My wife asked me the other day, “When have you ever denied yourself anything?” I quickly came to my defense and said, “I’ve denied myself plenty…what about…um….well…um…I don’t know.” And that got me thinking.
The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” From the very birth of our great nation, we have made the pursuit of happiness an integral part of the American Dream and what it means to be American. And I’m afraid that the desire to be healthy, wealthy and wise (Ben Franklin) has permeated American Christianity. Somehow we’ve tied success – in business, in relationships, and in all other areas of life to success in the Christian life. If my business is profitable, God is blessing me. If my marriage is a success, then God must like me. If my kids are well-adjusted, then I’m doing something right. Etc.
Folks from my theological tradition bemoan the health and wealth gospel, while falling into the same trap themselves. The bigger the ministry, the more God is blessing, right? But what about Jesus’ words, “He who wishes to follow Me must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his life, or what will a man give in exchange for his life?” What about Peter and James and Paul who all identify the Christian life, following Jesus, with suffering? Somehow the physical successes we are pursuing don’t seem to line up with the spiritual success that Jesus identifies. I think we’ve mistaken physical prosperity for spiritual progress. But the beatitudes don’t elevate the rich, the powerful and the famous; they highlight the humble, the merciful, the peacemakers…
It becomes clear that we’ve missed it when it comes to suffering. So many times we see trials, suffering, adverse circumstances as signs of God’s displeasure rather opportunities for growth and progress in the Christian life. We miss the fact that there are some things that we only learn through suffering, and that we are most aligned with Jesus when we are suffering for our faith, and that trials present an opportunity for us to show a watching world that we really believe what we say. We become discouraged by silly things like the size of our ministry rather than whether or not we are faithful with the folks God has entrusted to us. We want more…more people, more notoriety, more resources…a bigger kingdom for ourselves rather than expanding the kingdom of God.
What would it look like to return to a biblical measure of success? What if suffering for the cause of Jesus was the barometer of maturity/success rather than the size of our bank account, or our building, or our reputation? What if we chose anonymity rather popularity? What if we denied the false religion that the American Dream has created and instead embraced a dying to, a denying of, self?
Maybe then I would have a ready response the next time someone asks me, “When have you ever denied yourself anything?” Until next time, stay salty.