Christ tells His followers that they will have abundant life now. Do they? Many people today say that Christianity is a sour religion. It poisons our ability to enjoy life because it requires us to focus on ugly topics like death and sin. “We no longer do funerals,” they say. “We do celebrations of life. We no longer speak of sin. We talk about sadness and untapped potential. Most importantly, we no longer talk about God and what He wants, we talk about us and what we want. Living the Christian life is no different than living a life of poverty. It’s a failure to have the things in life that make us happy.” The sad reality is that these things are often said and thought not just by atheists, but by people who claim to be Christians.
So goes the spirit of the age. But is it true? Does Christianity really deprive us of the good and replace it with the sad? One look upon the faces of many Christians might indicate that this is the case!
Well, of course, I would argue that Christianity does not make one sad but makes one happy. The question isn’t really about what Christianity claims. The question is why it often doesn’t seem to do what it says it does. Why do so many Christians seem to be lacking in the abundant life department?
The problem in these cases isn’t Christianity. It is the Christian. Christianity is a fascinating religion. It does not allow for half-hearted adherents. The world can be a daunting place and it proves—time and time again—to tear away those people who only reluctantly and bashfully cling to Christ. Many other religions maintain their people even though the people do not really believe what they claim to believe. The Jewish people in the Old Testament were an infamous case in point. They so frequently wore all the badges of Jewishness but so often did not really love God. They expressed God with tongue and denied Him in heart.
You may be surprised to know that the prophetical section of the Bible is the largest section (even larger than Moses’s Pentateuch and the entire New Testament). Even more surprising is the fact that the majority of the prophets’ message was negative. The warning of God to the Jewish nation from the pen of the prophet was this continually: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Jeremiah 29:13). No other god, party, or person requires the wholehearted devotion that God requires. A politician is over the moon if you’d just vote for him and send him some money now and then. He couldn’t care less if you didn’t really care about his agenda. He just wants your vote. Such is the case with other religions—show up to the service, give some of your money, and follow the rules. These are the ingredients for a faithful non-Christian.
Jesus teaches the exact opposite—“Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:38). Why the difference? Well, God knows that if you follow Him only halfheartedly you will experience Christianity to be the way the world says it is. You will find God to be a cosmic killjoy constantly demanding that you do less of what you like and more of what you dislike. Why is this? Halfhearted devotion is by necessity an orientation that is purely focused on payment. It says, “If I do X, I want Y in return.” This is what the Jews did in the OT. They said, “I will avoid these foods and give these sacrifices but I better get prosperity in return. If not, I’ll go to the other gods who pay better.” And so they did, repeatedly. Halfhearted Christianity is no different than an employee on an hourly wage constantly browsing job listings for something better.
Here is the point—if your disposition to Christianity (the way you perceive it) is that it is a mechanism that will provide you with what you want, it will never go above your desires. It will never provide you with what your soul needs. If Christianity is only a means to knock the edge off of your anxiety, give you some hope for tomorrow, and help you make your car payment, it will never transform every cell in your body. Make no mistake, God is only interested in the latter. He wants you, right now, to take up your cross and follow Him. He is not overly concerned with your car payment or even your career advancement. God wants you to advance in holiness. He wants you to grow, not your bank account. This is why Jesus said, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
It makes no more sense for a halfhearted Christian to say Christianity doesn’t produce happiness than it does for a sommelier to say his wine is weak after pouring 3 parts water into the glass. It was never intended to be experienced that way. The light, watered-down version is not the real thing. When we uncork Christianity and drink under the stipulations that it requires, we experience the satisfaction that it intends. No one would water down their wine, leave it out for a week in a bowl, warm it up in the microwave, and demand that it tastes good. Why do we refuse to yield to the Spirit, neglect serving the church, hold onto our pet sins, and think Christianity has failed? If you demand that your Christianity boost your self-esteem it is no different than demanding your pinot noir make your engine stop knocking. It’s not intended for that.
The difference, of course, is that wine has an intended purpose that is limited and it can be abused. Christianity, on the other hand, is not a thing that gets used for a single purpose. It is a relationship with God that changes everything about you and the world that you inhabit. As such, it cannot be overdone. The pleasures of Christianity are the only pleasures in the world that cannot be overdone. You will never get a hangover from too much church. You will, on the other hand, experience the joy of God that goes above what your flesh demands. It is only when we encounter Christ head-on, not as a slave to our desires but as the King of the universe, that we experience the joy He brings.
King David was on a high bringing the Ark of the Covenant back from the Philistines after a very successful campaign. All the people loved him and the women started flocking to him. He was marching the prized possession—the Ark—home, feeling pretty good about his religion. But during the parade home, the Ark started to teeter and a man named Uzzah reached out to touch it. Uzzah was struck down by God because he failed to respect the Ark. It was so holy—as a symbol of God’s presence—no man could touch it without serious preparation. Slapping your hand on the side of it was like slapping God’s face. All of the sudden, David didn’t like his religion anymore: “And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah … So David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David” (2 Samuel 6:8, 10).
David, like us, didn’t like a religion that demanded everything. He wanted a religion that put trophies on the shelf and in the bed. God said, “No.” But look what happened to the one who respected the Ark: “the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom … And it was told King David, ‘The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God’” ( 2 Samuel 6:10, 12). When we respect Christianity on its own terms, we come face-to-face with the terrifying holiness of God—and we are blessed.
Here’s the rub—we will only find in Christianity what we look for. If we only want halfhearted benefits, that is all we will find. If we only want a little anxiety reduction that is all we will get and we will be sad about the payment we rendered for this little benefit. If you pay Christianity to get something out of it, you will inevitably experience buyer’s remorse because the benefit comes not from God, but man. This will always disappoint.
But, if we want to experience something that radically alters who we are, we will find it only if we are willing to give up who we are. Watered down Christianity never truly satisfies because it never asks you to take up your cross. On the contrary, modern, popular Christianity tells us to keep ourselves and allow God to be our self-esteem servant. Popular preachers don’t even ask you to physically come to church, let alone serve it! Watching online and mailing in your check is all that is required. Though this puffs you up for a season, it always ends in disillusionment because the benefit of Christianity is only found in the dying of the self, so that the new man may rise. You can’t do that on YouTube.
Put down the watered-down Christianity that has been hawked to you at half-price, and drink deeply of God’s holy mercy that flows from the heart of Christ.