This has my name at the top, but in reality my father, George Parks, deserves the credit for what follows. George is a retired English teacher who has filled just about every possible non-paid position in church and is someone who irritated me for years with his persistence that I use my brain.
Recently I told my wife that, after all these years going to church, worship services have come to resemble cheerleading sessions which encourage feel-good attitudes. As if we are trying to convince ourselves that we’re on the right track and God takes special care of us believers. Our services seem to give off a rose-colored hue.
Now, to a great degree I understand that approach. After all, just about all of us true, actively engaged and growing believers are completely aware that after a glowing Sunday service, we return to work Monday for the boss from hell while our youngest child still hates school, and we continue to battle our weight, and our company is laying off by the dozens when we have a mortgage that’s out of sight. So it’s a bit of relief to be among other believers with similar problems and to ensure each other that all things really do work for our good in spite of all appearances of impending disasters. I’ve never really endorsed the positive thinking approach as a substitute for faith in God, but then maybe I can benefit from thinking more positively in spite of what I know about life.
I listen to younger believers rave on about how God works in their lives and what he can do for the rest of us, as if we older Christians are new to the faith, and that’s all right. It’s good to hear such vigor as yet untainted by life’s raw twists and cold rain that falls on us as well as the unjust. I can sit through sermons designed to bring the lost to Christ even though I settled that matter decades ago. The entire environment is refreshing compared to the world outside.
But may I add that such cheery optimism benefits little and possibly even harms if we give unbelievers and weaker believers a misleading impression about what to expect from the their faith or, for that matter, what the Bible tells us. I recall preachers and traveling evangelists in town for two-week revivals going to great lengths to get sinners down the aisle to profess Jesus: “Just walk this aisle, take this preacher by the hand, profess Jesus as Lord, and brother, you’re on your way to glory.” Well, okay, but what about a believer’s obligations to repent, to commit himself to Jesus, to begin a life of obedience, to forsake his sinful lifestyle? Jesus said, if you love me, keep my commands. James would say, faith without obedience isn’t really faith at all. So have we helped anyone with misleading hype? And I contend the church has traditionally failed to convey the full picture to would-be believers, possibly because doing so dampens the euphoria of the moment and discourages the would-be convert. Maybe all we really wanted was a new convert to baptize. Something to shout “amen” about.
Sometimes religious gatherings produce magnificent testimonies and assertions of all sorts. A sort of one-upmanship develops, each believer stirred to one-up the last testimony about God’s work in his life. Am I to believe that God does all that in the lives of others and not in mine? And I try so hard! So we are pushed to have some kind of spiritual mountaintop experience when in fact nothing is there but the raw realities of everyday life. It’s easy to feel like a spiritual failure in the presence of such glowing reports from fellow Christians.
How often have I heard preachers rail about the glorious things God wants to do and about what believers can do in Christ? But in my recent years, as I approach seventy, scarred and wrinkled by actual experience in the real world, I ask silently, where do you find scripture for all these claims? And why is it that, for all the wonders that can be ours as believers, the apostles in their New Testament letters seemed to stress endurance and perseverance. In my life glorious, wonderful works of God were never things to be endured.
I see through my experiences with the Holy Spirit that my blessings are mostly located in heaven, not in this life. I will suffer alongside my lost neighbor, and upon our deaths, I’ll go to be with God while he goes to hell. It has come to me that God’s system for perfecting me stems not from all the good things I enjoy but from my adversity, either by my own making or not. Do we tell new and weak believers that? You can be saved one day and fired from your job the next. Jesus is still Lord of all. Do we tell them that?
Preachers can preach their hearts out, and their churches can still diminish, even die, because of sin in our society. It indeed can happen. Missionaries can labor in foreign countries with only a trickle of any evidence of success in spite of gargantuan effort on their part. And as long as churches and religious organizations clamor only for good reports that show glowing signs of growth and strength, I suspect that they are missing a vital point. Yes, we want success (who doesn’t?), but once we get “good numbers,” can we honestly conclude that all is well? Maybe so, maybe not. Maybe we’re just cheerleading again.
Let us continue cheerleading in worship; it’s good for the soul. Preach on, brother. But let us not think that struggle for believers is a spiritual failure when we labor in a fallen world and when our God works all things to our good. The godly life is not for wimps. Our rewards are in heaven. We are called to endure for a reason, and new or weak believers need to understand that. And that understanding, not the cheers, goes with us after we’ve turned out the lights, locked the doors of the church, and gone home to real life again.