By Rob Renfroe-
If you were to summarize one rather stark section of the Apostle Paul’s message to the Corinthians, it might be: God loves you and has a dangerous plan for your life.
He reminds the congregation that he has “been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.” Five times he was whipped severely, three times he was beaten with rods, once he was pelted with rocks, shipwrecked three times, and spent a night and day drifting in the open sea. “I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers,” Paul reminds them. “I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Not exactly a sales pitch for church work or following Jesus.
Two thousand years later, however, we have churches and pastors, liberal and conservative, whose primary message is “God wants to make you happy.” They might not put it in so many words, but they rarely speak of sin and repentance, or counting the cost of discipleship, or crucifying our desires so we can live fully for Christ. Instead, they talk about a God who wants to bless us and favor us – and very often the signs of his favor are presented as material prosperity and professional success. They preach that God wants to give us the desires of our hearts but they fail to mention that first God wants to change the desires of our hearts.
Years ago I read these lines: “In the beginning God made man in his own image. And, ever since, we’ve tried to return the favor.”
Every one of us has this tendency. Often without being aware of what we are doing, we create for ourselves a god who wants for us exactly what we want for us; who proclaims what’s right and moral is exactly what we think is right and moral; whose main goal for our lives is that we be happy and content.
We live in an era of designer jeans, designer drugs, and designer gods. We decide the kind of god we are comfortable with and we feel free to re-create the God of the Bible into our own image.
You’ve heard people say, “The God I believe in would never…” and they complete the sentence with what they would never do. Or “the God I worship is…” and they list the traits they would like to see in a deity. Maybe you’ve even said such things yourself. Our sinful, egocentric natures will always tempt us to remake God so that he is no longer above us, challenging our beliefs, our morals, or our actions. Instead, he becomes one of us, only kinder, more compassionate, and more forgiving.
Instead of challenging our tendency to idolatry, much of present day American Christianity promotes it. Here’s a quote from one of the best-selling Christian books of all time, written by one of the best known TV pastors in the world just a few years ago.
“God wants to make your life easier. He wants to assist you, to promote you, to give you advantages. He wants you to have preferential treatment. Consequently, I’ve come to expect to be treated differently. God has crowned me with favor, therefore, I can expect preferential treatment.”
How do you extract that message from a first-century itinerant preacher who had nowhere to lay his head, who was persecuted throughout his ministry, and was scourged with 39 lashes and then crucified? How do you turn “the man of sorrows” into a 21st century prophet of easy living, preferential treatment, and material gain?
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross and deny himself.” How do you turn him into someone whose main goal is to make your life easier and give you advantages that others don’t enjoy?
You begin with a theology which is so shallow, so worldly, and so self-centered that you believe God’s great goal for you is to be happy in this world. You define the good life, the blessed life, in the same way as does our culture – material abundance, physical comforts, and preferential treatment.
Do that and you have transformed the God you were created to worship into a god who worships you. That god may not be graven out of stone or wood or metal. But that god is not the God of the Bible. That god is an idol.
The Bible is clear that God’s primary goal for us is that we become like Jesus, “conformed to his image.” That’s simply another way of saying that God’s will for us is that we become holy because there is no better example of holiness than the character and the life of Jesus.
Becoming like Jesus means we must put the Father’s will above our own even if the Father’s will troubles our souls and causes us to sweat blood. It means that we must forgive those who crucify us and be patient with those who fail us. Rather than expecting preferential treatment, being like Jesus requires that we humble ourselves, give up places of honor and lift others up. Being like Jesus is not a call to a life that is easy but to a life that is difficult and self-denying.
Two gospels – one promises happiness, the other calls us to holiness. Can’t you have both happiness and holiness? No, at least not all the time. Taking up a cross, dying to self, loving difficult people, putting others ahead of ourselves – in the moment none of those endeavors will make us happy. But they will make us like Jesus. And over time, that will bring us joy.
The gospel of happiness sells much better than the gospel of holiness. It allows egocentric, materialistic people to stay the way they are as long as they will say, “I accept Jesus.” It doesn’t require that we give generously to the poor or confront our prejudices. It doesn’t produce feelings of conviction, much less guilt, when we sin. It doesn’t demand that we change our priorities or live differently from the world as long as we remember to thank God for our blessings. It doesn’t necessitate that we do what’s hard or costly.
You’ll find this gospel of happiness proclaimed in progressive and traditional churches. In both, you’ll hear the message, “God loves you. Stay the way you are; no need to change your lifestyle or be challenged by the radical claims of Christ.” It’s a great way to keep the customers happy. But it’s a terrible way to make disciples.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.