Since the creation of man, God has been busy as the great iconoclast. That is, ever since Adam and Eve, God has had to constantly shatter our icons, our idols, our false pictures and concepts about himself. Joseph, Moses, Peter and Paul, to name but a few, have had to have their images of God broken and recast.
Given our finite and sin-affected minds, it should not be surprising that we continually misunderstand and misrepresent almighty God. Our concept of God is often too limited, too petty, too human. As J.B. Phillips once put it, “your God is too small”. Let me give you one important example of this.
We live in an age in which people will not commit themselves to something unless they believe they will get something out of it – some kind of benefit or privilege. “What’s in it for me?” is the question often heard. We don’t want to commit ourselves to anything unless there is some reward or prize given in return. I must confess this mentality extends even to my own family: ask the kids to wash the car or do some other chore, and the first response is, “How much do I get paid?”!
This mindset has unfortunately found its way into the Christian church. People want to know what they will get out of Christianity if they commit themselves to it. How will Christ enrich my life, make me feel better, or deal with my problems?, we are asked.
Such questions are legitimate questions. And there is a place for presenting the gospel in terms of what benefits people will gain as a result of their commitment. But in spite of the many benefits one receives upon commitment to Christ – e.g., eternal life, sins forgiven, peace of mind, friendship with God, etc. – these are not the main reasons we should come to God. We should come to God for one reason only: because he is God and we are not. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe who deserves our worship. And he claims double ownership over us – by creation and salvation. Sure, we will get benefits galore when we turn to him in repentance and faith, but that should not be our primary motivation.
Several passages of Scripture forcefully illustrate this idea. Remember the familiar story of Daniel’s three friends and the fiery furnace? It is worth having another look at.
In Daniel chapter 3, verses 16 and 17 we read these words: “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.’”
But verse18 is the real clincher: “‘But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’”
I really like that verse. The three men believe God will come to their rescue. But even if he does not, they will still remain true to Him. They will still refuse to bow down to false gods. I wonder how often we desert our Lord in the face of adversity. We go through some hard times and we are ready to hand in our faith. It is the faith of Job that is needed in times like this: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him”. (Job 13:15)
Habakkuk has a similar view of things: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior”. (Hab 3:17,18)
Real faith means I will trust God no matter what. Regardless of my circumstances, I will still trust and obey Him. Faith is based on knowledge of the character of God. If we know, really know, that God is too wise to make a mistake, and too loving to be unkind, we can trust him in the dark times to be faithful, even if we don’t see what we expect in the situation.
A similar thought is found in Hebrews chapter eleven. This chapter is the hall of fame chapter for the great heroes of the faith. Many of these great saints did not receive what they were promised, yet they still exercised great faith. Of particular interest is verse 34. There it speaks of those great men of faith who “escaped the edge of the sword”. Praise God! Yet read a few verses further on. There it speaks of men of faith who “died by the edge of the sword”. (v. 37) So what was the difference? Both sets of saints were full of faith. Yet some got the axe while others escaped it. Did God love either group any less or any more? Was the faith of these heroes rewarded differently? Or was God the sovereign Lord over both sets of saints?
Such a message should affect both our Christian life and the way we present the gospel. It should give us hope that despite our circumstances, God is still on the throne and he is still working His purposes in our lives. And it should cause us to rethink the way we present the gospel. Do we persuade men to come to Christ simply for all the benefits they will get out of it, or do we proclaim Christ as Lord who deserves to be worshipped and obeyed? He is God after all. And as Romans 14:11 states, whether we like it or not, one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.
Only as the church recovers the radical nature of Christian discipleship will the sugar-coated gospel give way to the self-denying call of Christ. Jack Deere, former anti-charismatic turned pro-charismatic theologian nicely summarizes the situation: “One of the great mistakes of the church is to offer Jesus to people solely on the same basis that a salesman offers a product to consumers. . . . It’s not wrong to come to Jesus initially for what he can do for us. The problem is that many of us never progress beyond this stage. . . . If our primary interest in Jesus revolves around what he can do for us, then when he ‘fails’ to meet enough of our perceived needs, we’ll leave him or become embittered. . . . We are so dazzled by Jesus’ ability to provide for us that we can’t see the loveliness of his Person. He is infinitely wonderful in himself, worthy to be loved and adored even if he never does a single thing for us”.