For the poem inspired by this post, click here.
Those who know me well know that I have a cynical streak. I’m skeptical of miracles (though I believe in them, at least in theory). I suspect that the reason the prosperity gospel is so popular is because the power of positive thinking frequently works, and I suspect that tithing only makes you richer because it forces you to realize how little money you have and spend the 90% better than you otherwise would have.
I sat in a church service this morning pondering Romans 8 in its context, without the prosperity gospel shell around it. I tried to imagine it as its first-century hearers would have heard it. I’ll set the stage.
It’s the first century. Being a Christian is high treason because, as all loyal citizens of the Roman Empire know, Caesar is Lord, and the Son of God, and the man named Jesus who was executed a few years back can’t be. He’s dead. Ironically, he told his followers to take up their crosses, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. Anyone who says that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t declares war on the empire.
In the midst of all this, a letter arrives from the Apostle Paul. Starting in 8:18, it reads thusly:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Surely this isn’t the victorious Christian life! Sufferings? Christians do not suffer, and if we do, we must fight for our rights as Americans! And what is this Hope of which Paul speaks? Talking people into accepting Jesus? “Revival?” Better homes and gardens? Better vehicles? Nationally syndicated Christian television shows? “Success,” whatever that is? Miraculous healings? What are Paul’s readers, and Paul himself, hoping for???
I’m not telling yet.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
None of these things can separate Christ’s followers from the love of Christ.
Notice what Paul doesn’t say: that none of these things will befall Christ’s followers.
“Hardship” doesn’t sound like “Blessed and cannot be cursed.”
“Distress” doesn’t sound like always having peace in all circumstances.
“Persecution” doesn’t sound like you’ll always have great relationships.
“Famine” and “nakedness” doesn’t sound like Christ’s followers are promised that they will always have plenty to eat if they have enough faith.
“Peril” doesn’t sound like your best life now.
And “sword,” well, that doesn’t really fit into the Christamerican religion unless you’re in the military, in which case, God is on your side because you’re American.
I don’t mean to overstate my case, but I think an argument can be made that Paul never says Christ’s followers’ lives will be trouble-free and is in fact assuming the exact opposite.
He says that even if these things happen, they can’t pry us away from the love of Christ.
Wait, what? The love of Christ is what’s supposed to keep us out of situations like that in the first place! Let’s read on:
As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Wait, what the — ?? “For your sake we are being killed all day long”? In all these things we are more than conquerors? In all these things? In hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword? What the what?! Would someone please explain to me exactly how we are more than conquerors in all these things?!
Well, nobody’s raising their hand, so I have a suggestion:
What if the gospel is bigger than that?
What if the gospel is bigger than God intervening on our behalf in every situation? What if the gospel is more than getting nice cars and houses and getting along with everybody?
What if the gospel is resurrection?
If the gospel were nicer homes, better jobs, and better homes and gardens, the world in the way it shakes could knock it down and take it away. The world as it is could fall apart. The markets could crash, and everybody who’s more than a conqueror in Jesus Christ could become a sidewalk prophet talking about the glory days back when God was blessing them, and thinking they’ve got a demon now.
But if the gospel is resurrection, then let the stock market crash. Let the democrats or republicans (whichever side you think is evil) get into power and destroy America. Let the terrorists win. Let the price of food skyrocket. Let the world fall apart. It can’t touch you, because that’s not where your hope is.
This is not to say that we should destroy the world. This is simply to say that to Paul’s original readers, the “hope” of which he spoke was nothing less than resurrection – resurrection of the entire kosmos! Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, the firstborn of many brothers. As N.T. Wright suggests (borrowing from Paul in the first passage I quoted), what happened to Jesus is going to happen to the whole universe.
And if that happens,
if that is the case,
then there is nothing to fear
in all these things.