Tony Woodlief | Author

Happy sappy Christians

The thing is, I despised the happy sappy Jesus talk before I became a Christian, and I still do. You know the lingo: My personal relationship with Jesus will see me through any storm; Jesus is bigger than any of my problems; No matter what the world throws at me, Jesus will see me through

I don’t know why sayings like that make me cringe, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because I don’t love Jesus, in my selfish way. It’s not even that the words are wrong. They seem to be missing something, though, or to evince an attitude that is tragically naive.

Personal relationship with Jesus: Fair enough. What is the Christian’s relationship with Jesus, if not deeply, intensely personal? But anyone who imagines this relationship takes place absent the other two Persons of the Trinity and outside the one holy, catholic, apostolic Church has gotten himself tangled up in those daisies growing in his autobiographical Me-and-Jesus love story.

Jesus is bigger than my problems: The Word who was at the beginning is truly bigger than my problems, but what in the world makes me think He has any intention of fixing my problems? Who am I to think my Christian journey will be anything but trials and suffering — and if it isn’t, this is not because Jesus is so very big, but because my faith is so very small.

Jesus will see me through: Indeed the Christian rightly asks, “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” But the Christian is also, at least outside the privileged United States, daily persecuted and killed for that self-same savior. Jesus will indeed see me through, but the Christian who thinks he won’t be seen through to a young and painful death is sadly misled.

So I guess it’s not so much that the words are wrong as that they are incomplete. They are rooted in that dread combination of ignorance and security which plagues American Christians in particular, especially modern Evangelicals. This came to mind as Wife told me about a recent conversation with a happy sappy type, who had gotten into her head from her pastor that a Christian is to welcome attacks from the devil, because this makes God’s triumphs all the sweeter.

Now, I suppose on some level that makes sense. God will indeed make all things work together for good, to those who love Him. But when did the Church stop teaching that when Christ said to the devil, “Do not tempt the Lord thy God,” this means anything other than that we ought not invite temptations and suffering?

This woman, of course, is oblivious to that. She thinks her pastor said so, it comports with her happy sappy walk, and so she literally says, in order to demonstrate her conviction, “bring it on, Satan.”

I have to think the only way someone can say that is because she’s never been sifted. Christ can journey into the desert to be tempted, St. Peter can be sifted, St. Anthony can do battle with demons in the ruins, but who are we, with our lack of spiritual discipline and our unrooted faith, to go about tempting the devil — either with direct taunts, or indirectly, by doing little to bolster our souls? Foolish children, I suppose.

So what to hope, for such a woman? That she gets her wish, that she looks full into the face of dread, of despair, of chaos, and holds her Jesus all the closer? Or that she is allowed to persist in her happy sappy oblivion, imagining she is engaged in a great battle when she is in reality so far from the fray that she can casually taunt the evil one? I suppose there’s the rub, that without suffering and self-discipline we hold grace cheap, though grace is the very thing that gives us endurance in the face of suffering.

Or maybe in actuality she is a giant of faith, steeped in suffering, and can therefore say in confidence, “bring it on, Satan.” But not me. I’m a child cowering beneath a bed, hoping to have enough faith to creep across the floor and turn on the table lamp. My faith is meager, my strength little, my will unreliable. It’s all I can do to work out this faith with fear and trembling, let alone go looking for trouble.

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