When Christianity Becomes Uncomfortable
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.