Last night, Christian Twitter was alive with the ridiculous and sad clip of Victoria Osteen’s blatant prosperity gospel declaration. “We go to church, not for God, but for us.” I especially liked the enterprising blogger who affixed Bill Cosby’s “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” to the end of the clip. Well done.
But before we conservatives get too cocky in our outrage, we’d we wise to admit to our own version of the prosperity gospel, a kind of false message that creeps into our gospel proclamation.
None of us are offering people paradise like the Osteens, especially those of us who have travelled to third-world countries and have seen first-hand the crippling poverty experienced by people with faith much greater than our own. Nor would we dare to tell our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East that with just a bit more faith they might be able to outrun their ISIS persecutors. To do that would not just make us modern-day friends of Job, it would make us false prophets.
What we might be tempted to do, those of us with our airtight theology, is offer a subtler version of the prosperity message in the way we talk about sanctification in this life.
I grew up hearing that what the troubled and broken world really needs is Jesus. I still believe this, even more so now than I did as a child. But what I heard then and what I hear now about our need for Jesus is markedly different.
My ears heard then, “If only the drunkard would walk forward and trust Christ, he’d find relief for his addiction” or “If only the depressed or mentally ill (we didn’t use that word, actually) would know Jesus, they’d find happiness."
But what I hear now from the gospel is different. I hear now: “Come to Jesus and he’ll begin the process of making who you whole, but the full work of restoration won’t happen until He consummates His kingdom.”
There’s a big difference between the two. One says that upon salvation, all of the Fall’s crush upon your soul will be unraveled. Everything will be made new—now. But is this true? We know this doesn’t happen, even from our own lives. Many years after salvation, we still struggle with sins that “so easily beset us” (Hebrews 12:1). As a pastor, I saw first-hand the pervasive effects of the Fall, how the curse so gnarled up human lives. Some of those knots will be unwound in this life. Most will have to wait until Heaven to see full restoration.
Is this not what Paul was saying when he talks in 2 Corinthians 4 about “treasure in earthen vessels” that is “crushed, perplexed, and persecuted.” The treasure is Jesus, but the vessel—body, mind, soul—is fragile and broken. Christ is doing an ongoing work in us, but it’s a work that is far from finished. Our “outer self is wasting away” but our “inner self is being renewed day by day.” Sanctification—not a one-time event that happens when we walk the aisle—is an ongoing work within. There is, Paul says, “an eternal weight of glory” that awaits us. Our full, final, and complete restoration.
At first glance, recognizing and accepting that we’ll not be perfected in this life might seem cause for despair. Having to get up every single day and “run, with patience, the race set before us” (Hebrews 12:1) might cause us to lose heart.
But instead it should move us to joy, because we look not at the “things that are seen” but the “things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:18). In other words, we don’t despair at the continual struggle with sin, the pervasive physical and mental effects of the fall, or the problems that never seem to unwind in our lives and in the lives of those we love. Instead, we rejoice and look to Jesus, the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1), who has already secured our full final restoration. This struggle will soon be over and Christ will finish his work in us.
Understanding sanctification guards us, then, against over-selling immediate, tangible gospel effects. Yes, genuine salvation does result in life change, but these fruits may often be small in this life, faint glimmers of the glory we’ll see in the New Jerusalem. Understanding sanctification also gives us a mechanism to help others who struggle with sin, with mental illness, with sickness and pain. Rather than offering hyperbolic promises of “victory” and “spiritual success” we might enter into in their pain and walk with them in their despair, pointing them to comfort in the eschatological hope of a full, final renewal that awaits them in glory. Understanding sanctification allows us to mend the broken without expecting people to be perfectly whole in this life.
Rejecting our subtle prosperity gospels moves us from people-fixing to burden-bearing.
We should still say to the seeking, the hurt, and the lost, “You need Jesus,” because they do. But let’s not give them the false Jesus of quick spiritual fixes, but the real Jesus who guides us through the storms and walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death and leads us ultimately to Himself.
It's a bit morose and probably an exercise in ego-massaging to consider what one would wanted inscribed on his tombstone (if indeed one has left his family enough money to buy a tombstone). But indulge me for a moment. This can be a good exercise for us in that it requires us to think through just what our lives are made of--what will the one or two sentences in the first lines of our obituaries say when we pass? I'm not sure what that would be for me, but I can tell you what I wouldn't want it to be.
I don't want to be known as the guy who takes potshots at other people.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but in our social media age, it's not a given. In fact, I think if more people considered their reputations, the weight of their words, the impact they are having on the people who follow their activity, they'd reconsider what they type or tap into the blank spaces on Twitter.
Twitter makes taking potshots pretty easy. It's not that it's Twitter's fault. It's that this medium--instant, fast, and rewarding of sharp wit--dredges up from the heart the worst kinds of things. What's more, the safe distance it gives you from keyboard to flesh-and-blood gives the illusion of courage behind a veil of insecurity.
I say all that to say this: a lifetime of worthy work can be erased in a short amount of time if you're someone who uses Twitter to continually sound off, take potshots, and be the self-appointed watchdog for the masses you think have made you their leader. This is especially true and sadly prevalent in the evangelical world. You can easily take potshots--that have all of your tribe saying comatose amens--pretty easily. You can skewer the theological tribes with whom you disagree and make a living pointing out their blind spots, hash tagging their crimes, and gathering a willing lynch mob. You can create narratives, half-true, half-false, about movements you despise and be successful, even drawing in the news media and other organizations interested mainly in eyeballs on their web ads. You can be an online bully, going after people with relentlessness and fake courage because you don't have to see them in person, shake their hand, and realize they are humans and not avatars. You can do all of this and do it well.
But again, is this what you want said about you at your funeral? Is this what you want inscribed on your tombstone? Is the thing, the one thing, you want your children to say is your most significant contribution during the years you were given, as a stewardship, by God?
This is the conversation we have to have with ourselves almost daily as we fight the carnal tendencies to react and overreact. I certainly haven't always gotten it right. I've made mistakes, said things, tweeted things, blogged things that I regret. But lately it's been this long view of life that has held me back. Because when I look at the list of spiritual gifts in the Bible, I see a lot of things, but I don't see a ministry of potshots as one of them.
By now you've heard reports about the reprehensible and racist comments of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. This is a news story that now transcends sports, with repeated calls for boycotts of Clipper games, demands for punishment for Sterling, and even admonishment from President Obama.
If you are an NBA fan like me, you’ll know that Donald Sterling is a known curmudgeon, a highly ineffective owner, and a generally un-liked fellow. So we might be tempted to consider what he said to be merely the rantings of an out of touch, stuck-in-the-1950's old man. We might ask why should Christians care what the owner of an LA sports team says?
But I think we should care, for several reasons:
First, Sterling's words hurt and demean people created in the image of God. Just the way Sterling talks about African American people reflects a Satanic, soul-crushing view of humanity. "These people" is a way of setting a certain ethnic group aside as less than human.
Christians should be offended by Sterling's words because racism is a direct attack upon the Creator, who lovingly formed each human in His image and likeness. It's to tell the Creator that what He created good isn't good. To treat someone as subhuman doesn't simply humiliate the recipient, it dethrones God as Lord.
In one sense it's shocking that we still hear these words in 21st century America. After all, we've made great racial progress in this country. And yet, in another sense, we shouldn't be shocked, because racism is the fruit of a sinful, fallen world, where man will always consider himself better than his fellow man. Every generation has its racists, who set themselves up as gods. And every generation needs godly men and women to both be outraged by racism and committed to the gospel work that eradicates it.
Secondly, Sterling's words and actions reflect a low view of marriage. Buried in the furor over the racist comments were a stunningly low view of marriage and sexuality. Marriage is not simply a Christian idea, but a Creational ordinance ordained by God to both illustrate Christ's love for His Church and to ensure human flourishing. It's no surprise that in Sterling's life adultery and racism flow together. Each sin is a selfish act against a holy God.
Third, we should be warned that no conversation is secret. How many seemingly private conversations have been "leaked" to the media? The wrong lesson to learn from Donald Sterling (and other such conversations) would be this: be careful what you say, it might go public. Instead, we should strive not to have those nasty private conversations. Not simply for fear of them being leaked, but because even in private, God hears. We should strive to be in private what we hope people think we are when they see us in public. Besides, God will make known all the secret things one day. In a sense, there is no hiding, nothing "off the record" that won't be replayed at the Judgement Seat.
So where do Christians go from here? What should we do?
We should continue to work for racial reconciliation. Racial reconciliation is not just a political program or a neat idea cooked up in the academy. It's at the heart of God. In Revelation 5 and 7, we are given a view of the future Kingdom where "every language, tribe, and tongue" will gather to worship Christ. Christians should both be outraged by the injustice of racism wherever we see it and we should actively promote racial reconciliation in our churches, our communities, and in our homes.
We must preach the gospel as the only cure for racism. Racism is the fruit of sin embedded in the heart of every man. Only Christ, who crushed the serpent and defeated death can move into the racist's heart and recreate it to be a heart of love. The cross is where racism goes to die, for every man, red and yellow, black and white, is in need of God's saving grace. There is hope for the repentant racist, but it will only happen as Christ renews his mind and redeems his view of his fellow man. Let's pray for Donald Sterling to repent and turn to Christ in faith. God delights in welcoming sinners home, including repentant racists.
We must model in our churches what racial reconciliation looks like. In the gospel, Christ has created for Himself one new humanity, called out from every race, tribe, and tongue. Therefore as we work toward intentional, real diversity in our Christian communities, we model in miniature what the Kingdom will look like in full. Let's turn our outrage at Donald Sterling into the gospel-fueled work of reconciliation.
We should humbly consider our own sinful tendencies toward prejudice. Racism begins in a corrupted, sinful heart. If we were honest, we’d admit there is a little Donald Sterling in all of us. Only God’s sanctifying grace can remove the cancer of racism and replace it with a heart that reflects God’s heart.
A few years ago, when I was a pastor, I had a hard time explaining to a rather cranky member why we, as a church, had to pay for a license to use Christian music in our worship services. "They should give it away freely. Why do I have to pay for it? I thought this was ministry. Why they are out to make money?" What made this man's beef all the more interesting is that I had just concluded, a day earlier, a long conversation with him about what he considered unfair pay at his work. The irony was lost on him, but not me.
But alas, this complaint about Christian content costing money is one I've heard in a variety of forms most of my adult life. It goes something like this:
Christian publishers should not be so eager to make money. Why not give their books away free?
Christian musicians should not charge to sing at a Church. Why not sing for the Lord?
Christian conferences should offer all their content online, right away, for free, right now.
Well-known speakers shouldn't charge so much to speak at someone's church. They should just come to be a blessing.
So, the question is this: Should all Christian content be free? And to this I say a hearty, "No!"
I understand the desire to get resources into the hands of those who can't afford them. The impulse to break down financial barriers so people can hear the gospel and so God's people can grow is good. I'm thankful for all of the free content, readily available online and elsewhere. But there point we must understand is that good content always has a cost.
For free stuff, somebody, somewhere was kind enough to fund the spread of the good news. Praise God for this kind of generosity. May He raise up more Christian philanthropists in this generation.
But I want to tackle this idea that there should never be charge for Christian content--books, sermons, study guides, music, teaching textbooks. This is not a right argument on many levels.
First, the Bible says that hard work should be rewarded with adequate payment. Paul said to Timothy that "the worker" is worthy of his wages. Christians shouldn't succumb to greed and materialism. This is a sin and can be a soul-sucking snare (1 Timothy 6:9). But money is offered in Scripture as a reward for hard work. Work was instituted by God at Creation, before the Fall. And the rewards of hard work are woven into the mandate to subdue the earth. To diminish reward is to cheapen, in my view, the value of hard work and to soften the God-glorifying act of creating.
Secondly, Christians should be rewarded for their ministry work. We have this idea that because someone is in "full-time" ministry that they should give their time and effort away for free. But Paul told the Galatians that those "One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches" (Galatians 6:6). In other words, those who benefit from the teaching ministry of others should support those who teach. How this works out in real life often differs. Some work full time and get their sole paycheck from a Christian organization. Others are "tent-makers" who, like Paul for a season, offer their ministry work in a part-time or free basis. Still, there are many who have some combination of an agreement. But, the principle still stands: there is nothing wrong with someone getting paid for their Christian content (music, books, preaching, etc). In fact, there is everything right.
Third, by depriving Christians of payment for their work, at times, we could be causing them to disobey Scripture. Scripture says that a man who doesn't provide for his family is "worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8). Paul scolded lazy men who refused to provide for their families (2 Corinthians 3:10). Sometimes in our desire to demand free Christian content or when we grow upset at Christian organizations for charging for content or services, we forget that the men and women working in those organizations would like to feed their families, have health insurance, and own homes just as we do. Many serve and work at drastically reduced rates. They consider their vocation a calling, a mission, a chance to serve the body of Christ. But, that doesn't mean the should work for free. Imagine if you were asked to do your job for free--if you had no paycheck to take home to support your wife and children? Imagine if someone demanded you do your job for free? You wouldn't do that. You couldn't do that. And neither should we expect editors, writers, web guys, recording artists, pastors etc give us the best and most edifying Christian content without cost.
Of course there are many caveats to this. There are legitimate and illegitimate ways to make money in the Christian world. There are, sadly, pastors who fleece their flocks and live lavish lifestyles off the backs of poor widows. There are some who claim that financial prosperity is a sign of God's blessing. This wicked and destructive teaching is anti-gospel. And there are times when Christian organizations make decisions based on revenue streams rather than what is enriching for the body of Christ. That is wrong.
But let's trust that these are a few examples out of the many faithful believers who serve the body well and deserve to be paid fairly for their labors. Let's not simply rush to the conspiratorial idea that "That publisher/organization/church/pastor is just out to make money." You actually don't know that. It could be they are serving with an earnest desire to bring the good news of the gospel to those who need to hear it.