only if you were somehow allowed to live. That’s the gospel being followed by believers in China and many Islamic countries. They’re living the reality every day that Jesus warned them about, but also comforted them in.
Meanwhile in America, we renounce faith ironically because it doesn’t seem as thrilling as sex and money, or because every world religion can’t be correct. The only excuse we need to skip church is a little rain on the window when the alarm goes off, or maybe some relatives that came into town. We’re dissuaded from bringing faith into the conversation as soon as we feel like the person may not already agree with us.
When are we going to get back to the real gospel– the dangerous one that costs our lives, either by service or martyrdom? It’s right there in the Bible. Many of us need to rediscover the truth which has the keys to finally and eternally set us free.