The quick answer is it’s not. It’s only wrong if accumulating and hoarding stuff is what we live for. There’s a temptation (even for believers) to yearn for material things more than we yearn to know God. We can highlight our “good works,” our volunteerism, our conscientious adherence to biblical principles, etc. and insist that our doing those admirable things more than offsets our desire to acquire more stuff. But we’re fooling ourselves. Over time the search for satisfaction in earthly pleasures eventually turns into a full-time, self-centered pursuit that leads to frustration. When we take our eyes off Christ we’re effectively blinding ourselves to the Truth, the Life and the Light and we stumble into the quagmire of sin. Of course, the monster with three heads (the world, the devil and our flesh) will assure us we’re doing just fine because we’re being above-average Christians and, therefore, deserve some treats. It’ll list the things we’re doing right: We’re not ogling porn. We’re pro-life. We never miss a church service. We read Scripture. We pray. But what it doesn’t list is the fact that, in our heart of hearts, our commitment to making life work the way we want it to is stronger than our commitment to better know our Father in heaven. We’re hesitant to admit it, but far too many of us are desperately seeking to find pleasure in something other than God.
This series of essays is about living the old way versus the new way. In a nutshell, those who insist on living the old way refuse to trust what Jesus said is the Truth. He said the best life available to us while we’re here on earth can only come through knowing God. Larry Crabb wrote, “…The life is Christ Himself, not the bread He could multiply or the corpse He could resurrect, but Him. Being in Him, having Him in us, living with His energy, chasing after His purposes, loving what He loves, seeing Him form in us until we’re actually like Him – that’s life. And it can be enjoyed in bankruptcy or affluence, from a hospital bed or a deck chair on a cruise ship, or when you walk out of a divorce court you never thought you’d see or into a surprise party celebrating fifty years of your wonderful marriage.” When we make knowing Christ our #1 aim we’re approaching life the new way. It involves cultivating unshakable faith. The monster will laugh at that idea and call the new way no more than wishful thinking. It’ll chuckle, “Yeah, yeah, of course you want Jesus. Duh! Who doesn’t? He can fix everything wrong with you and He will. All you have to do is straighten up your act, behave yourself and He’ll see to it that you get what you want out of life. ” It tells me that all the time.
But slowly but surely I’m getting to where I can tell the difference between the monster’s voice and that of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The former tempts me to think of Jesus as being akin to Amazon. Place an order, pay up and what I want’ll be delivered to my doorstep the next afternoon. It doesn’t want me to consider Christ Himself as being the source of my most profound joy but merely the provider of what I desire. The monster doesn’t care if I’m a devout believer or the world’s worst backslider as long as my focus stays on getting what I want in the here and now. That message is its prime-time sermon, whereas the Holy Spirit’s urging is for me to grasp that the Jesus described in the Bible isn’t in the retail business. In contrast, He doesn’t offer a money-back guarantee that following Him will be a springtime picnic. He won’t promise to patch up your crumbling marriage or make your cancer disappear or even get your surly boss off your back. What the Holy Spirit will do is expose the painful emptiness in your soul that’s hurting you worse than your problems and then show you the only one who can completely fill that gaping hole is the God of grace. Furthermore, He’ll emphasize that you can actually know your Heavenly Father; that you can touch Him and hear His heartbeat reverberating throughout the universe; that you can rest in the assurance that He’s in total control. All those things are tangible and real in the person of Jesus, the only begotten Son of God.
But I gotta be honest. Sometimes I like what the monster has to say more than what the Bible says. I want life to go my way. I want to be happier than sadder. I don’t want any unforeseen troubles to come tumbling down the pike in my direction. I do want God to be there, waiting for me to return home when I determine that I need to rely on Him, but that’s not necessarily all the time. I talk the talk of living the new way but I question if I’m walking the corresponding walk. Am I frequently an imposter? Do I read books by Christian authors, study Scripture and write essays in order to know God better or to impress the folks at church with my puffed up but nonetheless shallow know-it-all-ism? Brennan Manning wrote, “Imposters are preoccupied with acceptance and approval. Because of their suffocating need to please others, they cannot say no with the same confidence with which they say yes. And so they overextend themselves in people, projects, and causes, motivated not by personal commitment but by the fear of not living up to others’ expectations.” I keep trying to live my life in such a way that my neighbors can see the graciousness and mercy of my Lord shining through my attitude yet I’m always having to shed the skin of my fake persona before that can happen.
I dare say to some degree all Christians struggle with the same dilemma. Thomas Merton did. He wrote, “This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God doesn’t know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy. My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. We’re not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves – the ones we were born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.” Ouch. Pretty convicting, no? But this quote from Merton isn’t centered on his (and our) individual sinful acts. Rather, it’s about his (and our) all-too-human tendency to put up a phony front. To wear a mask. To insist on living the old way.
Could it be that living the new way 24/7 is, for all practical purposes, impossible? That the “do this – get that” instinct of the old way is too deeply imbedded in our psyche for us to overcome? Perhaps the monster’s correct. Maybe our time would be more productively spent trying to solve society’s ills like racial inequality, radical Islamic terrorism, corruption in our justice system, the unacceptable unemployment rate, feeding/housing the homeless, instilling ethical and moral ideals in the hearts and minds of our youngsters, finding better methods of filling up the pews in our churches, on and on. The monster gleefully exclaims, “There ya go. That’s more like it!” But if the old way was the answer wouldn’t Jesus have been its most enthusiastic advocate? On the contrary, Christ gave His life in order to make it possible for us to draw near to the Father, not to make us comfortable in this fallen world. Our Savior didn’t die on the cross to make us happy; He did it to make us holy. As Christians our mission in life should never be about gathering up more stuff but revealing the Living God to everybody we encounter. To borrow a well-known phrase, “Ask not what Jesus can do for you, but what you can do for Jesus.”
But what does that mean? I have to ask myself how often have I gained more satisfaction out of spending quality alone time with the Lord than I have attending a fun party with my wife? Or watching one of my grandsons play baseball? Can I state unequivocally that I truly feel more joy in knowing Christ better than I do being congratulated for passionately delivering a step-study lesson at a Celebrate Recovery meeting? I’m not positive I can. What’s wrong with me? Jesus said I have to die to myself. “…If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Do I sincerely believe that? The monster’s grinning right now. “See? You’d best stick with the old way,” it whispers.
But I won’t listen to the liar. I have the entire New Testament reassuring me the new way is better even if none of us completely understand it. Crabb wrote, “It helps to know it can be done, that the way to God has been cleared, that the resources needed for the trip have been provided, and that the Spirit can stir up the waters that’ll carry us, like a fountain carries a leaf, into the presence of God. It also helps to be convinced that any other priority is evil.” The Scriptures give us examples like Saint John. There he was, exiled on a tiny island with rocks for a pillow and hardly anything to eat. Being one of “the anointed” hadn’t exactly paid off in a life of luxury. Out of nowhere Jesus appeared to him. Note Christ didn’t bring John a feather bed or a deep-dish pizza. He didn’t magically transport His apostle to the mainland. What Jesus brought him was better – a magnificent revelation and a glimpse of glory. John did his best to describe in human language his encounter, “His head and hair were as white as wool, even as white as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp double-edged sword extended out of his mouth. His face shone like the sun shining at full strength” (Revelation 1:14-16). Notice that John didn’t ask for a boat or a banquet because Jesus was enough for that poor, persecuted man. Thus Jesus should be more than enough for me. I’ve distinctly felt the literal presence of Christ on three separate occasions. No one will ever be able to dissuade me of that certainty because I was by myself in each case. Y’all weren’t there. I was. And so was Jesus. So why do I allow doubts about the new way to slither back into my consciousness? The shameful truth is I’m greedy. I want God and everything else, too.
This isn’t an easy subject to tackle. The fundamental problem is that the God I strive to emulate is a perfect spiritual being while, in comparison, I’m about as spiritual as a trailer hitch. The Lord’s agenda and mine don’t always parallel one another. Crabb wrote, “God is committed to building a community where He is our God and we are His people. That’s been His agenda since Eden. When we move in a different direction, we’re like the prodigal son telling his father, ‘I couldn’t care less about being with you. I just want your wealth. You can die as far as I’m concerned. Just give me my inheritance.’” As brutally crass as that sounds, it’s the epitome of the old way. We never seem to fully comprehend that our life here on terra firma will never work so flawlessly that it’ll fill our insatiable desire for joy. For if it did we wouldn’t need God and that’s not His plan for us. His plan is for His children to be with and serve Him forever in His ever-expanding kingdom. Jesus came to make that feasible. He said, “Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. Now this is the will of the one who sent me – that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father – for everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:37-40). Obviously God’s will for us is not for every self-gratifying dream we have to come true.
I have lots of faults but my biggest one is my selfishness and it’s an insult to God. My forgiving Heavenly Father has blessed me (and everyone on the planet) with the greatest gift of all yet I have the audacity to ask for more. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love God. I adore Him. I worship Him. I praise His name. But when I don’t get what I think I should be getting out of this life I revert to doing things the old way because there is a peace the world grants. It’s the pseudo-comfort of a life that works fairly well – amicable relationships, decent health, an income that covers most of the bills and a workplace that isn’t a constant beat-down. We’ve all known non-believers who strictly obeyed the laws of the land, dedicated themselves to doing their job efficiently, were attentive to their family’s basic needs and, looking back, opined they’d been fortunate to lead a relatively peaceful life. The trouble is, though, that kind of peace will not survive death. The peace that Christ provides is not only different but a zillion times better. It’s eternal. He said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; I do not give it to you as the world does” (John 14:27). The peace Jesus gives has nothing to do with how much stuff we accumulate down here. His peace is based solely on the awesome blessing He’s promised to all who surrender their life to Him: the opportunity to walk through this confusing mortal maze with Him at our side, to trust Him to lovingly guide us through every circumstance we encounter and to believe without a shred of doubt that “…It is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). The new way says there’s a divine plan progressing on schedule and we’re not outside of it, looking in – we’re an irreplaceable part of it.
In my case it’s not material stuff I want so badly. Not really. Ever since I was a youngster I’ve wanted to be deemed “special.” The stuff I yearned for was acclaim and celebrity. My desire was to be considered extraordinarily gifted in some area; to be held in lofty esteem by the public. When I recommitted my life to Christ 8 years ago I had to confront that lifelong craving and it hasn’t been an easy fight. Manning wrote, “As we come to grips with our own selfishness and stupidity, we make friends with the imposter and accept that we’re impoverished and broken and realize that, if we were not, we would be God. Hatred of the imposter is actually self-hatred. The imposter and I constitute one person. Contempt for the false self gives vent to hostility, which manifests itself as general irritability – an irritation at the same faults in others that we hate in ourselves. Self-hatred always results in some form of self-destructive behavior.” It’s quite alright to hate sin because God does. It’s never alright to hate the sinner because hatred is always corrosive and malevolent. Yes, there are things about ourselves we don’t like. That comes with the territory of being a Christ-follower. The Bible tells us to repent of the sins our character defects generate and pray for The Holy Spirit to help us defuse and diminish their influence. That’s the new way.