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Marketing Jesus

Marketing Jesus

Shortly after I separated from the Air Force I was chatting with a gentleman while waiting in line for something or other. On realizing that I was a veteran, and in fact had been somewhere that would qualify me as a veteran of a foreign war, he started a pitch to get me to join that fine organization (VFW).

His initial pitch was simply that I could. I asked him why I should. At this point he was somewhat at a loss and simply told me that they had a wonderful local VFW post where I could drink and swap war stories with other veterans. On short acquaintance he couldn’t possibly have know what a poor pitch that was for me.

Now please don’t imagine that I’m writing against the VFW, and more than I will be writing against Jesus when I talk about marketing approaches. The VFW does some fine work, which is my point. You can give a poor sales pitch for a good cause and drive people away.

Fast forward about 12 years to a time when I was looking at church congregations. I had not been a member of any church for those years and more, but as regular readers may know, I did have my MA in Religion (with that wonderful concentration in Biblical and Cognate Languages). This made life a bit difficult for pastors who discussed their churches with me.

In the end, I was considering two United Methodist congregations. I had attended church and some excellent studies at both, and I liked both organizations in many ways. At one of the churches I talked to the pastors at each church. At one of them the pastor said: “We don’t care what you believe. If you want to enjoy our fellowship, you’re welcome.” The other discussed my beliefs.

Now I’m very interested in openness and acceptance, and I advocate the maximum freedom of belief, but I do think an organization requires some sort of center to make it functional and useful. And a mission. That too.

Thus I joined the other congregation.

Over the course of my life I have experienced a variety of sales pitches to get me to accept Jesus Christ as my savior, most of them after I already had. Many of these came from people who felt I hadn’t quite gotten it right. Others came from people who presented their pitch so quickly they hadn’t had time to realize I was already a Christian. One came from someone who saw me reading my Greek New Testament while waiting for tires to be installed on my car, and was convinced that my Christianity must just be a thing of the intellect. He was truly concerned that I might mistakenly think that reading Greek was a means of salvation.

I’ll call it a means of grace. I didn’t think of saying that to him. It would doubtlessly have sent him ballistic. (Then I would have needed to repent, so perhaps it’s best I didn’t think of it.)

I would categorize approaches to selling Christianity in a few broad camps:

  1. The desperate. These are the people who are afraid that if you don’t accept Christ while in conversation with them, you will doubtless go to hell. One short prayer, and you’ll at least avoid that. Flames are usually involved in the conversation (pun absolutely intended). Conservative and charismatic Christians are susceptible to the use of this approach. Liberals and other mainliners might be susceptible, but they don’t believe in hell.
  2. The cultural. Christianity is a good society, sort of like Kiwanis or the Lions Clubs. Good people are Christians and attend church every so often. Come join our church and be socially acceptable to the good people. Mainline congregations are most susceptible to this, but conservatives may fall for it in the right cultural context.
  3. The upwardly mobile. This is the home of the prosperity gospel. The pitch goes that you’re in a lower economic and social class than you’d like to be, and Jesus wants you to have abundant life, so just follow Jesus to health, wealth, and satisfaction. (No, not the satisfaction theory of the atonement. Self satisfaction.)
  4. The apologetic approach. By this I don’t mean a person who defends elements of the Christian faith, but rather the person who desires to batter down your defenses with his or her command of data.

In fact, in all of these approaches there’s some truth. Being a part of a caring community can, in fact, improve your standard of living, your sense of joy, your peace, and many other things. Not quite in the way the prosperity preachers tell it, but it can help. Being part of the church can be a good cultural and social move. Considering your eternal state is likely worthwhile, and studying the data behind your religious faith is constructive.

There’s an effective temptation to attack every good intention or work. The desperate evangelist is driven by a desire to help. Believing that eternal hell fire is in your future if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior, he feels compelled to make you. This sense led to some theological support for the burning of heretics. What was a few moments of torment in this life compared to what God would do to them in the next? If the torturer could bring this eternal punishment to their minds forcefully enough, perhaps they’d repent and be saved. The temptation here is to take away from God the power of salvation and judgment. Most humans are susceptible to it in some way.

Then there is the Jesus way. I was hit by it this morning as I was reading texts for next Sunday’s lesson.

Jesus was saying to everyone: “If anyone wants to come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Now there’s an “ouch”! No promise of prosperity. No threat of hell. No social acceptability. In fact, if you read on through the end of the chapter, it gets even worse. The facts of the situation were present in the Person.

I wonder how a church growth program would work that called for people to lose their respectability, give up their comfort, become socially unacceptable, experience pain, and ignore ridicule would work. I’ve never seen one of those.

Other than in the gospels.

Let me look at some other texts from this week’s reading list.

9He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because strength is made complete in weakness.” I now gladly boast in my weaknesses because Christ’s strength is all over me. 10So I am pleased in weaknesses, when insulted, when in need, when persecuted, when in hardship, for Christ. For when I am weak, he is strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

I guess Paul wasn’t up on the latest pitches and methods of evangelism either. And just to add to our feeling of injury and annoyance:

If we suffer together with him, we will be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17b)

I was somewhat surprised after reading the scriptures to find that the lesson author managed to write the whole lesson without mentioning suffering. He had some good thoughts, but somehow avoided that one.

So just what is it we’re proclaiming (or selling)? Are we doing it right?

(Note: All translations are my own, and are sometimes intentionally loose. Featured image downloade from, which doesn’t require attribution, but I’ll give it anyhow.)


Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?

Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?

Because you have been graciously given this on behalf of Christ:
not only in Him to believe,
but also for Him to suffer. (Philippians 1:29, excessively literally)

I’ve been meditating on two texts as the new year begins, Philippians 1:27-30, and Ephesians 5:1-2. I’ve been kind of ignoring this suffering thing so far. But last night listening to music in worship at Freedom Church Pensacola, it suddenly struck me to think: Do we have any songs in which we actually praise or thank God for suffering? There may well be, but I don’t recall one off-hand.

This is certainly not a criticism of the church I was in at the time I thought it. I don’t recall this sort of thing anywhere. We don’t talk about it in the way Paul does here. In fact, we don’t really want to acknowledge the reality of suffering. Often our singing, praying, preaching, and indeed our living presents the pretense that nothing ever can or will go wrong. Have you ever heard anyone say in church, when a testimony is called for, that they have had a horrible week and just don’t know how they can go on? No! That’s a sign that they’re crazy. The intelligent and sane ones pretend.

I don’t think Paul is saying here that suffering is wonderful and good in itself. I think the privilege is that the suffering that will come—and despite our desires, it will—is not vain and of no worth, but rather it is suffering on  behalf of the kingdom. It’s not cheering that there is pain, but rather cheering from the pain that whatever happens is not in vain.

This reminds me of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and the frequent change of the line “as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” to “as He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.” (You can find more on this here.) Those who have served in the military know that dying may be necessary. It’s not what you live for, but many people have faced death for their nation. Many Christians have faced or are now facing death for their faith. It’s a reality, but just as we change the line in the song, we’d rather not talk about it. Certainly, we don’t want to sing about it.

Conducting ourselves in a way that is worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27) may involve annoyance, discomfort, suffering, and even death. God’s gift is that we do it in, with, and through Jesus Christ.


Football: I suspect God was indifferent to the ultimate outcome

Football: I suspect God was indifferent to the ultimate outcome

Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with JobBruce Epperly, author of the recently released book Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job, questions the view that God determines the outcome of football games (or, I suspect, any other sport), rewarding the faithful and punishing the unfaithful. The title to this post includes his money quote from his post, Is God a Seahawks Fan?. Here’s the full paragraph:

I am sure that God was present on the playing field but not as a miracle worker or team mascot; God was there urging the players to achieve their best as team members, to be sportsmanlike, and to remain healthy amid a rough and tumble game. I suspect God was indifferent to the ultimate outcome.

I found this post refreshing. God is involved, but God isn’t there to make your team win–or lose. He’s there with each person.
From My Editing Work: Claim Your Identity as a Theologian

From My Editing Work: Claim Your Identity as a Theologian

Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with JobFrom the forthcoming book Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job by Bruce G. Epperly.

The book of Job invites us to claim our identity as theologians.  Job shouts out to us, “You are a theologian” because we have experienced the pain of the world and are trying to make sense of it.  Job shouts to us: “Don’t let the word ‘theology’ put you off.  By whatever word, we strive to make sense of the senseless and meaning of the meaningless.”  We become theologians the moment we begin to ask hard questions about life and the One who creates the universe and gives birth to each moment of experience.  Theology asks questions of life, death, meaning, human hope, and immortality.  It also raises questions about the meaning and purpose of our brief, and often challenging and ambiguous lives. For Job, theology and spirituality are intimately related.  As Episcopalian spiritual guide Alan Jones once asserted, spirituality deals with the unfixable aspects of life – or what I would describe as life’s inevitabilities.  Sooner or later even the most fortunate of us must make theological and personal sense of what is beyond our control, while taking responsibility for what we can change.

Piper: Suffering is Judicial

Piper: Suffering is Judicial

This is via a summary by Adrian Warnock, but I doubt Adrian would get a whole section wrong. There are a large number of things in this message that are right on target, and a few also with which I disagree.

But the reason I’m posting a brief response is this: As has become standard with those who accept penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), metaphor has been promoted to reality. Everything gets placed in the courtroom. If we cannot distinguish spiritual things from the worldly metaphors used to describe them, then we will always be off track.

Let me quote Piper as summarized by Adrian Warnock:

Suffering is Judicial
John PiperThis is most important, most controversial, and most helpful. In verse 20 it is clear that somebody took the universe and disordered it. Someone brought painful disorder to our relationships, workplaces, etc. GOD did it. We know it must have been God because it was done in hope! There can only be two other candidates—Adam and the devil. Did Adam and Eve sin in the hope of a future new heaven and earth? They didn’t have a clue about that when they fell! Was it the devil’s design to do it in hope? No! Only God did this in hope. God judged the universe because of sin. . . .

Now while there are even some valid points within that selection, there is also a basic error. The courtroom has been imported and made into the reality. If God allows this to happen as a consequence of sin, that is apparently not sufficient for Piper. But God is still doing it, because God is in and behind everything that is. The courtroom metaphor distorts the issue.

Quoting further (after skipping half of a long paragraph), still from Adrian’s summary:

The meaning of all misery in the universe is that sin is horrific. All natural evil such as floods, disease, etc. is a statement about the horror of moral evil. God looked upon sin, and he said, “Here is my response to that.” He subjected the entire creation to this. Until you see the moral outrage of sin in proper proportions, and the magnificence of God in proper proportions, that will seem to you like an over-reaction. The world will say, “That’s ridiculous! He saw one sin and he did all that?” The reason for suffering is to teach you about your heart. You don’t even get close to understanding the horror of the way you treat your wife. There is a moral scandal about falling short of God’s glory.

Here I have to disagree again. The imaginary universe in which no natural disasters occur is just that–imaginary. Again, promotion of a metaphor (the courtroom) to reality distorts our ability to discuss the issue.

I’m wondering if Piper and those who hold a similar view don’t also have to hold a young earth creationism position. Certainly there were natural disasters before the fall of humanity if one holds that the earth is old. The old earth creationism position would suggest physical death as a natural part of the world, not as a consequence of sin, and much of that death historically was caused by natural disasters.

Of Necessity and Suffering

Of Necessity and Suffering

I’ve appreciated much of what John Piper has said about the prosperity gospel. Prosperity theology strikes me as not just false (Biblically and experientially), but particularly dangerous because it either drives one from faith and its actual benefits, or creates a very shallow Christian at best, ready to be driven away at the first difficulty. “Come unto me, all you who want to get rich,” just doesn’t sound much like Jesus to me.

Via Adrian Warnock’s blog ( PIPER FRIDAY – Suffering is Essential to Christians), I found this set of notes from a talk by John Piper.

I’m going to use the same quote Adrian did:

Let me underline one of the statements I’ve already made: Suffering is an essential part of your Christian existence. I choose the word essential very carefully. Paul said to new believers in Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we will enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Christianity 101. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 that we Christians are destined for suffering. This is your destiny—suffering. Think it not strange when the fiery ordeal comes upon you. And 2 Timothy 3:12: All who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted. And Romans 8:16: We are fellow heirs if we suffer with him. There is one God-appointed path to glorification—suffering. If you are making it your life ambition to avoid suffering, you will perish and suffer forever. And all this Pauline talk is based on Jesus’ talk.

I am not in disagreement with this statement, but I would take a slightly different angle on the issue. Suffering is an essential part of the way that the universe is put together. The difference in suffering for a Christian is one of perspective, and not one either of suffering exclusively. I’m not in disagreement with Piper here. One commenter at Adrian’s blog seemed to think Piper was indicating that only Christians suffer, which would be a foolish thing to say, not to mention demonstrably false.

There’s also a reverse link that I have heard frequently, the idea that suffering or receiving persecution indicates that one is right. I hear this frequently about great leaders of the past. If they hadn’t been right, why would they have been so persecuted? This sentiment reflects an awe-inspiring ignorance of history, in which people on all sides of various controversies have suffered persecutions. The trinitarians, who won, were persecuted until they did win. The Arians, however, also suffered for Christ. Gnostics suffered as well. In the reformation, Catholics and all varieties of protestants were persecuted at various times for their beliefs. Persecution is an indication of persistence on the one hand, and a severely overdone desire for control on the other, but it doesn’t tell you whether someone is right.

Back in March, I wrote about Bill Dembski’s article on theodicy, in which he argues that though evil occurred later in humanity, that evil (the fall) was nonetheless the logical cause of death and suffering. (Note that the article was revised on March 15, 2007, and the date of that post was March 4, 2007. I have not reviewed the article since that revision.) Though I have often written negatively about Dr. Dembski’s work, I find this particular article intriguing and challenging.

I would suggest, however, that in order for their to be free will there must be options with consequences. Those consequences must offer the full range of results of the choices. Further, if there is both free will and interaction with other creatures, not all consequences of any one creature’s choices will fall on that creature alone. To take a simple example, if I fail to pay my power bill, I’m not the only one who has to sit in the dark. My wife shares that problem with me. If one person takes an incomplete course of an antibiotic, and as a result helps release a resistant strain, the consequences fall on many, not just one.

One can easily imagine a universe in which there is no suffering, or no negative consequences, but such a universe would simply be a machine. I think it’s difficult if not impossible to demonstrate that the universe is not a machine, though most of us persist in the belief that somehow it is not and that our choices matter.

Which leads me to a brief excursus on free will. I have heard many folks say there is no free will only to discover that what they mean is that our will is not completely free, i.e. that there are options closed to me. What I am speaking about here is any departure from the purest determinism. If the universe is not perfectly deterministic, and more specifically if my actions are not 100% determined by knowable causes, then I would call that free will. I would imagine a continuum, from pure determinism through absolute freedom. On the one hand, there would be no responsibility, because there would be no I with an input into my decisions. On the other hand, there would be no order against which to observe freedom in action. I’m calling anywhere on the intervening continuum free will. My feeling is that the reality is much, much closer to determinism than to complete freedom.

I would note with some humor that every time I discuss this I seem to get someone who will tell me that quantum theory demonstrates determinism, and someone else to tell me that it demonstrates that there is some indeterminacy. I don’t know enough about it to argue with either one, though I lean to some level of indeterminacy.

In any case, let me get back to my point. Suffering exists in the world, and it is a necessity because there is freedom. While I do not understand the physics, I can affirm that the Biblical writers believed in some degree of human freedom and responsibility. The Bible also affirms that God’s servants, even God’s very good servants, suffer. Job is called righteous, and he suffered. Jesus, according to Christian theology, made all the right choices in his life, and he suffered. The question is not whether some form of hardship will come, but rather what will come of the hardship.

And let me make a little point here. Suffering is hard to measure, and it is probably better not to even try. When our son was suffering from cancer, one of our friends complained to my wife about a problem she had, and then was embarrassed. “How could I complain to you about my tiny problem when you are facing such a big one?” she asked. Well, just what a particular problem does to you isn’t that easily measurable. Even the moment in a situation that is hardest to take differs. I recall my lowest point being when I spoke to the doctor and heard the word that cancer had spread and was not treatable. My wife was overseas leading a mission trip, and I knew it would take hours at best to contact her. I’ve never felt anything like that pain and isolation, even when he died. (It’s coming up on the anniversary of that, September 22, so it’s kind of running through my mind again.)

My wife Jody has just written a book about grief (which also is making me remember), based on what she learned in 12 years as a hospice nurse and our own experience. In it she said:

I believe that each loss is personal and the degree of grief or pain is personal and cannot be compared!

(OK, here’s the shameless advertising plug. The book is Grief: Finding the Candle of Light and should be shipping September 21. She has also written about this on her blog here.)

The question is not one of quantity or whether or not you will suffer. Suffering is an essential. The question is what you are going to do with it. One of the things both my wife and I have been able to do is to listen with sympathy to people who are undergoing loss, and occasionally even to talk to them. Many people were encouraged by the way that James faced death. That is a good thing that happened. I know a number of people who started to wear “Live Strong” bracelets because of what they saw in James’ life and the way he faced death. More importantly, they determined to “live strong” themselves.

Those are good things. Now comes the odd question. Did God kill James in order to accomplish those good things? I’ve found that there are some Christians who seem to need to think of it like that in order to deal with what happened. Somehow it’s easier for them to handle if God is doing everything. For others, the thought that God did it is so repugnant that they will deny it with all their force, or alternatively abandon faith because they can’t deny it, and feel certain that God did it.

There is a sense in which God does everything. He is that First Cause (logically, not temporally) that brought everything into being. If it were not for God there would be no cells, no DNA to have copying errors, and thus no cancer. At the same time, all of those things are results of that basic law of cause and effect without which freedom would have no meaning. Thus as I see it God didn’t give James cancer; James got cancer in God’s world.

I have been asked how I kept my faith through this struggle. I would say two things about that.

First, I never thought that my faith would make me exempt from the troubles that are in the world. In other words, my theological thinking about suffering was refined, but not essentially changed by this experience. This is a major reason I oppose prosperity theology. One’s faith is most needed when things are not going so well. Discipline is needed when they are going well.

Second, however, it was my faith that helped me work my way through it. To ask me why I didn’t abandon my faith in the midst of this difficulty is to ask a man in danger of drowning in heavy seas why he doesn’t let go of the life preserver. He’s in heavy seas, after all! But anyone in that situation would say, “That’s precisely why I’m clinging to this life preserver.”

Faith will be tested. How and when will vary. You may find it impossible to compare your suffering to someone else’s. The question is whether you will grow from it, or get destroyed by it.

PS: For more information, see my three essays titled The Hand of God, part 1, part 2, and part 3. These three essays are edited and incorporated in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic.