I like the guy’s plays well enough and I’m sure he was an interesting dude to chill with, but never editing or rewriting his work? I hate him! Seriously, where does he get off?
Okay, so I don’t really hate Shakespeare, I’m just moderately annoyed by the editing process. I could have written at least two other first drafts in the time it’s taken me to edit and rewrite the one I’ve been working on. The upside is it’s much better than when I started.
In any case, if you’re interested this is the last chapter… it aint short:
13. The Beginning as Conclusion
It’s in our nature to share good news, it’s one of those things we do without being taught or coaxed. Keeping good news secret goes against our instinctive desires. Look at children who are told about a vacation or a party. Even when you tell them to keep quiet, it takes no time for the news to spill out of them. There is purity in the joy that comes through sharing the things that make us happy. Even as adults we like to share good news, as if telling others about a new job, an engagement, or a birth makes that thing more real - more alive. Sharing good news allows it to be reborn in the lives of others.
Sharing good news is one of the most natural and enjoyable aspects of life. Yet for some reason, this part of who we are often grows stagnant, when our spiritual beliefs are involved, especially for those of us several years down the road of faith. An odd balance can play out in our lives, the thing ideally the closest and most precious to us, becomes the thing we guard and protect from the eyes and criticism of others. Making this odd is the rarity with which this paradigm plays out in other areas of our lives. Most other times, the only thing preventing us from spouting off to everyone else is a lack of surety. The possibility of a promotion, the hint of a desired pregnancy, your team having a lead with time left on the clock are all exciting and good situations, yet we often keep silent about them until the promise comes is realized. This makes me think many of us either don’t understand the gospel as good news or we are unsure of its result. There are other options, but these two seem the most likely starting points.
For many of us, our relationship with evangelism begins on a broken leg. We hear it taught, Christians are “supposed” to evangelize and make disciples of people. This creates the impression following through on the great commission goes against our natural desires, as if we are being forced to eat our broccoli before we get a shot at dessert. We put together evangelistic outreaches, we build ourselves up for ministry, we get training to participate, and we breath a sigh of relief when they are over - having filled our quota of evangelistic effort for the year. I have no problem with evangelistic outreaches or with training; they are good things and I’m grateful I’ve participated in several versions of both over the years. The issue I’m trying to get at is how we come to understand evangelism as a “should” rather than a natural expression of our desires. This is different from what we see in the early church and in the lives of those who followed Jesus.
I don’t know what it was that brought about this shift - this twist in the theological and doctrinal intent of our lives - but at some point this change affected the way a large portion of Christianity related to evangelism. The perspective was transformed from one of nature to one of obligation. Perhaps it is attached to the popularization of Christianity through the conversion of Constantine, or is connected to the concept of penance, but the effects are clearly visible to anyone who looks at large sections of Christian culture. Obviously there are exceptions. Sometimes these exceptions envelop whole regions and countries for long periods of time. But it seems clear these truly are exceptions, at least within Western and large swaths of the rest of Christianity. I’ve felt the sting myself, having felt failure and shame for not being a better witness, for not taking more chances to share the gospel with my friends, and for not being a better more profound and prolific Christian. These feeling came from some strange thought I had failed God or let Jesus down.
I refuse to believe this strange brokenness is the result of a healthy relationship with evangelism, the great commission, or the gospel. I want to get back to the place where evangelism is a natural expression of faith, both in words and actions, and is a basic and common element of life.
The obligation to evangelize can be built on a few “great commission” type passages in scripture. I won’t argue with these or try to take away from the importance of them. I’m not that stupid or foolish. My desire is to remove the burden of performance, and accomplishment, they sometimes bring to our relationship with God. I’ve grown up in and around ministry and I’ve often found myself in leadership and in official team roles. Most of the time these have been fun experiences and they’ve always been great learning and giving opportunities. One of the most important lessons to come out of these experiences, as well as one of the easiest to forget, is that God doesn’t need me. My participation, or lack there of, can influence God’s plan and action, but the final outcome of God’s cosmic will doesn’t depend on my ability to succeed in ministry.
The simplest ministry trap to fall into is the one telling us the outcome depends on our abilities. This belief can come from a place of humility or arrogance, but it is always attached to ignorance. This burden damages, or destroys, the people, relationships, and ministries connected to it. Skill, sacrifice, and perseverance all have places in ministry, but they are not the source or the foundation of ministry. The simple truth is we don’t fulfill, or bring about the will of God, through our actions; rather, we participate with God as He accomplishes His will through the power of the Holy Spirit. We own the opportunity of participation, not the burden of performance. The greatest preacher in the world, if disconnected from the Holy Spirit, will only be able to accomplish his own desires. Yet, a functional illiterate with a stutter, when connected to the Holy Spirit, can accomplish the fullness of God’s desires.
A couple of events have helped me understand the force of God’s will and recognize the extensive nature of the tools available to Him. One familiar to us is the conversion of Paul. God decided He wanted to use Paul to accomplish His will, and so He confronted him. Eventually other people played parts in Paul’s development, but the call and the power of his conversion belonged exclusively to God. The evangelism of Paul was the violent revelation of God.
While traveling in Indonesia with my brother Aaron, we were exposed to a similar event. One of the great benefits of ministry in nonwestern environments is crazy stuff is much more likely to happen. Culturally, there is a more open and connected relationship with the spiritual realm, for both good and bad, in communities with philosophical perspective that don’t reject the spiritual realm.
At the time of our trip, many parts of Indonesia were going through serious cultural and religious violence. For every story of violence and tragedy we heard, saw pictures of, or passed through the aftermath of we also heard a story or saw evidence of God’s miraculous intervention in the lives of people. Some of these stories were absolutely crazy and amazing while others were simply touching and heartwarming. One of the coolest stories we heard took place in a Muslim community on one of the larger islands:
A group of Muslims were praying together in a mosque when Jesus appeared to them. He essentially told them who he was and asked why they weren’t following him. The impact this had on their lives was catastrophic. After they started telling people what they saw and that they now believed in Jesus, family members started abducting them and locking them away. This was to enable the families to force the new believers back into Islam. Protecting the family honor and defending the cultural grip of Islam was important to them. Knowing they were in trouble, and that their time was almost up, about a dozen of the new believers fled their homes and families and took refuge in a Christian community.
It would be easy for Aaron and myself to file this story in the “urban legend” category of mission field experiences. That is, it would been easy had we not met several of these new Christians in the community sheltering them. When we asked what Jesus looked like they said, “Hairy!” Indonesian men are not known for their robust body hair.
There is much to take from the story of Paul, and of the Muslims who saw Jesus, but what I want to focus on is the revelation that God doesn’t “need” us to evangelize and to accomplish His will. These stories of conversion are not the norm, but they show God is capable His own thing. When we are called into the great commission, we are called into a work God is already active in. Much like an invitation to go on a walk with a close friend, the commission to share the gospel is not a demand for performance but is an invitation to participate in a journey already underway.
Matthew 9:13 is a pivotal passage in my life. In it Jesus tells the people he didn’t come for the healthy but for the sick, he then says, “Go and learn what this means, I desire compassion and not sacrifice.” I spent a lot of time working through this passage and connecting the implications of it to my life, and how I saw God. Toward the end of this long process, a central reality of this simple phrase dawned on me. Jesus wasn’t telling people God desired/required compassion because He was unable to act in that way on His own; rather, He desired/required compassion because it was consistent with who He was. God’s desire for His people to be filled with compassion is consistent with His desire that we be made in His image. God values compassion because it is consistent and intertwined with His nature. In order for us to participate with God in the fulfillment of His will we must join with him in His nature, we must begin to become like him.
The call to preach the gospel, to witness to who God is and what He has done, and to make disciples of the nations, is not a command separated from the current actions of God. The great commission is a task God is actively pursuing and it is a task He has invited us to participate in. If you want to spend time with God, start doing the things God does. Spend time with the sick, learn how to love those who are hurting, and share the gospel with those around you. If we are, as we claim to be, Christians, then it is in our nature to be like Christ.
The realization that we are to be “like Christ” becomes a burden to those who believe they can accomplish it according to their own ability. Fortunately, this burden of accomplishment is not intended for us. The Holy Spirit is our point of connection with the Union of God. It is the Spirit that transforms us into the image we are incapable of finding on our own. It is through the Spirit of God that we are able to participate, in ever increasing ways, in the will and the work of God. How the Spirit influences our ability to engage the fullness of the gospel, and walk in the great commission, is as unique to each of us as we are from each other. Consistent for each of us is the necessity to ask, seek, knock, and yield; absent is the burden of guilt and shame.
I spent the previous chapters trying to share a greater depth and a more compelling relationship with the gospel. This was an attempt to break the gospel free from our preconceived notions and as an exercise to help me reform what I believe and understand about the gospel. Everything is done in the desire to see God more clearly and to allow the reality of God to remold our actions and behavior. This forced me to acknowledge several places of disconnect in my life between what I say I believe, and what my actions reveal about my belief. Through this process I’ve come to believe the anxiety and fear many of us develop, in regard to evangelism, develops from an incomplete connection to the truth and the power of the gospel. This same gospel, ideally, establishes our faith. As I’ve said, if we believed the gospel to be good news and we are sure of it, our natural response will be to share it with others.
One of the roots, in this broken relationship, grows from believing the “prize” of Christianity is the right to dodge hell and get into heaven, or that the “goal” of Christianity is to stop sinning and live better lives. Oddly enough, and much to the benefit of my own peace, I’ve stopped considering either of these as attached to, or at least central to, faith in Jesus. The true prize and goal of Christianity is a developing, and eventually unmitigated, relationship with God.
I’m not sure how heaven and hell figure into a healthy Christian motivation, but I’m increasingly sure they shouldn’t be primary. A new heaven and a new earth are clearly part of God’s plan, but as Christians, we may never see heaven. To indulge in a rabbit trail, a strong argument can be made for the new earth being our eternal inheritance rather than heaven. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I recognize it as a possibility. This shakes me free from the power of my own limited fantasies about heaven and frees me to remember: God is Himself the prize. As anyone playing competitive team sports can tell you, winning the game needs to be the reward for winning the game. When indulged, personal glory, showmanship, or the desire for trophies break focus and erode a team’s ability to win. Whatever comes after the game comes after the game. At the same time, it seems pretty clear, cutting back on the sinning and becoming a better person is a positive aspect of a developing relationship with God, but it is a reflective aspect rather than the motivation or the purpose of it.
What’s appeared to happen, through focusing on getting to heaven or in making people less sinful, is our motivations and desires have been corrupted. In a subtle way, God is removed from the reward, and the value, of faith. As Johnny Cash sings in The Wanderer, “…they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.” This may be a bit harsh, but an element of truth exists here. The concept of God as the prize has been transformed into God as the regulator of the prize. I wonder how people would respond to the question, “Would you rather end up in heaven, even though God isn’t there, or never go to heaven, but be with God?” These subtle shifts from center twist the starting point and impacts what we believe and how we talk about God.
As I said in the first chapter, it is best if the reward for a thing is found in the action of that thing. If we speak the gospel for the purpose of bending others to our beliefs, to get them to join our club, or to pass some entry requirement for heaven, people will recognize it and they will build their barriers. To which I say, “Good for them”, I wish more of us demanded integrity. If we need a response to validate our efforts, we are setting ourselves in a position to fail and offend. At the same time, if we share the gospel for the simple purpose of telling people about the good news, the same news that changed us, the reward is found in the act of giving rather than the response it produces. If someone says, “What do you expect from me?” And we respond with anything other than, “Nothing. I just wanted to give you what I’ve been given. Your response belongs to you and God.” then we need to question our motives. Obviously we want them to come to the party, but our part is to tell them they are invited. Obviously we want our friends to be healed and made alive in God, but the purpose for us is in the telling.
An interesting trend within the gospels is the way Jesus connects the image of partying, celebrations, and banquets to the central reality of the kingdom of heaven. In fact, the act of evangelism is often presented as the simple act of freely inviting people into the midst of an existing celebration. In light of who God is, or we at least believe him to be, shouldn’t we eagerly invite our friends to meet Him and to spend time at one of His parties? For those of us who don’t, shouldn’t we ask ourselves why, rather than blindly accepting the guilt and shame of being sub-par Christians?
As we move past broken goals and twisted desires we come into contact with more personal issues. For some of us it is our lack of confidence and desire that moderates our communication of the Gospel. These may develop because we don’t think our friends would want to come to our churches or from a fear of rejection; these have certainly influenced me in the past. Likely though, the most common challenge for me has been figuring out what to say without sounding like a tool. I can talk sports, politics, theology, movies, books, music, art, and culture with almost anyone at almost any time, and I can do it without any fear of rejection or embarrassment. I don’t really care what other people think about these things. We can respectfully disagree, grudgingly agree, or call each other idiots and move on, with or without our friendships intact, and I’m fine with it. Yet for some reason, sharing the gospel doesn’t fall into this category of indifference. I think this is because I do care about what people think about the gospel, and I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t want to push people further away from Jesus, or myself, because I come across as some crazy street preacher or a disingenuous door-to-door salesman. Another aspect is the gospel is much more central to my identity than any of those other topics. To figure out how to share the gospel in a genuine way is to figure out how to be naked in front of others and say, “This is who I am.” The humbling thing is this is exactly what Jesus did.
As Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation…” The power of God is the nakedness of God revealed. As much as we might want to shy away from this statement, we must instead desperately cling to it. God, both literally and figuratively, stripped Himself naked in the person of Jesus. In front of all humanity he stood naked and said, “Rest easy, this is who I am. Be at peace, this is who my Father is.”
Out of some broken sense of modesty and propriety, we are constantly caught in the sin of trying to cloth Jesus. The problem is he doesn’t provide us with garments of doctrine that can cover his nakedness, or place him at a safe distance. Like fools, we use our own garments and doctrines to cloth Jesus and protect ourselves from the violence, beauty, and intimacy revealed in the naked image of God. I call this sin because we become guilty of rejecting God yet again. In a cosmic game of chicken God stands raw before us, and more often than not, we are the ones who turn away. Only rarely do we let ourselves mirror Jesus and allow ourselves to stand raw before God. The funny thing is, when we stand naked before God and say, “This is who I am”, the voice we hear says, “I know. I have always known, and you have always been enough. You are my child whom I love and I am well pleased with you. I know you, and I am happy to be your Father.”
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, He created all of creation and said, “It is good.” The divine Trinity formed humanity in their likeness and they said, “We like this.” The rest of the story dwells in the truth of these two statements. No matter how many miles we put under our feet or how many scars we pick up along the way, the truth of God doesn’t change. The good news of God is that God is who He is. He is the Alpha and the Omega, He bookends creation, and He is on every page of every book that rests between. The first picture given of God, the one who walked with Adam and Eve because He wanted to, is the same picture we are given when Jesus walked with his family, friends, countrymen, and enemies. It is the same picture given when the Spirit of God came at Pentecost and became inseparable from the children of God. The gospel of God is the revelation of the God who desires to be with those He loves, the revelation of a God who loves for the sake of loving and gives for the sake of giving. Justice is defined by His desires and true love reveals itself through His actions. The simplest description of the gospel is this: God is who God is. As He told Moses, “I AM that I AM.” After all of the arguments, wondering, wandering, and searching, it is the identity of God that establishes everything. It is all that matters.
The gospel is all that matters because there is nothing else. The question left to us is, do we believe?