Has someone ever told you the Christian life makes your life better? Maybe they said it as a draw to Jesus, to explain why coming to Christ is a good idea. Perhaps you told someone of Jesus' benefits yourself, in an effort to remove stumbling blocks to faith. It's the common idea that you have a better chance of reaching someone with the gospel if they're in a time of transition, trouble, or tension (for instance, when people are stressed out, the thought goes, they are more open to hearing about a peace that surpasses understanding). That's true in part. It's also true that those in such positions can be even more hardened to the gospel because they can't 'square' the picture of God they have in their mind with what they're going through. So how do you share the gospel without pushing people away?
Scared Into Inaction
We can't know in advance who we're meeting, so there is no one size fits all method to share the faith. We who are already Christians must be clear in our gospel presentations, careful to avoid making Christianity come across as a self-help life-plan. This responsibility doesn't disappear when our own lives get difficult or we feel suspended over open waters. In fact, it becomes all the more important to be an example, rightly handling the word of truth and being accessible for those who want to ask the tough questions. For this reason, we should stop telling people that coming to Christ will make their life better. And here's why.
A bill of gods... I mean, goods
A popular Christian idea exists – that if we are walking with the Lord and doing His will in our lives, we will not face hardship or suffering, pain or troubles. Tell that to Job, Abraham and Sarah, David, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, and John, Timothy and Epaphroditus... and the list goes on.
Why would this teaching gain such power if so much of scripture and Christian history defeats it at every turn? What do you do with the suffering of the faithful, if this idea guides you? What did they do wrong? What do you do with Paul's encouragement that perseverance brings about proven character, or Jesus' statements here?
Christian prosperity isn't grounded in God's Word but the pagan idea that salvation necessarily leads to health, wealth, and earthly success. And if you don't have these things, it's because of your own lack of faith or salvation. Unfortunately, televangelists deceive many with this idea. The result? The shipwrecked 'faiths' of people who trusted in a false gospel centered on hopes of personal benefit, rather than the truth and reality of the living God.* As a result, Christians have (hopefully unintentionally) been responsible for selling others a 'bill'–hundreds or more–of God's. A god after their own heart, to suit themselves. They do not know the living God!
Think about this a little. Ask people what they think about who God is or what God does. Many unbelievers paint a picture of a god who gives you a life of comfort, whatever you want, and stops whatever you don't like. He generally agrees with whatever you happen to already believe. Doesn't this concept of god sound vaguely familiar? This god is a more powerful version of you. Therefore, the idea of God tends to take the form of the desires of the one who is speaking, which is what God calls idolatry. Skeptics have long used this idea to wrongly state that man has created the idea of God when, actually, we have perverted the truth of God.
The wealthy understand God wants us to be wealthy and, thus, able to share with others. The poor know God desires we be poor and, thus, not controlled by want of possessions. The healthy know God desires to heal our infirmities, while the sick know God would use our sicknesses to strengthen our spirits. Of course, you can also believe God wants to give you the things you most want but don't have!
Sadly, Christians have adopted this paganism. The danger here is that, just as with Satan, each of these ideas holds a kernel of truth. But they're not the full story, and a little bit of heresy is enough to throw the whole belief into question. The problem is when the Word flies hard in the face of these conceptions and we start to realize we've been sold a false bill of goods.
Who, Then, Is God?
God is eternally more worthy of praise than we can say in a blog post, and has revealed the truth of who He is in the Bible. I point you there to answer the question of who He is. Here, the point is to confront false views of God that leave us feeling hopeless and stranded. I want to centralize on some of the ideas we've personally faced in our ministry as God has led us to this place. We're raising funds to minister to 11-to-19-year-old TCKs (third culture kids) of U.S. Military Servicemen and -women in Europe. These students are dealing with normal teen issues (normal, really?), but parents who serve in harm's way to preserve our freedoms as well. This context comes with its own unique challenges, but the struggles to understand who God is are universal.
God does not change, but often the ways we introduce people to ideas about God come from their cultural context (see Paul's discourse to the Athenian people). These ideas are important to think about because they say a great deal about what we believe about God: who He is, what He does, and how we should see Him. When you, or those you love, are somewhere over open waters, adrift and in need of a word from the Lord, what we share with them matters. Here are seven views of Almighty God that are good to AVOID sharing with others.
This idea sickens me every time I come across it. It's general, so it fails on every front. "If God wants something but can't make it happen or is hindered in some way, He is no longer all-powerful. Why are there so many differences among us?" We don't need to guess when God's Word addresses this well. Paul and Timothy were not healed, while certain beggars and lepers were. Some were wealthy enough and supported Jesus and the apostles, while others were asked to leave their wealth behind. Scripture does not give us a "one size fits all" answer to these stations, making this argument seem foolish at best.
We can view the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and poets, the prophets and apostles, and come to a vague idea about what a blessed life looks like. But who is willing to suspend reason long enough to say how blessed they'd call Paul after the second or third beating, his being run out of town, or the first shipwreck? We know the rest of the story, sure. But what would you say to Paul if you were the friend from synagogue (who knew him when most people called him Saul) who met up with him every Thursday for a trip to the market and a quick game? At what point do you think the bruises and busted lips would prompt you to suggest a career change... you know, for health reasons? He called his life a joy.
This argument clearly falls flat.
There are very few things I would put in this category that are found in the Word (not even this, because this**). Even looking at the life of Jesus, sharing the truth will not necessarily bring people to your doors. Contrary to the "Field of Dreams" theology of evangelism, they won't necessarily come if you build it, but they most likely will if you stock it with good food! But this won't give you an accurate reading of the quality of your attenders.
Whatever you win them with, you win them to!
We don't need self-help books or how-to guides to build a thriving ministry – they may not work for us, and then we will we be frustrated and disillusioned or doubt our own effort. We need more courage to develop scripture-based, authority-driven, Spirit-led programs to disciple our people and leave the results up to God. Pragmatism might be a hopeful shortcut to getting spiritual development out of your disciples, but don't confuse the method and the means.
Sometimes there are essentials of Christian doctrine that must be upheld and protected from heresy. These aren't unimportant by any means. But when we exalt matters of the conscience to orthodox*** Christian doctrine, we unnecessarily create friction, division, and the sects among the body that invariably harm the body of Christ. Christians disagree, and that's fine sometimes, but do not let clothing styles or carpet colors become barriers to Christian fellowship. Say, with Paul, that your belief is not a command from the Lord, share your reasons with respect, and leave it at that. And by all means, if it's not a matter of salvation, do not treat any brother or sister who disagrees with you like the unclean when you meet them.
The Hebrew Bible–or Old Testament–repeatedly confronts those who presume to speak for God when He has not spoken. In various places we're told not to fear them (or they should die), that they did die for their foolishness, or that some attribute to God things He would never support. This alone is reason to tread very carefully when it comes to saying what God would or would not do. Often our claims of what God would or would not do is based more on emotional fervor or sentimentality than His righteousness or justice. Good intentions, or wanting to encourage, do not amount to authority from God.
Don't do this. Just don't.
This view says more about our beliefs about what God should do in our lives than what He's revealed in His Word or human history. We ask this question without dealing (in the moment) with what the Lord did in the lives of people like Abram and Sarai, Lot, Hosea, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Matthew, Paul, Peter, and a host of believers since the time of Christ. We've built entire theologies around the erroneous belief that God wants to rescue us from suffering–not because He's said this or shown it to us, but because we don't like to suffer!
God's love for us is less about giving us the life of happiness we seek and more about sanctifying us and forming us into the image of Christ. We witness to this new life's purpose in His name.
In one way this is true. The Lord's thoughts are so far above our own that to know the fullness of His mind is to be God yourself... and you're not.
But in another sense, God has repeatedly revealed Himself to us and spoken clearly about His will. So if we fail to understand what God wants, it could very well be our hard heart that gets in the way, not God's lack of clarity. I challenge you along with the apostle Paul to examine yourself if that makes you angry. Often, our anger over some teaching or some preacher can be because they are teaching heresy; but other times we can become angry with them because what they are saying is an affront to our autonomy and desire to live in whatever sinful way we dang-well please, thank you...
And that's the real heresy! Will the real heretics please stand up??
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In each of these cases, the primary, motivating factor for saying any of these things isn't the Word of God or some spiritual evidence. It's selfishness. But we cannot exalt our own opinions over the Word (I mean, we can, but you get what I'm saying, right?). We must be more concerned for the truth.
If your mouth is prone to saddle God with your personal convictions, it might be best to stay silent. Better that than to be bucked off–what a pain in the rear!
What "pictures" of God did you once hold to that got fixed when you read His Word? Let me know what you think!
* Ray Comfort gives a great illustration in this video (at about 12:30) about parachutes, the two reasons people were given for putting it on, and how this relates to gospel presentations. The summary is that if people come to Christ to have a better life (which is a false gospel), they aren't biblically saved and will turn away when that promise proves false and things get difficult. But if they come to Christ to escape the wrath of God against all sin and unrighteousness, they are biblically saved and will cling even closer to Christ when the difficulties of life make them long for heaven! True salvation is a regeneration that makes true believers long for greater fellowship with Christ and conformity to Him; it is not given to us as a "thank you" for trying to fellowship with Christ and be like Him. Christ alone can save you, and this is preached by Ray and others. Some may get the idea that to examine yourself and see if you're of the faith is grounded in some works-based salvation, but it's not. Paul, Peter, and Jesus make clear we cannot earn our salvation by works but our lives will reflect who is Lord in our life–whether it's Jesus or someone (or something) else.
** The Thessalonians were believers who trusted in the imminent return of Christ, so much so that many sold off their belongings, didn't work anymore, and waited so as to be fully prepared when He came back. Paul confronted the importance of being ready to go whenever Christ shows, but also to work as unto the Lord in the meantime.
*** Orthodoxy refers to "right belief," or what is true. Orthopraxy refers to "right practice," or the behavior suited to orthodoxy. There are standards to Christianity that define a faith as being truly Christian (Christ-centered) or else pagan, cultic, false religion. This is different from a person who claims another faith background and does not hold to Christian beliefs. They are not traditionally seen as a cultic offshoot of Christianity, but as another faith tradition entirely. That is another matter and not the focus of this post.
Clinkscales family updates: YFCI Work–Youth For Christ International
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