We Americans, and perhaps anyone in the modern world, grow up learning a false gospel. We're told that every day, in every way, things are getting better and better. Death, hardship and suffering, once universal, are becoming optional and should soon disappear forever. Life used to be hard and short, modern medicine has ended scourge after scourge, and works on the ones that remain. Work used to be hard, machines and labor saving technology make it easier and easier. The American version says we declared our independence, and afterwards tyranny has become unknown in our land.
But the Christian gospel says this is far too simple. With all the progress science and technology have made, we each carry seeds of evil in our hearts, and are all too prone to give in to it. Progress does end certain evils, but new evils come. And weakened by our lack of persistence because of the adversity we thought we’d never have to face, despair and apathy are strong.
An inadequate view of the gospel can combine with a willingness to believe in progress, and result in a Christianized view of progress. Hardship, pain and suffering are still temporary, a sign of being far from God. When we come to God, learn some basic discipleship, they should go away. If not, we wonder where we’ve gone wrong. What is the missing spiritual secret to make our life in Christ become effortless as it ought to be? This question fuels the susceptibility to health and wealth doctrines, we want to believe the life of faith should work like that. God is all powerful, and loving, so he can’t want us to suffer can he? I’ve never fallen for straight health and wealth doctrines, but I have yielded more than once to the analogous thinking — if I am seeking God’s kingdom, rather than my own comfort, my life should be nearly effortless. Yes, there may be awkwardnesses, outward hardships, but they won’t really bother me, will they?
There is a startling and surprising truth that leapt out at me from the pages of Scripture when I tried to take an overview of God’s work in history. God, standing outside time, has a plan to bring all things together, to sum up all things in Christ. Yet he has little urgency about this, in the way we imagine urgency. He had no hesitation to permit thousands of years for the accomplishment of his plan. Abraham was called, centuries later Israel was in Egypt, and Moses led them out. Then centuries in the promised land, until David came and established the kingship. David and Solomon’s golden age only lasted a short while, then centuries of mostly corrupt kings and prophets that few listened to. Then exile, and slow rebuilding after. Then more centuries and Christ the promised Messiah is born. He dies to accomplish our forgiveness, then returns from the grave, the Spirit descends and starts the church. And two thousand years later the church has still not reached every language group with the Good news. Why does this take so long? Was God caught off guard that the people following Moses would rebel? Or that the judges would call people back to God, and they would wander away again? Was he surprised that the church would so often become corrupt and lifeless, that no revival would ever be permanent, that open doors would close and churches would fossilize? No, he knew all this was coming, included it in his plan.
Yet we think, like other generations that have gone before, for us everything ought to proceed smoothly. We’ve learned to trust God, we’ve learned how to organize churches, how to do mission. Scriptures that speak of persistence, and long suffering were for the previous generations; we have learned, gotten it right. We have seen God at work and will never look back or go astray. Such thoughts show more pride in ourselves than real faith.
I’m convinced one lesson we ought to learn from the book of Revelation is that Satan and the powers of evil keep coming back, keep coming out on top time and time again. God protects and preserves his people, and will win in the end — but that end can be a long time away. God often employs plots where things get a lot worse before they get better. I believe in the life of faith through the centuries, the default is not the one who turns to God in such a powerful way that everything is forever changed there and then, but the default is the one who believes God’s word that all will be changed, some time coming but who knows when, and out of that hope finds the strength and persistence to keep hoping that the present mess is not permanent.