Last week I was in Bandung Indonesia for an Asian Christian leadership conference.
This Christ-centred event raised more sharply than ever the question of whether a spiritually mature Church can ever exist in a materially affluent culture.
For instance, an elderly South Korean related how after two major wars Korea was one of the poorest nations on earth, then the people started to cry out to God and experienced both economic and spiritual miracles.
Today Protestant Christians are easily the most highly educated and professional group in the country.
But in recent years there have been subject to public scandals a marked decline in prayerfulness and the nation’s youth are turning away from the Church in droves.
What surprised me in Indonesia was listening to speakers from a wide range of nations bemoaning deviations that are becoming normal part of church life. In Thailand for instance a leader is more likely to be chosen for strategic reasons than because he/she is a person of character.
All the sins of the Western Church I have been speaking against for decades seem to be infiltrating the “two thirds world”.
One Puritan famously said of the early American experience; “Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother.” Is this situation inevitable? It certainly seems to be usual in scripture.
Moses explained that the wilderness experience of Israel was a fatherly test so that in the land of promise they might not say;
But he also prophesied,
Throughout the history of God’s old covenant people physical prosperity is repeatedly followed by spiritual ruin.
Possessed by our Possessions.
For instance the mega rich Solomon, unlike his father David, led Israel into idolatry (1 Ki 11:4).
Whilst the New Testament covers a short span of time we see the same problems surfacing.
Paul warns, “in the last days…people will be lovers of self, lovers of money…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:1ff.).
These are our days and Christ warned a Church like our own; “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:16).
Few Australian Christians find material prosperity a block to their spiritual maturity because the creature comforts of our capitalist culture long ago got the upper hand. We are possessed by our possessions.
Contrast this with the testimony of the Early Church; “those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them…and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4: 32, 34-35).
Living as the family of God the first Christians laid aside their legal rights of ownership so as to better care for each other.
Working to Give to Others
In the light of Christ they knew everything a Christian has is a gift from God and presents an opportunity to give to others. E.g. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph 4:28).
I can’t think of many local believers whose primary motivation for working is to give to others. If you are an exception it can only be because you have had an exceptional revelation of the gospel.
Christ the Key
The Bible upholds the super-generosity of God in Christ; “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9).
In heaven Jesus was full of the riches of the love of his Father, but sensing a lost humanity in great spiritual, moral and physical pain he was moved to empty himself and enter our sphere of suffering (Phil 2:7-8).
The absolute impoverishment of the cross launched Jesus into the resurrection as the restorer of all God planned for us to enjoy in the beginning (John 1:16).
Christ’s emptiness has becomes fullness for us (Col 2:9-10).
This measure of love alone can heal the selfish possessive individualism which grips the culture of Western Christianity.
SACRIFICE IS THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY
Jesus gave up everything for us that we might give up everything for him, and for others. Such sacrifice is the essence of Christianity; “By this we know love that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16). Many Christians are praying for the power of the Spirit to signs, wonders and live a more prosperous life. Yet how rare is it to hear folk praying for spiritual power to lay down their lives for others like Christ did. Such prayers would be answered! Whilst most believers would affirm what I have said above hedonism still reigns among us. When I asked the Lord for a solution to this problem he gave me a concrete reply.
The “Clapham sect” was a group which combined affluence with extreme Christian commitment. Gathered around William Wilberforce this wealthy influential group were moved by the sufferings of slaves to give unreservedly of their resources to alleviate suffering.
These men and women truly knew the Spirit’s power because he enabled them to be sensitive to Christ’s sensitivity to the pains of others. This empathy is exactly what is lacking in the affluent Australian Church of today.
It is the “fellowship of sufferings” that alone can enable us to live as exceptions to our greedy culture (Phil 3:10).
The cross teaches that the one thing more powerful than personal pleasure is a love that feels the pain of others.
Material prosperity and spiritual maturity can exist together wherever the followers of Jesus are willing to be brought in touch with the sufferings of lost humanity. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that.
The history of humanity’s quest for affluence is predictable but not inevitable.
The enticements of the delights of Eden overpowered any awareness of the pain sin would cause God (Gen 3:6).
Canaan was a new Eden whose worldly temptations proved as irresistible as the Garden.
Contemporary Australia too is an “Eden” where most believers choose possessions and sensory experiences, especially the emotional one they have in Church, over the pure but painful love of God!
This can change if we ask the Holy Spirit to give us a deeper identification with love’s sensitivity to the pain of others expressed in the cross.
The fruit of such prayer will surely be the highly unusual combination of material prosperity and spiritual maturity.
Do not however expect such a form of life to be appreciated by the wider society or the dominant culture of the Church.
Those who follow in this way of Christ will experience the power of the Spirit, but they will also be labelled, like the godly of old were, as another extreme Christian “Sect”.
But haven’t we had enough of “normality”??
MESSAGE DELIVERED: 11.9.16 |
Author: Dr. John Yates