Triumphalism is a terrible thing.
I heard an unexpected sermon yesterday from a guest preacher in a church we visited. The church is a traditional old Midwest Protestant congregation, not known, at least in recent memory, for their religious enthusiasm or expressiveness. Sunday’s speaker was from a quite different ecclesiastical milieu. The congregation seemed to enjoy the change of pace, the humor and the gregariousness of the man at the pulpit. He was likable and knew how to connect with an audience.
However, I’m sorry to report, I found what he had to say a long, long way from the actual nature of the biblical story and the mind of Christ.
I am sure, whatever the exact nature of his background, that he comes from the “Continualist” wing of Christianity, which is now usually described as having three “waves” — Pentecostalism, the Charismatic renewal, and the Third Wave of signs and wonders. Today, some also speak of a “Fourth Wave,” which is characterized by such groups as the “New Apostolic Reformation” and “Independent Network Charismatic” movements.
Now, I don’t dismiss or denigrate these movements lightly. As Ed Setzer observes in his posts on continualism, “it is the fastest-growing movement in the history of world Christianity.” Nor am I a traditional “discernment” blogger, intent on preserving the purity of the faith once delivered. There are countless facets to the Christian faith that others see and appreciate more clearly than I. So, I don’t take it upon myself to declare these sisters and brothers heretics and condemn them.
But what I heard Sunday morning is problematic.
The basic point of the sermon was fine: God’s people need not fear because we have a great God who is bigger than all the things that make us afraid.
However, he then went on to develop this thought by saying that God does not want us to be afraid because when we fear, we are unable to “operate in faith.” This opened the door into another realm of ideas. Now we were encouraged to think about how God has given Christians a special power called faith. He defined faith as “having power and authority with God” that was strong enough to dramatically influence even the rulers and nations of this world.
Included in this power is a unique access to the mysteries of God. He also called this “an inside track to the heart of the Father.”
For his biblical example, he chose the story of Daniel, who was given insight into Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, and whose faith facilitated a great change of heart in the fearsome ruler.
What’s wrong with this picture?
In the end, the message I heard in worship Sunday is triumphalism. It puts forward a binary choice: fear or faith. It says if we have enough faith, if we operate in faith, if we surrender our fears and make use of the power of faith, we will triumph and come out on top. If God’s people do this faithfully enough, the whole world, all evil rulers, and every nation will change. We are God’s army and our chief weapon is faith. This gives us exclusive access to the very mysteries of God and a voice of authority and power before God in prayer and through working miracles to transform the world.
We will win. But — and here’s the key point — we will win by winning.
That is why Sunday’s preacher was so enthusiastic. Everyone loves to win and win big. We love the raucous pep rally that cheers our team on to victory. We love to get motivated, energized, and fired up. This is why so much of Christian worship is what it is today. No longer the simple, sacred duty of a grateful people, it is now, more often than not, a spectacle of positivity and stimulation.
Not so fast.
The nature of the Bible argues against this “win by winning” perspective. For example, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is one of the rare instances in human experience where history was written by the losers.
The Hebrew Bible was compiled, composed, edited, and brought into its final form by people from a nation that was no longer. Rather, they were exiles. And then post-exilic puppets to other, stronger nations. Whatever the Hebrew scriptures teach about faith and “winning” is written from the fringes, from subjugated people living in an outback crossroads where the more powerful trampled their way to conquest and victory routinely. The Jewish people were strangers to the centers of power, and whatever “victories” they may have experienced in their long journey, the outcome found them still under the pile.
I think it’s hard for Americans, in particular, to grasp how different the perspective of the Bible is from our own view of the world. We see ourselves firmly on top, we have been on top for a long time, and our freedom, prosperity, and might forms us to have a proud and fierce mindset. We are winners!
But the Hebrew Bible is the story of a small nation of obscure losers who wrestled with God (Israel) through a long and tumultuous history that did not end well. It ended so badly, in fact, and created such a theological crisis, that Israel’s religious leaders put together a massive book of stories, laws, poems, and prophecies to try and strengthen the fallen nation and give her future hope.
Then we come to the New Testament, the subsequent story of how God fulfilled his promises to Israel and brought her (and the whole world) out of exile by sending her Messiah. Story of victory and conquest? In one sense, yes, of course. In another sense, the most curious story of triumph ever written.
To be clear: Jesus didn’t win by winning. “Therefore,” the Apostle Paul writes, “God exalted him” (Philippians 2). What’s the “therefore” there for? Jesus was exalted because he poured himself out, took on humanity, made slavery his vocation, and endured a criminal’s execution.
Instead of conducting triumphalistic pep rallies, we should be doing what a missionary couple Damaris once told me about did. As they prepared to go to Africa, they fashioned furniture that could double as caskets because they knew the likelihood of surviving and returning home was small. As they went forth, they prepared themselves to die.
Were they afraid? I’d be willing to bet that their inner beings were filled with such a mixture of fear and faith that the two were virtually indistinguishable. But faith won out in the simple act of going to live among the poor. No binary choice — faith that empowers or fear that disables — but faith (trust) that follows Jesus while trembling with fear.
Faith is not some special power. Christians have no special authority. There are no spiritual “secrets” or technologies that blow the enemy away, leaving us to raise the flag of victory. We have Jesus, the Savior who won by losing. The Savior who said to us, “If you want to follow me, get ready to lose too.”
I don’t think he had any illusions that those who took him up on his offer would be free of fear. I don’t think he offered them any special emergency kit of tools like “faith” that will automatically banish our butterflies and give us the win. I think he just said, “Come on, let’s go lay down our lives together for our neighbors. I’m sure you’re afraid. That’s okay, I’m with you.”
God wins, we win, the world wins when we love like that; like losers who just keep walking.