You Shall Have No Other Countries Before Me: How American Patriotism has Overshadowed the Gospel

I seem to have offended some folks with my last post. Well, I think this may continue that trend. As I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed today, I’m seeing a wide diversity of postings. Some folks are posting live videos of their cookouts and fireworks. Others are posting pictures of George Washington riding a bear and shooting automatic weapons. I even saw one painting of Jesus, standing amongst the founding fathers, holding the declaration of independence aloft. In fact, just a quick search for phrases like “american Jesus” or “patriotic Jesus” will reveal countless images of Christ, draped in the American flag, possibly holding high caliber automatic weapons.

What’s more disturbing than these are the many sermons I’ve come across today, posted by friends on Facebook, or elsewhere. These sermons, while trying to capitalize on the holiday, paint America as the bright shining star of the world, the land blessed by Christ himself. A land full of Christian soldiers ready to be led into battle by our fair-skinned, blue-eyed Jesus, with his hair tied back with a bandana, Rambo style. These well-meaning preachers preach a different gospel than the one found in the Bible. They would want you to believe that Americans are God’s chosen people. In fact, they search through the Old Testament and find the promises that God made to Israel and apply them to Americans specifically. Thus, God’s chosen people are no longer the Jews whom he lead out of Egypt, nor the gentles for accepting the Christ, but Americans in particular because….reasons. Because we’re better than everyone else. Apparently.

This is not something that only happens once a year I’m afraid. I was visiting a friend’s church back in October of last year, this was before the election of course. It was a baptist church and, although being an Anglican, I disagree with a vast majority of Baptist theology and practice, I went anyway. The people were very friendly and I even recognized some of the hymns and it seemed to be a pretty traditional church, as Baptist churches go. But then the minister got up to preach. As he took the pulpit, he placed his hand on his heart and lead his flock in the pledge of allegiance. I watched as the people around me who had come to church to focus on God, instead turned their attention to a large American flag hanging on the wall beside the cross and swore allegiance to America.

The minister then launched into a reading of an Old Testament passage and I knew immediately where he was going. I forget the specific passage but I believe it was a reading from the prophet Isaiah admonishing the Israelites to turn from wickedness and follow the Lord. The minister than leapt across nearly 7,000 miles and centuries of time to connect Isaiah’s correction of the corrupt political problems in ancient Israel to our modern government corruption. This was upsetting enough but then he launched into the most passionate defense of Republican candidate Donald Trump. The point of the minister’s sermon was that Donald Trump could save America. I’m going to repeat that in case anyone missed it. A preacher stood at the pulpit on a Sunday and preached that Donald Trump could save America. Not Jesus. Not the gospel. Donald Trump.

This isn’t a bash Baptists article. Although I’m sure that will come later. This is a wake up call to a very sickening trend in American culture. Because in our nation’s history thus far, we’ve been very lucky to have a God-fearing majority, faith and patriotism have become fused in our minds until they’re nigh inseparable. We have an Americanized Jesus, an Americanized God and an Americanized gospel. Not that applying scripture texts to modern day situations is wrong. The rub comes in when we are so blinded by our love for our nation that we would rather talk to people about how great ‘merica is than how great Christ is. After all, we’re America. We are the are the guardians of the faith. We are the chosen people of God! We’re back to back world war champions! ‘Merica baby! But the problem is we have two gods in this country and we’ve retailored the gospel to fit them. We have our god America, also known as Liberty, and we have Jesus. In our gospel, Jesus and America are friends. In our gospel, George Washington (a devout servant of the god America) and Jesus rode into battle against the British, slaughtering all the tyrants and winning freedom for everyone. In our gospel, the Blessed Virgin Mary, not Betsy Ross, sewed the first American flag. 

I exaggerate to make a point of course. But I’m not too far off. Like pizza and Tex Mex, we’ve taken another tradition, absorbed it into our society, and throughly Americanized it until it has little semblance to its true self. We as Americans have fallen into the same trap that Judas Iscariot did. We want to mold Jesus into a political leader who is for freedom and against tyranny. We want to be the chosen people of God. We want God to reign down blessing on our country and any country we are allied with and rain terror and wrath upon our enemies. To find the true American dream, all you have to do is read through the the Old Testament and replace “Israelites” with “Americans.” We want God to be involved in our politics. We forget that Jesus specifically rejected the role of political leader. He spent a great deal of time trying to tear his followers’ focus from the here and now to the eternal. Remember that Jesus came at a time when the Jewish people were under Roman tyranny. Very unjust and cruel Roman tyranny. Did Jesus fix it? No. As a matter of fact, he encouraged the people to follow their tyrannical leaders (as long as Roman law did not interfere with God’s) and told them to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” And in the very end, he allowed himself to be handed over and murdered by the political authorities of the day. Because Jesus wasn’t here for politics. He was here for the souls of men. And He asked us to focus on the same.

But we’ve been distracted. We’ve invaded numerous countries with the idea of spreading democracy and freedom. But we forget something very important. Jesus was not a Republican. I know, shocking right? Here’s another. Jesus wasn’t born in America. WHAT?! Ok. Get a shot of adrenaline ready because you may have a heart attack after this next one. We, as Christians don’t even exist under a democracy. That’s right. We have a king. And he makes all the rules and we make none. That’s a monarchy my friends. In fact, no one, in the history of the world was ever saved by democracy. No one was ever saved by becoming an American. Only the gospel can save your soul. Only Jesus can save your soul.

 

Now, I’m sure there are quite a number of you who are preparing the tar and feathers by now. So I would just like to conclude with this: I love America. I consider myself a patriot. I don’t think patriotism goes against the law of God. But patriot and American are not first on my list of personal identifiers. I am a disciple of Christ first and foremost. That’s all I’m meaning to say here. Please don’t let your zeal for your country, which will be annihilated in the second coming of Christ by the way, wash over and nullify your presentation of the Gospel. Show people the real Jesus. Not American Jesus. So, light off some fireworks, eat a hotdog, and have a very happy Independance Day.

 

 

 

The Absent Mother: Why Removing the Blessed Virgin Leaves Christian Women Lost and Confused

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately, and it’s one that’s close to my heart. I’ll be scrolling through Facebook and I’ll see a post about sexism in the church (which I plan to visit in a later post) or a post about how women need to just love themselves just the way they are. Women often feel misplaced and pushed aside, wondering what their role in the Church is. I’ve even seen women who go as far as to search out new-age substitutes such as cleansing their auras or aligning their chakras or having more positive energy. Women are even shying away from marrying and having children, not because they don’t want those things, but because they feel it’s all they’re good for. They may feel that their value is based in their family, not in themselves.

Who can blame them? In the protestant church, there are very few female role models. No powerful Christian women to idolize. It’s no wonder that women today look outside the church to secular, and even anti-Christian, women to look up to. But the secular world doesn’t do much better. While women inside the church may believe the lie that their value comes from marriage or serving their husbands or having babies, society tells women that their value comes from their career and their ability to flaunt social norms. These are still external sources. With the rise of liberal ideology and militant, radical feminism that encourages women to parade around topless in public places, it’s time to speak truth into this situation. It’s time to reset the role of women to what God intended. I would like to be clear right up front: This is not some ultra-conservative “put women in their place” manifesto. I’ll make that very clear as I go along but this is simply my humble attempt to help my female friends discover their true fulfillment in the body of Christ. My diagnosis is that women today are missing a very important piece of their spiritual lives: Our Blessed Mother, Mary. For the Protestant women, they do not realize what a joyous gift she can be. For the Catholic women, they may not realize what a gift they have. My endeavor will be to show how God always intended the Blessed Virgin to be a role model for women and how her veneration can strengthen every woman’s relationship with God and the church. To do this, we should start at the very beginning.

I was in a conversation online with a female peer recently and she expressed the notion that there is a belief held by many that Eve is solely, or mainly, responsible for the fall of humanity. Consequently it seems, this also leads many men to have low opinion of women and creates poor, for lack of a better word, self-esteem in modern women. Being told that your gender is responsible for the ruin of the entire human race must not be very pleasant. So let’s examine the passage. I will post it below but anyone who wishes to look it up in their own Bible may find it in Genesis 3:1-6:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

So we see here that yes, Eve, the woman, was the first one to sin, the first one to take the bite of the fruit. As a matter of fact it seems that although Adam is with her (that’s very clear in this passage), the serpent seems to be speaking to Eve directly and ignoring Adam completely. Why this is, I don’t know. Maybe the serpent said some stuff to Adam too and whoever wrote Genesis (probably Moses) decided to leave it out. Maybe Satan did only speak to Eve for some twisted and perverted reason (I am of the belief that everything Satan does, no matter how minor, is twisted and perverted).

But I don’t really want to focus on who ate first and why because that’s not really important. What we should get from this passage here is that Eve touched the fruit (touching the fruit equals death), then she ate the fruit (more death, in case the first death wasn’t enough), then Adam touched it (again, death) and he ate it as well (death, death, death, death, death). Both Adam and Eve, man and woman, touched and ate the fruit. Both are responsible for sin and death entering the world. We have complete gender equality in the ruin of humanity. Isn’t that nice?

Now let’s skip ahead a bit. So in verses 8-14, God searches for Adam and Eve in the garden and when He discovers what they’ve done, He, like any parent, has to dig through the blame game to find who’s really at fault here. Then in verse 15, in the middle of tearing Satan a new one He says:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,    and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

This is one of the coolest passages in scripture and is going to be the launching pad to finally get to the meat of my argument. Ok, so God says He will put enmity between the serpent (Satan) and the woman, between the seed of Satan and the seed of the woman. Satan shall strike his heel, but he shall crush Satan’s head. Major foreshadowing here. I’ll give you a hint: The one that God is talking about here, the one who shall crush Satan’s head…is Jesus. We all as Christians probably knew that right? Somewhere someone told you that.

But here’s what may be a new thought: I don’t think when God says “the woman” He’s talking just about Eve. In a sense He is because Eve is the mother of the human race and we are all her offspring. But none of us try to trace our ancestry back to Eve. No one would say “I’m the great times (however many hundreds of billions) grandchild of Eve.” My point is that none of Eve’s direct offspring struck down Satan. God is speaking doubly here. Because yes, He does mean Eve, but He also has a very special woman in mind. And her direct offspring will be struck by the Devil, but in the end, will crush his head.

I mean of course the Blessed Virgin Mary. See the Bible is filled with archetypes: one person place or object used to foreshadow another person, place or object. For example, the story of Moses in the wilderness raising the snake on the pole and all who looked at it were healed is a metaphor for Christ being raised up on the cross for the good of all mankind. The sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament is an archetype for Christ being the ultimate sacrificial lamb. Adam as the first man from which all sin came is an archetype for the Son of Man from whom all redemption will come. Most of these archetypes have to do with Christ. Seriously, if you can’t find Christ in the Old Testament, you’re reading it with your eyes closed. He’s everywhere.

So just as Adam is an archetype of Jesus, so Eve is an archetype of Our Mother. Eve is the vessel from which sin entered the world, just as Mary is the vessel in which redemption entered the world. This is how amazing God is. He created a perfect world with a perfect man and a perfect woman and He wanted everything to be perfect. So when we wrecked it, He created a redemption plan that included both a man and a woman, because that’s how He always intended. From the very beginning, God always intended women to have a role in His kingdom and He could not have made that more apparent than with Mary. One of the Fathers of the Christian faith, Saint Justin Martyr says it this way:

“For whereas Eve, yet a virgin and undefiled, through conceiving the word that came from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death; the Virgin Mary, taking faith and joy, when the Angel told her the good tidings that the Spirit of the Lord should come upon her, and the power of the Most High overshadow her, and therefore the Holy One to be born of her should be the Son of God, answered, Be it done to me according to thy word. And so by means of her was he born, concerning whom we have shown so many Scriptures were spoken; through whom God overthrows the serpent, and those angels and men who have become like to it, and on the other hand, works deliverance from death for such as repent of their evil doings and believe in him.” (Dialogue with Trypho 100 AD)

My focus here is not to get too much into Mariology because that would distract from my point. Even though I am tempted. Because she is my mother. And I love to talk about my mother. I do want to keep this as protestant friendly as possible. There are some things we should know about the character of the Virgin Mary. Let’s look at the passage of the Annunciation. Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

There are some very important character traits that we can ascribe to Mary just from this one passage. First of all, Mary is trusting. This angel appears and tells her that she’s going to give birth to a son who will also be the son of God who will save all of humanity. And she doesn’t freak out. She doesn’t say no. She doesn’t talk about all the plans and things that she wanted in her life. She just asks “How can this happen? Because I’m a virgin.” Then when the angel gives her the answer, she accepts it. She’s not questioning the will of God. She merely wants to know how it will be achieved. We can know there’s no doubt here because she does not raise further questions. We read this passage and when it talks about the spirit of the Lord overshadowing Mary we don’t even know what that means! If I were Mary I would’ve gotten some specific details on exactly what was gonna happen to my body! But Mary is far more trusting than I am and she simply says “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be done to me as you say.” Which leads me to her second quality: Mary is humble.

The angel greets her with “Hail Mary! Full of grace! The Lord is with you!” And she is perplexed. As a matter of fact, this is the only time in this passage where Mary is perplexed. The idea of giving birth to the son of God doesn’t seem to faze her much, but the idea of being favored with God makes her do a double take. Mary never considered herself anything special. She calls herself a servant of the Lord, and she is comfortable in this role.

Mary is also brave. Do not forget that she, as a Jewish woman, is under the law of Moses which states that if she is found to be with child outside of wedlock, she could be stoned to death without question. She will have no evidence to support her virginity and no one will be there to defend her. She realizes all this when she says yes to God. We also know of her bravery and loyalty during the crucifixion of Christ on the cross. We are told that Mary is there, watching Jesus, her only son,  die. And yet she still has faith that God’s perfect will will be done.

It is at this moment on the cross that Jesus gives us all a very special gift. He gives His mother to the care of Saint John the Beloved and thus, by entrusting her to His disciples to treat her as their mother, entrusts her to us as well. Because Mary is not just Jesus’s mother or John’s mother. She is your mother and my mother. To all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and share in His kingdom as brothers and sisters, she is their mother. No wonder many women today feel so lost! They have a Father whom they love and acknowledge, but they do not acknowledge their mother. They do not acknowledge her to be the role model that she is.

“Why should she be a role model?” I’ve had some women ask. “She’s only special because she gave birth to Jesus.” They interpret this to mean that women can only be special if they have children but they’re missing the point. It wasn’t the birth of Christ that made Mary special. It wasn’t even the fact that she said yes. The angel greets her with “Greetings Mary! Favored of the Lord!” Before she even knows what God wants of her, before she even says yes, and long before she gives birth to Christ, Mary is favored by God. From her very conception she is favored by God. In fact, Mary is so special that not only is she remembered in scripture as the mother of Christ, but she also sits at God’s right hand as Queen of Heaven.

Now I know I said I wasn’t going to get too much into Mariology, but I think this bit is important to tie up my point. Remember earlier I was talking about archetypes? How there’s a bunch for Jesus and how Mary was an archetype of Eve? Well there’s one more archetype that I’d like to examine. The archetype is that of Queen Mother and the passage of proof I’m looking at is 1 Kings (3rd Kingdoms) 2:19:

So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. The king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right.

Now I’ve included just a little snippet here to save space but I encourage you to read the whole section. Basically what’s happening here is that the Lord has granted the kingdom of Israel to Solomon. But his older half-brother, Adonijah wants the kingdom for himself and tries to trick Solomon with a request. But he sends Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother to make the request on his behalf thinking this will stop Solomon from becoming angry and killing him (it doesn’t).

But the important thing to notice is Solomon’s reaction when his mother enters. He is holding court at the time, hearing the pleas of all the people. But he stops what he is doing, descends from his throne, and bows down before Bathsheba. Then he orders a throne at his right hand for her to sit and be his advisor as Queen Mother. Now we know that another archetype of Jesus is King David. The Bible mentions many times that Jesus will create the Davidic kingdom in perfection in Heaven. So if Solomon, in the Davidic line of kings recognized Bathsheba as his mother, guess who Jesus recognizes as Queen of Heaven? That’s right. Mary. Revelation 12:1-6:

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

So Saint John’s view of Heaven includes a woman with a crown, clothed in the sun who gave birth to a child. That devil tried to devour that child but he was snatched away by God and brought to Heaven. And he will come again to rule the world with an iron rod. And the woman also escaped the devil and fled into the wilderness where God cared for her until she could assume her role as Queen and wear her crown. So we know that Mary is the mother of Jesus, king of Heaven and Earth who will reign eternal. And if that isn’t enough we have a physical description of her reign in the book of Revelation.

From favored and humble servant of the Lord, to Queen of Heaven! You certainly cannot ask for a better example of women’s role than this. But sadly, many women today are not taught to revere Mary with the ardor that she deserves. They are missing a huge piece of faith and they feel this loss, whether they recognize it or not. They feel the loss of their mother as an orphan on the street feels the loss of her parents. In this void in their soul, they must fill it with anything they can. This body positivity movement and femanazism are all symptoms of a deeper wound. So how do we begin to repair this wound?

The solution is very simple. The women of our churches need to put aside these fruitless pursuits and pursue Our Mother with equal fervor. It is my personal opinion that the praying of the rosary heals many wounds and lessens many woes. Even a shy smile to Our Lady will be enough and she will surely answer all who call on her. The idea of self-image and self-esteem are so fleeting. These are ideas based on fickle and fleeting feelings, how one feels about oneself on a given day or even a given moment. But to look to Mary Mother of God as your inspiration for a life devoted to Christ and His church, and to look outside the family unit and even themselves. For our worth cannot come from ourselves. It must come from God, and God does love to allow Blessed Mary to come to comfort us as well.

When a woman prays to our blessed Mother, she prays to one who knows her heart more intimately than nearly anyone else in Heaven or on Earth, save only God Himself. She finds comfort in the arms of a woman who knows the struggles of finding one’s place in the great Church of Our Lord. The absence of Our Mother has left a piece missing from the hearts of modern women, and only she can fill that void.

Suffering and the Christian Life

My heart has been very heavy lately with a sickening trend that is sweeping through Christian circles. Perpetrated by Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Marilyn Hickey and the like, this message coined Prosperity Gospel has infiltrated the lives of even the most dedicated Christians. From their pulpits in their arena sized churches these slithering serpents twist scripture to suit their own ambitions. This disturbs me because I’ve seen these tactics used before: in the Garden of Eden and the temptation of Christ. Thousands of people have bought into the lie that if they only have enough faith, pray hard enough, wish long enough, God will give them whatever their heart desires. Thousands of years of church doctrine and history has been undone in one fell swoop. In short, Christians of today have forgotten how to suffer.

Even invoking the word “suffer” is enough to make most people’s teeth stand on edge. After all, we are modern humans. Modern comforts are available to us. We need not have a hard life. When we are in pain, we take tylenol. When we are hungry, we throw something in the microwave. When anything remotely bad happens to us, we fall to our knees and beg God to take it away. This is what we have been taught to do. But scripture paints a whole different picture for us. While we try to avoid suffering at all costs, Holy Scripture tells us that not only is suffering unavoidable, it’s actually beneficial. It’s a radical idea, but one that I believe is supported firmly by sound doctrine.

To examine the beneficial role of suffering, we need only look to the life of Christ Himself, specifically the Passion story. I have taken the narrative from the Gospel According to Saint Luke Chapter 22, beginning in verse 39.

After the Passover meal, Christ takes His disciples to the Mount of Olives, a place He frequently prays. But tonight is different. Tonight He takes only His most trusted friends, Peter, James and John to pray with Him. Saint Matthew and Mark record here a message that Christ gave His disciples before He withdrew to pray: “I am very sorrowful, even until death. Remain here and pray.” Saint Luke then records that Jesus goes to beg His father to please, let the cup of this suffering pass from Him (Luke 22:42). It is recorded here also: “And being in agony He prayed more earnestly and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

Jesus prays so hard for suffering to pass that He begins to sweat blood. This is no metaphor or analogy. Remember, Saint Luke was the physician. There does exist a condition which occurs when a person is under such emotional stress that that the capillaries in the blood vessels burst, causing them to literally sweat droplets of blood. Jesus is in such emotional turmoil that his blood vessels are exploding.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ knows what will happen to Him in the coming hours. He will endure great physical agony. He will be tortured for hours in the most brutal ways imaginable. He will be flogged and whipped beyond recognition. He will be stripped naked and nailed to a cross. He will hang for hours, slowly suffocated by the weight of His body. He will bear the weight of the sin of the entire world for all time upon His shoulders. For the first time in His life, since the beginning of time, since before time, He will experience total separation from His father. His lungs will fill with fluid, and He will eventually drown. Jesus will die completely alone. Jesus will suffer. He will suffer beyond anything we can possibly imagine. Mel Gibson could not possibly, if he worked his whole life, produce a film that depicts the actual reality of how much Christ suffered. And why did Jesus do this? He did it because the punishment for our sin was too great for us to bear. So He did it for us. For the forgiveness of sin. The suffering of Jesus Christ brought about our salvation.

The truth is, without the suffering of Christ, there would be no gospel message. Even assuming that Jesus was divine, His purpose on earth would still be pointless. History would remember Him as a man who said some good things about how we should live our lives and be nice to each other and then he disappeared around the age of 33. The entire mission of Jesus would be pointless. God would still be just as unreachable as before. We would still be killing goats and pigeons, trying desperately to earn the grace of Almighty God. There is no gospel without suffering, and their is no grace without the gospel. If we are to be imitators of our Lord, and He suffered for the good of others and our faith, what makes us think that we get to escape suffering? Christ Himself surely didn’t think so. If you read through the gospels, Christ tells His disciples numerous times about the suffering they will endure. He says:

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

“If the world hates you, know that it hated me first.” (John 15:18)

“You will be hated by all because of me but the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

“Then they will hand you up for persecution, and you will be put to death, and hated by all nations because of My name.” (Matthew 24:9)

“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues.” (Matthew 10:17)

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

This last one is especially poignant, considering the suffering of Christ on the cross I just outlined. Jesus is clear: If anyone is to follow Him, truly follow Him, they must be prepared to suffer. Anglican Bishop Dr. N.T. Wright says it perfectly: “Jesus never said ‘God has an awesome plan for your life.’ What He said was: ‘If anyone wants to follow me, he should deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.’ Whenever God is at work, there will be a cost. Whenever we are called to follow Jesus, there will be a cross. Whenever we seek to serve God instead of ourselves, there will be pain.”

True faith cannot exist without suffering. This is what is so disturbing about these prosperity gospel peddlers. It’s not just that they preach a bad sermon, it’s that they are leading people away from following Christ. Jesus says that if anyone truly wishes to follow Him, to truly be His disciples, they must share in His suffering. Saint Paul talks about the necessity of suffering for faith. He says:

 

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. –Romans 5:1-5

 

I would like to point out that I once saw one of those prosperity gospel preachers reference this passage. Except his version looked like this:

 

…and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

 

Notice here how he twists scripture. Those convenient and easily ignored ellipses change the entire meaning of the passage, and thwart the point Saint Paul is trying to make. He conveniently skips over the suffering part, because no one likes to hear that. He twists scripture to suit his own purpose, exactly as Satan and the Pharisees did in the Gospels. He takes away the very thing Saint Paul says gives us hope: our suffering.

Paul says here that we should rejoice in our suffering with the same fervor that we rejoice in the grace offered us through Christ. Why should we do this? Because suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope. All these false teachers, they want to preach hope to people. There’s nothing wrong with that. We should have hope. But what they and their followers cannot understand is right here where Saint Paul tells us: We cannot have hope without suffering. If we’ve rubbed our magic Jesus lamp and prayed hard enough, if our lives are great and we have a great big house and we have the high-paying job and the fancy cars and all the little things our wicked heart desires WHAT IS THERE TO HOPE FOR?! By preaching this message of “hope” these charlatans are actually robbing God’s people of the only hope they have. This world is broken and foul and wretched and the hearts of men are twisted and rotten and disgusting and the one hope we as believers have is that this world will someday END. This putrid, sinful existence will come crashing down around the glory of the returning Christ and God will rip our souls from our rotting corpses and glorify them to His vision of perfection that Christ gives us through His suffering on the cross. But the prosperity gospel people won’t get to experience that. Why? Because they’re living their best life now. Jesus is very clear about that. If you have your riches and rewards here on earth, what reward is there for you in Heaven? None. The only way you get to live your best life now is if you’re going to Hell when you die.

The real tragedy is, not only are these people robbing the people they preach to of God’s grace, they’re robbing every unsaved person who comes in contact with those people of the same gift. People are drawn to Christ through us because we are different from the world. If we are no different, how are we drawing the unsaved? If I have a big house exactly like the atheist executive down the street who just works really hard at his job, how is that different? If I’m caught up in the things of this world like the newest iPhone, how can my mind be on the things of Heaven? Jesus talks about this. He says:

 

“You are the salt of the world. But if the salt loses its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” –Matthew 5:15

 

The people that buy into this fantasy that God wants them to be rich and prosperous are like salt that has lost its saltiness. They are no longer of any use to God and on the last day, He will throw them out to be trampled. The truth is God cares way less about your happiness than He does your obedience. The only way we can be salt is if we are different. How are we different? Go back to Romans 5. Saint Paul says to have joy in our suffering.

What does it mean to have joy in our suffering? Look at Polycarp. Polycarp was an early church father and a disciple of Saint John the Beloved. When he is being burned at the stake for preaching the gospel, Polycarp says a prayer.

 

“Father of Your beloved and blessed son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You, I bless You that You have counted me worthy this day and at this hour, that I might be in the number of your martyrs. Among these may I be recieved before You today in a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You have beforehand prepared and revealed. Wherefore I also praise You for everything; I bless You; I glorify You, through the eternal High Priest Jesus Christ, Your Beloved Son, through whom, with Him, in the Holy Spirit, be glory unto You both now and for the ages to come. Amen.”

 

Polycarp is literally roasting alive and what does he do? Does he ask for a shinier car? Or a better job? No. He lifts a prayer of praise to God! “I praise you for everything” he says. Not only does he praise God but he actually thanks God for the opportunity to burn alive for the sake of the gospel! He actually compares himself to a burnt offering. He says may my burning flesh be an acceptable sacrifice to you. This is joy in suffering.

When you walk around with an attitude of dissatisfaction and selfishness, you are not being a light for God. You are preventing the people around you from seeing the life-changing joy that you should have because of the grace of Christ. Because joy in suffering isn’t just about you. It’s about everyone else around you.

In Philippians chapter 1, Saint Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, one of his most beloved churches. He is writing to them because they are greatly grieved that their founder and spiritual father is imprisoned. Not only is Paul imprisoned, but he is imprisoned in Rome which is under the rulership of the emperor Nero. You may remember that Nero hated Christians. He would light them on fire as human torches for his garden parties. The Christians in Philippi are worried about Paul. And Paul writes this to strengthen them:

 

I want you to know brothers, that was has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of all the brothers, having become more confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. –Philippians 1:12-14

 

Look what Paul says here! He says “Brothers! Guess what?! Because I’m suffering for Jesus, the ENTIRE imperial guard has heard the gospel!” Now the imperial guard under Nero numbered between 13 and 14 thousand men. Saint Paul says that the ENTIRE imperial guard knows he is imprisoned because of his faith. 14,000 men know that Paul is man of great faith. 14,000 men know that Paul loves Jesus so much that he is willing to go to prison and even death rather than reject Christ. And you have to bet that some of those 14,000 men were curious as to what kind of man could inspire such faith in Paul. Not only that, but because of Paul’s imprisonment, the Church in Rome has been inspired and is preaching the gospel more boldly! Paul get’s an amazing missional opportunity because of his suffering. He get’s an opportunity to share the gospel he would not have otherwise had if he was not suffering. Just like God used the suffering and death of Christ to bring grace to the entire world, so God uses the suffering of His faithful to bring the lost to Himself. There is no gospel without suffering and there is no grace without the gospel.

Jesus said “If anyone is to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” If you truly want to follow Jesus, you must be prepared to suffer. Does that mean we should go looking for ways to suffer? Dress in sackcloth and dump ashes on our heads? No. But we must be prepared to do what is necessary for the glory of God. I know I keep referencing Saint Paul but he’s one of my favorite biblical characters. He says that because Jesus humbled Himself to suffer death on the cross, God made his name greater than all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:8-12).

The same goes for us as His followers. Our suffering and humility points others to Christ. Does this mean that we should walk around all dreary and sad all the time because we have to suffer? Of course not. Remember Saint Paul says we should have the same joy in our suffering that we have in the gift of grace through Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it this way: “To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit that comes from the exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.” Saint Augustine said: “God had one son on earth without sin, but never a son without suffering.” The message from Scripture, theologians, church fathers, and Christ Himself is very clear: If we are truly to be called the children of Holy God, we must be prepared to suffer to further His kingdom, and bring glory to His name. My prayer for all of you is that you remain wise in the truth of God. That you recognize the truth from lie. That you be able to distinguish between false teachers and true. That you keep Scripture as the sole source of Truth and compare everything else you hear to it. Grace and Peace to you all.