The Word of God is unique. It was written throughout many generations and in different cultures. Although shaped by these cultures, it stands apart from culture itself to express divine truth. In the same way, God’s truth should always be speaking to the culture and the people of the culture, influencing them and not vice versa.
It is seriously important that preaching today becomes increasingly biblical—and I hope this sounds as curious as it is strange to say; but indeed more biblical, or given earnestly to teaching the text, simply because a reversal is occurring and leading to the tainting of God’s truth.
A quick observance here: When preaching is less than biblical, it may be contaminated by a number of non-essentials, such as the preacher’s opinions and talking points, new renditions of scripture, intellectualism, and hype, among others. But there is one that has done a marvelous job creeping into the American pulpit. It is the danger of the self-help gospel.
A Dream on the Throne
Self-help is achievement by means of self-reliance through methods (sometimes psychological) or systems. The possible achievements are many and various, as are the methods. Self-help is also easy and of varying worth: Anyone can be an expert and write a book and pique the interest of one’s inferiority. The number of self-help books available for purchase online today is plethora. We seem to be a nation of people with many small reasons not to like themselves.
Now the self-help gospel I’ve too often witnessed in many pulpits, in-person and on television, goes something like this: “Don’t let your dreams die” “God can make your dreams come true” “Dream a dream that only God can make happen.” Dream! Dream! Dream! What is this? I’m not certain how we have missed the goal of Christ and taking up our cross and replaced that with our destiny and dreams, but it is gross error and the Spirit of God is calling us back to our senses.
I fear that the church in America has confused spiritual faith and optimism with capitalism and the American Dream that both emphasize personal achievement and worth and to which nothing is seemingly impossible. But these may stand in direct opposition to the principles of the Word of God that constantly instruct us to lose ourselves and empty out rather than laying up earthly treasure, whether natural or emotional.
Paul and the End of a Dream
Christ and his purpose for our lives is the final word for Christians. What we will surely learn is that sometimes God’s “dream” for us, or his purpose, is not always the path we would so readily choose, although it will be the one that brings us greatest joy and spiritual achievement. We should recall that the Lord sent Ananias to convert Saul of Tarsus with the words, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16), something the former persecutor himself might have quickly fled if it had been told to him. Yet today we count Paul among the greatest of Christians who ever lived and his joy in Christ was undeniable.
I use the apostle Paul as a good example of this matter. In Philippians 3:4-14, Paul speaks of the achievements of his own life regarding his religious zeal. He starts by saying, “Yet if anyone ever had reason to hope that he could save himself, it would be I. If others could be saved by what they are, certainly I could!” (v. 4, LB).
He further elaborates how he was properly initiated as a Jewish baby into a pureblooded home. He emphasizes that he was blameless in his adherence to law and custom and zealous, going as far as persecuting the young church. His crowning achievement was being a Pharisee, part of the group of strictest adherents to Jewish law and policy. We also know from Acts 22:3 that he was taught by the renowned doctor of Jewish law, Gamaliel.
Saul, based on his accomplishments, had before him a life of honor and wealth considering the high official posts to which he could have risen. There are no indications that he led anything less than a discreet moral life. As a young man—and probably an ambitious one—he had a good life ahead of him, and the scandalous Jesus religion was one thing that could bring it all crashing down around him.
Then he says, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7). Here is a man who explains his life lived by the rules and at the pinnacle of the ladder of success that any religious Jew of his day would have envied; and, for our understanding, here is a man who possessed the “dream” and, in significant ways, as best a dream as could be had in Israel before his conversion to Christ. Paul is informing us that he considered his life well-ordered and pleasing to God.
In his next breath, however, he explains that, in retrospect, all he possessed miserably failed in comparison to the effect Christ produced in him. “Whatever were gains to me”—all that was to his advantage, all he could embrace, all that made his heart happy and fat, all that stroked his ego—these things, in the light of Christ, became rubbish or refuse. In fact, the connotation is of animal innards that were to be discarded.
Paul continues: “Now I have given up everything else—I have found it to be the only way to really know Christ and to experience the mighty power that brought him back to life again, and to find out what it means to suffer and to die with him” (v. 10, LB). Paul would have had to choose Christ and, therefore, walk away from the life of distinction within his grasp. So, if dispossession is part of the road to transforming relationship with Christ, how have we formed a message of dream, destiny, and more?
First Things First
I do not mean to say that we may not seek to attend college and make a good living ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we cannot have ambition and desire to be the best at what we do. I’m not saying that the desire to be wealthy is necessarily wrong. We should be exemplary persons and exemplary Christian persons. How much more God can use us for the kingdom as accomplished individuals.
But if these things in any way replace a consuming passion for God and to serve him in everything we do, as well as a quick response to let it all go should he prompt us to do so, we may be living contrary to his will. The least that could be said is that our lives do not find full satisfaction in God.
“I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us” (v. 14, LB). Such a reward has nothing to do with my ambition or merits and everything to do with identifying with his suffering and winning the crown of life. My dreams don’t matter and are best kept as servants in the relationship I share with God. In fact, we chance to make them idols if our hearts do not fully embrace Christ.
Gaining Proper Perspective
Moreover, if a man who had every advantage both before and after turning to Jesus can regard all his righteousness as filthiness relative to his spiritual knowledge, our need for newer and bigger advantages for God to bless and be shown as his favor upon us is counterintuitive. It is amazing that we can bend the scriptures to be so superficial about what we can expect from God.
This is not God’s favor to us; it is our self-aggrandizement in God’s name. Jesus is enough. God’s purpose is enough. The glory of God is enough. But we haven’t sat in his presence long enough to get the revelation—and an explosive revelation it is. This is a life unto death joyfully strode. We give all for a loving and great Savior. We take on his cross and follow where he leads, not where we wish to go. Will we like Saul need to be thrown from our beasts to get the picture?
This dream is not gospel preaching but calling on God to bless our striving and sometimes vanity. If we’re going to be driven in our careers and life aspirations, fine. Let us be that to the glory of God and serve God with all we possess. But let us not preach its pursuit and advantage as the necessary will of God and definitely not the Word of God because it is not and would not be in the way we Americans think of it, lest it produces in even third world countries as richly as it might here in the ‘land of opportunity’; and we cannot see that happening as easily.
So until it does such preaching is a travesty of the pulpit and disregard for the true Word of God.