Nearly 15 years of pastoring and counseling has convinced me of two things. It doesn’t work to 1) earn God’s favor or 2) believe the Gospel. And Lent is the perfect to opportunity to imagine a third way, which is actually the historic way of the Cross.
I’m pretty sure it won’t take much convincing that earning God’s favor is pointless, though we still try. But so many still play the religious game – appeasing a judgmental God in a guilt-and-shame driven economy of faith.
And I’ve written before why “believing the Gospel” won’t work. Now, “believing the Gospel” is a message that sells today. And I’m glad, in part. People need a message that it’s God’s grace, not our maneuvering, that leads us to joy. But this initial joy, I’ve found, becomes a “now what?” after a while. What does it mean to keep believing the Gospel each day?
The problem is that you can’t reduce all problems down to a case of moralism. I hear
from pastors from all over the place all the time saying, “I know how to preach the Gospel, but I don’t get how it works itself out in the suffering, the difficulty, the death, the abuse, the systemic evil, the betrayal.” I get it. It’s a lot tougher. And this is when we need a vision that sees all of life not through the lens of moralism, but through the lens of death and resurrection.
What is the Gospel way? It’s Jesus saying, “Follow me.” It’s the way of suffering, death, and resurrection. It’s participation in a paradoxical, counter-intuitive way of laying down our lives. A puritan prayer says it well:
Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision.
This is the Lenten way. And if we resist this crucifixion in our own lives, we end up crucifying others.
I often think that we, Americans, struggle the most with this Gospel. Churches in contexts of suffering know this costly grace of crucifixion and resurrection well. In the U.S., churches do not grow on a message of “Embrace Jesus and he’ll take you into the wilderness!” People don’t come to counseling to more deeply embrace God’s work of crucifixion within. We want a fix. We demand answers. We crave solutions. The historic Paschal way is harder, slower, and sometimes even a downer.
A final true story. A large church pastor recently came to me for advice. His church has experienced a flurry of difficulties. As he said, “I’m exhausted from putting out fires.” But his question was, “How can we get to a place where we rise above these things and experience more consistent growth, joy, and freedom?” Now, this is a man who believes deeply that Jesus came to save the broken and the lost. But he couldn’t apply it to his church, to his life.
And so I told him it might get worse. I told him if he didn’t choose crucifixon, it would choose him. I told him to look for the more difficult way, and take it. I told him resurrection would only come by leaning in to the pain, the suffering, the difficulty. He was looking for a strategy. I gave him a knife, and said, “Start cutting, start pruning, start dying. And then you’ll see life emerge.” We talked about a few practical things, a few people he’d have to disappoint, a whole program he’d shut down, and a deep anxiety and anger he’d need to come back to chat about. But as he left, he felt surprisingly refreshed. “This makes sense of the Gospel in a way that I never ever considered before,” he said.
He continued, “When you blog about this, tell them I’m scared out of my wits and my ministry will probably come crashing down. But I feel more alive than ever.”
There you go – that’s a man looking to follow Jesus in the risky, the vulnerable, the difficult Gospel way. That’s real freedom.
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I explore this “wilderness way” much more in my book: Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places.