We need to have a conversation about our expectations of life as Christians, because we often communicate the wrong expectations, and as a result, we set people up to get wrecked.
“I can’t believe this is happening to you.”
When my late wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with cancer, and even more when that diagnosis became terminal, we heard many riffs on the familiar theme “I can’t believe this is happening to you.” Sometimes they added the even more damning “You’re such good Christian people.”
We understood that, for many, they were trying to express sadness at our sadness, and we appreciated their hearts. However, the words always disturbed us. What did they mean, they couldn’t believe it? How did they think the world worked? How did they think Jesus worked?
Scripture paints another picture.
Increasingly, as I both walk through a brutal season in my life and walk beside the suffering as a pastor, I have realized that they don’t share Scripture’s expectations for life in this age. The Bible is unflinchingly realistic. “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus tells us (John 16:33, ESV). “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” David adds (Psalm 34:19, ESV). Peter, naming the very denial many of us feel, says it the most clearly: “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12, ESV). Yet surprise is exactly what many Christians feel, coupled with indignation at this unanticipated pain.
Where did our wrong ideas come from?
Some of it is an infection of American values inserted into biblical promises. Our culture is no better than the church in confronting the hard parts of life. It treats them as something to be fixed by innovation or strategy or brute bootstrap-pulling, and those same tendencies infect our faith. There is a subtle prosperity gospel permeating much of the church far more widespread than its obvious, private-jet-naming-and-claiming forms.
We think we can offer solutions.
However, the deeper reason I think we give people the wrong expectation is because of our own desire to help. The great human temptation, in the face of brokenness, is to think, “I can fix this.” We are children who, seeing a shattered antique vase, rush off to find some scotch tape. We want to give people solutions to their pain, sadness, and grief. After all, that feels like doing something.
We don’t stare sorrow in the face, sit in it, and weep as we should. As a result, we don’t talk about it with each other or teach it from our pulpits. Giving people five steps to a happy life feels like we are being helpful; simply admitting that sometimes life is deeply sad is not.
Yet that is exactly what Scripture leads us to do. Yes, we are called to rejoice in the Lord. Yes, we are to persevere in suffering with hopes set on Jesus. However, none of that removes the need to honestly and repeatedly admit the hardness that runs along with the joy.
Let’s keep the conversation going.
Facebook: @eric.tonjes @navpressbooks