Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Power and Weakness

It's interesting how ideas and experiences sometimes converge to give us new insights or to underscore old ones. That's happened to me again over the past two nights.

As I've mentioned, one of the books I'm reading right now is James C. Davis' The Human Story: Our History, from the Stone Age to Today, an outstanding book.

Beginning with the its founder, Muhammad, who united the once-disparate Arabs under his religion, Islam set out to violently conquer North Africa and Spain. (They were repelled by the French and the Spanish eventually expelled them.)

Davis points out that the Muslims made few attempts to convert the people they conquered to their religion. Then he says:
Even so, many millions of the people whom the Arabs conquered did convert. They may have reasoned that the God of the Muslims must be strong indeed if his people won so many wars...
I read those words just last night. Flash forward to this evening when, during the Bible study at the congregation I pastor our discussion turned to Acts 11:19-21. It recounts what happened after the death of Christianity's first martyr, Stephen, in Jerusalem:
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.
This story has been replicated time and again in the history of Christianity. Its greatest growth comes not through force of arms or coercion, but on the strength of the gentle witness of love and strength displayed in often persecuted believers.

It's always been that way. When Jesus, Who Christians believe was God-in-the-flesh, died a humilating death on a cross after refusing to fight back against His accusers, a Roman centurion, a guy who commanded 100 Roman soldiers, made a strange confession about Jesus. "“Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39)

It seems counterintuitive, but it's true: Authentic faith in Jesus Christ cannot be coerced or forced upon people.

That's why most Christians I know find the efforts of such disparate figures as James Dobson on the right or Jim Wallis on the left to enlist Jesus as a co-conspirator with their ideological political agendas so distressing.

It's also why most Christians I know find the "theology" of someone like Joel Osteen so appalling.

Jesus promises neither that we will have easy lives or worldly success if we follow Him. Some Christians have experienced lives of ease. Some have achieved what the world calls success. But Jesus doesn't promise those things to us.

Jesus tells those who follow Him: "I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33)

Jesus conquered the world through His love. That, in fact, is how He wins people over, even today.

People are attracted to Him not because of a promise to make us powerful, but His promise to make us one with God. Through this oneness, we come to know that we belong to God forever. We experience what Paul calls the "fruit of the Spirit." From Christ, we receive peace and so have no need to prove ourselves to God, to the world, or to ourselves. We can simply focus on loving God and loving others and begin to become truly human beings.

We can even honestly, healthfully accept our weaknesses. This is what the New Testament writer Paul was talking about when, in recounting God's refusal to remove an ill-defined thorn from his flesh, God told him, "No." Paul writes:
[God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Through submission to Christ, we refuse to rely on ourselves and rely instead on God. That's how when we are weak, we are really strong; it's God's strength that fills us.

There have been many shameful periods in the history of Christianity, when people bearing the Name of Christ have tried to use earthly power to control or subdue others. The Crusades were one such shameful event. There have been others. But such efforts don't reflect the character of the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Nor have they ever won people to believe in Christ as God and Savior. That only happens when Christians rely solely on the power of the humble Savior, Jesus.

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