Fear is a driving factor in how many interpret the Bible and the claims of Jesus without their even knowing it. We come to Jesus, to the Bible, to the Christian faith with questions, with holes, with expectations. There are things we believe we need to have, that we feel we're entitled to. These beliefs have worked their way in either through a lifelong training course in self-worship by the surrounding culture, or by frightened churches themselves, by leaders and peers who want to avoid difficulty and increase prestige and reputation, who are afraid of tension and the psychological desert of not knowing you are right on every issue and point.
The subtle effect of fear is that we excise portions of reality. Forget the Bible for a minute and think about a 45-year-old woman who just found a lump, yet will not go to the doctor because the news would crush her if they found she had cancer. The kicker is, the cancer is real(or not) regardless of whether a medical professional diagnoses it; but it's somehow more emotionally stabilizing to know the lump is there yet remain ignorant(and perhaps not think about it) than to have certainty that you are sick and may die. This leads me to my first part one in the implications of the gospel: death. This is going to be a piece that elaboratees on a talk I gave with the talented John Mahshie, which he then turned into a Sermon Jam. To listen, click here, and then scroll down until you see the names John Mahshie and Nate Spencer, and click on "death."
part 1)We Are All Born With a Terminal Disease Called Life, or Wake O Sleeper
I know people who, from the way they speak, truly believe they are not going to die. Their approach to life is marked by daily self-affirmation, the seeking of security, the chasing of pleasures in such a way that could only be fulfilling if they believed they would last forever. Some of these people are spiritual. They say prayers, the practice a form of worship, and repeat phrases to themselves with the conviction that if they truly believe something it will happen. If they are Christians, they adopt a position towards their faith that says essentially the same thing as the rest, but laced with utterances of "in Jesus' name."
The subject of death is not popular usually. Unless you are being faced with its imminence, through age or sickness, you are probably in some denial about the fact that you will die. Death may press upon us in unavoidable ways, like when a loved one dies, but to look it squarely in the face as something that is coming for ME is unnecessary pessimism and negativity, or seems unreal and irrelevant. More often our mindset is likely to manifest in relation to suffering- a much more frequent bogeyman, one that threatens in a multitude of ways smaller than death, but could be around any corner and thus has to be dealt with daily, even if it's simply a matter possibility and speculation.
The trick, for most of us, is to avoid thinking about death, and persist in delaying or eradicating suffering and non-fulfillment of any kind. The bottom line, were we to evaluate ourselves psychologically, is securing a happy, empowered, financially stable, relationally healthy life. Perhaps a spiritually aware one. For the Christian, it might be to maintain the blessing of God. Faith in Jesus is the guarantor, and these qualities of life are potentially even seen as the Christian's entitlement. Politically, many would include a lifestyle oriented towards positive change. We recycle. We vote on platform X. We support legislation. This has the dual benefit of creating a feeling of usefulness and empowerment, ends in themselves, and advancing practically towards that which we need to maintain the lifestyle we desire.
Politicians and advertisers have played on this endlessly: the elevation of the individual, their unique identity, their fulfillment and satisfaction. Usually someone stands to gain something by telling the audience that their happiness is crucial. A product is offered towards this end, and profits are reaped. Remember that emotional, inspiring ad for the Coast Guard? "I am the port in the storm. I am the line in the sand. I am rescuer in the dark." I want to be those things! Sign me up! Barack Obama ran a campaign using the slogan "Yes we can," and driving it home in his famous Black-Eyed Peas music video with visionary force, promising opportunity and prosperity. Without judging the motives of either of these cases, we can easily see the power of of pushing the identity, prosperity, meaningfulness, and happiness buttons.
I won't deny that a promising vision and a strong hope for and commitment to the future is what gets things done. But most people will embrace these visions, for themselves, for their posterity, for the world, without the least acknowledgment that all is passing away. That they will die, perhaps painfully or before their time. That their children will die. That everything they have worked for will, with time, fall apart and be forgotten. And that the world will perish, by(if you're a Christian) the wrath of God, (if you're an apocalyptic environmentalist)man's negligence or(if you are a scientist) by a slow inner geological cooling and the dying of our sun that leaves everything cold, dark, and dead.
What do you do with such pessimism? Is there another option? If the entire world is hurtling towards tragedy, why doesn't despair reign? Certainly there is the natural human predisposition to believe something positive, some hope, is worth holding onto. But a raw, coldly calculating philosophical perspective, there really is nothing worth ultimately working for, because it's all crumbling. Soon. If you're reading this, you will die soon. 70 or 80 years if you're young and lucky. This should shape our entire paradigm, and mostly it does, except that instead of inspiring despair, it inspires a mad scramble to GET ME SOME! Assuage the inevitable pain with the intoxicants of wealth, reputation, healthy lifestyles, relationships, and good government. See, I'm in good shape, really...I swear, everything's going great. Wrong. Everything is in decay.
For the paradigm shaped by death, there is but one option, whether acknowledged or not- avoid death. Avoid thinking about it. Do whatever possible to postpone it. If you must die, let it be a long, long time from now, and never think about it until the moment it hits. Pretend like it will not happen, and enjoy what you can get ahold of for as long as your white knuckles can grasp it. Pretend things last forever. Avoid suffering as well. It is a curse and gets in the way of the bottom line: your happiness and security. When you are going through it, curse those who brought it upon you, and vow retribution, because that way others will think twice before defacing your happiness in the future.
That is what life looks like when death reigns over you. Pitiful, eyes-closed, teeth-gritted denial of reality, and desperate leaps towards an iceberg that is big enough to hold your weight and last a little while before the sun melts it and sinks you into the sea. The best keep up the charade for a little while and gain some recognition and approval and success...and then die anyway.
Are you weeping yet? I tell you, this is the reality we have to look forward to.
Unless Resurrection shapes our paradigm.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those wh0 through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.(Heb 2:14-15)
Did you hear that? You were a slave because of fear...fear of death. You used to need the security of life and promises of success and health and painlessness. But then Jesus rose from the dead and set you free from that fear. He showed you that dying wasn't that big of a deal, because that which it separates you from is dying also, and because you just get up again anyway. Do not live any longer as if these things are the bottom line, because death has been proven powerless. Jesus Christ rose to show you that-- the powerlessness of death and the coming glory. He showed you for a reason: so that in your new found freedom from the fear-of-suffering, you could break the chains holding you back from doing what Jesus did. From sacrificially loving people when there is no reward. From dying to the need for money and financial security. From refusing to consider the opinions of others grounds to alter your behavior, especially of those who will hate you on account of him, even persecute you and kill you. From living in the Kingdom of God, instead of the kingdom of self.
“I do not wish to be a king. I am not anxious to be rich. I decline military command. I detest fornication. I am not impelled by an insatiable love of financial gain to go to sea. I do not contend for chaplets. I am free from a mad thirst for fame. I despise death..." -Tatian, 160 AD
There is a bottom line, and it is not your happiness, security, influence, empowerment, comfort, wealth, reputation, or self-actualization and spiritual achievement. It is that God's kingdom, established on the work of Jesus and given to you via an eye-opening, earth-shattering paradigm shift caused by the visibly resurrected Messiah, manifests itself in gospel proclamation and gospel action. In Christ-witnessing agape. I despise death.
Suddenly the call is answerable: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
Suddenly African children do not have to die of malaria for lack of $1 mosquito nets, single mothers do not have to raise their children alone and marginalized, and enemies who are out to destroy us can receive in return the gospel, because money, reputation, and comfort do not matter anymore.
The degree to which you see the risen Christ is the degree to which you will be able to follow Jesus to the cross, and escape the death-shaped life. And then you will live like Paul- liberated, proclaiming, Spirit-empowered, content, suffering and dying for the gospel.
...keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication...for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly as I ought to speak.(Eph 6:18-20)
Remember my chains. Grace be with you.(Col 4:18)
I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.(2 Cor 12:10)
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, dangers from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.(2 Cor 11:25-28)
For. The. Gospel.
It's that simple. You will lose everything anyway, you might as well lose it for something that is not perishing. Do you gain anything? Of course. Jesus Christ risen from the dead. You "come after" him into the kingdom of God. He is the prize. Forgive me if it's a cliche, but "he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
I need to drastically reassess what I'm expending my effort on.