Religion’s power is stripped away these days not by calling it an “opiate for the masses”* but by reducing it to another self-improvement program.
But do some of us religious people actually live like this? Are we giving the critics some fodder? Do most of us live as if “getting better” is the only goal of Christianity?
If getting better means becoming something glorious by the sweat of our brow, I don’t believe in that version of Christianity. But, if by “get better” we mean the less-commonly-used-except-at-hospitals: no longer be sick; then I want to be part of that. If we believe (against the most elementary principles of the world) that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, that even in our sin we are loved by God, that even in our failings God glorifies himself, then we can only mean “get better” as a slow healing process.
Christ said he came to seek those who are sick not those who are healthy. He didn’t mean that some people don’t need his saving grace. He means that you are either delusional or you know that you’re sick. From Christ’s words, we can only assume that “get better” — if it is at all Christian — must be a slow healing process for those in Him.
But, once in the door, can’t we then help people buck up and get it together?
“‘Speaking the truth in love’ . . . is an empty set. It never happens. Although this form of law is loftily protested as being ‘within the bonds of love and affection,’ there is always that basso continuo of judgment in every appeal of criticism, which disqualifies such speaking from having transformative effects.”
(Paul Zahl, Grace in Practice)
The problem is that “speaking the truth in love” is a way of speaking to someone who is already righteous and no longer sick. When you are speaking “challenges” and “hard truths”, you aren’t speaking to sick people. It’s not how you talk to sick people.
To those who know that they are sick, you don’t speak “hard-truths.” You speak grace upon grace upon grace. To the hard-hearted, however, you can speak all the hard truth that you want. But don’t just make it hard truth and challenges, make it impossible truth and challenges, like Jesus’ sermon on the mount. If anyone can look at that sermon as if it is attainable, then they haven’t a clue how sick they are.
I have been railing against pastors on this blog for a while. I should apologize for some of that. Proclaiming justification by grace alone, as Gerhard Forde says, is polemical by its very nature. It’s a doctrine that hogs the whole space of our mind. It creeps into all the dark corners and roots out the lies, captivating them by God’s promise in Christ. But it’s polemical nature doesn’t entirely excuse bludgeoning people over the head with it. Especially those who I know will continue to disagree with me.
It’s for the sick Christians that I write. For those who need Jesus as healer, not Jesus as imputed super-power.
I met with a pastor yesterday and he said to me, “It’s hard for me to preach self-improvement even if I wanted to. I just talked to a lady who probably isn’t going to be alive in six months. How am I supposed to tell her that the goal of Christianity is that she become more glorious in some ambiguous earthly sense?”
To him I replied: Boom.
To you, I say, go forth and ‘Boom’ on behalf of the sick whom Jesus loves desperately, so much that he gave his life for them. For you.
*A rigorous understanding of law and grace isn’t an opiate for the masses by any stretch, evidenced by how resistant and haunted people are by only a few seconds of God’s law doing it’s diagnostic work on them. If “opiate for the masses” is meant only to make us distrustful of good news, then I think it is a bit redundant: we are already profoundly distrustful of good news. And yet, I say to you, God’s grace in Christ is completely yours. He is for you. And God doesn’t break his promises.