Monday, February 6, 2017

Self-Preservation and the Christian Ideal

There he sat in front of me.  A man I barely knew...and that only for a short while.  An admitted struggle with mental illness and substance abuse.  Well intended in many ways, but hardly trustworthy. His family broken, job prospects fallen by the wayside, nowhere to go and even fewer people to turn to for aid.  We had happened upon each other quite by accident, or so it seemed.  A brief conversation had led to a few casual meetings.  I had tried to learn as much as I could about the situation.  What I found out was discouraging, almost hopeless.

I was a young and inexperienced husband and father and an even less experienced pastor. Trying to answer questions and give guidance to someone whose needs I didn't understand. I had my own family to consider and my own interests to protect, but here he sat...what was I going to do?

So on that night I returned home and, like we have on many other occasions, my bride and I discussed how we could be Jesus to this man. It is cold out.  We have plenty of room.  An entire house in fact. We are getting ready to leave for a few days.  This new dream home we just purchased will be sitting empty.  It is miserably cold here in Michigan in December.  Staying in his vehicle just was not a viable option.

Really, what would Jesus do?

We quickly reached the same conclusion we have come to again and again...whether our money, vehicle, home, or goods.  Give it to them. Let them use it. Risk the loss for the good of the cross...that shining example of when God gave up all He had for us, the ones who couldn't be trusted.

And so this stranger, this uncertain case, this potentially dangerous man...made his home in our home.  We couldn't have known where that would lead.

As I observe the socio-political realities of our country today, there is much discussion by the supposed Evangelical Christian movement about our need to preserve our way of life and our freedoms in this, the greatest country the world has ever known:
  • Don't let in too many immigrants from the south...they may take our jobs.
  • Don't let in too many immigrants from the mid east...they may blow up our homes.
  • Don't trust those opposite the political aisle...they don't love America or care about us.
  • Vote for and support individuals who are willing to be harsh and ruthless...it's the only way to ensure our religious freedoms are protected.
  • Turn a blind eye to questionable leadership or personal morality...it's okay as long as it results in restoring our preferred way of living.
  • Don't question motives or tactics or appointees...it will only erode our chances of keeping our politically preferred persons in power.
  • Don't regulate the things we are comfortable with; but be fairly harsh on the ones we are not...that way things can get back to the way they "used" to be for us.

God help us. When did being a Christian become about self-preservation?  When did my wants, needs, and even fears become the determining factor in how I love, welcome, and treat other people, even my enemies? 


My attention is drawn these days to two passages of Scripture:

In John 4 Jesus was traveling from Judea to Galilee.  In order to do so He had to pass through Samaria. If you examine a map of the area, you see that, indeed, Samaria lies smack in between these two locations. But does that mean Jesus "had" go that way in order to reach His destination?  I think not. Jews had been making a habit of avoiding Samaria, and its occupants, for a very long time. Though it added miles to the trip, He could have travelled the edge of Samaria, turned north, and still arrived in the southern part of Galilee.

But He did not. In fact, as John casually states, "He had to go through Samaria".  Why?  Why did He have to go through Samaria?  Was the will of the Father drawing Him that way?  Was the encounter He was about to have with this Samaritan woman the goal all along?  This uncomfortable, potentially hazardous, racially charged encounter...but one that would become redemptive.  It was the work of the cross, the dying to self, the lack of concern for self preservation. This is why He had to go through Samaria.  So He did.  And met there that woman.  His enemy by all accounts.  He met her and transformed her life, and the lives of many of her neighbors and friend.  Also His supposed enemies.

We move to Matthew 16.  Peter admits to Jesus and the other disciples his belief that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.  In response, Jesus instructs Peter and the rest that He must (there is that word again) go to Jerusalem. He must suffer.  He must.

Peter feels a responsibility to take the Master aside and let Him know this cannot be. Jesus cannot go to Jerusalem. There is too much risk. Too many people who hate Him.  Too many enemies.  Too many of those people.

Jesus does not thank Peter for his concern.  Instead, He rebukes Peter. He must go to Jerusalem. It is the way to the cross.  It is the reason He came. It is His very identity. He is more concerned with those He came to save than with His own comfort or safety.  In rebuking Peter, Jesus clearly defines this interest in self-preservation: it is the character of Satan himself. It is a mindset that favors not the interests of God, but the interests of man.  In other words, when we are worried more about our own interests, even the interests of our very existence, over the call to sacrifice for others, we miss the cross.  We miss the place of grace.

Peter spent most of his life avoiding people who didn't think or look like He did...until the Lord delivered him from it. But the Apostle Paul, the man God used to confront Peter's hypocrisy, gives excellent information on what it means for a Christian to relinquish self-preservation in exchange for the good of others.

Romans 12:20-21
"But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink...do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

There is something intrinsically Christ-like in the people we serve.  Even if they are our enemies or strangers.  They become the identity of Jesus to us (see Matthew 25:34-45).  When we choose to minister to others, even those who despise us, we are not only doing the work of Jesus, we are taking on His character.  And we are serving the Lord Himself.  

The Christian's interaction with his enemy?  If he is in need, help him.

The approach of  many of us Evangelical Americans to our enemies in 2017?  If we have to turn back some innocent and needy people (inside or outside of our borders) in order to better preserve ourselves, our way of life, our preferences, and our country...well, that's the cost those people will just have to pay.  If we have to be mean or ruthless or hardhearted or turn a blind eye because we don't like someone, or their stances, or their statistics...well, this is our country and we have to protect it.

Have I always been as kind and helpful and selfless as I should?  Sadly, no. Have I been taken advantage of or lost out because I tried to help someone?  Absolutely.  I've been stolen from, lied to, lied about, had personal property lost and damaged.

But when I think of Jesus, I think of the call to the cross. I must go to my enemies. I must run the risk of my loss in order to gain the cross.  The cross.  The place where all are equal in their need of grace.  I may run the risk of losing out.  Losing my goods, my status, my comfortable lifestyle, my preferences, even my life.  When Jesus finishes pointing out Peter's selfishness in Matthew 16, He turns to look at the rest of the disciples and instructs them: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life  will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it."

Want to succeed in the eyes of Christ?  Want to have riches beyond compare in the economy of the Kingdom?  Want to follow Jesus and learn all that He is?  Take up the cross.  The place of death.  Abandon the idol of self preservation.  The only way you save your life is to relinquish your hold on it altogether.

The man who sat across from me that night? The one with nowhere to go except the home of a pastor he barely knew?  He was eventually returned to a reconciled relationship with his wife. He lives with her and their children in the new home they moved to.  They found a church, immersed themselves in a body of believers, and  recommitted themselves to Christ and each other.  He didn't steal a thing.  In fact, the house was cleaner and in better condition than we had left it.

Perhaps this is why I am so disappointed in many of my Evangelical friends.  I believe they love Jesus.  I don't think they wish ill for people.  But I fear we have become too comfortable insisting on the protection of our own rights at the dehumanizing of others.  Perhaps it is naive to hope we would insist on a Biblical model when it comes to how we treat the outcast, the foreigner, the opponent, or the enemy.  We live in a post-Christian society.  But maybe, for those who claim the name of Christ, it is not too much to ask.

Maybe some of us will always believe in self preservation in order to maintain our status as "the greatest country in the world".  Maybe some will always justify holding back hundreds or thousands of people in legitimate need of our love and support just to avoid the small percentage of terrorists, criminals, or malcontents among them.  Maybe some of us will never find it problematic to demonize our opponents in order to worship our own ideology and make ourselves feel more at peace with the world.  Maybe.  But I fear in doing so many of us will miss the call to the cross.  We will miss the call to be like Him.  To become everything that is exactly contrary to our natural human inclinations.

Whenever we allow anything, whether country, ego, or self-interest, to overshadow the Lordship of Jesus, we become idolaters.  Maybe that is the religion some of us have.  But it is not the way to imitate Christ.  

Call it protectionism, call it nationalism, call it patriotism...call it whatever you want.  Just don't call it Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth.