Discomfort has a weird way of reshaping our reality. I got a vicious stomach flu in the fall of 2011 (yep, years later I still remember it). As a principle of life, I always hope to behave like a godly man in the crucible of suffering. I want to be selfless and kind, like all the heroes I read about in Christian paperbacks. Yet after more than 25 years of spiritual maturity, when the heaving started that day, I whined a lot and just wished I would die. I was also rude. During that week, personal determination, theology, and spirituality might as well have been bubble gum cards. My status as a pastor also made little difference. It’s funny how professional standing doesn’t mean a thing when you’re bent over a toilet seat.
In the midst of discomfort, a lot of stuff goes out of focus—including self-identity. Who am I? Your answer often depends on how hungry you are, or disappointed, or hot/cold, or intimidated or outraged. You’d be amazed how much all those factors can affect the way you think about yourself. When the heavy hitters come around, even Christian self-identity may not be safe. Think about the powerhouse that media has become in molding the public consciousness. It has exerted a steady, unrelenting pressure on consumers since practically day one. We believers might have had a message of salvation for the world, but the world had something to say back…about us. At first we cringed. Remember Carrie’s mother in the movie Carrie? She was a Bible thumper, but way off the rails. At the time we could tell ourselves, “That’s not me or anybody I know.” Later we laughed—at Church Lady, Reverend Lovejoy, and Ned Flanders. We had to admit, well, okay, I know some Christians kind of like that. In fact, on some days I am like that. It was all in good fun, but things would grow yet more uncomfortable.
The time has arrived when sarcastic innuendo is no longer just embedded in horror movies or Saturday Night Live sketches. Messages have begun to reach us stripped of code. Now talk-show gurus, news reports, university professors, celebrities, politicians, and growing segments of society will clearly lay it out. The Christian “package” is a problem. The wrapping paper and bow might be okay, but the contents—the scary God, the ignorant book, the intolerant believers—really need to be dumped into a hole and covered with concrete. Besides, the entire evangelical population has been co-opted by the Republican Party, anyway (Note: it is apparently okay to be co-opted by the Democrats).
Typically, these sentiments don’t arrive as a pie in the face. They slow-drip. The long-term effects are palpable. Although many of us get mad or hide, learn from it, or try to put a positive spin on it, a good number of us just allow ourselves to be influenced. We listen passively and accept what we hear. For instance, I start to absorb allegations about the Christian faith being phobic, bigoted, or just plain superstitious. It bugs me. I want to prove what they say isn’t true. I want to be the opposite of all that stuff. In fact, I’ll even swap jerseys just to show how sincere I am. Maybe I’ll heckle the church some myself, fashionably criticize a few passages in the Bible as “Backward and reflecting the archaic notions of the day.” What could appear more sophisticated, more enlightened, than to participate in self-loathing and give myself black eyes? It’s the price of comfort. But these concessions actually signify the loss of one’s Christian identity. By calibrating your life according to the bitter critics of the gospel, you will lose who you are.
That’s why Peter starts his letter off at a full gallop. He informs the suffering (or uncomfortable) believers of their real identity:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood…(1 Pet. 1:1-2)
This is who you are. You are not the by-product of conservative culture/gun culture/non-education/dark ages/country music/American politics/western values/wishful thinking/blind faith/Freudian delusions/religious parents/sheltered upbringing/a gullible nature/too many hits on a controlled substance. It’s all talk on the street and it’s completely wrong.
The truth is you have to listen to someone who knows more about you than you do.
To be continued…