As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
In high school, I took a class called “Christians in Society.” We looked at many of the hot-button social issues that dominate conversations in both secular media and Christian communities today—abortion, euthanasia, religious freedom, gender and sexual identity, and more. One day, in the midst of a particularly intense discussion, one of my classmates raised a hand and said, “I think that all of the issues that we are talking about in this course could be dealt with better if we as Christians recognized that the church needs to evolve alongside society. We need to stop being stuck in the past and judging people. Instead we need to be accepting of their decisions so that everyone in our world can live happy lives, full of love. Isn’t that what we are called to do as Christians?”
This comment raised a number of red flags for me. While I was in full agreement with the fact that Christians need to love all people regardless of the decisions they make because we as sinners have no right to judge others, the comment about the church needing to evolve alongside society and the implication that love means ensuring that all people can live happy lives by their own definitions concerned me.
It is so easy to confuse love and compassion with providing blanket permission for people to be free to do whatever will make them happy. Not only does adopting these views from secular culture enable us to get along better with people who do not share our faith, but they also suggest permission for us to make decisions that ensure our own happiness.
However, the Bible does not promise that God’s love for us will always mean happiness as our culture defines it. Matthew 16:24-26 provides us with a distinctly different message with regard to the call for our lives: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
If we are to take seriously this call for our lives in Matthew 16, we must ask ourselves this question: In a world where comfort is key, where gaining the world is treated as the purpose for our very existence, what do we do with God’s call on us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ? Phrased another way, what do we do when our culture provides us with a counter-narrative to the one in Scripture, one that, on the surface, appears far more alluring, satisfying, and fulfilling than the one that Scripture offers?
Matthew 16 takes our culture’s view of comfort and calling and flips it on its head. As Christians, we are not called to comfort but to crosses. The crosses we are called to carry in the name of God’s kingdom work are inconvenient, even painful, and decidedly counter-cultural. Articulated simply, they are uncomfortable, and we don’t like them. We want, as Matthew 16 says, to “gain the world” because we are told by our culture and by the sinful whispers of our hearts that this is the purpose for our earthly lives. The devil’s voice inside all of us echoes his words from the mouth of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, casting doubt on God’s good intentions for people. After all, he whispers, who would desire to be faithful to a God who tells you that you must lose your life in order to find it? In that whispered question, those of us living in the world—a world oriented toward comfort in the form of material wealth, individual fulfillment, and relative truth—are subject to great temptation, stimulating our desire for gain of the world while the devil in turn gains our souls.
Shouldering our crosses means combating these temptations. It means giving up contentment and comfort to serve God. It means losing our lives in order to find them in him. It means that the church, rather than evolving alongside society, must find that challenging balance between living in the world but not being of it. If we are to respond faithfully to the call in Matthew 16, we must recognize that the true purpose for our lives is in our creation as imagebearers of God, the only being who has the right to gain the world. That is, in fact, the purpose of God’s kingdom work of which we are called to be a part: restoring the created world that has been broken by humankind’s sin. This is where kingdom and cross intersect, for there is no perfect kingdom without a cross. Jesus had to die on a cross to accomplish God’s plan of redemption.
While we are not all called to go as far as death on our crosses, we are called to mirror the sacrificial love that brought Christ there.
The comforts of this world are not always wrong or to be avoided—indeed, many are blessings from God. They become wrong when our desire for them displaces our desire for God and service to God’s kingdom. If Jesus had been more concerned with his comfort than his cross, we would be without the hope of eternal life that sustains us in the midst of our suffering. Similarly, if we are more concerned with our comfort than our crosses, God’s kingdom on earth is without hope. Therefore, we must be willing to deny ourselves the earthly comforts to which we cling, those that bring only temporary happiness. In so doing, we will find that our ultimate comfort and true joy is in faithfulness to our calling, taking up our cross and following in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior as we respond to his gift of life by continuing God’s kingdom work here on earth.