A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (19)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On p. 163 you say “if marketing is all about identifying and satisfying customer needs, Jesus does a terrible job at ‘selling’ a life of discipleship within the Kingdom of God. He pulls no punches, sweetens no pill. Rather it seems as if he is trying to make it as difficult as possible for the listeners to follow him.” This sounds like the exact opposite of the prosperity Gospel to me. It seems many people don’t want a costly discipleship. They want a gift of salvation, and then freedom to live the life of conspicuous consumption— and God bless our standard of living. John Wesley preached a powerful sermon entitled ‘On the Use of Money’. In the second half of the 18th century Wesleyan Revival it was the second most preached sermon by him, after Justification by Faith’. In that former sermon he said you should make all you can by honorable and ethical means, save all you can, and then give all you can (while living a simple life style). He says if you only do the first do but don’t give all you can, you may be a living person, but you are a dead Christian. One wonders how many Christians today John would see as ‘almost’ rather than ‘altogether’ Christians. What does de-enculturation look like in your setting?

PATRICK: That quote is referring to Luke 6 and particularly Jesus’ teaching on loving enemies in vv27-36. Jesus catalogues what disciples should consider blessings: nice attractive things like poverty, hunger, weeping and being hated. And then goes on say love those who hate you and mistreat you – without expecting to get anything back. A few questions back Ben you said you were amazed that any Gentiles believed Paul’s gospel of a crucified Messiah – it was illogical and counter-cultural. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that we need to feel that same amazement and discomfort today concerning what it is to be a Christian. If absent then it’s a sign that we have probably domesticated the gospel and Jesus’ call to costly discipleship.

We were talking in theology class this week about the weirdness of Christianity. Tidy, conventional, conservative and easy it is not! The more we try to make the gospel undemanding and comfortable in order to attract Western consumers, the less like Jesus we sound. This is where the recent apocalyptic turn in NT studies is on to something important – there is something profoundly disruptive about God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. De-enculturation has to be about recapturing the shocking unreasonableness of the Christian life in a culture that prizes wealth, comfort, pleasure, security and individual autonomy.

BEN: I like the quote from my friend Darrell Bock on p. 165 about how unnatural and abnormal it is to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. As he says, it is the opposite of all natural instincts, and requires divine love to make it happen. Tolerating the enemy is one thing, blessing them and loving them is another. As you point out, such love of enemies makes no rational or financial sense, as there is no guarantee it will be fulfilled. How you treat your enemies will reveal what sort of God you believe in (p. 168). I agree with this. We have a God who not merely loves his enemies, in the person of his Son he died for them! We are to emulate God’s own conduct. Can you unpack this for us a bit.

PATRICK: I like the comparison of a mirror and a window. Are we (the Church) a mirror to this broken and divided world, reflecting back its hatreds and injustices? Or are we windows, through whom the world can catch a glimpse of another reality – a kingdom of love, grace and forgiveness? This is why we are called to enemy love – not to ‘win’ them over or even expect peace to break out (it most likely will not) – but because this is how God loves. Love is itself the goal.

There is no ‘rulebook’ and everyone is different, but in the book I tell the story of a friend (name changed) who was sexually abused by her brother when she was a young girl. She’d grown up and moved on with her life as best she could, despite deep damage done to her inner being. She was in her 30s and had become a believer when the past came to public light. Suddenly she was confronted with the pain she’d long buried, this time as a Christian. What did it mean to love her enemy? To cut a long story short, eventually she began to pray for him and this unlocked compassion for his lostness. It was a long process but she can say today that she loves him and has forgiven him. Forgiveness has released her from decades of bitterness and hurt. Such love has no guarantee of a ‘return’ – her brother remains estranged. He hasn’t faced up to what he did. But she felt her calling was to love her enemy and that’s what she’s done.

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