Truth be told, I’m going through something of an early, existential, midlife crisis at the moment. It’s awful. And at its core, I think, is this realization I’ve come to – that I JUST CAN’T WIN.
Now, I’ve always intellectually recognized, at least to some extent, that Christianity wasn’t going to overcome this world by winning a popularity contest. But I think I’ve finally come to know that experientially.
My feelings right now are telling me this: I’m getting a little tired of living in a world where, when Christians act together in united beliefs, it’s dehumanized as “The Evangelical Machine”, but when the LGBT moves to make a change, it’s more sympathetic “advocates” or “activists” or “a community” being true to themselves. I’m getting tired of a world that finds a groundswell of support for hopping on moral high horses while simultaneously denying any basis for universal morality, i.e. God. I’m getting tired of a world where the only conceivable way for a biblically-based movie to get a positive consensus review is if the director distorts the actual biblical account into a dysmorphic monstrosity of itself. I’m getting tired of living in a world that is okay with inconsistently preaching to us that our biological arising was accidental and meaningless but that our main psychological problem is that we lack self-esteem.
Yes, I find all that exhausting. Nonetheless, any pastor will tell you that opposition from outside the church is infinitely less frustrating than opposition from within the church. After all, Jesus did warn his disciples, “You will be hated by everyone because of me,but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 10:22)
Consequently, I find even more maddening the idea of Christian leaders who refuse to acknowledge biblical Creationism and are too near-sighted to see the longterm difficulties such incongruity causes the church. I’m also getting tired of the hypocritical self-righteousness of so many that label themselves Christians, the single thing that seems to annoy non-believers the most. I’m also getting a little impatient with reading countless books on ministry methodology that, while well-intentioned, and often helpful, seem to lack a tone that suggests “We’re at war!”, failing to acknowledge that our goal, our bottom line in this world, is less to triumph and more to merely stay standing (Eph. 6:10-13). And having recently dealt (albeit indirectly) with some of the scandal that sometimes devours churches, I’m also getting somewhat disheartened with continually addressing the biblically naive question, “How does something like this (i.e. something sinful) happen in the church?” I remember a seminary professor, who had once served as Dean of Students at one of our parochial schools, saying that he routinely had to answer this question from parents and appalled onlookers when some student was caught in sin. It’s a failure to recognize the nature of the ugly beast called “sin” which leeches on inside every living human being. This also makes me think of a passage from the memoirs of Frances Perkins, the first woman ever appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. Working under Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Perkins records F.D.R as saying,
“Frances, have you ever read Kierkegaard?….you ought to read him,…It will teach you about the Nazis….Kierkegaard explains the Nazis to me as nothing else ever has. I have never been able to make out why people who were obviously human beings [obviously educated, obviously refined] could behave like that. They are human, but they behave like demons. Kierkegaard gives you an understanding of what it is in man that makes it possible for these Germans to be so evil.” (Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew)
We now know that F.D.R. and other Americans in charge were being told for years by Jewish leaders what the Nazi Germans were doing. But F.D.R. refused to come to grips with the full brokenness of humanity – to fully believe it – until he read Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, who, writing on the nature of mankind’s sinfulness, explained to him how “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Rom. 8:7) Christians that are most in tune with their Bibles are always less surprised by sin than those who are not. They recognize that the Bible contains one good man and a thousand case studies of those who are not, by nature, good.
And lest anyone get the impression that I’m suggesting there’s something wrong with everyone else in the world except me, make no mistake, I frustrate myself more than anyone else frustrates me. I’ve known for a long time that I’m my own worst enemy. The Apostle Paul’s words so clearly resonate with me: “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me….waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Rom. 7:21-23) I certainly don’t measure up to God’s perfect standard (Matt. 5:48; Lev. 19:2). For that matter, I don’t even measure up to the standard by which I’m inclined to judge others.
My point in all this is that both those outside the church AND those inside the church seem to be strangely united in one basic and important way – they’re disappointed in the church, disappointed in humanity, and even frustrated with God.
I get angry too. One of the Bible stories that has been something of a theme for me the past several months is the account of Elijah after the Mount Carmel victory. We’re told in 1 Kings 19 that shortly after he emphatically, courageously defeated all the false prophets of Baal commissioned by the wicked king and queen of Israel at the time, Elijah went into the wilderness around Beersheba, laid down under a bush, and prayed to God that he would die: “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. (1 Kings 19:4) I’m no Elijah, but I think I know exactly what he’s feeling. I think every Christian does at some point. Even after victory, sometimes more so after victory, we crumble at the prospect of still having to fight, and the truth that we’re simply not going to win this one (i.e. this life).
That’s okay. That probably deserves some mourning. Still, knowing the future can/should be a major source of relief for Christians. I often tell people that you can face anything in this life with confidence if you know how the last chapter of your story ends – the splendor of meeting Jesus face-to-face for all eternity (Rev. 22:1-5). This is the very truth from which comes the notion of “happily ever after.”
However, if we’re to accept what the Bible says about our fairy tale ending, then we must also accept its teaching on the climax of the narrative’s conflict. The life of the Church on earth, to some extent, will pattern the life of Christ. That is, the culmination of Jesus’ life on earth was crucifixion, occasioned by opposition from within and without. Similarly, Jesus tells us, in detail, that we, as the Church, can expect something similar in the Last Days (Matt. 24-25). It’s not pretty.
Nonetheless, what Christians have to keep in mind is that while Christ’s death on the cross seemed like defeat, it was an unequivocal victory that needed to come in the manner it did. In the same way, we, the Church, need to be humbled before we become exalted. We need to die before we can rise. We need to fall defeated in death before we can lay claim to Jesus’ victory.
Does this mean that, in some respects, we Christians must necessarily serve as punching bags for the rest of humanity? How much would it scare you if I said, “Yes, maybe.”? But am I really saying anything different from what Paul himself said? “This (humbly, but confidently absorbing opposition in this world) is a sign…that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (Phil. 1:28-29)
It’s troubling. But you’ll be okay. Believing the gospel makes you tough. And you can only show how tough you are by what you’re able to take. True Christianity is sort of like those flashlights that are powered by how much you shake them. Christian light in a dark world shines that much brighter the more you try to rattle it.
Take heart. You’re not going to win this world – interpret that however you’d like. I’m not suggesting there won’t be periods of happiness that somewhat balance times of sadness. Nor am I compromising the truth that as God’s redeemed child, you have his holy, sovereign, omnipotent hand blessing you. The Bible speaks of various seasons of life which bring corresponding levels of satisfaction. But if the prince of this world is Satan himself (John 12:31; John 14:30; John 16:11), how far up in the hierarchy here would you really like to climb anyways?
Victory is coming. But not in this world, at least not in the way you’re probably hoping. Jesus’ promise means that the coming victory (and its accompanying peace) is actually much better than whatever you or I have dreamed up for ourselves: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)