Jesus apparently wasn’t interested in marketing himself to the masses. His invitations to potential followers were clearly more costly than the crowds were ready to accept, and he seemed to be okay with that. He focused instead on the few who believed him when he said radical things. And through their radical obedience to him, he turned the course of history in a new direction.
I could not help but think that somewhere along the way we had missed what is radical about our faith and replaced it with what is comfortable. We were settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.
We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with. A nice, middle-class, American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn’t mind materialism and who would never call us to give away everything we have. A Jesus who would not expect us to forsake our closest relationships so that he receives all our affection. A Jesus who is fine with nominal devotion that does not infringe on our comforts, because, after all, he loves us just the way we are. A Jesus who wants us to be balanced, who wants us to avoid dangerous extremes, and who, for that matter, wants us to avoid danger altogether. A Jesus who brings us comfort and prosperity as we live out our Christian spin on the American dream.
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Wake up. Wake up and realize that there are infinitely more important things in your life than football and a 401K. Wake up and realize there are real battles to be fought, so different from the superficial, meaningless “battles” you focus on.
Do we really believe he is worth abandoning everything for? Do you and I really believe that Jesus is so good, so satisfying, and so rewarding that we will leave all we have and all we own and all we are in order to find our fullness in him?
The goal of the American dream is to make much of us; the goal of the gospel is to make much of God.
In direct contradiction to the American dream, God actually delights in exalting our inability. He intentionally puts his people in situations where they come face to face with their need for him. In the process he powerfully demonstrates his ability to provide everything his people need in ways they could never have mustered up or imagined. And in the end, he makes much of his own name.
The reality is that it doesn’t matter how many resources the church has. The church I lead could have all the man-made resources that one could imagine, but apart from the power of the Holy-Spirit, such a church will do nothing of significance for the glory of God.
In fact, I believe the opposite is true. The church I lead could have the least gifted people, the least talented people, the fewest leaders, and the least money, and this church under the power of the Holy Spirit could still shake the nations for his glory. The reality is that the church I lead can accomplish more during the next month in the power of God’s spirit than we can in the next hundred years apart from his provisions. His power is so superior to ours. Why do we not desperately seek it?
Think about it. Would you say that your life is marked right now by desperation for the Spirit of God? Would you say that the church you are a part of is characterized by this sense of desperation? Why would we ever want to settle for Christianity according to our ability or settle for church according to our resources?
Most Christians rarely share the gospel, and most Christians’ schedules are not heavily weighted to feeding the hungry, helping the sick, and strengthening the church in the neediest places in our country.
God asks us, what are we going to do with what He has given us? How are we going to us our influence, our leadership, and our resources in the world around us?
There is an old maxim that those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it.
The clear, simple strategy of Jesus: make disciples.
I often ask members of our church if they are receivers or reproducers of God’s word.
In our Christian version of the American dream, our plan ends up disinfecting Christians from the world more than discipling Christians in the world. Let me explain the difference. Disinfecting Christians from the world involves isolating followers of Christ in a spiritual safe-deposit box called the church building and teaching them to be good. When we gather at the building, we learn to be good. Being good is defined by what we avoid in the world. We are holy because of what we don’t participate in (and at this point we may be the only organization in the world defining success by what we don’t do). Whereas disinfecting Christians involves isolating them and teaching them to be good, discipling Christians involves propelling Christians into the world to risk their lives for the sake of others. Now the world is our focus, and we gauge success in the church not on the hundreds or thousands whom we can get into our buildings, but on the hundreds and thousands who are leaving our buildings to take on the world with the disciples they are making.
Today more than a billion people in the world live and die in desperate poverty. They attempt to survive on less than a dollar per day. Close to two billion others live on less than two dollars per day. That’s nearly half the world struggling today to find food, water, and shelter with the same amount of money I spend on french-fries for lunch.
More than twenty-six thousand children today will breathe their last breath due to starvation or a preventable disease.
Indeed, caring for the poor (among other things) is evidence of our salvation. The faith in Christ that saves us from our sins involves an internal transformation that has external implications. According to Jesus, you can tell someone is a follower of Christ by the fruit of their life, and the writers of the New Testament show us that fruit of faith in Christ involves material concern for the poor.
Caring for the poor is one natural overflow and necessary evidence of the presence of Christ in our hearts. If there is no sign of caring for the poor in our lives, then there is reason to at least question whether Christ is in our hearts.
So what is the difference between someone who willfully indulges in sexual pleasures while ignoring the Bible on moral purity and someone who willfully indulges in selfish pursuit of more and more material possessions while ignoring the Bible on caring for the poor? The difference is that one involves a social taboo in the church and the other involves the social norm in the church.
We look back on slave-owning churchgoers of 150 years ago and ask, “How could they have treated their fellow human beings that way?” I wonder if followers of Christ 150 years from now will look back at Christians in America today and ask, “How could they live in such big houses? How could they drive such nice cars and wear such nice clothes? How could they live in such affluence while thousands of children were dying because they didn’t have food and water? How could they go on with their lives as though the billions of poor didn’t even exist?”
Is materialism a blind spot in American Christianity today? More specifically, is materialism a blind spot in my Christianity?
Every year in the United States, we spend more than $10 billion on church buildings. In America alone, the amount of real estate owned by institutional churches is worth over $230 billion.
Are you and I looking to Jesus for advice that seems fiscally responsible according to the standards of the world around us? Or are we looking to Jesus for total leadership in our lives, even if that means going against everything our affluent culture and maybe even our affluent religious neighbors might tell us to do?
What would happen, if we stopped asking how much we could spare and started asking how much it was going to take?
The lesson I learned is that the war against materialism in our hearts is exactly that: a war. It is a constant battle to resist the temptation to have more luxuries, to acquire more stuff, and to live more comfortably. It requires strong and steady resolve to live out the gospel in the middle of an American dream that identifies success as moving up the ladder, getting the bigger house, purchasing the nicer car, buying the better clothes, eating the finer food, and acquiring more things.
Ultimately, I don’t want us to miss eternal treasure because we settle for earthly trinkets. “Where your treasure is,” Jesus says, “there your heart will be also.” The way we use our money is a barometer of our present spiritual condition. Our neglect of the poor illustrates much about where our hearts lie. But even more than that, the way we use our money is an indicator of our eternal destination. The mark of Christ followers is that their hearts are in heaven and their treasures are spent there.
The will of God is for you and me to give our lives urgently and recklessly to making the gospel and the glory of God known among all peoples, particularly those who have never even heard of Jesus. The question, therefore, is not “Can we find God’s will?” The question is “Will we obey God’s will?”
The key is realizing—and believing—that this world is not your home. If you and I ever hope to free our lives from worldly desires, worldly thinking, worldly pleasures, worldly dreams, worldly ideals, worldly values, worldly ambitions, and worldly acclaim, then we must focus our lives on another world.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Elliot
The Radical Experiment
Pray for the entire world
Read through the entire Word
Sacrifice your money for a specific purpose
Spend your time in another context
Commit your life to a multiplying community
When you or I open the Bible, we are beholding the very words of God—words that have supernatural power to redeem, renew, refresh, and restore our lives to what he created them to be. That is why I believe it is more important for you and me to read Leviticus than it is for us to read the best Christian book ever published, because Leviticus has a quality and produces an effect that no book in the Christian marketplace can compete with.
We have discovered that 2 percent (1 week on mission trip) of our time living out the gospel in other contexts has a radical effect on the other 98 percent of our time living out the gospel in our own context.
You and I have an average of about seventy or eighty years on this earth. During these years we are bombarded with the temporary. Make money. Get stuff. Be comfortable. Live well. Have fun. In the middle of it all, we get blinded to the eternal. But it’s there. You and I stand on the porch of eternity. Both of us will soon stand before God to give an account for our stewardship o f the time, the resources, the gifts, and ultimately the gospel he has entrusted to us. When that day comes, I am convinced we will not wish we had given more of ourselves to living the American dream. We will not wish we had made more money, acquired more stuff, lived more comfortably, taken more vacations, watched more television, pursued greater retirement, or been more successful in the eyes of this world. Instead we will wish we had given more of ourselves to living for the day when every nation, tribe, people, and language will bow around the throne and sing the praises of the Savior who delights in radical obedience and the God who deserves eternal worship.