I was at Panera waiting for a friend when I overheard a three-way conversation at the next table. I didn’t mean to listen, but they were loud and seemed unaware of others.
One person complained—just a little—of his spouse’s odd eccentricities; another found fault in a boss’s stupidity; and the last grumbled a bit at her grown child’s ingratitude. Just normal middle-class Americans griping at everyday discomforts.
Then the first told of a documentary he had seen on tribal peoples in the South American Rain Forests, people who had little to no contact with the rest of the world.
The threesome turned out to be Christians, and they wondered about the eternal future for such people. One asked, “If someone never heard the gospel, do they have any chance of heaven? Or is hell their only option?”
Another had just read a book which claimed that everyone is going to heaven. After all, if God really loves the world, wouldn’t he save the whole world? Everyone at the table seemed swayed by this argument (which I think is faulty), and everyone sighed in relief.
Then someone asked, “If God is going to bring everyone to heaven, why on earth would anyone spend any time trying to evangelize anyone?” They concluded there is no need, and frankly no reason.
They collectively breathed another sigh of relief. I too was relieved. Not because of Universal Salvation—which I don’t believe.
I was relieved that these three would never try to evangelize.
A year or so ago, a Christian friend described how he was beginning to bring the gospel his softball team. He had joined the local league that spring—partly for the fun of the game and partly to get outside his Christian bubble and to meet non-believers.
However, he felt uncomfortable with his teammates’ cussing during the game. He asked them if they would stop, at least while he was with them.
They agreed and stopped (for the most part). He deemed this “cleaner language” an evangelistic victory. It hinted that his teammates might be choosing the right path.
He felt that somehow the gospel had been advanced. Next he planned to ask them to stop drinking.
Something about my friend’s story felt discordant. I didn’t sense anyone closer to God.
When I was nine or ten years of age, I hit my sister. (I’m sure she deserved it).
Photo Credit: Tabitha Cichy
My parents were not happy. They sat me on the sofa. They told me that my behavior was unacceptable. They asked me if I wanted to be the kind of person who retaliated with violence.
And then they orchestrated unpleasant consequences.
I don’t remember the actual consequences of that day, but whatever they were, they worked. I never again retaliated with violence.
But look at the motivations for my morality. My parents appealed to my identity (I didn’t want to be THAT kind of person), and they appealed to my comfort (I didn’t want to experience THOSE kinds of consequences).
In other words, my parents taught me morality by appealing to my self-centeredness.
My wife Carla almost died on our honeymoon. Traveling to Colorado for a two week vacation, we spent Sunday night in Iowa. The next morning Carla vomited, had diarrhea and a fever. We went to a doctor. He gave an antibiotic and told us to remain in town.
We treated Carla’s symptoms. When she felt feverish, she took Tylenol and cold baths to reduce her temperature. But soon she felt worse, so I bought a thermometer. Her temperature was 104.9 degrees. I called the doctor. He said, “Get her to the hospital immediately.”
Carla remained in the hospital five days. If we had waited to bring her in—the doctors said—she would have died. As it was, she barely survived.
(My brother’s response to Carla’s nausea and diarrhea was, “I told her not to kiss you!” Ah, family!)
My wife’s life was saved by a finely calibrated thermometer. It drove us to the hospital. Letting a finely calibrated understanding of the Law can drive us to God.
I wonder sometimes if the greatest problem facing the modern church is a lack of wonder.
When we were kids, all kinds of experiences brought wonder. Our first trip to the zoo filled us with wonder. The stick-figured, long-necked giraffe was fantastic; the bloated barrel-shaped hippopotamus was delightful (even the name hippopotamus was enchanting); and the shuffling, tuxedo-clad penguin was wonderful.
As teenagers, we became jaded; we lost our wonder. We’d already been to the zoo. “Big deal!” We’d already learned to ride a bike. “Who cares!”
I know a man, a really good man, whose life is filled with drudgery. He dutifully cares for his wife and family; he dutifully pours out his life in service; and he dutifully attends to work. He resists opposing desires—like wanting to dodge a service he hates, or aching to “take it easy”—with willpower.
His life, he feels, is dull and empty. His life, he says, is “dreariness and doldrums; I go through the motions without a purpose.” Drudgery has been his life for years. He is joyless.
The driving force of his life—that which gets him out of bed each morning—is willpower, his determination to battle contrary desires. His joyless obligations rule his heart.
I feel sorry for him and his life of dreariness and drudgery. And, yes, he is a Christian. His joyless life unfortunately reflects the lives of many believers. It’s why many nonbelievers don’t like Christianity. They don’t want our dull life. They don’t want to become like us.
Yikes! The gospel is meant to be a transforming power of joy. What has happened to us?
When I was in the business world, I used to meet with various executives to provide them with projects updates. During one trip I met with a CFO one day and with his president the next day.
The CFO told me of troubles he had with the president. The president, he said, cheated other shareholders by bullying; he coerced them into unfair compensation. The CFO told me that it was hard to work with a man who was so abusive and borderline unethical. He said, “I’d never do that.”
The next day I met with the president. He told me of trust issues he had with the CFO. The CFO’s wife was crippled by a chronic illness, and the CFO actively engaged in pornography. The president railed against this man who was emotionally unfaithful to his bedridden wife. He wasn’t sure he could work with such a man. He said, “I’d never do that.”