My first major purchase was a submarine. I saw it on the back of a cereal box that boasted of its prowess as a "real" diving submarine. Through the power of baking soda, this little vessel promised to make me master of the seas—or at least master of the bathtub. I had to have it, even though it cost me several weeks' allowance. The day it came in the mail, I loaded the special compartment at the bottom of the sub with baking soda, and launched it.
The sub went straight to the bottom. It did not dive. It sank. Bubbles rose to the surface as the baking soda began to dissolve, and then suddenly it bobbed back up to the surface. After a while, it sank again. There was a kind of novelty in this, but overall it was less than I had hoped for. A wave of disappointment washed over me, and I realized that I had wasted my savings on a cheap plastic toy.
When I grew older, I put such childish concerns behind me. But disappointment would not be put off so easily. Instead, it insinuated itself into the more complex toys of adulthood, like my vocation and my most cherished relationships. My work, even when it is ministry, often seems like toil. People I love do not always love me back. Sometimes I take others for granted or treat them unkindly. I set out to make something of myself and glorify God in the process. Yet after making every effort to "expect great things from God and attempt great things for God," my accomplishments fail to follow the trajectory I expected.
I am disappointed but not surprised. We live in an age of unreasonable expectations. Ours is a world where promises are cheaply made and easily broken—where hyperbole is the lingua franca. Advertisers tell us that a different shampoo will make us more attractive to the opposite sex. Alcohol will lubricate our relationships. Purchasing the right car will be a gateway to adventure. These pitchmen promise us far more than enhanced lives. They are peddling ultimate fulfillment.
"The problem with advertising isn't that it creates artificial longings and needs, but that it exploits our very real and human desires," media critic Jean Kilbourne observes. "We are not stupid: We know that buying a certain brand of toilet tissue … won't bring us one inch closer to that goal. But we are surrounded by advertising that yokes our needs with products and promises us that things will deliver what in fact they never can." Kilbourne notes that ads also have a tendency to promote narcissism while portraying our lives as dull and ordinary. They trade on natural desires but in a way that heightens our dissatisfaction and creates unrealistic expectations.
We can blame Madison Avenue for raising false hopes, but we cannot escape bearing some of the responsibility. Advertising creates culture, but it also provides a mirror. Optimism has always been a feature of American thinking, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. Unrealistic expectations compel thousands of contestants who cannot sing to try out for American Idol every season and be genuinely surprised when they do not make the cut. Misguided enthusiasm has prompted a generation of well-meaning parents and teachers to tell children that they can accomplish anything as long as they believe in themselves.
The church is not immune from this way of thinking. American popular theology combines the innate optimism of humanism with the work ethic of Pelagianism, resulting in a toxic brew of narcissistic spirituality at once pragmatic and insipidly positive. This is Christianity without scars, and with all the sharp edges of our experience smoothed over. Nostalgia and a cheap sentimentalism replace Jonathan Edwards's religious affections, clouding over the hard facts of what it means to follow Jesus.
Such a view has little in common with the mindset of those who saw God's promises and welcomed them from a distance (Heb. 11:13). It depicts a world in which (to quote from the hymn "Trust and Obey") "not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies, but his smile quickly drives it away." There is no place on such a landscape for someone like Job, whose path has been blocked by God and whose experience is shrouded in darkness (Job 19:8). It has no vocabulary adequate to express Jeremiah's complaint that he has been deceived and brutalized by God's purpose (Jer. 20:7).
Brochures for Christian conferences claim that those who attend will "never be the same." Church signs boast of being the "friendliest" church in town. In other contexts, we would have no trouble recognizing such claims for what they are: the hyperbolic white noise of marketing. But when the church takes up these extravagant claims, they are invested with a false aura of divine authority.
This is especially true when the language of biblical promise is invoked to support such claims. In the Scriptures, Jesus makes bold claims about himself and his mission. But Jesus' claims, while extreme, are not extravagant. The church cheapens these promises when it resorts to clichés and the rhetoric of spiritual marketing to describe its experience and ministries.
'The Language of Unsustainable Intimacy'
Not long ago, Michael, a former student of mine, complained about the way youth leaders commonly use what he called "the language of unsustainable intimacy" to describe our relationship with Jesus Christ. "It's the sort of thing you hear when youth group leaders tell their students to 'date' Jesus," he explained. It is true that Christian mystics like Teresa of Avila have long used the language of intimacy to describe their experience of Christ. She spoke of Christ as both a friend and a lover. But Teresa also warned that one's experience with Christ includes desolation, pain, and suffering.
Likewise, the Bible uses analogs of intimacy to characterize the relationship we have with God. The relationship we have with Christ is compared to a bridegroom and bride, husband and wife, parent and child (Isa. 54:5; Rev. 21:2, 9, 17; Matt. 7:11). The trouble with the language of unsustainable intimacy is that it gives the false impression that intimacy with Christ comes through the same mechanisms which sustain ordinary relationships: presence, touch, and conversation.
Presence is indeed an element in our relationship with Christ. Jesus has promised to be with us until "the very end of the age" (Matt. 28:20). But this is a spiritual presence, mediated through the Holy Spirit. John could say that he had seen and touched Christ (1 John 1:1), but we cannot. Our peculiar blessing is enjoying intimate fellowship with one who is invisible to us (John 20:29). We are in a similar position when it comes to prayer. We enjoy a kind of conversation with Jesus through the exercise of prayer, but it often feels one-sided. He responds to our prayers but remains silent. What was said of the Jews with regard to the Father could be said of us with respect to Christ: "You have never heard his voice nor seen his form" (John 5:37).
Forgetting God's Transcendence
When the church uses the language of unsustainable intimacy to describe our experience of Christ, it fails to do justice to divine transcendence. The Bible affirms that we were made in God's image (Gen. 1:26). But it also says that God is different from us (Num. 23:19; Isa. 55:8-9). "God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than any other being," observed C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. "He makes, we are made: He is original, we derivative. But at the same time, and for the same reason, the intimacy between God and even the meanest creature is closer than any that creatures can attain with one another."
Likewise, the Bible affirms that in the Incarnation, God the Son was "made like" us, "his brothers" (Heb. 2:17). He was tempted in all things just like we are (Heb. 4:15). This commonality guarantees that we can look to Christ to find sympathy and help in the midst of temptation. However, the risen Christ is also transcendent. In his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus invited his disciples to "touch and see" that he was not a ghost (Luke 24:39; John 20:27).
But it is equally clear from these appearances that the disciples' relationship to Jesus has radically changed. Mary is told not to cling to Jesus' physical form because he must ascend to the Father (John 20:17). The same John who speaks of seeing and touching Christ falls at Jesus' feet "as though dead" (Rev. 1:17). After the Resurrection, our relationship is with an ascended and glorified Christ. Jesus is still like us, but he is also unlike us. The day when we will be made like him is still to come (1 John 1:2).
The Bible does promise that we can have true intimacy with Christ. But this intimacy, which is mediated through the Holy Spirit, is unlike any other relationship with which we are familiar. It is one in which we are known more than we know (1 Cor. 13:12). The comfort we find in the conversation of prayer is the comfort of being heard more than of hearing (1 John 5:14-15). It is a relationship that is personal but reveals little about Jesus' personality. It is also a relationship where our greatest intimacy will be experienced in the future rather than the present. For the present, we should not expect to find ultimate fulfillment in our experience of Christ. That is yet to come. We may even find on occasion that human relationships are more vivid and immediately satisfying. Perhaps this is implied in the earthly analogies the Bible uses when it speaks of our relationship to God. These concrete experiences "put a face" on our spiritual relationship and help us relate to the invisible God in a personal way.
Worship Amid the Ruins
Ultimately, the roots of our disappointment are much deeper than the language we use to frame our expectations. The seeds of disappointment are sown in the fabric of the world itself. To the ancients, the heavens looked like a model of symmetry, order, and proportion. However, this was merely an illusion created by distance. Closer inspection revealed a more terrifying reality. The heavens are full of dark matter as well as light. The earth is teeming with life, but the rest of the universe—at least the portion we have been able to see—is barren. There is order, as the stars move in their courses each night, and the cycles of seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night continue just as God promised (Gen. 8:22). But there is also chaos and destruction.
The collateral damage of sin cannot be avoided. The Bible teaches that the natural world, no less than the human soul, writhes in the throes of sin. Creation has been "subjected to futility" and "is in bondage to decay" (Rom. 8:20-21). The ground that once yielded its fruit willingly now does so only after struggle, and all who come after Adam have learned to eat the bread of sorrow like their first father. The full cup must be drunk, even to the dregs. To be sure, redemption is coming. The day draws near when the earth's groaning will cease, and creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay. But that day is not today. Today we must live amid the wreckage of the Fall and build upon the ruins.
The other day, during my ride home from work, I saw a church sign that read "Greater Works Ministries." I immediately recognized the allusion to Jesus' promise in John 14:12: "Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." It was not the usage of this Scripture phrase that caught my attention so much as the poor condition of the church sign. The lettering was cracked and faded, like the worn building upon which it was emblazoned. You would think a church that could do "greater works" could put up a better sign, I mused.
But there is no real incongruity between the sign's bold promise and the drab reality of its setting. If anything, the ostensible contradiction is a more accurate reflection of how most people experience church life than the exaggerated rhetoric we so often employ. But what are we to make of the wreckage we see around us Is it symptomatic of our crumbling façade, or proof that we are being rebuilt from the rubble Perhaps it is both.
The construction of the spiritual life requires as much tearing down as there is building up. Although the demolition sometimes results from our own self-destructive behavior, it can also result from God's renovating work through the Holy Spirit. We "put off" in order to "put on" (Eph. 4:22, 25). Not everyone who builds the church does so carefully or with the best material (1 Cor. 3:11-13). But we can be sure that Christ will finish the work that he has begun, despite our worst efforts (and sometimes our best). He will build his church. The powers of hell will not overcome it (Matt. 16:18).
Near the end of the war with Germany, as allied bombs rained down on Stuttgart and the Nazi regime staggered toward defeat, Lutheran pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke preached a remarkable series of sermons on the Lord's Prayer. With the battered remnant of his congregation gathered for worship in the midst of their ruined building, Thielicke used Christ's words to trace a stunning map of spiritual reality. He located their experience at the intersection of two lines of activity. "The first line is a descending one," Thilicke preached, "and it indicates that mankind is constantly living farther and farther away from God." The other line is the ascending line of Christ's dominion over our lives, which goes on simultaneously with the other process. Employing Luther's language of Christ's presence in the sacraments, Thielicke declared: "In, with, and under the world's anguish and distress, in, with, and under the hail of bombs and mass murders, God is building his kingdom."
This is not hyperbole. It is not pastoral spin or church marketing. It is the language of spiritual reality.
John Koessler, professor of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute, is the author of Folly, Grace, and Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching (Zondervan).
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Visit ChristianBibleStudies.com for "Our Disappointment with God," a Bible study based on this article.
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