Living in Denial in Victory

If you read enough popular Christian books, listen to enough Christian sermons, radio shows, or […]

Josh Retterer / 2.22.17

If you read enough popular Christian books, listen to enough Christian sermons, radio shows, or podcasts, you could reasonably get the idea that Christians are like the Black Knight in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. With cries of, “I’m invincible!” the Knight continues to fight, even after King Arthur has relieved him of all of his limbs.

I hear versions of this all the time in Christian media, and in conversations with Christian brothers and sisters: something awful has happened to them, and with a strained look and a hard swallow, the mask goes on, and they say, “But everything’s great!” I look at them wanting to say, like King Arthur did to the Black Knight, “You’re a loony!”

I’ve never had it in me to be the Black Knight kind of Christian, which often led me to believe I wasn’t a good one, certainly not one “living in victory.” If my arm were cut off, trust me, you’d hear about it! All this pretending seems like a lot of bait-and-switch to me.

I have to ask, and had this very conversation the other day with a friend, when did much of Christianity become Christian Science? Suffering, illness, and death are not illusions. When did pretending bad things don’t actually happen gain such a firm foothold? I’m sure dissertations have been or will be written on that subject. It seems to be a real, and growing, phenomenon. Denial of  hardships isn’t the same as realizing our hope and ultimate outcome doesn’t reside in them. As an example — one that I have used myself in rare wildly optimistic moods — we often quote the first couple of verses from the famous 2 Corinthians 4 passage, but leave off the rest of it:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

That’s were we tend to stop, but it goes on:

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Paul was a great example of not denying the reality of painful hardship. He wrote often about his tears and suffering. Earlier in the same letter, he recounts this story:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead – Two Corinthians 1:8-9

“It’s just a flesh wound,” isn’t something we would hear from Paul. Why? Because he wasn’t in denial of the very real harrowing circumstances he found himself in, but instead, he points to where his hope resides. I don’t know about you, but my hopes are often crushed, I often feel abandoned, even destroyed. I’m sure there have been times, if not physically, at least existentially, when we all have “despaired even of life,” as Paul puts it.

My temptation here is to identify more with the people who are honest about their experiences rather than the off-putting rictus smile of a “happy Christian living in victory.” As an aside, is it just me, but aren’t those Smiley McSmilesons usually selling something, too?

Just when I want to get a bit uppity about it, I remember Jesus has compassion for those entrepreneurial types, as well. That, and the fact that my honesty about circumstantial suckiness doesn’t win me any points towards salvation. Aren’t both types trying to do the same thing, trying to gain something, either from the performance of our authenticity, or our gritty optimism? Robert Farrar Capon has something to say about this when he writes about the Rich Young Ruler in Kingdom, Grace, Judgement:

Now do you see the man’s problem as Jesus saw it? This fellow is a winner who will not give up trying to win. To be sure, he has gotten beyond merely worldly winning to a desire for Something Better; but he cannot for the life of him imagine the pursuit of that Spiritual Something by any other means than still more winning. He is sure there must be techniques for making a spiritual profit just as there were for making a temporal one, and he has come to Jesus to study them.

Christianity is a constant life of reorienting our hope in something that has been already accomplished. “A different me, and a great Amnesia from God,” as Paul Zahl put it in PZ’s Panopticon. Denial of the reality of pain, or the myopic scrutiny of it both miss the point. We place so much of our hope in things that don’t have the power to provide it in the first place — let alone the last place. The Grace that Jesus provides acknowledges this and informs us that there is Hope for what our hope has been searching for. It’s done. Even for those of us, like me, who keep missing the point.

Robert Jenson writes about this very thing in Story and Promise:

The gospel interprets our penultimate hopes, first, by calling them possible. All hopes are invested in some of our fellows, and by their death would be interpreted, “It might have been.” But hope for Jesus’ love is hope facing death; in therefore believes about itself that the individuals and communities in which it has invested itself will be included in the triumph of Jesus’ love. The gospel says to every man that “there is hope for” his penultimate hopes, and that therefore are worth pursuing. It says to Americans that there is point in the struggle for a just and liberating society; for even if we are now defeated, our efforts will bear fruit. To slightly pervert a famous Bible passage; we plant, our children will water (if only with tears), and God will despite all give the harvest.

I can’t say it any better than that, so I won’t.