Suffering for the Cameras

I find myself at odds, quite frequently, with the evangelical establishment in which I was raised. There are a lot of wonderful evangelical people out there, but I’ve been trying to put my finger on just why the establishment rankles me.

One of my friends from seminary days is now a pastor in Missouri, and he recently put up a Facebook posting saying that John MacArthur’s Found: God’s Will was available for free on Kindles. I’ve respected this friend’s opinion for some time, and so I ordered it, and I’ve been reading it in the weeks since.

MacArthur lists five things that believers need to do in order to find God’s will: be saved, be Spirit-filled, be sanctified, be submissive, and be suffering. I get it — you have to believe, and you have to let the Holy Spirit infuse your decision-making process, slowly sanctifying (making it more likely that you will make morally correct decisions) you. You also have to submit to the authority of those over you, when that authority does not go against God’s teachings. It’s that last part — the “suffering” — where the evangelicals and I differ.

MacArthur defines “suffering” as the annoyance of living as Christians in a secular world. Standing in line at the grocery store and looking at magazines with the latest Kardashian outrage on the cover. Watching gay couples holding hands, walking in the park. Listening to the drunks sitting behind you at the football game. Turning on the television and having to choose between “Two and a Half Men,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Big Rich Texas,” while your kids listen to another round of sex jokes on “Big Bang Theory” upstairs. Enduring this sort of culture, to MacArthur, is the sort of suffering that Christians must endure to put up with God’s will. One must be willing to confront these sorts of evils, wherever they exist.

This sounds really good, until you look at what Jesus confronted. Was the woman who had been married several times, and was now living with a man who was not her husband, making the best choices? We don’t know. We do know that Jesus was kind to her. He saved his ire — his “suffering” — for the religious leadership of the day. The author Donald Miller recently blogged about what the real source of the world’s problems is.

MacArthur, and the other evangelicals in his camp, would say that the world has become godless. God might agree, but not for the reasons that MacArthur might think. Instead, Miller suggests that we each ask these four questions of ourselves:

1. Am I contributing to solutions that make the world better?
2. Do I really believe I’m part of the problem in the world?
3. Where do I see hope operating in the world?
4. How can I be in the world but not of it? And what does that even mean?

If you decide to engage in these questions, you don’t even have time to notice that the writing on television shows has descended, in many cases, to a choice between shock value and schlock value. You don’t have time to notice how lost everyone is, because you’re too busy trying to make the world a better place. The “suffering” comes not from annoyance at those who are not as clean as you see yourself, but from the realization that the world should be better. Not that others should be better — but that we should all be better; the hardest part of the suffering is realizing how much better I need to be. Jesus drew others to him simply by the love He showed others; those who were able to resist His love had steeled themselves against love with laws and interpretations and loopholes. They were too busy “suffering” in front of others to realize the true nature of the anguish that points us toward Messiah, yanks our arms to constantly remind us that there is a place of peace that God has made for all of us, and shows us how far our own world is from resembling that place.

A church that was too busy changing the world to stop and complain would be much more compelling than what we have now. There are enough people who gripe; engagement is a much better way to lead one’s life; as Donald Miller would say, it leads to a much better story.

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