On Sunday, our small group began a study on discipleship, aided by the very good material from Multiply written by Francis Chan and David Platt. The first part of this study challenges us to count the cost of discipleship. I was struck afresh by Jesus' words in Luke:
Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.(Luke 14:25-33, ESV)
As an American Christian, I guess I've never had to fully weigh the impact of Jesus' words here. We've lived in a bubble of acceptance, especially those, like me, who've mostly worked for Christian organizations. Sure, there is the occasional derogatory remark by a unbelieving family member or neighbor. Yet even among those who don't profess faith, Christianity has been something considered worth commending. For much of the church's history, this was not the norm. Christianity has been uncomfortable. It has involved cross-bearing.
Jesus wanted his followers to know this. I notice he said these very hard things when the crowds followed him. It's as if he's saying to them, "If you are following me for the benefits, for the goodies, for the anticipated health and wellness, well, you've got the wrong Messiah." It's not that Jesus was sadistic. But the spiritual battle between light and darkness involves hardship, suffering, and a willingness to be considered on the "wrong side of history."
I think this is where we often get Jesus wrong. I think this is where we often get Christianity wrong. The New Testament knows nothing, really, of the Jesus-as-mascot paradigm. To claim to follow Jesus, but reject the radical new way of life He calls to us to is to reject Jesus altogether. The way of Jesus is better. But many don't see that. Many of us don't see that.
For American Christians, I think the coming years will force us to make difficult choices. We will have to choose between cultural acceptance and the way of Jesus. In other words, Christianity, truly bearing the name of Christ, will involve a cross. It will be rough and uncomfortable. Sometimes this discomfort is in the form of cultural rejection. Sometimes it's the discomfort of forgiving someone we want desperately to despise. Sometimes it's the self-sacrifice to give ourselves for those we are called to love and nurture: our spouses, our children, our neighbors. Sometimes it's the discipline to speak the truth in type of love others don't exhibit. Sometimes it involves making reasoned, winsome arguments in favor of truth that are unfairly dismissed as bigotry.
Are we ready for this? I think of the words of Peter to the first-century church in 1 Peter. He reminded the Church that while they were to assimilate into their contexts, they were to remember their status as strangers and foreigners. Christians follow another King and live out the values of another Kingdom. There would be cultural pressure to abandon Jesus or to synch Jesus with whatever is popular. As if Jesus is the clay and we are the potters. Peter urged the first century church to stand strong, to have courage, but also to do this with a kind of joyful anticipation of the world to come. I'm particularly arrested by Peter's words in 1 Peter 3:15:
But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed.Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:14-17, ESV)
Having warmed himself by the fires of cultural acceptance and having also been the doomsday zealot, Peter argued for a third way. Followers of Jesus must be should not be gripped by fear ("nor be troubled"), but give a calm, rational, joyful defense of Christian faith, shaped by gentleness and respect. Being misunderstood, slandered, and disparaged by the culture and even fellow evangelicals is no fun. But our response should not only be courageously truthful, it should be otherworldly in terms of kindness. We not only communicate the values of another world. We speak with rhetorical tools from another world. We shouldn't add to our suffering with fleshly responses.
As we anticipate life in a post-Christian world, we need to not only reacquaint ourselves with Christian identity (cross-bearing, suffering), but by faith live out this gospel fully before a watching world.
You probably don't want to read one more article on the religious liberty, cake-baking, gay marriage controversy. But let me diverge from the important legal and spiritual implications of this discussion and talk about the actual discussion itself. How should the discussion among Christians be driven around the public water cooler of social media? Here are a few thoughts I have in the wake of this pitched battle:
- We should always assume the very best about those with whom we disagree and we should argue against their best arguments, not caricatured straw men.
- We should remember that there are actual people behind the avatars. And we should remember that we are people, not avatars. As followers of Jesus we are accountable for what we do and say.
- We should not assume the headline, but understand and know the facts behind the headline. Tweeting in reaction to a headline may be fashionable, but it's not worthy of a Christian whose goal is to pursue truth (Philippines 4:8)
- As much as we can, we should not talk at people, but with people.
- We should remember that if someone disagrees with us, they are not necessarily being mean to us, they are simply disagreeing with us. The surest way to shut down a productive discussion is to score cheap political points by hi-lighting how unreasonable our debate partner is. A reasoned argument against your position is not an attack. Know the difference.
- Christians should, as much as they can, support fellow Christians. Paul reminded us to do good to those who are of "the household of faith." Twisting the arguments, fanning the flames of public shame, and advancing the popular narrative of Christians as bigoted, uncaring, ideologues doesn't exactly build unity in the body of Christ. If anything discouraged me in this entire discussion it's the willingness of Christians to throw other Christians under the bus for fifteen seconds of cultural affirmation. Sad.
- It's helpful not to throw a rhetorical bomb out there and then say, "What?, What?" denying an obvious intention to stir things up (Proverbs 26:18-19)
- It's also not helpful to come in late to an important discussion with the pious, "I wish Christians would all stop arguing and get in a circle and sing Kumbaya." Not every argument is worth having, yes. And sometimes Christians fight unworthy fights, yes. But not every discussion is unhealthy. Until we are fully sanctified in Heaven, we'll not stop having discussions and disagreements.
- We should discern between worthy arguments with reasonable opponents and folks who only want a prolonged Twitter battle. Or as a friend tells me all the time: Don't feed the trolls. It's also helpful to actually not be a troll. Twitter discipline is a hard thing to maintain and all of us have had moments where we have failed.
- We should be joyful warriors. There are slippery slopes, troubling signs in our culture, and an increasing marginalizing of orthodox Christian beliefs. Still, Christ is coming. He is building His Church. He is triumphant. And He will renew all things. So onward with joy.
If you are a pastor, you cannot escape the unmistakeable call of spiritual leaders, in the New Testament to "feed the flock of God":
- Jesus commissioned Peter to do "feed my sheep", no less than three times, in that famous scene on the shores of Galilee (John 21:15-19)
- Jesus commissioned the disciples, in the Great Commission passage to "teach them all things I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:16)
- Paul commissioned the Ephesian elders to "tend to the whole flock" pointing this example of his unwillingness to shrink from "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:17-28)
- Peter urges church leaders to "feed the flock of God among you."
- Paul instructed Timothy, in his last letter, "these things you have learned from me, commit to faithful men" (2 Timothy 2:2). He also urged him to "guard the deposit entrusted to you" (2 Timothy 1:14; 6:20). He also reminded Timothy of the usefulness of "all Scripture" as profitable for the spiritual well-being of God's people (1 Timothy 3:16)
- Paul, in a rebuke to the Corinthians, discusses the need for people to have both "milk" and "meat" in their spiritual diets (1 Corinthians 3:2)
- The writer of Hebrews reminds us that a good teacher is able to both handle the deep things of God, but also teach them (Hebrews 5:11-12
Preaching styles do differ, but it's hard to argue the unmistakeable responsibility of pastors to take the whole counsel of God and preach it faithfully. To not give our people spiritual food, to not share with them the "all the things I have commanded you" is to commit spiritual malpractice. It's to intentionally leave our people spiritually malnourished. And yet there is a temptation for pastors--I remember facing this weekly as a pastor--to sort of skip over or nuance the very hard passages. Or, more popularly, to not preach through issues that are at the tip of the cultural spear. Issues like a biblical sexual ethic, the dignity of human life, greed, materialism, and the prosperity gospel. It's just easier to say things like, "We just want to love on people and be all about grace every Sunday." But my question is this: if a new convert wants to know what it looks like to live out the gospel, where will he find it if he can't find it in his church? We live in confused times, where the way of Christ cannot be assumed in popular culture anymore. So churches who tailor their preaching and services exclusively to not offend those they are trying to reach with the gospel will starve God's people. I find it troubling when pastors sort of nuance or skip over passages that are counter-cultural.
We should talk about grace. A lot. Over and over and over again. But unless people see their need for grace. Unless they are confronted with the good law of God, they won't see the bigness of the mercy God offers. They'll assume that God loves them because that's what God should do. That's the Jesus they've been sold by much of the evangelical church, a sort of hipster, friendly, easy to digest Jesus who really isn't all that concerned with morality and righteousness.
And those who have been restored and forgiven, made new by the blood of the cross, will never find the freedom of a life with Christ--if we never have the courage to tell them what that life looks like. Real love, Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6, is the courage tell them they are disobeying the call of the gospel. It's to set a brother or sister aright.
Much of this can be done in community, in one-on-one gatherings, small group studies, phone conversations, reading of good books, car rides, late night talks, etc. But if God's people never hear their pastor discuss these difficult things, things alien to a permissive moral culture, they won't rise in importance. Pastors must feed their sheep the good spiritual food God intends for them.
Valentine's Day is one of those holidays that sneaks up on you. Well, at least it sneaks up on me. The winter is rich with holidays for the Darling Family: Angela and I were married the week before Thanksgiving, two of our four children have December birthdays, and my birthday is in late January. It gets busy and . . . expensive.
And I'm guessing I'm like most men. We do the Valentine's thing sort of reluctantly. It's a bit of an eye-rolling holiday. We feel we're getting hosed by Hallmark. Think about it: Mother's Day, Sweetest Day, Valentine's Day, Anniversary. I've even heard some (very unwise) husbands (who apparently have a regular cot in their garages) say they ignore it and just "love their wife the entire year."
My advice is to . . . not do that. Don't do that at all. For one thing, your wife doesn't want to be nor does she deserve to be the only wife on the block, in her small group, and in the office who sheepishly tells her friends that her husband "doesn't do this holiday." Man up, buy a card and some flowers or chocolate or whatever she likes and do it. Secondly, we should use this cultural moment as a divinely appointed opportunity to show our wives some love. After all, we are supposed to, as Paul instructs, love our wives as Christ loves His Church (Ephesians 5:22-23). You don't very well do that by leaving the Mrs in the cold on Valentine's Day. We need these prompts, even if created by Hallmark, to be reminded to show our wives just how we feel about them, to renew our commitment to loving them as we love no other human being on the earth. Yes, it is true that love is more than show displays of flowers and chocolate and candy and balloons and teddy bears. But loves is not less than that either. Verbal expressions of love, tangible gifts are important to communicate what we say we feel in our hearts. So we need to do this. We need to make our wives feel every bit the treasure they are. I admittedly struggle with this, to show Angela just how much I love, cherish, and respect her. Valentine's Day is like a cultural slap upside the head to do what I should be doing more often.
So guys, let's get it together. I'll see you in the Hallmark aisle at Walgreen's tonight.