Selling God, Part 3
Selling God is a short series about the tension between keeping God’s Way centered in ministry and wanting a ministry to be sustainable. In American cultures, we’re so conditioned to think in terms of business-oriented success and KPIs that we might end up selling God rather than living into the Way and not even realize it.
In Part 1, we considered KPIs and expectations and how they approach ministry as a business, whereas the fruit of ministry is a way of life that’s often difficult (if not impossible) to quantify.
In Part 2, we considered more closely the ideas of “doing enough” and “doing more” and how those concepts are sometimes used to glorify poverty and suffering.
If you haven’t read parts one and two, you can find them here:
Selling God, Part 1
Selling God, Part 2
In Part 3, let’s consider the balance between actions and limitations.
Being Honest About Suffering
It’s important to be honest about the reality of suffering in the world. There needs to be a balance between pouring ourselves out for others and attending faithfully to our own lives, and that can only happen if we’re being honest.
If we refuse to acknowledge the depth of suffering in the world (or even just in our communities), we’ll fail to participate in the Way. How can our lives reflect God’s love for creation if we refuse to acknowledge the reality of suffering in that creation? By refusing to be honest about suffering, we will certainly perpetuate it.
On the other hand, many Christians live as though their action or inaction will be the be-all-end-all of earthly suffering. While this view acknowledges the existence of suffering, it heaps toxic expectations on us as though the full burden of ending suffering rests squarely on our shoulders, alone. Our quest to end suffering, then, compounds our own suffering; we nurture in ourselves the very suffering we desire to end.
Being honest about suffering means recognizing and acknowledging it in every corner of our society, so far as we’re able, and it means recognizing and acknowledging the limits of our own abilities to curb that suffering. It means recognizing and acknowledging our own suffering as well as the fact that attending faithfully to our own lives may limit our ability to attend to the lives of others.
The Shame of Self-Love
The shame of self-love is ever-present in communities and theologies that sell God, because the balance isn’t maintained. Remember that selling God is often about increasing resources. Teaching people to moderate their giving isn’t the goal. Quite the opposite. This often leads to the view I mentioned above: that the end of suffering is all on “me” — do more, give more.
As I mentioned in Part 2, failing to continually increase our sacrifices becomes a reflection of our lack of faith. Self-care or self-love, then, become shameful, selfish acts; any limiting of self-sacrifice is a limiting of faith, a giving in to temptation, or evidence of our sinful lifestyle.
In such contexts, being honest about suffering is a radical proposition. It requires a posture of anti-shame. It’s no easy task to be attentive to our own needs in communities that denounce self-love as sinful. Yet, how can we be honest about suffering in the world if we’re not allowed to be honest about our own suffering? How can any community participate in God’s love for the suffering and disenfranchised if it’s not allowed to participate in God’s love even for its own members?
Self-love and self-care are essential parts of being honest and resisting the temptation to turn the Gospel into a business.
Being vs. Doing
Being and doing aren’t necessarily separate, but they aren’t necessarily the same. This is why I think language of being is important when we talk about the Gospel or ministry. The aim is to live into the Way, which makes more sense when we think of it as a way of being. Unfortunately, many current expressions of Christianity tend to emphasize a way of doing.
A way of doing fits better with legalistic sets of rules and regulations. It fits better with approaching scripture as an instruction manual or a blueprint. It’s also a better tool for controlling and manipulating people. When we hyper focus on adhering to long lists of do’s and don’ts, we often miss the big picture of why. To put it another way, we have a hard time seeing where we’re actually going, so someone else can more easily steer us wherever they like.
I think it’s helpful to imagine doing as a consequence of being. The New Testament uses a lot of language for being, such as transformation, rebirth, newness, refinement, formation, etc. The Holy Spirit transforms us into the likeness of the Christ and helps us to have the mind of Christ. It’s from that new way of being that we get different ways of doing. In other words, doing is the fruit in keeping with our repentance (turning from way of being to another way being).
We Will Always Have the Poor
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
We will always have the poor, because the reality of humanity includes disparity and suffering. Being disciples of the Christ means we envision something different and want to be part of something different, and that means being and doing something different. It means helping each other to be better humans than we used to be and having hope for a future where we combat suffering more than we perpetuate it.
Always having the poor is a reminder that we should be attentive to the poor and disenfranchised and a reminder that the existence of suffering isn’t our fault, and the end of suffering isn’t our responsibility alone. It’s a challenge to be mindful of, and honest about, the reality of suffering without being caught up in the temptation to sell God and call it the Way. It’s a call to transformation and action and a call to humility and self-love. It’s a declaration of the importance of our efforts and the need for healthy boundaries.
Is there suffering? Yes.
Can we end it by selling God? No. (Often, it’s quite the opposite.)
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