January 2013 - Vol. 65
I was at a restaurant waiting for a friend when I overheard a three-way conversation at the next table. I didn’t mean to listen, but they were loud and seemed unaware of others.
One person complained – just a little – of his spouse’s odd eccentricities; another found fault in a boss’s stupidity; and the last grumbled a bit at her grown child’s ingratitude. Just normal middle-class Americans griping at everyday discomforts.
Then the first told of a documentary he had seen on tribal peoples in the South American Rain Forests, people who had little to no contact with the rest of the world.
The threesome turned out to be Christians, and they wondered about the eternal future for such people. One asked, “If someone never heard the gospel, do they have any chance of heaven? Or is hell their only option?”
Another had just read a book which claimed that everyone is going to heaven. After all, if God really loves the world, wouldn’t he save the whole world? Everyone at the table seemed swayed by this argument (which I think is faulty), and everyone sighed in relief.
Then someone asked, “If God is going to bring everyone to heaven, why on earth would anyone spend any time trying to evangelize anyone?” They concluded there is no need, and frankly no reason.
They collectively breathed another sigh of relief. I too was relieved. Not because of Universal Salvation – which I don’t believe.
I was relieved that these three would never try to evangelize.
Let me be clear
I’m in favor of evangelism. I am simply relieved it wouldn’t be done by this threesome. Their sole reason for evangelization was eternal life. It had nothing to do with today.
But Jesus said, “I came that they may have an abundant life [or a rich, satisfying life]” (John 10:10). He said he came to bring something that changed the quality of the lives we can live today. He came to restore a richness in our lives that was lost in the fall.
Nobody at that table even hinted at a richness in their lives. Nobody said, “I have a joy in my heart that overwhelms my circumstances.”
They may have been breathing – at least in relief – but they didn’t seem to be fully living.
I wonder what they even meant by eternal life. From what I could gather, an eternal extension of their lives would be – well – hell.
What can we expect?
The gospel is more than dried-up intellectual understanding, and it is more than dutiful external behavior. The Scribes and Pharisees were full of those, yet Jesus said of them:
Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across land and sea to make a single convert, and when he converts, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are yourselves.The gospel unquestionably brings new beliefs of the heart, and it certainly changes how we act. But these come from a new joy at something done for us.
When Jesus told his Nazareth hometown about his purpose on earth, he said that he had come to rescue (as in “save”) the poor and brokenhearted, and the captives and prisoners (Isaiah 61:1-2 quoted by Jesus in Luke 4). Jesus proclaimed good news of great joy.
The gospel brings joy. Jesus came to pour out gladness (joy) to replace mourning.
What do we most need?
The world is filled with brokenness and despair. We read about oppressive regimes in the third world countries, and we see broken relationships among our families and friends. The ensuing despondency and despair brings death, even as we breathe.
So what is our normal response? We work ever so hard at filling our activities with meaning, or we simply numb the pain. We try to make our families the best families, or we step on others to climb the corporate ladder, or we anesthetize our hearts with leisure, media, chemicals, or romance.
Or – perhaps more insidiously – we both strive and numb our hearts with dead religion.
In our strivings (and in our numbing) we contribute to the brokenness around us. We work too hard as parents and our kids rebel; we work too hard at our jobs and we leave a wake of broken friendships; we anesthetize our pain with the drugs of distraction or dead religion, and we see the destruction of hope deferred.
What we most need – really the only solution is – the joy of salvation.
How does it work?
King David contributed to the brokenness of the world through adultery, murder and cover-up. Yet his prayer was not simply, “forgive me,” though he begins Palm 51 that way. No, his prayer was, “Restore to me the joy of salvation” (Psalm 51:12). He knew what he most needed, God’s joy again.
What will he do with that joy? The very next verse says, “Then I will show your ways to the broken ones, and sinners will return to you.”
David is beginning (dare I say it?) … to evangelize. And you know what? I’m okay with that. More than okay; I’m thrilled. The inner joy that comes from the rescue of God fills David with abundant life, a life worth living. He is not just breathing; he is a life on fire.
Is it okay to evangelize? Frankly, people are “evangelizing” all the time (even the people who try to covert others not to evangelize anyone). So let’s bring God-given joy to others.
Don’t we want a life on fire for everyone? A joyful, rich, abundant life? Then eternal life will be moving from one degree of glory (joy) to the next. Forever.
I’m good with that.
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