The Dark Side of the Gospel
"Associates needed at the paint desk!" The loud speaker at Home Depot boomed out it's announcement. The voice was mine and, indeed, I'd been informed that customers were lined up waiting to be served. Within seconds the problem was solved. Or so I thought, until a manager walked by me and casually whispered, "I heard a "naughty" just now." I glanced at her rather puzzled. "We don't do those kind of messages on the speaker."
Turns out that my call for help at the paint desk revealed weakness in the HD system to which we'd rather not draw attention. Once again, a valuable lesson learned by making a mistake. That's the way I usually learn.
I suppose that in a broken world human commerce will always hi-light the features and benefits of its products and hide, or at least won't draw attention to, any flaws. That's smart marketing. Buyer beware.
We don't market the gospel!
At a personal evangelism training the instructor zealously urged us to avoid any negative features of the gospel. "You don't invite people to crucify themselves for Christ," he admonished. I remember nodding my head in agreement. That was some years ago. By this standard the following exchange would be an obvious failure.
"Sir, what must I do to me saved?"
"Have you kept the commandments? You know, 'You shall not steal, commit adultery, murder, etc."
"Yes, from my youth I've kept them all."
"Well, go sell everything you have, give to the poor and come follow me."
The account ends by noting that the young man went away sad. You'll find this conversation between Jesus and an inquirer in Matthew 19:16-22.
The offense of the gospel
Yes, the good news that God offers sinners a way to be reconciled to himself, to find joy in this life and to enjoy perfect satisfaction in the next has some negatives attached to it. However, when we speak of the benefits of following Christ we rarely include the downside as did Jesus in the conversation mentioned above.
Fact is that the Scriptures are full of incidents and notions that offend sensitive and thoughtful people. Unbelievers are fond of reminding us of the mass killings of the Canaanites ordered by God. Further, the notion that all have sinned and deserve eternal perdition seems utterly ludicrous to some. And that God should offer his own Son to die on the cross has been equated with child-abuse. These are extreme judgments, of course, but you get my drift.
There's something to be said for a holy book, the Scriptures, that truthfully reports even what offends. That alone, reassures us that the Bible is not a marketing gimmick. It is not a glossy piece featuring in full color the benefits of following God. No, it's a straightforward record of how a holy God deals over time with a wayward and self-destructive humanity. Take, for instance the following excerpt from Isaiah.
"But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” (Isaiah 8:13-15, ESV)
God, both a "sanctuary" and a "stone of offense"? That's right. Peter (I Peter 2:1-8) and Paul (Romans 9:30-33) quote this text from Isaiah to show that the same rock that brings salvation to some becomes condemnation to others. The rock they have in mind is Jesus, who declared, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6 ESV)
The greatest offense of the gospel is it's exclusivity. It urgently invites all who will repent and believe to follow Jesus and find eternal life. Conversely, it issues a dire warning to all who reject Christ that there are painful and eternal consequences to endure.
Even believers know a dark side to the gospel.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matthew 10:34 ESV) By that he meant that the gospel calls for such a radical following of Jesus that those who choose not to follow, perhaps in one's own family, will be alienated. It feels like a sword severing precious human relationships. That's got to be a painful dark side to following Jesus.
The challenge in such situations is to make sure it's the gospel that offends rather than our own peccadilloes, inconsistencies and hypocrisies. We take to heart Peter's counsel, "If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler." (I Peter 4:14-15 ESV)
The best on God's discipline
Since by faith in Christ we are adopted into the family of God, we refer to God as our Heavenly Father. Jesus taught us to pray, "Our Father, in heaven..." Now that's a warm and fuzzy truth every Christian cherishes. That the Almighty, the Creator, the Judge of all the Earth should be the believer's father is astounding. That fact motivates our prayers, braces our courage and energizes our service.
But there's a dark side. As children of God we can expect him to be faithful to discipline us. Solomon wisely warned,
"My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights." (Proverbs 3:11-12)
The writer of Hebrews quotes Solomon and goes on to observe,
"For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12:11)
We could experience God's discipline in the form of a mild disappointment or a more severe setback. In every case it's painful. But it's also measured to accomplish God's purpose for us, which is always good.
The best of Scotty Smith
The gospel does not deliver us immediately from the broken and corrupt world in which we find ourselves. Rather, it launches the believer on a journey through that world, a journey fraught with danger and pain. Not all suffering is the disciplinary work of God. Sickness, poverty, loneliness, setbacks and physical death face us all, whether we be soaring with the Lord or running from him. It's life!
The turtle-like progress we make toward consistent godliness is a dark side known by all who believe, but rarely admitted and almost never covered in our efforts to convert unbelievers. Yes, there is a specific turn around at conversion, best likened to joining the pilgrimage. Then there's a lifetime of trudging through the mud. As dark as that may feel, there are two things that keep us going: the hope of future glory and the reality of our Savior's presence here and now.
Paul put it this way.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)
Scotty Smith prays through this passage as follows. "Indeed, Lord, some of us have plenty of reasons for losing heart, and we don’t have to pretend otherwise: Relational distress and financial stress; broken health and aching hearts; fresh loneliness and out-of-control busyness; the pain of regret and the power of shame; an uncertain future and a not-so-happy present.
So, Father, help us today to use the same set of scales that Paul used—gospel scales. May the combined weight of your great love lavished on us, the glory you’ve prepared for us, and the promise of your presence with us, far outweigh all the other stuff that is weighing down hearts down right now. May the gospel tip the scales WAY over in the direction of perspective and peace, encouragement and hope."