I have overheard and been part of recent conversations about “practicality” in the Gospel message.
These conversations initially began by looking at the famous passage from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:28-38).
One comment in particular stuck out.
An individual began discussing what they thought this passage meant regarding how we should treat other people. The individual said that Christ’s words offer a very practical, worldly application about how positivity yields positivity.
They said that instead of being confrontational and negative about problems with others, Christ suggests we should be positive. The individual claimed that in our positivity, others would in turn become more positive toward us.
His exegesis of the passage seemed to provide a practical method for making a difficult situation in life easier. What we put into our relationships, we get back.
Certainly there may be some truth to his statements, but did Scripture or Christ intend for this message to offer a practical method for making life easier?
Jesus says that we turn the other cheek and do these things so “that [we] may be children of [our] Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45).
We are not called to treat our enemies as neighbors because it will help make life better. We are called to treat our enemies as neighbors because that is what God is like.
This desire for practical ways to make life better seems to be too commonplace in the church today. We find that we want Christ, but we don’t want the difficulties of following Christ.
This story is not new; it can even be seen in the Bible itself.
The book of Job would be a rather difficult story to swallow if its epilogue were excluded from our reading. We find that the epic poem ends with Job, despite losing everything that he had, coming to terms with who God is.
Job did not need or expect the restoration of his possessions after coming to terms with God.
An interesting epilogue, however, written in a different prose format (perhaps a later addition), concludes with Job getting everything back and more. Perhaps, the author(s) thought there needed to be a practical message to the story.
It seems we do not want the God of the book of Job; we want the God of the epilogue.
The book of Mark, likewise, shows our need for something concrete. Instead of relying on faith that Jesus is alive, we require seeing him. The final, contentious passage in Mark (16:9-20) where Jesus appears to his followers only highlights our desire to have Christ and not faith in his resurrection. Is our faith too weak to end the book of Mark without having seen the risen Christ?
We want Christ, but we do not want the difficulty it takes to believe without seeing.
So I ask, what happens when others continue to respond negatively to our positivity? What happens if Job does not receive everything back and more? What happens when Jesus does not reveal himself to reassure our faith?
Does our faith collapse, and do we cease to believe? Do we only want Christ because we want a practical and heavenly reward?
Christ calls us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross daily to follow him (Luke 9:23) – not because it is practical but because that is what God is like.
It would appear that if the Gospel calls us to be anything, it is to be impractical.
Andrew Gardner holds a PhD in American Religious History and is the author of “Reimagining Zion: A History of the Alliance of Baptists” (Nurturing Faith Publishing).