I realize now that during my twenty-five-plus years as a follower of Jesus, I've had many ideas about him. I’ve chased movements and given my best shot at checking off discipleship lists. I’ve tried to be good, and I’ve been where the exciting Christian movements are happening. The problem all along was that as part of these ideas, I’ve always thought of Jesus as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot. I wanted him to give me answers from the owner’s manual for life.
When I consider the last decade and a half, I’ve thought of Jesus as a life coach, as the deity who handed me a moral checklist, as a movement leader who was inviting me to become great by my association with him. He was a visionary leader with a brilliant plan to homogenize culture. Between you and me, I was using God for his gifts rather than loving him as The Giver. I was using god stuff (formulas for creating movements, personal discipleship programs, becoming an insider of an influential church) to ensure positive outcomes for my life. And all of that is a pagan enterprise.
Perhaps you’ve done similar things. Maybe you haven’t had the same sorts of experiences I’ve had. You haven’t been part of a “movement.” You’ve never church hopped to chase the next exciting trend. But there is a pervasive, underlying message in many churches regardless of their theological flavor. And that message is basically, you get what you give, good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Often churches have prescribed forms of “How to Live the Good Christian Life.” It could be a discipleship program or devotional practices. It may even be taking up the cause of the poor or marginalized. These are all great things, to be sure. But don’t we often leverage these things in our hearts to ensure that we’ve got enough in our personal virtue account? Are these things meant to buy us that get-out-of-jail-free card?
The truth is that trouble still invades our lives. And when trouble comes, of course we feel let down and depressed, but somehow our belief that being a Christian meant a life without trouble makes our burdens even heavier. Now we have guilt (why can’t I face this trouble with a laid-back faith?), shame (perhaps this trouble is my fault; if only I had been a better Christian), and of course anger (at ourselves, God, the churches we attended, and the leaders we followed). As for me, I’m done pretending life shouldn’t hurt. Hope and healing come when we get to a place where we can truthfully admit what our real struggles are.
Often the brand of religion we’ve associated with has told us to follow our hearts and that our faith would feel like every day was a day at the spa. When real life catches up, we’re left scratching our heads. This is not what we signed up for. May I ask you a question? What’s more common among human beings: success and mountaintop experiences? Or struggle, hardship, and pain?
Last I checked, mortality rates are holding steady at 100 percent and entropy is still a scientific fact. I know that sounds more like something Eeyore would say than motivational guru Tony Robbins, but we are better off coming to terms with the facts of entropy. For years my idea of being religious was taking my spiritual vitamins so life would be better. What were those vitamins? Pray harder. Devote yourself more wholeheartedly. Give to the ministry! Volunteer! But this is self-help, not salvation.
While we still live in a messed-up world, hope is not something we can activate through spiritual activity or church associations. No, the core of the Christian faith is about objective hope that lives outside of our personal experiences and hearts. Objective hope is found in the miracle of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The self-help brand of Christianity has a fatal flaw: hope for life is supposed to be found in what believers actualize for themselves. We hear these catch phrases all the time: “Find the hope within,” “Reach for the stars,” “Never give up on your dreams,” and the list goes on. The problem is that slapping these slogans onto Christianity doesn’t work. Because the core of Christianity is the story of a Savior that…well…saves! The gospel is not a coach giving spiritual advice.
The mountaintop that your heart, culture, or some leader has called you to may not exist. Worse yet, rather than a mountaintop, it may turn out to be a valley, or a flaming brown paper bag full of dog doo-doo left on the front porch of your already burnt-down house. These times of life are never what we sign up for, and they clash with our ideas of what we think a proper spiritual life ought to look like. While our loves and hopes are always directed toward the attractive and good, God’s love is directed toward what is unattractive: us. We love things in life because they’re beautiful to us. But we’re beautiful to God because he loves us. There’s a huge difference.
Here’s another reason why the Jesus of the mountaintop is no good for you, or for the church. If the mountaintop is supposed to be normative, those in the spiritual valley are out of luck. They will have to climb back up on the mountain so they can have assurance that God is really with them and makes a “real” difference in their life. But what happens when your body seizes up from exhaustion, you’re out of breath, and you can’t climb one more step? That’s not hope, that’s just a tragically missed opportunity. You weren’t strong enough. Tough luck.
Here’s the good news: the mountaintop experiences of life aren’t normative. If everything in our lives of faith were a mountaintop, then nothing would be a mountaintop. Jesus does not require that we ascend up to him; he descends to us (Deuteronomy 30:12–13). Following Jesus may include occasional mountaintop experiences in life, but most of the time, just like the disciples, we follow him through the highways and byways of life, and our feet get tired, blistered, and really dirty. But when the journey is too much, when we’re down for the count, Jesus does not whip us into submission. He tends to our wounds. He shows mercy and compassion in our failure.
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