Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Gospel of "Good News"

Let me begin by saying that I’m not advocating a gospel of “suffering.” But, it must also be said that I’m not advocating a gospel of “suffering-free living” either. In fact, I am not advocating any gospel at all other than that which has been given in the Scriptures. It is a gospel of “Good News.”

What’s the Good News? Jesus has once and for all paid the price for the sins of mankind. We are free to choose Him in order to successfully navigate the life we’ve been called to live...or not to choose Him. To choose Him does not preclude suffering! It also doesn’t preclude prosperity, divine health and healing, deliverance...and the list goes on. It does however preclude a carte blanche, wholesale interpretation of the Gospel as being a guarantee that everything in life will work out just as you want it to simply because you’ve prayed.

Christians still die of dysentery, malaria, murder and other maladies. They lose jobs, loved ones, houses and cars. Does this call into question their spirituality and prayer life? Resoundingly “No!”

Sadly, too many Christians are plagued with the tendency to extract a single verse in isolation—to the detriment of the surrounding verses—and interpret it, for better or for worse, as God’s direct mandate for their lives. For instance, many years ago the book “The Prayer of Jabez” had the unintended result of being interpreted as a promise that if we simply prayed, God would remove all pain and suffering from our lives. Amazingly, this prayer was taken from two obscure verses in 1 Chronicles 4 that were lumped in the midst of a slew of genealogies listing the descendants of Judah.

Why is that amazing you might ask? Well, interpreted as a promise from God to every praying Christian, as opposed to a direct and specific testimonial to Jabez, puts us in a world of utter confusion. Let me explain. Since Jabez lived before Paul, it’s conceivable that Paul had read these obscure verses, especially since he himself was lettered and well versed in the Torah. Paul believed in prayer. If any one knew how to pray, it was Paul. In fact, here’s what Paul said about prayer in addressing the pseudo-spirituality of the Corinthian Church:

“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you...”

In encouraging the Church at Thessalonica he declared:

“Pray without ceasing.”

These are bold statements to make unless you’re truly a man of prayer who is confident in the knowledge that his prayers are powerful and efficacious. But here’s what the same Paul had to say about prayer as he expressed his vulnerability—something which too many Christians sadly term weakness—and frustration in his second letter to the Church at Corinth:

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.””

What? You mean the powerfully praying Paul had an unanswered prayer? Where does that leave us mere mortals then? Better still, where does that leave us in light of the mass interpretation of the Prayer of Jabez? Clearly, whatever Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, it was painful enough that he sought God on three different occasions that it be removed from Him, yet God declined to comply with Paul’s “prayer request.”

I don’t know if I can personally look at a whole City of people and declare, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you...” yet Paul did! I’m confident I don’t “pray without ceasing,” yet Paul advocated it for the Thessalonians which would seem to indicate that it was a practice he was familiar with (otherwise it would be hypocritical to advocate it when you’re not doing it yourself).

Yet, with his apparently extensive arsenal of prayer, the prayer of Jabez didn’t work for Paul even though he was a powerful, praying Christian. My point? Christianity, in all of its complexities, is at once a personalized faith and a communal journey. We can’t walk it alone, yet we each have to work it out for ourselves. So if we judge Christians who are suffering, as weak and powerless in prayer, then we are obligated to apply the same standard to John the Baptist who was beheaded by Herod. To Isaiah who was sawn in two. And to ten of the twelve disciples who died as martyrs for their faith. Evidently, the prayer of Jabez wasn’t able to keep them from pain and suffering.

Finally, it’s important to again recognize the words of Paul—writer of almost two-thirds of the New Testament—to the Church at Corinth as he addresses the issue of God expanding his territory and influence:

“Are they serving Christ? I am serving Him more. (I am crazy to talk like this). I have worked much harder than they. I have been in prison more often. I have been hurt more in beatings. I have been near death many times. Five times the Jews have given me their punishment of thirty-nine lashes with a whip. Three different times I was beaten with rods. One time I was almost stoned to death. Three times I was in ships that wrecked, and one of those times I spent a night and a day in the sea. I have gone on many travels and have been in danger from rivers, thieves, my own people, the Jews, and those who are not Jews.

I have been in danger in cities, in places where no one lives, and on the sea. And I have been in danger with false Christians. I have done hard and tiring work, and many times I did not sleep. I have been hungry and thirsty, and many times I have been without food. I have been cold and without clothes. Besides all this, there is on me every day the load of my concern for all the churches.”

How do you top that? Evidently Paul’s commitment to his faith had little or nothing to do with whether or not he was “abounding or abasing.” It mattered little to him that he had suffered, and he in fact counted it a privilege to bear the stripes of suffering for the sake of the Gospel. So whether you believe in a “prosperity” or a “suffering” gospel, the real “Good News” is that Jesus has paid the price for all of our sins and we are called to share that fact with everyone, regardless of what your personal theological leanings might be.