A couple of weeks ago I had a rare Sunday morning free (I was off and we worshiped earlier in the weekend). In my hotel room, I sampled the many Christian television options available on the local cable system.
Death and Damnation and Hell, Oh My!
What I found was lots of religion, but very little Jesus. There were plenty of pastors shouting (literally) about sin and spewing warnings about damnation. If you were a backslider, a liberal, a homosexual, or a “whoremonger,” (that’s not a word you hear every day) you were on your way to hell. I would guess those pastors picked those particular things about which to disgorge condemnation because they are things that they, or their congregations, don’t struggle with very much.
Or here’s another possibility. Maybe the opposite is true – might some preachers scream about things they secretly and desperately struggle against because those things scare them so much they must yell about them? If they are strident enough in their opposition, then no one will suspect their struggle. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case, but it is something to consider . . .
Anyway, you can really fire folks up by demonizing “those people” – sort of like the “religious” guy at the Temple Jesus talked about who thanked God he wasn’t like those other “sinners.”
You might remember that Jesus didn’t think a lot of him and his self-righteousness.
But I’m sure stuff like that really gets the pledges coming in to the toll-free numbers that inevitably crawled across the bottom of the screen.
Happy Happy, Joy Joy (also Oh My!)
There was, however, one preacher I found that morning who was different. One preacher who didn’t talk about sin at all, who didn’t yell or point his finger into the camera. He just smiled. A lot.
What that happy preacher told me through the hotel television was that God wants me to be happy. If I just have enough faith, and if I talk to God enough, God will do things to make me happy. But, if my faith waivers or if I neglect time in prayer, there will be consequences.
I may not get a good parking place when I go shopping, or I may forget my workout shoes when I go to the gym. (I feel a need to state I’m not making this up.)
But if I get it right, God will get me that close parking place and I’ll get to the gym and find that I HAVE MY SHOES!
That’s a God a can get behind!
Unfortunately, it’s not the God I meet in the Bible.
It’s Not God Who’s Letting You Down, It’s Your Theology
Folks in my church are probably tired of hearing me say this, but here it is: Jesus did not die on the Cross to make me comfortable.
The “point” of following Jesus Christ is not to live faithfully in order to get God to do stuff for us and to protect us from bad stuff. We are called to be faithful because of what God has already done for us.
On the cross. Not at the mall.
God-As-Magical-Genie theology is just as disturbing as the Theology of Other-Condemnation. When God doesn’t “deliver,” we’re either disappointed with God or we beat ourselves up for not believing enough and doing it “right.”
Back when I was an intern pastor, a woman I’d never seen before stopped by the church office. She was crying and wanted to talk to someone. When I sat down with her, she told me how terrible her last year had been – a tale of illness and death (both human and pets), relationship strife and financial struggle. Then she told me she had been to her own pastor. This was his response:
“Obviously you’re not praying enough.”
Harsh, isn’t it. But that’s the flip-side to the “God wants you to be happy” brand of theology. God wants to bless you (in material ways) it says; all you’ve got to do is want it enough.
So, those Christians who struggle with illness and finances must not want it enough. Those Christians in the Third World who live on less than a dollar a day and watch their children die from lack of food and clean water, they must not want it enough. Those Christians who live in places where they are thrown into jail and tortured and even killed for their faith, they must not want it enough.
And Jesus’ disciples, almost all of whom were reportedly killed for sharing the Gospel, they must not have wanted it enough. Paul was definitely doing something wrong as he undertook his great mission to the Gentiles, as he had health problems that wouldn’t go away, kept getting beaten and thrown into jail, and was finally executed.
God does not promise us “our best life now.” God promises us our best life in eternity, while for now we will endure trials and tragedies. What God promises us is never to leave us alone, to experience our struggles right along with us, and to love us no matter what.
What God promises us is grace, God’s undeserved love, forgiveness, and salvation. Grace depends not on our own faith, but on God’s perfect faithfulness.
I’m disappointed that I couldn’t find any of that on the hotel TV on that Sunday morning. (In fairness, there may be some grace-emphasizing theology on TV, but there is certainly a preponderance of other stuff.)
But what is tragic is that unChristians who may be flipping through the channels on Sunday mornings are likely to get either condemnation or genie-theology. And speaking as someone who made that trip through the channels on occasional Sunday mornings when I was an unChristian myself, it’s tragic because either of those pictures of God are very easy to reject.