Two of the most detrimental misunderstandings that can and will ruin the faith of any Christian are such that when Christ promises us happiness and fulfillment we interpret it as ‘getting to do whatever we want’; the other is understanding our ‘blessings’ to be of the material variety. Jesus never promised us material abundance, freedom from consequences, or a life without immense suffering. In fact, suffering and persecution are two guarantees that Christ does give us.
If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. – John 15:18-20
Last night I had the opportunity to reflect on Paul’s speech in Athens that can be found in Acts 17. In his speech, Paul appeals to the religiosity of the Greek culture. Paul found the good, if you will, of their religious practices and related to them how this unknown god whom they seek is actually the God Paul came to proclaim. This encounter with the Greeks took place in the Areopagus which was the cultural, political, and intellectual epicenter of Athens. We need not go into great detail, but we can rest assured knowing what great intellectual and cultural gifts ancient Greece has given us. Paul was certainly dealing with the cream of the intellectual crop.
Reflecting on Paul’s apostolic endeavors it dawned on me that Paul couldn’t even dream of making any real progress with these people unless he believed with great conviction what he was to preach. Also, it would have been necessary for him to have some awareness of who his intended audience was. If we think for a moment as to why most Christian music and movies are boring, bland, and just plain terrible (sorry, not sorry) it can be plain to see that most of these artists are appealing to the ‘church crowd’. They are preaching to the choir and are speaking in idioms and dialects that the secular world doesn’t care to understand.
Bono (U2) recently spoke out citing the lack of conviction and honesty in Christian music. He’s right. Paul, as we discover in the Scriptures, was wildly successful in his apostolic ministry. Yes, he faced many hardships and ended up losing his life over it, but he was the foremost ambassador between Christ and the gentile world. You can bet that Paul didn’t walk into Greece or anywhere else with comforting phrases, blanket statements, and preconceived responses. Paul lived the Gospel; he experienced it and it was a part of who he was as a messenger of Christ. Just as important, he knew who he was speaking to and took into account the struggles, desires, and priorities of the Greeks when he considered how he might evangelize in the region.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. – Acts 17:22-27
So often, the honest atheist is closer to God than many self-professed Christians. It is he (or she) who seeks truth that explicitly, or implicitly, seeks after God. Many Christian communities, however, are not offering God to their congregation. If we can understand for a minute that all the pleasures we seek and the fulfillment we desire are actually implicit strivings for God then we would find ourselves turning away from material comforts and turning our hearts toward God alone. What happens, then, when a church tells us that God is the bridge that will lead us to material prosperity and a stress-free life? Such promises are actually leading us away from God.
Comfort, pleasure, and prosperity are not our ends. Our desire for happiness is ultimately oriented toward God who can offer us such fulfillment. These misdirected doctrines share a common denominator with bad Christian movies and music: the world neither believes in nor truly wants what they are selling. Paul never affirmed the idolatry of the Greeks; rather, he showed them how in their idolatrous pursuits it was actually God in whom they sought. Prosperity preachers, just like bland Christian artists, lack the conviction and authenticity needed to evangelize our broken world. Most secularists know full well that wealth and comfort will never be enough; they are also under the impression that Christianity can do nothing for them.
When we seek to evangelize we must first acknowledge that our innate desires are comparable (even identical) to those of the atheist or the pagan. They want what we want. We are them to a degree. We can take a page out of Paul’s book and use this nugget of wisdom to completely transform our evangelization efforts. Let us stop promising anything other than God to the world. Let us stop speaking in generalities. Let us stop pretending like suffering isn’t a fact of life. Let us even acknowledge that Christianity might open us up to more suffering. Let us be authentic in our pursuits so that the world might come to know it is God they seek when they seek happiness.
It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness: He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you. – Pope St. John Paul II