July 20, 2011
Jesus Never Said That
by Byron Yawn
The following is a citation from a current writing project, “Suburbianity.”
Let’s be honest, the desire for personal fulfillment is what fills many churches and moves the majority of Christian books. It’s an ever-present tease. It’s the life-coach guy disguised as a preacher, a romantic ballad disguised as a Christian song and a self-help seminar disguised as a sermon. It’s everywhere. It hooks us all. “You too can have impactful and an influential life.” “You can do something great.” Some authors and pastors come right out and guarantee it. “Do these few things and your life will change.”
Even in those instances when authors go out of their way to stress the fact that it’s not about you, they go on for two hundred pages to talk about you. Even if the subject is heaven, it’s not about enjoying God’s Glory and the Lamb slain for all eternity. It’s about how we can escape our unsatisfactory conditions and all the pagans here on earth. Even if it is about finding God’s will, it’s not really about God’s will. It’s about God recognizing how useful we are to Him. When they stress the importance of service, it’s not really about others. It’s about the satisfaction we can get in serving others. When they encourage you to pray, it’s not about communion with God as much as it’s about satisfying your soul’s spiritual itch. Even when they stress community it’s not about a group of people suffering for the sake of the Gospel. It’s about you finding a place of significance. Words like best, purpose, authentic, influence, intentional are deliberate. They’re buzzwords for nominal suburban Christians. We eat them up. We love them.
There’s good reason. These themes tap into the deep ache from which every human on this planet suffers. A vacancy we all know is there and can’t ignore. A growl of our soul we spend our lives trying to satisfy with all the wrong stuff. People. Money. Success. Possessions. Appearances. Sex. But none of this quite fits that space. So we move on to the next thing. We go on wandering the planet not knowing who we really are, or what we’re supposed to be doing. Our legacy is comprised of tasks, routines, the latest TV series, soccer practices and grocery lists. We’re nomadic and homeless. Empty. So, we ache. This is not as God intended. We’re meant for so much more. Believe me, there is something that fits that hole in your life. It’s out there and you can find it. When you do, you’ll know it. It’s an encounter destined to change us forever. A point from which we can never return. A bench mark. We are never the same. Like when Moses wandered into the path of a burning bush, things change. At that moment he found himself and what he was supposed to be. Your burning bush awaits.
See how easy that was. Admit it! You were sucked right into the vortex of the best-seller list. I had you. Open mouth and insert hook. You were thinking, “My life is about to change. I’m not settling for mediocre anymore. I’m going to start journaling.” I was Billy Blazes and you were about to buy a squeegee you didn’t need. Without even realizing it we did a one-eighty right back to us and our happiness. Deepak Chopra could have written that. He probably has somewhere. There is nothing uniquely Christian about it. What? You’ve been drinking this “kool-aide?” It’s not Christianity. It’s ‘Suburbianity.”
“Suburbianity” is the general conviction among professing evangelicals that the primary aim of Christ’s death was to provide us with a fulfilled life. It’s subtle, but it’s pervasive. It comes through in nearly all forms of Christian media – from songs to books. God has big plans for you. You are important. You should not be discontented. There’s more out there for you. This is the suburban gospel. By it we’re saving countless sinners from a poor self-image and an absence of fulfillment, but not from a Holy God.
This message has been recycled and repackaged so many times it’s impossible to count the versions. It’s easy to get caught up in it. It’s been here from the beginning of time. Satan used it on Eve. You’re important. You’re happiness is essential. Don’t let anything hold you back. Blah! Blah! Blah! The only difference between Eve and us is that she had to be convinced God didn’t want her happiness. Nowadays, it’s all God wants!
Christianity is not about any of that ridiculous nonsense. In fact, this message is stripping the Church of its power. It’s not even biblical. You can’t find it anywhere in the Bible. Even if you cite Moses and his encounter with a fiery shrub, he would be shocked what we’ve done with his story. Even if you make Jesus say these things, he didn’t. Jesus never commissioned anything close to this. We’ve made all this stuff up. “But,” someone will object, “God wants us to be happy. Jesus said in John 10:10 that he came to give us ‘life more abundantly.’” But, this is exactly my point. That’s what we assume because we read the Bible through the grid of self. These types of takeaways are the byproduct of a narcissistic hermeneutic. There’s no way to read the Gospels or the Epistles at face value and come away thinking that Jesus walked this earth delivering a self-improvement seminar. That never happened.
Now, admittedly, I’m a skeptic. I am the perpetual enemy of the status quo. It can sound as if I’m throwing all practical teaching under the bus. But, I’m not. What would I do with the book of Proverbs? I don’t mean to suggest happiness and purpose aren’t effects of the gospel. Indeed they are. But, biblical happiness and purpose are counterintuitive and dissimilar to our suburban versions. More to the point, happiness and contentment were not the aim of the atonement.
The real danger in all this narcissistic white noise is an assumed Gospel. An assumed Gospel is the real toxin of Suburbianity. Think about it. How many sermons have you sat through which offered principles for life change, or for a better Christian life, but never mentioned the Gospel or any of its elements as the basis for both? How many books have you read on the spiritual life which never mentioned the cross? Countless. Me too. Is this really dangerous? After all, don’t we already have the Gospel in mind by virtue of being Christians? Exactly! That’s the point.
There are countless of decent church folk who assumed for decades that “good” equaled “godly.” Only when someone stopped assuming the gospel and confronted “good people” with the cross did they discover they the truth. They needed to repent of their goodness. We can’t assume it if we are going to be faithful to it. Without a constant emphasis of the Gospel all our principles for better living end in moralism. Moralism condemns. If you tell a man how he can be a better husband, you must also tell him Christ’s righteousness relieves him of the burden of being a perfect one.
As it is, the Gospel is a ticker running seamlessly across the bottom of evangelicalism. It is the white noise of Christianity. We assume people are saved because we’ve been conditioned to. We hear something “spiritual” and assume Christian. We see “morality” and assume regeneration. We see “good” and assume godly. We see “church attendance” and assume faith in Christ. In all of this we never ask the central question of the Gospel, “In what are you trusting for the salvation of your soul?” We can’t assume the Gospel.