by Philip Sudworth.
In a poll for Time magazine a third of USA Christians surveyed agreed with the statement – “If you give money to God, God will bless you with more money.” This is a response to the message of some popular preachers who suggest that, if you are generous to God, he will be generous to you. Your business will flourish, or you’ll get a better job, or you’ll be healthier. We may dismiss such bargaining with God as materialistic and self-centred, and a long way from the teaching and example of Jesus. Yet a more subtle form of bargaining with God is found in the style of Christianity which focuses primarily on how we get to Heaven – the everlasting benefits of being a Christian. Here the major payback is deferred until the next life or until the new earth is established, but the motivation is much the same – the emphasis is on the rewards that faithfulness to the right beliefs will bring.
Of course, there are tremendous advantages from being a Christian. In addition to the eternal blessings, studies show a significant increase in spiritual and psychological well-being, which comes from knowing that one is loved and accepted and also from a sense of purpose, and this impacts positively on physical health. We should celebrate the gifts of faith. Yet, if people become Christians in order that God will protect them, heal them, forgive them or reward them; if it’s all about them and how they’re going to benefit, then is it really faith? Surely, faith is about entering into a relationship with God without self-interest. That may seem rather strange in our materialistic society, where so many people want to know – “What’s in it for me?”
However, it’s easy to understand the truth of it, if you’ve been in love. Love is about wanting the well-being of the one you love. It’s about putting the other first. You’ll collect your teenager from a party at 2 am because you put her/his safety above your sleep. You’ll stand on the touchline on a cold, wet day to support your child in her/his sport. You’ll take your spouse to a concert of music which s/he loves but you hate. Love is for the hard times as well as the easy ones. Loving makes you vulnerable. You hurt when your loved one hurts; you open yourself to rejection and to grief. The more deeply you love, the more you open yourself to being hurt.
Jesus’ message to us about what is at the heart of faith is also far more about offering than taking. There is a large element of self-sacrifice involved. “If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.” (Matt 16:24). That’s hardly the most popular saying of Jesus. You don’t find it very often on wayside pulpits! It’s not a very good recruitment slogan. We much prefer to stress the positive; what we get out of being a Christian. So we talk much more often about the power of God to solve our problems; the riches of God to supply our needs; the love of God to care for us and look after us. Yet we are called to follow Christ, and following Jesus is at least as much about being spent as being saved. Being “cross-centred” should not just mean turning our back on the world as we gaze in wonder at the cross. We have to place ourselves by the cross, at the heart of our hurting world, and see what Jesus saw and loved in people, even as he suffered.
Faith is about far more than assuring one’s own survival and salvation and/or gaining God’s favour during this life. We are not called to be slaves of God who respond out of fear of the consequences if we don’t obey. Nor are we called to be servants who look to the rewards we are promised if we fulfil our role satisfactorily. We are called to be children of God, called to a relationship of love – firstly with God and then with our fellow human beings. Self-sacrificing love has its costs, and we can get hurt. We might have to give up something we really want. If we care for people, they may still reject us or take out their frustration and hopelessness on us. Challenging injustice and proclaiming freedom can mean confronting vested interests and that can be dangerous. Opening ourselves up in self-sacrificing love is a risk but it means that we are also open to receive all the love that can flood into us.
John Wesley saw wholeness and harmony in the lives of those who have “a faith that works by divine love in the crucible of everyday life.” ‘Shalom’, with its sense of complete peace, wholeness, well-being and harmony, isn’t something we’ll find by bargaining with God or by striving for it. It will find us when we focus on working with God to bring peace and blessing to others.
Points to Ponder:
- How do you explain to non-believers why being a Christian is so worthwhile?
- What does “Take up your cross” mean in your life?
 Dieter, Melvin, Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p.12