Thursday, December 17, 2009

Not Only for the Desperate

When family members ask me what I want for Christmas I don’t know how to answer. I enjoy clothes, books, and golf gear, but I have plenty of each, even a surplus. I enjoy eating out but I actually have several gift cards to restaurants I haven’t used yet! The fact is, I’m one of those people for whom it is hard to find a gift. What do you get for the person who has everything (materially)?

I recall a book by William Willimon called “The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything” that challenged me greatly. Willimon, a preacher and scholar, reflects on what has become the standard Christian testimony, which goes something like this. “I was miserable, then I found Jesus.” This pattern hearkens back to influential church leaders in history like Augustine and Martin Luther, who indeed had dramatic conversion experiences arising out of personal crises. But Willimon asserts that we short-change the power of the gospel when we insist, in effect, that people can only come to saving faith in Jesus from personal despair.

“Look at the many ways people are called by God in the Bible. Abraham, a rich and contented desert sheikh, was out gazing at the stars one night. Moses was a murderer hiding in the wilderness. Isaiah was at prayer in the temple. Peter was fishing. The little man in the tree (Zaccheus) was curious. Matthew was at the office counting money. Paul was on a pious errand.”

When we narrow the gospel’s ability to transform peoples’ lives by framing it as medicine for only troubled souls, we inadvertently convince people who don’t feel an overt need that the Christian faith has nothing to say to them (until they are in crisis).

Willimon notes how much greater credit it is to the power of the Christian gospel for a person to be able to testify:
“I was happy and fulfilled. Each day was a joy to me, and life was a shower of blessings. Then Jesus showed me how much more joy I could experience when I rose above the selfish pursuit of my own happiness and a preoccupation with my own problems. In losing my life for others and for him and his work, in using my blessings for something greater than myself, I found my true life.”

In many ways this describes the journey to my baptism into Christ in 1983 at age 20. I didn’t feel any overt personal need for God; my life was indeed looking very promising. But what grabbed me about the gospel was Jesus’ call to give myself to something bigger than myself, to be (re)claimed by God for his purposes. Scripture says that in Christ “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). Did I need to be forgiven of my sins and saved “through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)? Of course. But the gospel spoke even more powerfully to my need and desire to live for something bigger than myself through a relationship with Jesus.

I’m going to be thankful for any gift I receive if only for the thought behind it. And I’m thankful to God for the gift of his Son, who came not just for the desperate but for everyone. Merry Christmas.


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