Well if you are still sticking around today to read this blog, either as I mentioned yesterday you are just a sucker for punishment, you can’t resist seeing a man bathe mercilessly in his misery, or perhaps, just perhaps, you’re reading because I’ve got something to say that might be good for us all to hear. I’ll hope for the latter but continue on we must.
We’ve evaluated the world, but more specifically America, and our take on winning and success and how it is deep-rooted in our psyche about what it is to have the good life, how we evaluate others as to whether they are having the good life or not, and that which drives us like the energizer bunny to always be a smashing success until death do us part. In America as well, no one wants to hear the bad news unless there is some good news lurking around the news corner. We’ve been trained in this till it has almost become innate, and we will only tolerate bearers of any type of news; be it political, religious, in regards to health or what have you, if there is of course a happy ending to be achieved around the bend. We also mentioned how this slippery slope of who we are as winners has slipped in by stealth into our view of how we do Christian ministry, and worse yet, how we view our own Christian lives in terms of whether we are doing good or bad spiritually. My brief thesis has been that this view taints our faith in such a way that we miss a great deal of what is to learn from failure and suffering continually in our lives from the playbook of New Testament, or for the purpose of this blog post, by looking at Pauline suffering and failure. To make myself feel better and perhaps you as well, I mentioned my abysmal failure in ministry and lack of consistent “happy trails” and success in my own existence. I did this as a much needed backdrop to introduce a humble corrective to the current success paradigm of American Christianity and ministry that I believe we sidestep to our spiritual impairment at best, and lack of finishing well or at all at its very worst. Also, like Paul, I am the chief of sinners and the ringleader of sidestepping lots of things spiritually, and thus feel very qualified to help souls taken in by this very faulty worldview that I believe leaves fatalities all around us.
Now before I move along, let me just say that everyone wants some good news every now and then. It certainly is not wrong to want that and of course it is very human as well. You kick a dog long enough and sooner or later he no longer wants to come out and play! Humans can only take so much before they crack and break. Having said that, I am not saying that preaching good news is bad, nor am I trying to teach Christians who should already know better that in this life we will suffer, and if you add your Christian faith to it, you “should” at least be experiencing some what more than the next guy–even within seasons of goodness, peace and plenty to balance out the seasons of little. What I am trying to do however, it get us to understand that though we oftentimes don’t realize it, we are evaluating whether or not God likes us, is working in our lives, and is pleased with us by whether or not we are financially successful, have great spouses, great kids, or plenty of this and plenty of that. As a result, a vast majority of people on the right path spiritually have come to evaluate their ministry or themselves through the lens of big mega church’s, rich and fat white people that make up those churches, and the media and the world around them based on whether or not they have been able to achieve the same great results everyone else has. In addition, this leads into a faulty theology that causes them to not have the ability to have joy and peace in their unpredictability, suffering, pain or seasons of famine. As a result, not only do people leave the fold of Christianity, but they often times project a false sense of failure in their Christian lives onto others who no longer give Christianity a second look. They do this because they surmise that if being a Christian can’t survive topsy-turvy and erratic lives such as their own, then there is no sense of them even trying. In fact, they like us, already assume God must hate them as well because of their unsuccessful lives, and so eating, drinking and being merry seems to make a whole lot more sense! I for one have experienced what it’s like to have everything going my way, seemingly on a fast track to endlessly more of these experiences, only to then find shortly around the corner that my close friend instability was just on a brief vacation and promises to be home very soon! And after all the people, including and now especially Christians, who will tell you that the victorious Christian life will be yours if you just follow their success playbook and make the right choices, good theologians of the cross know that there is always a Golgotha of some sort to prepare for at various and oftentimes continuous seasons throughout our lives, both for God’s glory and for no apparent reason at all. Having said that, we would do well to be more prepared for it! In essence, we have built a Christianity with a success paradigm within it that most of the riff-raff like me can’t measure up to and perhaps never will. And while successful Christians bask in being on the other side of our failure, the world by and large continues to realize that if that is what Christianity is then it clearly does not work!
Our case in point is the Apostle Paul. Most Christians and Christian ministers tout Paul as their hero and indeed he should be. For as we read about Paul looking backward, we see a man of great success and one who planted churches all over the then known world, penned out a theology and prose that still mesmerize both Christians and pagans alike and who wrote the majority of the New Testament. Church planters as well adore him. They hold him and the book of Acts up as their model for their own success in building churches and assure us that if Paul were alive today he would wear jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops, have an IPAD and secure a sexy building and a great rocking worship band before anything else. The church growth movement from the 70’s stemming primarily from the thoughts and words of Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner certainly have had their place in this collective credence, yet the overall success paradigm of Americans adds fuel to the fire and perhaps causes us to forget how Paul and others actually viewed him before he was anybody’s hero.
For instance if we look at the book of Acts alone, the historical narrative of the early church, we see Paul questioned, thrown into court, beaten, stoned, whipped, misunderstood, abandoned, shipwrecked, escaping out of windows and having years of unfruitfulness figuring out who he was as a minister of the gospel. Even the churches that Paul built were at best house churches that would not come near to rivaling the mega churches of today by a long shot, and even the more notable ones he did plant; the word success would not be what would accurately describe them. In addition, it was an early doctrine taught in the early church as a regular Sunday school class that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Paul would know this all too well as he would be told upon his conversion on the Damascus road that he would suffer much for the Kingdom of God that he would preach about to others. That of course was an understatement as Paul would mention almost as a badge of honor to the Corinthians, who are the most akin to the American church and who gave him the most grief in his life of ministry. He says to them in II Corinthians 11:16-33 where he writes:
I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. 17 What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would 1but as a fool. 18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. 19 For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 20 For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. 21 To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, 2in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for pall the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, the who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. (ESV)
Notice here that Paul boasts about what the Corinthians (and us as Americans) would see as contemptible, and perhaps a sign of raving “non-success”! Paul in fact tells them that though they boast according to their fleshly accomplishments, he will boast about what their flesh would consider foolish. Now to be sure Paul was a missionary in the infancy of the church in a Roman society that did not take kindly to anything that would not allow both Caesar and Jesus to sit on the throne and thus persecuted them accordingly. However, throughout his life with the Corinthians (Read 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians) he constantly battles their view of him in line with better orators such as Apollos, who was more in line with the Greek orators of their day. They also evaluated how he looked and acted, and more importantly saw his weakness and persecutions as a sign that he was not successful at all, but rather somewhat of a failure. He would vehemently remind them of this and how their view on what Christianity should actually be characterized by was faulty quite famously in I Cor. 4:8-17 where he writes:
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (ESV)
Here he clearly reminds them that what they think is good and the norm for the Christian such as riches, power, a life of ease, worldly wisdom and the like are not the example of what it should mean oftentimes in our walk of faith, nor what we should be evaluated by or evaluate others by if we are to truly represent what it means to be a Christian in this world.
And though we don’t have enough time to go through the New Testament and see case after case of things we should already know, we need to look at just a few more. We need to do as little more icing on my thesis cake to further stress that suffering and many times what the world sees as failure are those very things that should actually be some cause of spiritual joy, and the realization that we are heading in the right direction with our faith, and not proof that we suck as a Christian! The few cases in point that I will leave you with are found in several passages in 2 Timothy where Paul writes to Timothy, encouraging him to embrace suffering (II Tim. 1:8), to not give up and lose heart (1:6), but rather to keep the faith (1:12-14). This is also at a time that most commentators believe Paul was about to die, or at least knew it was not far in the distance (II Tim. 4:7, 8). Yet even as he encourages young Timothy (II. Tim. 4:5) and the church that sufferings are the norm in the Christian life (2 Tim. 3:12). we can see signs of Paul’s own discouragement of his walk of faith and the rejection by people he depended on time and time again, and what we can expect as the church continues to marry the spirit of the age (II Tim. 1:15; 3:1-9; 13,14; 4:1-6; 9; 14-18).
In conclusion today, as I have been thinking about these things again and again I’m taken aback about how I constantly fall into this subtle success trap and ignore the clear teaching from the Holy scriptures–that though we see the journey as a means to an end, God sees the journey often times as the end! In other words, what he is doing in the lives of the church and his people is more about the holiness, however feebly, he wants to extract from our lives for his greater purposes than about a long pedigree or resume that even the world stands up and takes notice of, mesmerized by our accomplishments and success. Though God does raise up trophies of his grace that do accomplish great things both in the eyes of the Kingdom of God and the world many times, more often than not, the rest of us are to be fools for Christ much like the apostle Paul–recognizing that the foolish things of the world really will confound the wise one day (I Cor. 1:26-29). The temptation to continue to evaluate ourselves by the success paradigm both in Christian ministry and our lives as Christians is an epidemic that is quite frankly killing the church! And the truth is, it’s not just the obvious impairment of the “Prosperity Gospel” that is killing us, though it is that to be sure–yet it’s the very subtle success paradigm that always looks to find the silver lining in what is happening in our lives when often times as of yet there isn’t any to be found. It is that which is killing the church and which is resulting in landmines of dismembered casualties all around us. No one wants to talk about longing for our eternal home because we are still so enamored with life here believing this is all there is. Yet what happens when we’re not so sexy anymore? What happens when we no longer have money in our bank accounts, we lose our secure jobs, the dog bites us, the kids no longer stop by, the bones fail, or the spouse is otherwise preoccupied; and the only thing we have left this side of heaven to sink our teeth into is the joy of knowing Christ–that for which Paul said he suffered the loss of all things and considered it rubbish compared to knowing him (Phil. 3:7-11)?
Mark, I enjoyed this commentary. It really amazes me how we get so far off track! Love to talk about this one with you.