So, a couple weeks ago I had this image scroll by on my Facebook news feed. It gave me a good chuckle and I promptly sent it a around to some of my friends. Now, I was not laughing because I have a dark sense of humor but at the not so subtle contrast of ideas that many Christians hold dear yet might have a hard time making sense of when placed together. Just to make sure you’ve grasped the weight of the image. There is a group of Christians about to be a buffet for the lion, but do not miss the crucified and burning people staked around the coliseum floor as well. Anyone who has spent any time in church will be instantly familiar with the narrative behind this image. Christians being martyred for show by the Romans is a standard story told regularly in Sunday schools and Bible studies. The faith displayed by early Christians during violent and deadly persecutions is believed to be the foundation of the church.
The early Christian author and apologist Tertullian even wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.
But, the image takes a whole different turn when you overlay the first of the “4 Spiritual Laws” that often grace modern evangelistic tracts or other items meant to witness to and convert non-believers. For many people, the statement should be as equally familiar as the image. I know that for me as I grew up in the church, this statement was also a bedrock of the faith. How else are you going to convince people to join the church if you do not lead with the benefit of God having a wonderful plan for their life?
But here’s the rub that the image puts on full display. Who wants to be a part of the “wonderful plan” that includes getting eaten by lions, crucified and possibly burned at the stake? Is that what the Christian’s were thinking as they were staring at death down the throat of roaring lion? Or, did they have a different understanding of God’s plan that we have lost?
The “prosperity” or “health and wealth” gospel is found nowhere in scripture. Most Christians in circles I walk in would probably not claim to be a part of the “prosperity” or “health and wealth” movement anyways. However, many would probably understand that blessings come as one chooses to follow Christ and harder times come to those who do not. The issue is that the Bible does not completely agree on what causes good and bad things to happen.
The Pentateuch and Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy) seems pretty cut and dry about how following God leads to blessing. Something like, “So keep every part of the commandment that I am giving you today so that you stay strong to enter and take possession of the land that you are crossing over to possess, and so that you might prolong your life on the fertile land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants—a land full of milk and honey,” (Deuteronomy 11:8-9, CEB).
Proverbs seems pretty straightforward too, saying things like, “Don’t consider yourself wise. Fear the Lord and turn away from evil. Then your body will be healthy and your bones strengthened. Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the first of all your crops. Then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will burst with wine,” (Proverbs 3:7-10).
The Psalms tells us in chapter one, “The Lord is intimately acquainted with the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is destroyed,” (Psalm 1:6, CEB). A few chapters later, however, things will turn and the author will offer the question, “Why do you stand so far away, Lord, hiding yourself in troubling times? Meanwhile, the wicked are proudly in hot pursuit of those who suffer,” (Psalm 10:1-2, CEB).
Then Ecclesiastes will chime in and tell us that God blesses some people with wealth but they do not (or can not) enjoy it (Ecclesiastes 6:2).
And, in fact scripture often talks about blessing that comes through suffering, “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs,” (Matthew 5:10, CEB).
Or that the blessing of rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous, “ He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45, CEB).
If the Bible is clear, it’s clear that…
…sometimes God causes blessings,
…sometimes God causes trouble,
…and sometimes good and bad things just happen because we live in a broken world with broken people.
I think our early church brothers and sisters would have had a hard time admitting that God has a wonderful plan for their life here on earth. The bedrock of being a Christian is really about demonstrating a life that has a focus beyond the here and now. I think we’ve gotten it backwards when we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” and expect things to go swimmingly, our bellies and bank accounts to be full and our governments to work the way we want them too.
At what point did we stop believing that suffering was part of being a Christian? When did prosperity and easy livin’ become signs of a faithful life?
When we pray “Your kingdom come”, we are praying for a revolution.
When we pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” we are standing in open rebellion to the kingdoms and rulers of this world.
When the saints of the past stood up and proclaimed their faith, accepting martyrdom in numerous fashions, it was in defiance to those who enjoyed a blessed life because of their power in the world. The early Christians realized pain and suffering would come because, honestly, it came for Jesus too. The true blessing was not of a comfortable and easy life. God’s “wonderful plan” for your life had it’s focus beyond this world and this life. They believed that God loves them, but they knew that the world would probably hate them for it. Jesus even gave them the heads up when he said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, I have chosen you out of the world, and you don’t belong to the world. This is why the world hates you,” (John 15:18-19, CEB).
So, should we give up on life, drop everything and head out seeking to be persecuted and martyred?
Jesus told the disciples to be ready not to run and denounce the closest Roman Legionnaire. The Bible tells us to live a good life, honor God, honor our parents, love our neighbors and love our enemies. However, that should not lead us to believe that we are then promised to live a “wonderful life”. Bad things will happen in spite of the life we lead and even the miracles we may perform.