Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On Suffering and Sacrifice: Entitlement, the Great Adversary of Sacrifice (CW-My Lovely Wife)

CW comes from a strong line of Christian heritage, including pastors and three generations of missionaries. She has lived all over the world and served as a teacher in Japan and Central Asia, where she also aided in community development. She is preparing to move to Asia to work on issues of justice and advocate for the marginalized. And she is my wife...and I love her.

This is basically my testimony and myself preaching to myself as I think about sacrifice and what God expects of me.
When I was 22, I moved to Japan, as a teacher. I spent three years there, and then another three years in Central Asia also teaching and doing community development. For the first four to five years of that time, I was young, free of debt, ambitious, had no desire to settle down, and just enjoyed the ride of serving God overseas. Then something started happening in my heart. I was 27, no prospects of marriage, burnt out from investing my life in others without seeing fruit, and really angry with God. Bitterness and entitlement began welling up in my heart before I could even name them. Here, I had “sacrificed” so much for His Name and Calling, and didn’t feel like He was giving me anything in return.

In the midst of my whining and complaining, God brought my husband to Central Asia, and we quickly fell in love and moved back here to the great USA to get married and start our family. Now, I didn’t go completely crazy, because we were pretty “poor” and my husband wouldn’t let me, but my heart coveted all that America had to offer – a nice house, a picket fence, Starbucks coffee every morning, trips to the mall, and fancy gadgets with unlimited access to the Internet. Yes, we were/are the typical middle-class American family.

Then my husband started talking crazy, talking about moving our little cozy family to the slums of Asia. WHAT!! You want me to sacrifice all this and live like a poor person? No way! I’m a middle-class American, and really happy right now! That’s when God began doing a second (or 102nd) conversion in my heart. As I really searched the Scriptures and read and re-read the life and example of Jesus, the Incarnate, (and Shane Claiborne and Scott Bessenecker), I realized that I had some serious issues going on in my heart – first and foremost: ENTITLEMENT.

Jesus is the ultimate example of what it looks like to sacrifice, after all He did make the ultimate sacrifice – His death on the cross. But, what I began to really understand was that from the moment of His birth, all the way through His three years of ministry, and then death – SACRIFICE characterized His every move and attitude.

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2).

Jesus was entitled to all the world has to offer – He made it after all (Col 1). Yet, He was born into poverty, never owned a home, made a simple living as a carpenter, gave up his beauty rest to spend time communing with His Father, gave His time and full attention to the needy, lost His reputation by hanging out with the prostitutes and destitutes, was constantly mocked and criticized, was disliked more than liked, and then died in the place of a murderer.

Then I look to the early church – those following Christ, who had actually seen Him in action. What was their attitude towards entitlement and sacrifice? They sold their possessions, lands, homes, so that anyone in need could be supplied for. They had no entitlement issues! Amazing!

I get so trapped into thinking that because I serve God, do good things, and am a pretty good person, I’m entitled to good things. The problem is, in reality there is no connection between doing and being good and good things. The teaching of Jesus is, that when we follow Him, we will be persecuted; we will be challenged to sell all we have and give to the poor; we will no longer serve money/things/possessions, and instead we will give to whoever has need. Last time I checked, 1 in 6 people live in extreme poverty. There is need out there, and I have entitlement issues!

I like to daydream about what it would look like if I got over my entitlement issues and really made some sacrifices. What would it look like to have no money in my savings account because I gave it all away to the poor? What would happen if I spent less time in bed and woke up and spent hours with Jesus each morning? What would happen if I gave up every Saturday morning to serve the homeless here in Philly?

I have a feeling these really small sacrifices would actually set me free.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shane Claiborne on Suffering and Sacrifice

Shane Claiborne is founding partner of The Simple Way, an intentional community in Kensington, PA. He is the best selling author of The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President. He is one of the pioneers of the New Monastic movement and loves the circus.

There’s so much in our culture that teaches us to move away from suffering and to move away from people who don’t look like us and to move out of neighborhoods where there’s high crime and things like that. And yet the heart of the Gospel is that that God hears the suffering, enters into the suffering. Hebrew Scriptures are filled with this. One of the first stories we have is God hears the cry and the pain of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and rescues them out of their slavery and over and over you hear this theme in Scripture that God is close to the poor and hears the cry of the oppressed. 

We don’t need to be doing this out of guilt or duty but out of this is what we’re made for. Mother Teresa had a great line when this journalist said “I couldn’t do what you do for a million dollars. You’re such a saint.” And she said “I wouldn’t do it for a million dollars either.” What you begin to discover is that we’re made to live for something bigger than ourselves and I think that’s what we’re about and what we’re discovering. Isaiah says so brilliantly, when we spend our lives on behalf of the suffering, our healing comes and our light begins to shine as well. So it’s not only life-giving to others but it’s life-giving to us. I think in a lot of wealthy countries we pursue other dreams – the American dream or the Wall Street dream or the Canadian dream. We settle short of the kind of life that God wants for us. We see those patterns leave us incredibly empty. In some of the wealthiest countries in the world you have some of the highest rates of depression, loneliness and suicide. We’re really talking about Jesus saying I really came to give you life to the fullest and not settling for anything short of that.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Theology of Suffering and Sacrifice: On Taking up Your Cross, Part II (Bob Heppe)

Bob Heppe is a Field Director for the UK and Asian teams with World Harvest Mission and has been with the organization for over 18 years. Bob is an astute thinker and visionary for integrating the whole gospel in everyday mission. Bob is married and has 4 children and currently resides in Harrow, England.

When Jesus says to Peter, and every disciple after him, that he must take up his cross and follow Him, he is saying all disciples must take up both Jesus’ mission and Jesus’ method of mission, namely the laying down of our lives for the expansion of His kingdom. There is simply no being a part of Jesus without being a part of his mission and his cruciform method.

To read it otherwise is to rip the call to discipleship from its context and thereby strip it of its missional purpose. Jesus’ call to carry the cross must be seen in terms of the larger context in which (1) Jesus’ Messianic Identity is revealed, (2) His Messianic Mission is announced (to build the church and reclaim the world), (3) His Messianic Method (of going to the cross is explained) is taught, and then, finally (4) His Messianic Mandate is placed on all who would follow Him.

Recall the context. It is the turning point in Jesus’ self-disclosure and relationship to the disciples. Jesus asks the disciples who people understand Him to be. The people are quite confused. As it turns out, Jesus’ closest disciples are not very far ahead. But Peter identifies Jesus with words whose significance in their context too easily eludes our grasp: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. In the history of theology, the attention has been placed on Jesus’ nature as the “Son of God”; that is, on his ontological status as the second person of the Trinity. A text such as Matt 16:16 is seen from the perspective of this interest as a clear statement of the divinity of Jesus.

But Peter is clearly identifying Jesus in terms of the Messiah (Christ) of Psalm 2. Indeed, very often in the minds of both his disciples and his opponent, “Christ” and “Son of God” primarily refer to Jesus’ Messianic identity. (This is not denying his divinity. I affirm that Jesus is fully God and fully human. I just do not think the “Christ/Son of God” language necessarily teaches this truth in this context).

Turning to Psalm 2, what do we discover? The Psalm teaches that Messiah, “God’s anointed”, is enthroned in the seat of power to subdue and rule a rebellious world on behalf of Yahweh. This same Messiah is called God’s son. “He said to Me, “You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.” (Psalm 2:7) The Psalm further says that Messiah will break the rebellious nations with a rod of iron, shattering them as though they were clay pots (2:9).

It is this that Peter and the others have in mind when they think of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God. Whether Peter actually envisioned Jesus ruling all of the earth is questionable. I personally doubt it based upon the fact that it took the disciples some time, even after the resurrection and Pentecost, to really understand the global significance of Jesus’ mission. But in any case, they certainly did expect that Jesus was going to rid Israel of her foreign oppressors, and set up his kingdom with them as the governors.

At this pivotal moment Jesus then lets Peter in on the “Messianic secret”, namely that Jesus is indeed Messiah and, therefore, will rule the world; only not in the way Peter imagines. He will rule through suffering, weakness, humiliation and death. In short, he will triumph through his self-sacrificing life of love and atoning death on the cross. The world’s method of winning is killing; Jesus’ method is loving sacrifice.

Peter recoils at the thought. It is not only a horrifyingly shameful and humiliating thought; it is inconsistent with Peter’s dreams and aspirations and ideas of Jesus’ mission. How will Jesus rule as King of Israel if he is rejected? How will be defeat the Romans if he is put to death?

Peter neither understands the Messiah, nor the cross. His Messiah is limited to ethnocentric Israel, and it will take him some time to penetrate the divine necessity of Christ’s death. Briefly put, Jesus set his face on Jerusalem, there to be beaten, abused, tortured, humiliated and suffer not only physical death but the very wrath of God, because he knew that the enemies he fought, and the problems he came to address, were far more serious and all-pervasive than even a brutal Roman empire. Jesus knew that only through His atoning death and resurrection would the fundamental two-fold problem of the penalty and power of sin be addressed; at the cross he would make provision for the deepest and most pervasive of man’s and the creation’s need:

     • Propitiation (I John 4:10)
     • Forgiveness (Eph. 1:7; Acts 10:43)
     • Reconciliation (Rom. 5:11; II Cor. 5:18; Col. 1:19-22)
     • Redemption/freedom (Eph. 1:7)
     • Defeat of Satan (John 12:31; Col. 2:13-15)
     • Mission: the purchase of the Nations, his inheritance (Psalm 2; Rev.5:9-10, Matt. 28:18)

Peter of course had little understanding of these things and his response to Jesus is rightly characterized by horror and disbelief. In response to Peter’s recoiling at the thought, we might expect Jesus to moderate his language, but he does not retreat. Jesus knows that His whole purpose for being in the world – His mission of conquest of a runaway planet – cannot be accomplished by killing, but only by sacrifice. The Father gives the nations to Jesus as an inheritance (Psalm 2:8), but in the compact between the Father and Son, it is the Son who must also purchase them with His blood (Rev. 5:9-10)

Jesus knows too that the disciples will be useless to him if he backs off at this point, and so he pulls no punches as he tells Peter that the cross is not optional, but absolutely necessary: not only for Jesus, but for anyone who wants to be part of his Messianic agenda. Jesus makes it absolutely plain at this pivotal point that anyone who wants to be a part of Jesus and his purposes must realize that it requires a cross for them too.

Jesus is deadly serious about His death. And he is as deadly serious about the death of His followers. This is not merely mortification of sins and self-centredness, but the total renunciation of their lives for the sake of Jesus and His Messianic Mission. Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms that His mission of world reclamation not only requires His atoning death, but the sacrifice of all of his followers.

In light of the suicide bombings in New York and DC, we might say that Jesus calls every follower of his to a similar sort of dedication. Every disciple is called by Jesus to become a suicide bomber, not of death to destroy or conquer, but of love, demonstrating to the nations through our self-sacrificial service and even the laying down of our lives that there is a God in heaven who loves them more than they love themselves.

In this way, and only this way, says Jesus, does His Messianic mission move forward. Matthew 16:13-28 is not first and foremost an answer to rampant self-centeredness. To view it that way, as a corrective to the self-orientation of the Flesh, is actually to perpetuate the problem. Jesus is calling us to something far greater: that his people follow Him in self-sacrificial service of the world in the accomplishment of His mission of redemptive conquest.

In this passage Christ is in fact calling his whole church to be in His Mission using His Method: giving our lives for others in the way he gave His life for us. That we have failed to see this startling fact, that “the call to discipleship” is not merely a call to spiritual self-improvement through self-denial but a call to complete self-sacrifice in Jesus’ Mission, is indicative of the self-centeredness at the core of our Christianity.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Theology of Suffering and Sacrifice: On Taking up Your Cross, Part I (Bob Heppe)

Bob Heppe is a Field Director for the UK and Asian teams with World Harvest Mission and has been with the organization for over 18 years. Bob is an astute thinker and visionary for integrating the whole gospel in everyday mission. Bob is married and has 4 children and currently resides in Harrow, England.

I have a lot to learn from this man. Bob Heppe has challenged and strecthed me in many ways concerning the gospel and mission. I am thankful to be under his leadership and guidance. Part 2 is coming soon. This is good stuff. Enjoy.

Treatments of carrying one’s cross are trivialized in many ways. It is not about putting up with problems in one’s life: the thorn in the flesh, the intolerable boss, the pesky neighbour, or even the pain of personal loss. These are indeed often occasions of deep suffering and sorrow; but they are not what Jesus is talking about here. This suffering is the effect of living in a fallen world; it comes to us. We are not commanded by Jesus to take up such suffering.

John Stott, in the Cross of Christ, improves greatly on the trivial view of the cross mentioned above. He points out that it is not merely a matter of putting up with a few problems in one’s life, or even the denial of a particular sin, but of the total repudiation and putting to death of one’s SELF.

“Self-denial is not denying to ourselves luxuries such as chocolates, cakes, cigarettes and cocktails (though it may include this); it is actually denying or disowning ourselves, renouncing our supposed right to go our own way.” Quoting Cranfield’s commentary on Mark,: ‘To deny oneself is … to turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness” (Cranfield, Mark, p.281).’

Stott continues a bit later: “The traditional word for this is ‘mortification’; it is the sustained determination by the power of the Holy Spirit to ‘put to death the misdeeds of the body’, so that through this death we might live in fellowship with God.” (Cross of Christ, p. 279)

Similarly, Walter Chantry, forcefully states the necessity of the cross for growth in godliness. For example, “Nothing leads to self-repudiation so much as spiritual meditation on the corruption and wickedness of your heart. If your soul has grasped human depravity you have been forced to deny yourself.” (The Shadow of the Cross: Studies in Self Denial (Banner of Truth, 1981), p.9). The cross is necessary, says Chantry, because it represents death to the enemy of sanctification: “There before you is the grisly old enemy to spiritual progress standing astride the path of obedience to Christ – SELF! This monster cries out daily to be served…. But on every occasion when we are serious about advancing in righteousness, we must contend with self” (p.15-16).

I choose these two authors because neither would ever be accused of casting Christianity in the form of serving sinful self-interest, or of pandering to the unregenerate drive for self-advancement. And indeed these men are aware of and seek to articulate the radical self-denial to which Jesus calls us as His disciples. As such, this is a very definite improvement over the superficial readings of Jesus’ call to discipleship so prevalent through the ages.

But nevertheless, I believe their treatment of carrying the cross falls radically short of the true significance of the text which we label “the call to discipleship”. I would suggest that to treat the text in this way – in terms of mortification in the process of sanctification – is to misread it in a self-interested way which is the very opposite of Jesus’ intention. Despite the call to radical self-denial which Stott, and Chantry, as representatives of the best in the Evangelical and Reformed interpretation of the call to carry our cross, to read the text as essentially about our personal struggle against sin is ultimately a self-centred reading of Jesus’ intentions. It is indicative of a subtle anthropocentrism running deeply entrenched in the foundations of Reformed and Evangelical theology. A text which is clearly about self-denial ends up being about self!

Furthermore, and more importantly, it obscures the fact that there is a far more radical and comprehensive call to give oneself over totally to Christ and for His (missionary/kingdom) purposes....

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Series on (Theology) of Suffering and Sacrifice, Part One: Introduction

“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

I have been wanting to write on suffering and sacrifice for a long time, but it seemed to daunting a task to undertake! I have yet to plumb the depths of this subject and am hardly a biblical expert on the subject or even know, in general, how the Bible speaks of the issue (because it is a central biblical message). So I decided for the first time ever in the history of my blog to invite guest bloggers to contribute. And I am excited to hear form them! These guest bloggers include people who have thought intently on the subject, those who have given their professional and personal lives overseas in works of mercy and have seen more suffering (and have lived more sacrificially) in one month than I have in my whole life, those who lead organizations that have sacrifice and suffering as a core distinctive, those who intentionally seek out others who are suffering in their own ministry of sacrifice, and those people in multiple layers of all the above.

I long to have a greater understanding of a theology of suffering and sacrifice. And I hope you would too. Whenever I am asked by people (especially in light of my time living in Third World conditions/countries) what I think the Western church is missing, I almost inevitably answer with: “we don’t know suffering”. And I am firmly convinced that suffering and sacrifice is a key ingredient to church growth and sanctification. Yet many churches and individuals following Jesus in the West are far from (biblical) suffering and sacrifice, even to the point of purposefully fleeing from it or doing everything possible to end it as soon as it comes upon them. We do not sacrifice well. We do not suffer well. Count me as one included in this tendency. The first example I thought of in regards to this dichotomy in our faith, we here in America have the privilege, time, and energy to debate and spend enormous amounts of resources and human capital in trying to get prayer back in public schools. Meanwhile, dozens of our brothers and sisters are being tortured or killed in the world for their faith…today. And we have the audacity to say that we are being “persecuted” because our kids cant pray in school, failing to recognize the obvious flippancy of that sentiment in the context of the Bible, or global understanding. 

Please come along for the ride. You will hear a wonderful symphony of voices and perspectives, of hope and prophetic strain, of saints and sinners. My hope and prayer in doing a series on this is that we will become people who actually proactively put ourselves in places and situations in which we would suffer and sacrifice for Jesus, not just reactively (and there is a big difference). And that we would really understand what it would mean to be people who “partake in the sufferings of Jesus” as Paul and Peter would (often) say. And “partaking in the sufferings of Jesus” is nothing less than the Cross, and a life of “cruciform”…in all areas.

More to come!