C.S. Lewis halted a generation of would-be converts in their tracks when he famously said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
Lewis’ candor is certainly a strange sales pitch today, when Christianity is more often presented as good medicine for life’s ills than a costly call to faith. Today, Jesus is more often equated with the cure-all to felt needs—happiness, inner peace, life purpose and more— than the objective truth of the gospel. “Jesus will make your life better” is the gist of it.
But how does this pitch line up with the gospel? It hardly squares away with Jesus; words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 6:24.) If this is Jesus’ invitation, then we need to drastically change the current call to faith. Instead of making cheap promises, we need to ask the harder question: “Will you follow Jesus even if your life doesn’t get better?”
Too often evangelistic zeal truncates the gospel to be more accessible, more compelling, and more applicable to the felt needs of an audience. Are you sad? Jesus is your joy. Are you depressed? Jesus is your comfort. Are you confused? Jesus is your guidance. Surely, these are all important truths that are part of real faith. But they are not the whole package. If we’re not careful, we inadvertently imply that if one only focuses enough on Jesus, one’s circumstances will get better, and better, and oh-so infinitely better.
The False Promise Gospel
But the trend becomes even more disturbing as we observe the fallout of our Jesus-will-fix-all-my-problems kind of faith.
This gospel presentation misleads people to become more focused on their problems than on Jesus Himself. While they step into faith, they stay center stage. And unfortunately, when circumstances do head south, they are ill-equipped to deal with them. When something bad happens, all is lost. Many of us have had tear-filled conversations with friends who are questioning why God would let bad things happen to people, let alone to good people, and even more so to His people. When these questions go unanswered, many people leave faith behind because they are tired of waiting, or they do not trust God to actually show up. Instead they go off in search of their own, more immediate solution. They want comfort and happiness. They’d prefer the port. Ultimately, they are still the center of their lives, not God.
The sincerity of such struggles should not be undermined, nor the biblical precedent for lamenting overlooked. The Bible shows many of God’s people questioning His inactivity or perceived absence. However, it seems that people want to follow Jesus—even enthusiastically for a season—but then jump ship when their lives don’t get better, easier, brighter—you name it.
Perhaps we need to stop and examine if we have set them up for this by portraying a circumstantial spirituality that stops short of the robust faith of the Bible.
Jesus does make your life better. Jesus certainly is the ultimate problem-solver, and it is true that we will find our deepest purpose satisfied only in the life He offered on two crooked beams. But Jesus by no means promises a better life in the sense of all your circumstances. In other words, following Jesus doesn’t mean that everything will go smoothly, that every aspiration of your heart will be achieved, and that all your loved ones will live to see 100. Yes, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light but so is the gate wide that leads to destruction, and narrow the one that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14; 11:30.)
Somehow people get the notion that when God blesses, it means that He will give us great things and perfect circumstances—and right now. Or, if God’s blessing is upon us we can expect to have better lives than those who do not believe in Jesus. Blessing equals easier and better. Conversely, sometimes people believe that extended discomfort means there is something they have done wrong, or a lack of faith which inhibits God’s blessing. But what if this is a misconstrued concept of blessing? Can’t the blessing of God involve pain, suffering, waiting and holding on to a truth in spite of our circumstances? Isn’t it a blessing to be disciplined by our loving Father even if it causes discomfort?
In his classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan writes a beautiful hymn about the difficulties of the Christian journey: “This Hill, though high, I covet to ascend, The Difficulty will not me offend. For I perceive the Way to life lies here: Come pluck up Heart, let’s neither faint nor fear; Better, though difficult, the Right Way to go, Than Wrong, though easy, where the End is Wo.”
I can imagine Paul joining in the singing of this song. In his second letter to the Corinthians, after recounting all the challenges he faced following Jesus faithfully—in being mistreated, punished, sorrowful, poor—he concludes that in having nothing, he possessed everything (2 Corinthians 6:1-10.) When Paul’s life and circumstances were destitute, and when he could have been reasonably despondent, he experienced joy. How? He practiced an objective, God-focused Christianity rather than a subjective, me-focused Christianity. He was marked by a spirituality that takes the focus off oneself.
A Fresh Start to Faith
When we make personal benefits and rewards the starting point of our faith instead of praise that we owe our Savior, we start a walk of faith that is backward in its priorities. Yes, a great truth about God is that He is for us, with us, and even acts on our behalf. But it is His Truth that impacts our circumstances, and not the other way around. Our circumstances, as important as they may be, are not the primary guidelines for our faith. What is supposed to be our hope, our trust, despite whatever may come is that God is true, good, eternal and persistently consistent. Our trust is in God’s character, revealed ultimately in the gospel, and not in how congruent our circumstances are with what we know of God.
Often, circumstances will not be as easy or comfortable as we would prefer. The Bible paints an honest picture of reality: You will sin, you will have challenges in relationships, people will hurt you and you will hurt them, the world is set against you and evil is actively working against you. So, what do we do? The one consistent action of the people of God is a recognition of who God is, what he has done in the past and what He promises to accomplish at the end of time. We can rest our faith on the permanence of this truth.