"To Out-Love, To Out-Suffer Them"
This Sunday, my pastor’s sermon challenged me to live generously and sacrificially. He said Christ-followers should live such winsome and admirable lives that they provoke unbelievers to ask, “How are you so calm?” or “Why do you care so much?” Author Michael Frost calls this “a questionable life” — a play on words in reference to verses in Peter’s first letter:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
— 1 Peter 3:15
The assumption here, on the part of Peter, Michael Frost and my pastor, is that the lives of Christ-followers will be 1) uncommonly virtuous and patient in suffering, and 2) visible to others so that they are compelled to ask questions. That second part alone should give us pause. We in the modern Western church are often tempted to isolate from the culture. We may live “good lives”, but we tend not to live them “among the pagans” (1 Peter 2:12).
But isolation isn’t the part of this message that has me troubled, because I think an even greater challenge awaits us once we get outside the church walls — the challenge of living more righteous lives than our neighbors. In an age of humanitarian upwelling, this is becoming harder than we think.
Now, sure, if we measure our righteousness by our abstinence from bad behavior or involvement in church-related activities, then we’re setting the bar for the good life. We can attend church and boycott vice with the best of them. But those things aren’t causing many of our neighbors to envy us. Those don’t seem to be the kind of thirst-creating character traits Jesus is looking for in the salt of the Earth. Instead, the righteousness that will get the world’s attention involves sacrifice for the sake of others. And that is where the church faces a higher bar than ever before.
Author Jon Acuff is about my age. He has observed that, during the 80s and 90s when we were in high school, cultural expectations of charity were much lower than they are now. Acuff says it this way:
“You know how many kids in my senior class wore Toms shoes? Zero! You know how many of them were digging wells in Africa? Zip!”
Since that seminal 80s moment when Madonna proclaimed herself a “Material Girl” and Charlie Sheen shouted that “greed is good,” our culture has shifted radically toward generosity. It’s no longer just Christians who build schools and hospitals, nor church groups who take summer trips to serve the poor. To a world of people who text their donations to tsunami victims and volunteer at community gardens with no religious affiliation, the righteousness we’re most proud of can seem a little like filthy rags.
This summer, my family went to Africa to meet two kids we sponsor through Compassion International and work with two other organizations that serve the poor. Since we returned, almost none of the people I’ve told about that trip have assumed it was a mission. Most of the unbelievers I have talked with have asked, “Was that with UNICEF or something?”
This is a fantastic development! More people practicing more generous lifestyles can only be a good thing!
But it also raises the bar for Christians.
For Christians to stand out among ancient, barbaric peoples, it might have been enough just to stick with one wife and keep from killing anyone. But for our righteous lives to stand out in a world populated by generous unbelievers, we’ll have to make greater sacrifices than our ancestors. Living in a giving culture ups the ante for Christian generosity.