of all people most to be pitied

pitied

I experienced a beautiful gift recently.

John Piper’s chapter on suffering from “Desiring God” put me in that place where I was seriously contemplating how socially acceptable it would be to create a new Facebook album with nothing but pictures of each page. I figured most (if not all) curiosities would fizzle out when you got to the second “page” and realized there were 32 more.

This is too good, though. So I’ve decided to transcribe and piece together the snippets of this chapter that stood out to me most while I read– the sentences and sections that made me pause in deep thought, and often yell out to my wife, “BABE, LISTEN TO THIS!”

A quick intro: it’s a common approach to Christianity in our day to present the equivalent of Pascal’s wager to the skeptic as a reason to live with faith. Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher, figured we might as well live as though God exists. If it’s true, then we have gained heaven. If it’s false, we haven’t lost anything and end up where we were going anyway. But is that true? Are we really not losing anything by living in obedience to Jesus? What does scripture say of this logic?

I’ll let Piper do the rest.

This is an utterly crucial question for the Christian church, especially in prosperous, comfortable lands like America and Western Europe. How many times do we hear Christian testimonies to the effect that becoming a Christian has made life easier?

… It seems that most Christians in the prosperous West describe the benefits of Christianity in terms that would make it a good life, even if there were no God and no resurrection. Think of all the psychological benefits and relational benefits. And of course these are true and biblical: The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, and peace. So if we get love, joy, and peace from believing these things, then is it not a good life to live, even if it turns out to be based on a falsehood?

What’s wrong with Paul, then? … Why would he say that if there is no resurrection, we are of all men most to be pitied [1 Corinthians 15:19]?

… The answer seems to be that the Christian life for Paul was not the so-called good life of prosperity and ease. … Paul’s belief in God and his confidence in resurrection and his hope in eternal fellowship with Christ did not produce a life of comfort and ease that would have been satisfying even without resurrection. No, what his hope produced was a life of chosen suffering. Yes, he knew joy unspeakable. But it was a “rejoicing in hope” (Romans 12:12, NASB). And that hope freed him to embrace sufferings that he never would have chosen apart from the hope of his own resurrection…. If there is no resurrection, Paul’s sacrificial choices, by his own testimony, were pitiable.

… So there is joy in affliction. But the joy comes because of the hope that affliction itself is helping to secure and increase. So if there is no hope, Paul is a fool to embrace this affliction and an even bigger fool to rejoice in it. But there is hope. And so Paul chooses a way of life that would be foolish and pitiable without the hope of joy beyond the grave.

… In other words, Christianity as Paul understands it is not the best way to maximize pleasure if this life is all there is.

… When Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink,” he does not mean “Let’s all become lechers.” [I had to look that one up, too. It means someone given in to sexual indulgence -KJ.] He means there is a normal, simple, comfortable, ordinary life of human delights that we may enjoy with no troubling thoughts of heaven [or] hell or sin or holiness or God– if there is no resurrection from the dead. And what stunned me about this train of thought is that many of the professing Christians seem to aim at just this– and call it Christianity.

Paul did not see his relation to Christ as the key to maximizing his physical comforts and pleasures in this life. No, Paul’s relation to Christ was a call to choose suffering– a suffering that… would have been utterly foolish and pitiable to choose if there is no resurrection into the joyful presence of Christ.

… In Paul’s radically different viewpoint I saw an almost unbelievable indictment of Western Christianity. … How many Christians do you know who could say, “The lifestyle I have chosen as a Christian would be utterly foolish and pitiable if there is no resurrection”?

… The call of Christ is a call to live a life of sacrifice and loss and suffering– a life that would be foolish to live if there were no resurrection from the dead.

… This is not normal. Human beings flee suffering. We move to safer neighborhoods. We choose milder climates. We buy air conditioners. We take aspirin. We come out of the rain. We avoid dark streets. We purify our water. We do not normally choose a way of life that would put us in “danger every hour” [1 Corinthians 15:29]. … Virtually no advertising slogans lure us into daily dying.

… Jesus had said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). So there is no true Christianity without cross-bearing and a daily dying– which sounds very much like Paul’s “I die every day” (1 Corinthians 15:31). Moreover, Jesus had told His disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). So something would be amiss if Paul did not share in the sufferings of Jesus. Jesus gave His disciples an ominous image of their ministry: “Behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). And so He promised them, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Luke 21:16-17; cf. Matthew 24:9).

… Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win. In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings. Here is the astounding upshot: God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of His people. God really means for the body of Christ, the church, to experience some of the suffering He experienced so that when we proclaim the Cross as the way to life, people will see the marks of the Cross in us and feel the love of the Cross from us. Our calling is to make the afflictions of Christ real for people by the afflictions we experience in bringing them the message of salvation.

… In large measure, this is what explains the triumph of Christianity in the early centuries. They triumphed by their suffering. It did not just accompany their witness; it was the capstone of their witness. “They have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).

… Christianity is not a life that one would embrace as abundant and satisfying without the hope of fellowship with Christ in the resurrection. And what we have seen is that this embracing of suffering is not just an accompaniment of our witness to Christ; it is the visible expression of it. Our sufferings make Christ’s sufferings known so that people can see the kind of love Christ offers.

… The startling implication of this is that the saving purposes of Christ among the nations and in our neighborhoods will not be accomplished unless Christians choose to suffer.

… When we choose the fleeting pleasures of comfort and security over the sacrifices and sufferings of missions and evangelism and ministry and love, we choose against joy. We reject the spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11). The happiest people in the world are the people who experience the mystery of “Christ in them, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), satisfying their deep longings and freeing them to extend the afflictions of Christ through their own sufferings to the world.

There was obviously so much more in those 35 pages, but those 1,200 or so words give the basic message and leave us to ponder what this sacrificial yet joyful life looks like for each of us, individually, in the richest nation the world has ever known. My hope is that we would each ask ourselves: would the world really pity me for the life I’ve chosen as my response to the gospel if the whole thing turned out to be a sham?

It’s a sobering question. What have we truly sacrificed? Have we embraced what the world advertises with the same desperation and eagerness that someone without faith would? Or have we “foolishly” rejected or given away what the world offers in order to store up more heavenly treasure?

Our joy in this worldly foolishness is exactly what is meant to differentiate the Christian faith from other faiths and secularity. The banner of Christ is staked firmly and deeply in the life that is pitiable from the world’s standards but exhibits a joy that the world could only hope to find.

I fear that many of us hear this and either reject it as radicalized, distorted teaching (ironically like the Pharisees did) or walk away downtrodden and defeated, like the rich young ruler. Jesus knew this man found his security in his wealth and challenged him to do something that would alter his comfort level and cause his family and friends to question his sanity.

A life of luxury, void of any serious sacrifice, will never properly display the gospel. But many of us are desperately trying to talk about it as this amazing reality while our lives have refused to risk anything to prove that we ourselves fully believe it.

Our testimony and witness obviously have nothing to do with how many zeros our bank accounts have or how new our cars are. They are formed out of making choices or going through situations the world laments and even resents. And their power is found in the joy we have in them and even our choosing to remain there.

 

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