If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 1 Cor 15:19
A recent comprehensive study of Americans conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, revealed some startling statistics.
“Nearly half of American adults leave the faith of their upbringing, switch allegiances or abandon all religious affiliations. One in four claim no religious affiliation. Much of the study confirms. . .the mainline Protestant churches are in decline.” (CBS News Feb 25, 2008)
What has happened to the church in America as we turn the corner on the last millennium. For all of its wealth and the appearance of the mega-church phenomenon, the church in America seems to have lost its way. Though it seems to be in decline in America, the church elsewhere in the world is growing, particularly in regions of great persecution. If we understand why this has happened, perhaps we can find our way again.
Jesus promised that one day all who loved Him and followed Him would be invited to a great banquet in Heaven. On that day, all who had given up their lives for His sake would be rewarded with the ultimate blessings. Of all the blessings He could give us, the best one would be life eternal lived in His kingdom and in His presence.
Until that day, the Lord left behind Him a world where we might taste these blessings, in a limited sort of way.
These blessings were meant to be a foretaste of what was to come. At a meal, they would be considered the appetizers. After leaving these to us, the Lord returned to Heaven to prepare a place for all of us who love Him.
Since He ascended, a lot of us got confused. Somehow we lost our expectation of the coming again of the Lord. We lost our excitement about the treasure the Lord was keeping for us in Heaven. Instead, we began to collect as many of the appetizers as we could.
What are some of these appetizers we are putting our hopes in? Homes, cars, appliances, financial security, happy families, job promotions, education, accomplishments, increased responsibility and power, the accolades of our peers and superiors, secure retirement, good health, nice clothing, plenty of food, and on and on. We even have many Christian books that teach “How to get more of this appetizer or that appetizer.”
None of these things are bad in themselves, but He didn’t leave these for us to love and trust in. They were a foretaste of something better to come.
When we give gifts to our children, one of the great pleasures is seeing the joy on their faces. Most of the gifts we give are shortly lost, broken, or tossed aside. Yet, for that special moment, the gifts are priceless because they bring a smile and warmth to the hearts of those we love. Doesn’t God also enjoy giving gifts to His children?
Consider what Jesus said. “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? . . . If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Matt 7:9-11) .
Yet, if our children saw us only as a “gift machine”; if they loved us only because we gave them “things”, would that make us very happy?
In many ways, the church in America has fallen in love with the gifts, or the appetizers, and has not sought the great gift of God himself.
Why hasn’t this affected believers elsewhere in the world? Perhaps, God has blessed them with the gift of “himself” to sustain them in their difficulties and persecution instead of the gifts we have sought. Perhaps they have learned that all the appetizers lose their flavor over time anyway, whereas God never fades, withers or can be stolen from them—even in the darkest of prisons.
But some will say, “didn’t He promise us blessings?” Yes, he promised to give us what we “needed” if we would seek His kingdom first. But what we need and what we want are two very different things. I have learned to live on rice and various fruits when I am India. My health doesn’t seem to suffer from such a limited diet. In truth, I have what I need, yet it is spare compared to what I can have in the United States.
If we look in our hearts, the Holy Spirit will reveal what we are trusting in. When difficulties come, having our hopes set upon what is certain , permanent, and eternal, will cause all the world around us to fade in the light of His glory.
That wouldn’t be so bad would it? The early church didn’t think so. Neither do other believers around the world who have little of this world’s blessings. Like them, we can also begin to trust and hope in that which is certain and eternal. May God speed and keep you on your journey homeward!