A Cynic, With Sympathies.

I get angry when I see a slight twisting of the truth; angrier when people are driven away from simple biblical truth because of it; angrier still when it’s one of their very own Christian virtues used to accomplish such a twisting.

It is true to say that Jesus told us not to judge: He was the only one qualified to do so, and yet He chose to heal sinners rather than condemn them. But there were times when He did show this authority to judge, in Matthew 21: 12-13 when he angrily trashed the tables of those using God’s house for profit, for example. This was not judgment based on pride, as our own usually is. It is a fair, and just, judgment which ultimately we are all under; thanks to this we are convicted of our sin. But there’s a portion of Christianity, it seems, that doesn’t like this idea so much. It would prefer we didn’t think about it either, for fear that it would drive us away from church. This is nothing new, but what’s problematic is that so many currently seem to be speaking out in defence of such a message, for what I see to be the wrong reasons.

I’m basing this response off an article, ‘What’s the problem with Joel Osteen?’, that has been doing the rounds online. When I first became aware of it, to be honest I avoided it. I’m initially thinking; if you have to ask what the problem with Joel Osteen is (unless it’s a rhetorical question) then you’ve already missed something very big and very crucial.

So that was that. But then, it seemed a lot of people were taking this thing seriously, and were even using it to say; see, Christians, we shouldn’t judge each other because we’re essentially all in this together. Wow, wow, wow. Let’s backtrack a little there. Something didn’t quite add up. So indeed, I went back to read the article again (having glanced at it before), to see what it was all about.

Most of what’s wrong with this entire situation can be summed up in the following sentence from it:

“This critical behaviour and attitude is why many people do not want to be a part of Christianity or go to church, because they feel that when they go to church they will be criticised the way our leaders do to each other.”

If what this is saying is true, that this is us criticising each other and being hypocritical about our faith, then by all means it makes a good point. But to me it sounds more like a business model the author is advocating – a way to ‘get more people into church’. He sounds like he’s facing a common pressure in the life of a pastor: that is, the pressure to grow. The pressure to display that what you’re doing is worth your time and effort.

The thing is, I’ve heard statements like the one above many times before, especially throughout this past year. It has been used to urge the church to embrace sinfulness, because if we do not then people will simply ‘not want to come’, which is made to seem like the worst evil of all. Does the Bible tell us that people should want to be a part of Christianity? Does the Bible tell us that when people do come to our church, they should not feel criticised?

Now, don’t mistake me. I’m not saying we should judge even the worst of people when they walk into church. We can again point to the words of Christ to see that we are no better than they are; it is not our place to judge in the slightest. But the suggestion of the above article in saying we should “avoid criticising” is not really referring to us at all, but to the Gospel.

It is the Gospel that people feel offended by when they walk into a typical evangelical Christian church. It is that which they feel judges them, because they’ll find it convicting their sin, and guess what? None of us like that feeling when we first feel it (indeed, when we always feel it). It makes us feel like what we are: dirty, convicted sinners. It makes us ashamed to even dare coming close to God. It is also a feeling essential to our Gospel message; without it, you don’t really have a Gospel, at least not one concerned with anything beyond worldly blessings. C. S. Lewis sums this up in three lines:

“A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed.” (The Problem of Pain)

It is our Gospel message the article is attacking, in the guise of defending an influential man deceived by a half-false version of it.

This false version states that life as a Christian (and a ‘good’ Christian at that) will result in the earthly treasures we have mentioned – but the main problem with this version of the Gospel is not even its view of treasures. It is in its view of God. Could it be any further from the full picture of God we have in scripture? Where is the God who is wrathful towards our sin (thereby completing our picture of His love for us)? Could it be any further from Christ, who made the ultimate sacrifice of His own holy nature – for us – in coming into this broken world and enduring it to the end? This is the real Gospel.

Again, don’t get me wrong on this: I understand why one would want to defend Joel Osteen. I myself admit a certain sympathy for him, an urge not to criticise because he seems a nice guy who’s helping a lot of people. Perhaps it goes even deeper than that too. I recognise that I, like most others at heart, am guilty of this prosperous style of thinking. I’m even enjoying its benefits right now, in being healthy enough to write this.

We all have a natural preference for prosperity over poverty in the world. Would we not, deep down, all rather be healthy, happy and comfortable in life? Jesus never promised such things to each person – in fact, He told His followers to expect the opposite (Matthew 16: 24, John 15: 18-19). Then where, we might ask, has this current thinking come from?

Well, I think we can point to two things. The first is natural progression of civilisation. This style of Gospel, you see, in the form it now takes, is unlike certain others because it is relatively new, having only begun to emerge in the past two hundred years and exploding in America in the last sixty. This coincides with fast-paced technological growth and the emergence of the media, presenting us with a more expansive view of the world and easier access to things like news, politics and indeed, religion. The ease with which people can interact with these things has become almost frightening, to the extent where, even now, I am proving that one needs not be qualified to give an in-depth analysis and opinion of, well, anything they want. On the one hand this has created a lot more cynicism in the world; creating many people who would give anything for the slightest hint of hope wherever they can find it. On the other, we have a large portion of people who see this hope in many forms and in many people, but rarely, now, in Christianity alone. If there is space for Christianity then at least let’s have it with something, the modern world might say. Therefore it’s become too easy to take what may originally have been a Christian virtue, add something to it, and call it a better form of the original Christianity – a change or addition that one may say is ‘necessary’ for adapting to a changing society.

My second point is a direct expansion from this first one. I have said that Jesus didn’t promise health, happiness and comfort – but He did promise something that surpasses all of these: hope. Hope that we may one day reach the end of our present sufferings when we join him in His Kingdom. However, in the modern world, we are presented with an obvious problem. I have just been talking about the ease with which people can find a certain kind of hope in the world around them. It’s the kind of hope one may have upon first arriving on American soil bare foot and with only ten dollars to their name: the concept of the ‘American Dream’ which says anyone can be a rags-to-riches story with a little hard work and perseverance. This is what the world sees as hope. The irony of it is clear: it is, simply, a bastardisation of the Christian message, which promises hope but in a very different sense.

The Christian message says: our world is broken, and no happiness or comfort or pleasure found here can match that which is to come. If you look at Jesus, he was not a rags-to-riches story, but precisely the opposite. And He asks us to be His followers in this. The hope He promised was that of a reunion between man and God, between Son and Father, a hope that He proved fulfilled in his death, resurrection and eventual ascension back to Heaven. The latter of these three you’ll find is the least focused on in modern Christianity; one could argue as to its significance in comparison with the other two. Regardless, I wouldn’t say its relative neglect is due to any great fault on our part. It is more due, perhaps, to our limited perspective of living in the world, and the possible confusion it would cause alongside the message that Jesus is also ‘alive and with us’ – not to mention there is a certain uneasiness with some Christians as to its interpretation.

But it may be the case that a neglect of Jesus’ ascension – with our call to follow Him in life, death and ascension also – has in part created this problem (or maybe ‘confusion’) of a worldly prosperity Gospel message. Struggling to see beyond our current lives and situations, we could conclude that God’s blessings are focused exclusively on our experiences now.

So the world now offers something it calls hope, and portrays it as readily accessible to anyone bold enough to strive for it. In the face of this, many preachers appear to be playing the world at its own game, saying that rather than offering hope of deliverance from a dark world, God can and will offer blessings in a hopeful one. They’re not completely wrong, of course – God does offer blessings now as He always will. But to wait until someone or something is completely wrong before you point out a problem with their thinking is to wait until they’ve already passed the point where you can help, which is simply what those who ‘criticise’ (providing it’s without condemnation) are trying to do.

I’m going to shut up now for fear of overstaying my welcome on this topic. Inevitably it will pop up again I’m sure. After all, I just can’t seem to help writing about theology recently.

“For every careless saint who burns himself out and breaks up his family with misdirected zeal, I venture, there are a thousand who coast with the world, treating Jesus like a helpful add-on, but not as an all-satisfying, all-authoritative King in the cause of love.” – John Piper


One thought on “A Cynic, With Sympathies.

  1. The following link is to a Youtube video I only recently found from the Desiring God 2008 Conference, a message from Mark Driscoll in which I believe he perfectly touches on more than one element of this argument:

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