Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Dying to self feels like dying. . .
Suffering is never easy nor is it ever welcome. Instinctively we seek to relieve suffering and are often led to irrational means of doing so. Who has not slapped their head in a failed attempt to deal with a headache pain that refuses relief? Of course, we would not expect the pain and suffering to be either welcomed or endured without complaint but there are reasons why we choose to endure pain. Those reasons have to do with our values and the outcome or consequences. I know many folks who deal with chronic pain but do so because the choice is activity with its price tag of suffering or inactivity and the loss of mobility and independence.
One of the great failures of modern Christianity is that we no longer speak much about dying to self. We preach a crossless Gospel about possibility thinking to a people seeking enhanced pleasure and happiness (without pain). In doing so we are simply lying to them. Dying to self, bearing the cross, self-denial, sacrificial giving, service to neighbor, and self-control are the way of faith and expect, dare I say promise, pain. Dying to self feels like dying. There is no way to mask or deny it. But instead of choosing to be faithful in proclamation, modern Christianity has chosen to tell a lie. Christ has not come so that the old Adam in us may by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die. No, he has come to set us free from all constraints so that we might have our best lives now.
As I have said before, we expect the world to play to T-ball rules -- no errors, strikes, or outs count and everyone gets and equal chance at bat. We do not keep score but do it all for the fun of it and to make the kids on the field and the parents in the stands happy. Taking the same metaphor, we have embraced the same mentality in the Church. Worship is to be fun and exciting. Music is to be uplifting and happy (with a good beat). Sermons are to inspire us or equip us to reach for the stars. Prayers have an agenda as well as speaking to God. With a cheery word of benediction, we are sent away happy and satisfied so that we continue to live our self-absorbed lives. What a lie and a terrible disservice we have rendered -- not only to the Lord but to the people. We have told them what they want to hear but it is the ultimate deception.
Dying to self feels like dying. Christian faith and life are not painless. We embrace the pain, in part because we understand the pain Christ bore for us and our salvation and also because our suffering is fruitful. I am amazed at how we cherry pick the Scriptures to avoid dealing with the reality of Christ's cross or our own life of cross bearing in His name. Let us at least be honest. Dying to self feels like dying. The words of Jesus are both blunt and hard. The way the world treated Me, it will treat you. I send you out like lambs among wolves. Blessed are you who are persecuted for My sake, for righteousness sake. I could go on and on.
Christian life is messy. It is filled with pain and suffering -- some of that inflicted upon because we are in Christ and some of it because to be in Christ means saying "no" to self and reining in the passions that would run out of control and kill us unless Christ lived in us by baptism and faith. It is high time we ended the charade of Christian life and spoke truthfully and bluntly what it means to live in Christ. Dying to self still feels like dying. But the fruits of this death are greater than its cost to us and the means of this death is Christ living in us. Christian faith is not some momentary infatuation such as our pursuit of the latest ten minute diet plan that will shave off pounds without any effort. Nope. It will be hard -- so hard, in fact, that we cannot do it for ourselves or on our own. Only Christ can work this miracle of death and rebirth in us. But having been killed and made alive, we do in a real sense cooperate in the work of sanctification by bearing the full weight of its pain in self-denial. We are not bystanders in our own Christian lives. And we know this most profoundly by the pain and suffering of bearing the cross and denying self. When this pain disappears it might be a good time to consider whether we have not, in fact, abandoned Christ and the faith.