I came across this pair of pie charts on Facebook last week and immediately noticed that those who are “religiously unaffiliated” claim as much of the pie as any other group. At 23% they are virtually tied with Evangelical Christians (24%), just ahead of Catholics (21%) and decidedly ahead of Mainstream Christians (15%).
Despite this trend, I still hear respect for Jesus—in popular culture, on social media, and in private dialogue. It would seem that much of the world agrees with that famous saying of Mahatma Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike Christ.”
As people who identify by that word “Christian” it behooves us to ask: Where do the two part ways? Why do so many people like Christ but not those who bear his name?
The passage of Scripture that begins this season of Lent—the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, as recounted in the Gospel of Luke—may be one good place to answer those questions. When tested, Jesus chose three great paths to freedom—ways of living that characterized his life. When similarly tested, many of his followers have failed to choose the same pathways; and I have to confess that I also have at times failed to choose these directions of freedom.
When we hear the word “temptation” most of us think of various vices; the temptation to have an affair, or to become an addict to alcohol or—less severely—the temptation to eat donuts for lunch. This Gospel story corrects that notion. Vices, per se, are not the greatest evil. The real temptation in life is to forget who we are. The devil keeps challenging Jesus, “If you are God’s child.” And he keeps challenging on this point just before Jesus is about to set about his great life work.
You and I need to keep our eyes on the prize, to remember what the real goal of life is and what real failure is. Failure is not downing shots of vodka, watching dirty pictures or emptying a box of Twinkies (although we may be prone to all three of those things if we believe that we have already failed). Failure is forgetting that we are God’s children and failure is forgetting that we have an incredible mission to love and restore all of God’s creation. To forget our identity in God, and to forget our glorious mission in the world—that is what it means to give in to temptation.
The first temptation is for Jesus to turn stones into bread (which is rather compelling after fasting for weeks on end). It is the allure of materialism, the belief that our happiness comes from things. Of course, physical things are not bad in themselves; we are indeed material beings inhabiting a material world. Food, clothing, shelter—these things are good. For that matter jewelry, perfume, a membership at the gym, or a prize collection of baseball cards can all be good as well. The problem is when we forget the relative importance of things versus love; when we forget that the things we own say little about our Divine identity and purpose.
We in the wealthy developed nations fall most easily into this pitfall because we have managed to attain so much. It’s been calculated that if everyone on earth used up the same amount of raw materials, fuels and so-on that the average American consumes, it would take four worlds to sustain the earth’s population.
When Jesus retorted to the tempter, “Humans shall not live by bread alone,” he affirmed the pathway of Simplicity –of being content with fewer things, and with things that matter more. That’s a great recipe for a life that depends on a vital connection with God, and that enables all of God’s other creatures to live in peace alongside of us.
The next temptation is that of coercion. The devil says, “I’ll give you power—let me show you how.” This is upping the temptation scale; the first temptation is rather lame, materialism appeals to humans at the level of the reptilian brain stem, the animal nature. Coercion is a better temptation for brighter people, because bright people know the world is askew and wish to change it—and if we can knock the world into shape then everyone will be happier. That’s how the devil presents the case.
Beginning with the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Christians have chosen the way of coercion. Today, half of the candidates for the US presidency in 2016 embrace that same path of coercion. We will make America a Christian nation…we will make people follow Christian principles. The way of coercion—this is what Gandhi had in mind when he said “I like your Christ…but your Christians are so unlike him.”
Jesus, in contrast, chooses the path of Service. God knows that people transform not because they are forced to do so, but because they see examples of sacrifice. Ultimately, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross—the way of costly love. This is why Mother Teresa is so well loved, and Franklin Graham…less so.
The devil’s final assault is the temptation of privilege. Can’t you just hear the devil saying, “Hey, Jesus, why don’t you throw yourself off the top of this tall building? Ordinary folk, they’d fall and end badly. But you’re special. Angels will catch you—won’t that be cool? Won’t people just be so impressed with you?”
You don’t have to spend long in the corridors of Christian influence before you can spot the temptation to privilege and fame. It may not be stated so bluntly, but I’ve sure caught the tone of Christian messages that say, “I’m really exceptionally cool and successful—and you can be too if you come to my church.”
But Jesus responds by choosing the way of Humility. We are called to the spirit of Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:5-7, ESV). No one in history has had a more perfect God-consciousness than Jesus, yet he chose to live as a very ordinary Middle Eastern peasant, subject to all the hardships of common humanity. And today, despite the increase of those who are spiritually unaffiliated in North America, some 2 billion citizens of earth still own the name Christian, having been influenced by the suffering servant.
As we begin the season of lent, perhaps we should not think so much of what we can “give up,” as much as we should think about the life-ways that Jesus chose. Take a moment, and cement in your mind the three choices that Jesus made in the wilderness: Simplicity, Service and Humility. Ask yourself: what can I do to walk on these paths during this Lenten journey?