Throughout the gospels, Jesus consistently frames things in ways that make us think. To highlight this point, most people point to his parables, each of which left Jesus’ listeners scratching their heads in puzzlement.
But although Jesus wants to get us thinking, this is partly because his kingdom is hard to understand in the first place. Jesus made this clear to his disciples when they questioned him on his unconventional approach to teaching. When questioned, Jesus replied with this: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.”
But why is the kingdom of God a “secret”? Why is it so hard for us to understand the way it works in earthly terms? Jesus recognized that his message was counterintuitive, so how do we wrap our heads around it properly?
As I mentioned in my previous post, Ayn Rand’s negative view of the Christian message illuminates the primary points of confusion surrounding it. Although Rand thought Jesus’ call to sacrifice resulted in some form of masochistic altruism, Jesus was really pointing the way toward truly rational self-interest. Put plainly: When Jesus said things like “the last shall be first” and “whoever will save his life will lose it,” he really meant what he said.
In this post, I hope to offer a bit more illumination as to how we as Christians are to process such a “payoff” in our own lives. But take note: I am not advocating a give-and-take mindset by which we throw our lives at the altar while begging for goodies from heaven. For any of these “payoffs” to occur, our heart motive must be properly aligned to what Jesus calls us to. That’s the tricky part. For us to be able to enjoy the blessed life, our sacrifice has to be genuine and steadfast. Our motives have to be pure and properly aligned to a desire to perform God’s will. Without such an alignment, our sacrifice is in vain.
In Christian circles, we often hear discussions rewards in the afterlife or even rewards in the material. Although we may indeed gain rewards in both, I want to talk about the intersection of the two: namely, our spiritual lives on this earth and the rewarding transformation that comes with wholehearted devotion to Christ.
At the root of Jesus’ message, he is not interested in our money or our stuff or our status or our talents or our skills or whatever. More important than our sacrifice is our willingness to sacrifice — to trust and obey. When we perform this ultimate sacrificial act — when we partake in this transformative contract with God — an overwhelming sense of fulfillment and happiness will dominate our lives.
Author and pastor John Piper speaks at length about these issues in his now-classic book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Piper discusses the many ways in which God desires for us to be joyful, arguing that, “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” This is the key: In order to “profit,” as Rand would say, we must not only learn to enjoy God, but we must begin to recognize how he is constantly changing us and transforming us through our selfless attempts to change the world for his glory.
So how do we enjoy God? On this point, Piper covers a variety of areas, including worship, love, scripture, prayer, money, marriage, and missions. At a brief glance, you will notice that the Bible has plenty to say on these matters, so I will bypass providing any in-depth Biblical support at the moment (just read the book).
You’ll also notice that each of these acts requires some kind of sacrifice, whether it means giving up our time, intellectual focus, personal pride, dreams and aspirations, material resources, or just plain old physical energy. You should also note, however, that each of these endeavors can also lead to any number of personal benefits.
Worship uplifts us, love inspires us, scripture equips us, prayer empowers us, money enables us, marriage enriches us, and missions fulfill our ultimate goal — to save the Lost by pointing them to the same solution that freed us. There are obviously plenty of personal benefits within each of these endeavors, but their transformative power would be incomplete and weakened without the power of some overarching sacrificial act or attitude.
If we follow Jesus’ calling, the investment we make may or may not be rational by any clear, earthly standard. But judging from what Jesus promises, as well as the spiritual fruit each sacrificial act will bring to our lives, Jesus’ calling does not imply the masochistic, misery-laden outcomes that Rand and plenty of progressive Christians propose.
In his epistle to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul wrote at length about the net benefit that comes with Christian sacrifice. Paul was beaten, imprisoned, exhausted, and eventually executed for the gospel, yet his life did not consist of some blind, irrational, emotional pursuit that led to torment and destitution.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
If Paul had rejected Christ like that infamous rich man, he would not have found true value as an individual. Yes, he was severely persecuted. Yes, he experienced pain and suffering. But after all was said and done, would Paul have looked back and wished he had stayed in his comfy and cozy life as a Pharisee? The above verse would imply the opposite.
But what about those who ignore the call of Christ? What did Paul say about those who rely on earthbound (or law-based) conceptions of individual profit and self-interestedness?
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
What do we risk, then, if we reject Christ’s call to selfless self-interestedness? If we dismiss his instructions as silly contradictions (as Rand does) or exalt them as glorious masochism (as many Christians do), will we be able to fulfill God’s calling for us? Will we be able to enjoy God if we fail to glorify him through our obedience? Truly, such a rejection would deny the power that sustained and uplifted Paul in his time of need. Such a rejection would forfeit true fulfillment and true pleasure, both for ourselves and for the world around us.
As Piper says:
The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love. To the extent that we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue.
Communion with God is the best thing that can happen to us, but such communion can only be achieved with true devotion and sacrifice.
The Psalmist once wrote that his sacrifice to God was a “broken spirit” and a “contrite heart.” “May it please you,” he said, “ to build up the walls of Jerusalem.”
Let’s get building, shall we?