I have been spending a lot of time with the beatitudes over the past few months, words that I heard so many times in my many years in the church have finally come to life. (See Part 1 of this series here.) One of the things that has stood out to me is just how much these blessings of Jesus stand in stark contrast to how we commonly talk about blessings today. As a part of my research, I've done some reading on how church leaders talk about the "blessings of God" on our lives. I've looked at themes like "the goodness of God," "the best life that we can have now," and even those who explicitly write about "the blessed life." (I'll refrain from actually naming books because I'm not here to critique any specific author. Instead, I'm looking at a trend.) In almost every case the focus of the teaching relates to how we can have financial success, how we can have a positive attitude and how we can be winners in this life, which is usually connected to experiencing personal success. Bottom line: a pile of money is equated with God's blessings.
At the same time, in most cases these books never talk specifically about the Jesus' beatitudes. I find it interesting that the section of scripture that most clearly talks about the blessings of God is totally absent in books that focus on the theme of God's blessings. How can this be?
Well, I could judge these writers and try to assess their motives. Since I've got no inside track into the personal motives of others, I'll offer one of the reasons why it took me so long to actually understand what the beatitudes are all about.
Recently I realized something about myself that I did not really want to see: I wanted the kind of Christianity that allowed me to have the right beliefs without actually having to be the kind disciple that Jesus introduces in Sermon on the Mount and in the beatitudes. I wanted to be strong, self-reliant and in control. In this way, I could hold on to my dreams of success. After all, I was voted Most Likely to Succeed in my senior class. And what is success?: More money, bigger house, newer cars, and the latest Apple products of course. When we talk about success today, nothing about our talk looks anything like what Jesus was talking about.
This might come as a shock to some who have read my stuff for a while, since I have been writing Christian books for more than a decade. But the truth of the matter is that I had tried to merge the American dream of prosperity, position and power with my orthodox beliefs. I just wanted to use my talents as a writer to live the American dream, even if it meant that I was writing about confronting the American dream.
The beatitudes did not make sense because the characteristics that Jesus calls "blessed" stand in stark contrast to the American dream. Think about it: Usually what we hear is that God has blessed us when the evidence of blessings is clear to all. We are blessed to have a new well-paying job. We are blessed because we have good health. We are blessed because we have a new car or a new house. God's blessings equal the good life, right here-right now. At least it seems to me that this is the primary way we talk about it.
Or we hear about the "poor in Spirit" are blessed because God will lift them up and change their situation so that they can have a proper blessing. But that's not what Jesus said.
Jesus said that the "poor in Spirit" are blessed, those who are humble, dependent upon God, or in a position where we have to totally look up to God for our well-being. We like to talk about such ideals but it seems to me that most of us have been told that we can have our cake and eat it too. That we can be Christians while at the same time striving to be successful Americans.
Don't hear me saying that I'm anti-success or anti-American. Nor do I assume that anyone who has big houses, nice cars and a huge bank account today cannot be a faithful follower of Jesus. I'm not challenging this because there is an inherent problem with success. I'm challenging the way that we have merged gospel of success with the Gospel of Jesus.
In missions work, this is called syncretism, the merging of the Gospel that goes beyond contextualization and actually undermines the nature of the Gospel of Jesus itself. If you were to travel to another country, you are much more likely to see the way that the Gospel has been compromised—not contextualized—and the values of the local culture have been mixed with the Gospel in such a way that the truth is less radical than it really is. In other words, it's Christianity Plus, The blessings of Jesus + _______________ (the blessings of a local cultured) = The Blessed Way of Life. But the problem is that by nature, sycretism is the attempt to combine two ways of thinking and living that cannot be combined. One way will always undermine the other.
It is much harder to see one's own syncretism because it's part of us. It's like asking a fish to describe water. I'm wondering just how much we have lost sight of how much we have tried to mix, combine, unite, merge, and meld the Gospel of the American blessings with the blessings of Jesus.
If we read the beatitudes well, might there be a deeper truth to God's kind of blessings?
What do you think?
(For part 3 in this series, click here.)