One of the benefits of being a Christian most sold by Evangelicals is freedom in Christ. I’m constantly hearing that message, largely because Americans love freedom.
But for most Christians in America, freedom in Christ is a myth. It gets talked up everywhere, but almost no one truly experiences it.
It’s not hard to see why the talk doesn’t match reality. American Evangelical Christians seem almost desperate in their desire to be liked. We want people to like us as a person, like our church as a fellowshipping body, like our theology, like our church building, like our church programming, and on and on.
I remember a few years back when Newsweek magazine had a cover story trumpeting how Evangelical Christians were the in thing. We were everywhere, happening, and almost—dare I say it—cool. Evangelicals had elected the seemingly unelectable George W. Bush, and the halls of power were filled with others like us. Evangelicalism was “teh hotness.”
Seems like ancient history, doesn’t it?
Today, I sense an almost desperate, pleading attitude among Evangelicals. Instead of being president of the high school student council, we’ve fallen from the heights back into the awkward, gangly teen with braces and zits who desperately wants to fit in with the cool kids, but just can’t seem to wear the right clothes or drop the right lingo. No one seems to understand us, so the rest of the world moves on. We’re stuck at the punch bowl at the junior high dance, swaying off-beat to the music, alone in our own little world, no one to dance with.
And it hurts.
It hurts because for too long we’ve been caught in a trap of self-talk that says,
If people like you, their approval validates your message and beliefs.
Problem is, that line of thinking is nowhere to be found in the Bible. In fact, just the opposite:
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!”
That second verse is particularly telling, as our culture attempts to spin what is good and make it into evil. Suddenly, in the eyes of the world, the Gospel of Love is seen as a message of intolerance and hate.
And that spin makes for some rather sad shoehorning of all sorts of weird ideas into what the Gospel is as we Evangelicals cling madly to the hope that people will still like us, even as we serve up a message the world views as turned upside down from “truth.”
Here’s the thing, though. All that effort we put into dressing ourselves up to be presentable to a world that could care less about Christianity and our “weird, backward, intolerant message” would be a nonstarter if we didn’t care so much about what other people thought of us or our message.
Just as in our school days, the cool kids with sneers plastered over their carefully cultivated images look at us and say, “Why don’t you go drop dead, loser.”
But sometimes, even the worldly have something to teach us.
Hollywood, with its carefully cultivated images filled with artifice, bombards us with movies that exalt the schoolkid who stopped caring what the in-crowd thinks and just does what was right. Wasn’t that the kid who was truly free, who made the difference in the end?
The Bible has the answer; it’s called dying to self.
When I look over the American societal landscape, nothing strikes me more than the truth that genuine freedom in Christ only comes when Christians die to self and become nothing in the eyes of the world. Yet everything we’ve constructed in American Evangelicalism wars against that necessity.
Here is truth:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
—2 Corinthians 5:14-17
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Paul puts it succinctly:
You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.
—1 Corinthians 7:23
And yet we act as if we were still slaves, doing what the world tells us to do so as to garner its approval.
Wouldn’t this planet be different if we Christians in America truly died to self and to the world’s clarion call?
Think about it. The dead…
Don’t care what people think of them,
Don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses,
Don’t have busy schedules,
Don’t put themselves first,
Don’t have anywhere to be except where they have been planted,
Don’t worry about tomorrow,
Don’t have their own agenda,
Don’t have much need for money,
And don’t care if they get killed because they are already dead.
Here’s what God can do with the dead:
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.” So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
God makes an army out of the dead, an army that goes forth in His name. As they were once dry bones covered in rags, they have no fear of death, no cares of what the world thinks. And unlike in the days of Ezekiel, today God animates the dead with the life of His Son, who lives and reigns forever.
We have too many Christians today who live for themselves and not for God. Too many of us are not dead to all the worthless things this world has to offer. We worry how we’ll replace our iPod now that we dropped it and it stopped working (or worse, what to do when a new model comes out). We worry what people with think of us if we don’t have a smartphone, only a dumb one. We spend countless hours roaming stores buying stuff we don’t need. And we worry. About everything. Especially about what other people think about us. Especially when those other people are Christians.
We drive our kids to take on a million worthless activities so they can get into a worthless Ivy League college to gain a worthless career that makes worthless money so they can be a worthless person surrounded by worthless stuff that receives the worthless approval of other worthless people.
In my head, I can see what a church looks like when it is filled with people who are dead to the world and alive to Christ, people who live only to Him because He alone is their life. Mostly, I hear real world examples of this kind of church from missionaries who come back from impoverished nations and tell me that what we call church here in America is a pale imitation of the real thing. And they can say that because they’ve seen the real thing.
I hear a lot about freedom in Christ in America. But I think we confuse that with the American Dream, that same dream that only keeps us from dying to self.
Freedom in Christ comes only when we step out of our old, worthless selves and into a rough-hewn tomb. If we let Christ then roll away our stone, something amazing will happen.
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.