Reflecting on some recent reading
I’ve been reading D.A. Carson’s, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on suffering and evil lately,and while Carson himself admits it’s maybe too academic or cut and dried to be a book for someone in the midst of intense suffering, there are a lot of bits that I’ve been finding interesting and helpful. One such passage that really challenged me I’ll quote below:
In one church I know, a medical doctor, formerly a missionary, was appointed to the board of elders. Some time later he had an affair, divorced his wife, abandoned his children, and separated himself from any form of biblical Christianity. Countless attempts were made to rehabilitate him; doubtless some of these attempts were wise, and some were unwise.
But the most thoughtful assessment of the mess came three years later, from one of the leaders in the church. He suggested that this doctor, who came from a Christian home and had done all the “right” things, had never had to make a decision that cost him anything. Everything was too easy; at every point he had been supported and praised. Even his missionary career was bound up with his own specialty interests in medicine. Then, when some troubles opened up in his marriage (as they open up in most marriages at one time or another), and an attractive alternative presented herself, this doctor had no moral center on which to depend. He had never, for the sake of Christ, made a decision that cost him something; and he wasn’t about to start now. In hindsight, it is not even clear that his profession of faith was real, for real professions of faith manifest themselves in a principial death to self-interest, in a principial commitment to the cause of Christ and his gospel. I am far from suggesting that every divorce proves a person is a non-Christian…But in this case (and it is not unique), it is hard to find even one area of this man’s life, one major incident in his life (so far as his life is known), where professed allegiance cost him anything. This is not normal. It may be common…but it is not normal. What is normal is taking up one’s cross and following Jesus; it is recognizing that in this fallen world, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” That is inevitable; decisions are made; the cost is cheerfully borne; the iron is bred into the soul…
What struck me most about this passage, is wondering how many of these doctors are sitting amongst us as brothers and sisters, and, more importantly, could one of us be one of them? Am I floating along living an outwardly Christian life, while inwardly I have not really surrendered anything to Christ?
In particular, I wondered this: while fellowship is vital to the Christian life, do I insulate myself with other believers partly to protect myself from the uncomfortable friction caused by rubbing up against the world? To save myself from having to face the cost of following Christ? Or at least minimize it? If I know I’m surrounded by like-minded people, I know my values are less likely to be challenged; there is a part of this that is good, but I wonder, do I also intentionally set myself up like this to avoid that challenge? Am I afraid to be put in a position where I have to stand up for what I believe in? Or afraid of what people will think of me; afraid of awkward situations; afraid of the consequences, social and otherwise?
I think particularly in small Christian communities this is a very real danger. We can grow so comfortably going with the flow of the people around us that we end up doing what we do mostly because it’s just the way we all understand things are done – or even worse, because our good actions gain us social standing. It can be very easy to subtly transition from a life placed at the altar of Christ to a life placed at the altar of Self and Ego, one that simply uses the church to feed an unquenchable appetite for the esteem of others and our own religious pride.
But this is not death to self, this is not a life lived for Jesus. Matthew 16:24 writes, “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me.’” To deny ourselves means setting aside our own natural inclinations, setting aside any preferences we may have for the Bible to say something different, setting aside anything we’re prone to focus on more than Christ, or that may make others confused and drawn away from Him. Basically, it means setting aside anything that gets in the way of Jesus being King. As Corrie Ten Boom often said, “If Jesus is on the throne, then self is on the cross.” In each and every situation of everyday, this calls us to place Him as Lord, however our own itches and aches should want to lead us instead.
What might this look like in your life? When was the last time you faced a crisis like this; when you faced a crossroads, however big or small, with one way requiring a death to self and the other placing you on the throne of your life while kicking Jesus off? Which way did you choose?
Now it should be made clear that we’re not to be masochistic or weirdly legalistic about this. I don’t think it’s necessary for us to go searching out crises to test ourselves. But part of the reason I don’t think it’s necessary to search them out is because we should be facing them daily anyway. Hopefully it’s in conversations with colleagues or neighbours, but it will also be in the ways we spend our time and money. Is Jesus on the throne of those areas of your life? When you feel a challenge in these areas, do you push it to the back of your mind, or do you die that little death and lay down the offering at Jesus’ feet? Perhaps it is in a pattern of sin, or a bitter relationship, or in not being able to let go of a certain standard of living. When the moment of crisis arrives, who is on the throne of your life?
I heard a great quote once from Phillips Brooks that went, “Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.” I think that’s absolutely 100% true, and something that really applies here. We would all like to hope that, should the day ever come when we would have to stand up for our faith in a dramatic, life-altering sort of way, that we would be able to do it, confidently and stoically holding Christ’s banner high above our heads whatever the cost to ourselves. Well, however much we would like to think that, we will not be able to lay down whatever it is that may be demanded of us in the future if we’re not in the practice of dying to ourselves in the little things we’re challenged with today and every day. In fact, if we don’t build a heart-habit of almost automatically placing Christ on the throne and ourselves on the cross whenever a crisis appears, we may be more prone to falling for much less dramatic, yet still serious temptations, much like the doctor in D.A. Carson’s story.
I have a slight fear that the post this week could feel a bit condemning for some, but I hope and pray that what it actually does is present a helpful opportunity for challenge and reflection, instead of inducing unhealthy guilt. Let it always be remembered that any feelings of condemnation that cause us to turn away from Christ and inward or to other things in shame are feelings that have been twisted in a way that isn’t of Him. We are all sinners, all of us, each and every one. But the good news is that God is in the business of saving even the worst of us! He is the Father of the most prodigal daughter and son, and He will always come rushing out to meet any child that takes the first step towards Him, no matter their past, their sin, and their guilt. Next week will be a follow-up that talks more on this, but I pray that this week God will highlight to all of us the areas where we need to throw ourselves off the throne, repent of our mutiny, and rightfully crown Jesus back where He belongs.