Contemporary culture is, in the words of the late author and social critic Christopher Lasch, a "culture of narcissism." Tragically, the American church is not immune to this virus. For today the lifestyles and longings of many modern day followers of Christ often bear no appreciable difference from that of our non-Christian neighbors and co-workers.
At some point during the last quarter century it became all-too-common to stop proclaiming a gospel directed at people's real spiritual needs and instead focus on the wants and desires of potential church goers. More than mirroring the first century church, this conduct reflects the way Starbucks markets overpriced coffee to potential consumers.
For example, conventional wisdom in evangelicalism today is that suffering is the exception, not the norm for the believer. Moreover, if a Christian does suffer it is quite possibly because of sin in his or her life. Many segments of the American church—immersed in a culture of happy, prosperous consumers—have failed their constituency by not faithfully proclaiming what the Bible says about the reality of suffering.
But suffering in the Christian life is the rule, not the exception. From the day Christ called us to follow Him he fully disclosed two prerequisites: denying ourselves and taking up our cross. When Saul of Tarsus was converted on the road to Damascus, he didn't experience a Benny Hinn-esque healing. On the contrary, God blinded him, left him in that condition for days and sent a reluctant evangelist by the name of Ananias to inform him of how much he would suffer for the name of Christ (Acts 9:15).
And suffer he did. Consider what Paul endured: five times beaten with 39 stripes, three times beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked three times, a night and a day floating in the sea, danger of all kinds, weary and in pain, hungry and thirsty, naked and cold. And to add insult to injury God refused to answer his prayer for healing from whatever was ailing him—a thorn in his flesh. Paul was told to be content with grace in the midst of his sufferings (2 Corinthians 11:1).
How did Paul respond to his sufferings?
I will glory in the things which concern my infirmities (2 Corinthians 2:30).
I am now ready to be offered and the time of my departure is at hand …henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto them also who love His appearing (2 Timothy 2:8).
The Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom: to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (2 Timothy 2:18).
How could Paul rejoice in his sufferings and give glory to God? The answer lies in a full reading of 2 Timothy 3:1, written in prison just prior to his execution. Note the use of the word "love" five times in these two chapters: lovers of self (3:2); lovers of money (3:2 - "covetous" in some translations); lovers of pleasure (3:4); love his appearing (4:8); loved this present world (4:10).
One of the five loves mentioned stands in stark contrast to the other four: loving the appearing of Jesus Christ.
When we live in anticipation of seeing Jesus and hearing Him say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: enter into the joy of your Lord," we can endure suffering. Why? Because such a focus helps us realize that the worst thing that happens to us here and now can never separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. With our focus not on self but Jesus, we more fully realize the truth of 2 Corinthians 2:17: "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
The tragedy is that much of contemporary evangelicalism has sold the future and eternal "weight of glory" for the immediate and transient satisfaction of "your best life now." As a result, when Christians encounter difficultly they are ill-prepared to deal with it biblically: the storms come, the winds blow and "Cultural Christian" is blown away because there was no firm, biblical foundation for life (Matthew 7:24).
In contrast, the English Baptist John Rippon wrote in 1787 of the believer's firm foundation:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake.
In Jesus we have a foundation not only for this life, but for all eternity. Therefore, come what may, the Christian can proclaim, "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Psalms 73:26).
Paul Edwards is the host of "The Paul Edwards Program" and a pastor. His program is heard daily on WLQV in Detroit and on godandculture.com. Contact Paul at [email protected]