Jesus says that being a disciple requires denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Him. If this is true, why is it possible to look across the landscape of Evangelicalism in America and see so little self-denial, cross bearing, following of Jesus? Why is prosperity theology so dominant in the American landscape? Why do Christians seem to struggle so intensely with the presence of pain in their lives? Could it be that we have misrepresented Jesus and His gospel? Could it be that we have corrupted the gospel into little more than an obligatory step in the process of judgment removal? In other words, is it a “get out of hell” card, and little more?
Consider the words of Isaiah 26:7-9;
The path of the righteous is level; you make level the way of the righteous. 8 In the path of your judgments, O LORD, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul. 9 My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.
Notice the words of Isaiah. He “longs” for God. His spirit “earnestly seeks” God. He says that God’s “name and remembrance” are the desire of his soul. I think this passage illustrates for us one of the massive missing elements in our understanding and telling of the gospel.
Often we speak of the gospel in terms of release from judgment. “You don’t want to go to hell when you die, do you?” Maybe more popular than that, “Do you know for sure, if you were to die tonight, that you would go to heaven?”. Using these popular forms of gospel telling we communicate an idea that each person has some sort of eternal obligation to “choose Christ” if we want to escape eternal judgment. Once they are convinced, we move from that to instructing the “new believer” in how they should live their life if they are to follow Christ. Behavior modification follows, and is incessant in its advance.
As a result, many make “decisions” for Christ, and then wonder why nothing is different. They wonder where this abundant life is that Jesus so readily promised. What often follows, then, is that they drop out of their faith practice at a horrific rate, and we chalk up their denial of the faith as another example of Satan at work, or maybe even a lack of commitment on their part. Maybe it is those things, or maybe it is something more?
When we consider the words of God in the Old Testament, as we have already seen, and the words of Jesus in the New Testament, we see an entirely different picture. We see a picture of a God who sees humanity mired in the quagmire of death-advancing sin. In spite of our inability to save ourselves, He takes it upon Himself to murder His Son in an effort to flood the world with grace, while remaining just and righteous at the same time. For those who would believe in Him, He promises eternal life, but this eternal life is not just “heaven”. No, it is something much more significant, and much more immediate. He promises that our eternal life, this state of eternal satisfaction with God, begins at the moment we trust in Jesus.
Consider the language that the psalmist uses in Psalm 67 to describe the response of those in distant nations who trust in God for the first time.
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, 2 that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. 3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. 5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!
Praise! Joy! Singing in exultation! These are the characteristics of the redeemed! This is what seems to be so radically missing in our telling of our faith. God satisfies, and He satisfies completely.
This is why Jesus can call us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. In the church today we often seem to communicate this as if it is some sort of obligatory hardship, when Jesus is saying to us that it is an incredibly uneven trade. We give up ourselves, and we replace us, with Him! Denial of self is not drudgery, it is undeserved privilege! When we understand the depth of the satisfaction of Jesus, it is no big thing to trade in everything else for Him.
This is why the prosperity gospel is so appealing. We all deeply want to be satisfied, and the prosperity gospel affirms that. It believes that man should be completely satisfied, but it wrongly assumes that this satisfaction comes from more stuff, and not the Savior. As such, this false gospel must be condemned as the idol worship it is.
This is why faithful, authentic followers of Jesus can walk through excruciating pain, and yet still trust in God. Our satisfaction is not bound up in the momentary circumstances. We are satisfied with Jesus, and He is enough. This is why Job could say, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.”
C.S. Lewis rightly identified the sad condition of the human heart when he said;
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
When the woman at the well came to Jesus, she was looking for a bit of water. Jesus, however, graced her with something far superior. He promised her living water which would never run dry. This was not just some allegorical term for life that would not end. This was a clear picture of the deeply soul satisfying life with Jesus. Everything else will fall short and lead one to emptiness, sadness and humanistic self-advancement. It will not satisfy. Jesus, on the other hand, satisfies, satisfies completely and alone satisfies.
So, do not settle for anything but Him. Ask yourself, like Isaiah, if you long for the presence of God? As you walk through struggle, run to Jesus. When you long for more than you have, find satisfaction in Jesus. When it seems like things do not happen as they should, trust in Jesus. Nothing else matters and nothing else provides, like Jesus.
Cross-posted from Micah's personal blog.