He’s the one with the syrupy smile and the bright, blinking eyes. The one who raises his hands and points with a half-curled fist for emphasis. When he speaks, he stands upon a stage that probably costs more than the entire budget I raised each year as a missionary. His suit looks like its worth more than my entire wardrobe. He gazes out into the spotlights and addresses a congregation numbering in five digits, and he tells them that the Creator of the Universe is intrinsically concerned with their financial and emotional security. He points to a saying of Jesus recorded in the scriptures and assures his audience that they have the power to move mountains, specifically those “mountains” that stand in the way of their success and most desired rewards. With that lilting, Southern voice, he exhorts the power of faith to bring about promotions and salary increases and profitable new contracts. He tells stories of people who have trusted in their ability to “move their mountains” and how, even in this adverse economy, they have reaped amazing blessings – more money, new cars, bigger homes. Why? Because they had faith. Real faith.
Apparently, he has gleaned all this from the teachings of a guy who lived the opposite of an American success story, who said things like, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests to live in, but I’m homeless,” and “Life is not about the things you own,” and “Don’t waste time thinking about what you’ll eat or what you’ll wear; life is more than food and clothing.”
There are a myriad of things that should enrage Christians in America today: rampant starvation when we have food to spare, little children abducted and brainwashed into instruments of wars, villages of people dying from easily treatable diseases, a paucity of justice for women and minorities, the squelching of religious and political expression… However, in the midst of such prejudice and cruelty, we have dozens of channels devoted to the presentation of a message that poses as Christian theology and practice. Well-dressed, camera-friendly personalities loot the scriptures and twist selected passages into an exposition of extravagance.
If it looks like a preacher, and sounds like scripture, it must be Christianity. It must be what the teachings of Jesus were all about. Of course, for those willing to look behind the curtain of these pseudo-wizards who are all flash and no substance, it isn’t too difficult to perceive that the God they preach bears more resemblance to a genie in a lamp than an omniscient, omnipresent and almighty God of all that was, is, and ever will be.
The sermons themselves are often vague exhortations on how to rub the lamp properly, or stories about people who figured out just how seemingly easy it was to get everything they wished for.
Tragically, this is what a lot of people assume the Christian message is concerned with when they momentarily click to one of these channels. And even if they don’t buy all the wish-fulfillment, or accept all the self-empowerment, the assumption remains that whatever real Christianity is, it’s not a far cry from what’s touted by these pastoral car salesmen.
After all, didn’t Jesus also say things like, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened…,” and “Everyone who leaves his house and family and possessions, for my sake, will get back a hundredfold,” and “If two or three of you agree about something and ask for it, it will be done for you” and, of course, “You can count on this, that even if you have just a tiny seed of faith, you can tell a mountain, ‘Move over there,’ and it will obey. Nothing will be impossible for you’”?
How do we reconcile Jesus’ teachings about self-denial with those places where he seems to be dancing around the concept of self-fulfillment? Is it no wonder that most people believe Christianity, or perhaps what is more often referred to as “Christian living,” basically boils down to doing more good than harm in one’s life – that God is all about putting our lives upon some cosmic scale and checking to make sure our poundage in propriety and moral uprightness outweighs our occasional pitfalls into naughtiness? Is Christianity merely synonymous with some wobbly standard of good behavior?
If so, what’s wrong with decadence? What’s wrong with viewing one’s relationship with God in the same way we view our interaction with the American dream? Living well, working hard, and toeing the line bring reward and advancement. With a little nudging from Providence every now and then, (a nudging that is earned by neat n’ tidy living), I, too, can become Jay Gatsby.
On the other end of the spectrum of self-fulfillment Christianity are those who may overlook the desire for earthly prosperity, yet treat the promise of heaven more like a retirement plan than a gift of grace. Good behavior, faithful church attendance, and praying the right prayers at the right time ensures membership in God’s kingdom. It’s the American dream again, just on an eternal level.
Whether a corner office is the reward you’re hoping for, or some mystical imagining of a heavenly realm in the clouds, it is no easy thing to shut out the droning of a me-first gospel. And that is what it is – a me-first gospel. A self-centered religion. The only way to avoid its saccharine promises is to consider the heart of the message itself. Are the proposed benefits really about self-fulfillment and advancement? Is the chief concern your happiness and prosperity? If so, it’s not Christianity.
There’s the rub. At no point in the gospels does Jesus talk about his concern for our happiness. Even in the occasional moments when he is alluding to a future reward, a careful listener/reader recognizes that our personal happiness and stability has nothing to do with it. The guy who tells people to sell all their possessions and to follow him even at the cost of missing a parent’s funeral is obviously not bothering to preserve our happiness. On the contrary, what Jesus is interested in preserving is our joy.
There’s a difference between happy and joy whether or not a dictionary indicates it. You can have happy. It is something that belongs to you, that centers on you. “I am happy.” “This makes me happy.” “Once this happens, I will be happy.”
Joy is different. You cannot say, “I am joy,” or “This makes me joy.” While someone might say they “have joy,” it isn’t something that can be controlled. And it doesn’t center on you. This is because joy involves giving something away or receiving from someone else rather than taking something as your own. Unlike happiness, joy is dependent upon something – or someone – else.
The odd thing about Christianity is that Jesus’ gospel seems focuses on us experiencing joy after first giving away our happiness. And this doesn’t mean only physical relinquishment. Jesus wants his followers to stop putting their very hopes in the things that they believe will make them happy, and to start hoping in the provision that comes from him – mind, body and soul. The former brings happiness, but the latter is a graduation from momentary happiness to continual joy
This gospel stands in direct contradiction to the syrupy sweet sermons of the slick-suit preachers who promise that God is about the business of turning your hope for happiness into easy reality. They assure their congregations that the way of the Christian is one of ascent. Meanwhile, Jesus himself reveals that to follow in his steps is to embark on a descent. It is a journey of humility, temperance, and selflessness. There are no detours around confusion, failure, pain and loss – only an assurance that the journey does not end with them.
May we come to recognize these men and women who twist a gospel of sacrificial love and hopeful perseverance into a formulaic rewards program? May we not turn an ear to their lies. May we reject a Christianity that has been hemmed in and tailored to fit as carefully and crisply as the high-dollar suits worn by these preachers who are nothing but empty shirts. May the following prayer be ours as well:
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in the world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.