We live prosperous and comfortable lives in the United States in these modern times. No generation has had the comforts, pleasures, luxuries and distractions that we have. Even the poverty level of the people in the US, about $24,000, far exceeds the $2 a day ($730 a year) that many people in the world live on. We are blessed in this country.
We have developed our own, unique theology in the United States that emphasizes prosperity. When we face difficulties, as we often do, we chide each other for a lack of faith. People who are not “prosperous” (compared to other Americans) may feel that God has withdrawn His blessing or has abandoned them.
I wonder what the rest of the world thinks about this uniquely American theology. I can only imagine that they shake their heads.
We forget that Jesus suffered and died. We forget that Jesus called us to follow Him with the instruction to take up our own (figurative) crosses.
We could not do what He did, of course. He came in fulfillment of the Scriptures as the Savior of all mankind to lay down His life, to take on Himself the sin of the world and, by His sacrificial death, to accept the punishment for sin once and for all so that we may have life and be free from the control of sin and death. He rose from the grave and conquered sin and death for us. We certainly cannot do, and do not need to do, what He did for us.
Nevertheless, he called us to live a life like Him. What He instructed was this: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24). Luke adds that we should take up our cross daily. (Luke 9:23)
The way of Jesus is the way of the cross.
The way of Jesus involves denying self. The calling is not simply to deny one’s self, however. The point is not self-sacrifice for its own sake. He called us to sacrifice for a higher purpose – for God’s purpose.
Jesus was God among us in the flesh (John 1:1-6) reconciling the world to Himself through his own sacrifice. (2 Corinthians 5:19). He has called us to take the message of reconciliation to the world as His ambassadors. (2 Corinthians 5: 20).
Jesus came to preach the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43), and we are given the same purpose. The cross that we take up is denial and sacrifice of our ambitions and desires to serve the purpose of God
The early church included people who spent as many as three years walking with Jesus in the flesh. The early church lived out the purpose of God. After Paul was beaten and left for dead in Lystra, the Christians returned there to strengthen the remaining believers in that community and to exhort them to continue in the faith saying:
“It is necessary to pass through many troubles on our way into the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14.22)
We would rather avoid the troubles, of course. That is human nature. Troubles, however, do not mean that God has taken His blessing from us or abandoned us. In fact, Paul says troubles are necessary. Jesus did not escape troubles, though he could have. Paul and the early Christians experienced troubles.
A prosperity theology ignores clear statements in Scripture, like the statement in Acts 14, that we will not escape troubles. It ignores the very words of Jesus:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
The early Christians did not expect to escape troubles. They embraced God in the trials they experienced, knowing that God was working in them. (James 1:2)
Most of us have a much different experience in our lives than the early church. We have a much different experience today than many Christian around the world. We live in relative comfort and ease. We do not experience persecution for our faith in the United States like Jesus and the early church. We do not experience persecution like people today in places like China, Pakistan or Iran.
Perhaps, we are not better off for the lack of those troubles. Our theology and expectations have been warped. Comfort brings complacency and other things.
Still, we all have our own trials and tribulations, however slight they may be in comparison. We should not recoil from the troubles we face. Rather, we should embrace God in them as the early Church embraced God, knowing that we are sharing in the experience of Christ, knowing that our troubles are really only “light and momentary”, but they are working in us “an eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:17).
We need to change our theology on this to match what Jesus said and to follow in Jesus’s footsteps. Not that we should seek troubles out; but troubles marked the way that Jesus walked, and troubles surely will mark the way for us. They are not a sign that God has abandoned us; they are an opportunity for God to work in us… if we let him.
May God work in us through the troubles that we face … and may we see the hand of God working in our troubles and embrace Him … for troubles mark our way into the Kingdom of God.