“So don’t be afraid of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner. Instead, share in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What brings you shame? One time in second grade, I wet my pants right in the middle of class. I had skipped out on a bathroom break for some reason and was too embarrassed to raise my hand and say I had to go. I held it as long as I could, but eventually I couldn’t anymore. Then I was really embarrassed. I’m honestly not sure how I managed to avoid getting made fun of for it. I must have had some really good kids in class with me. Sometimes our shame is obvious like that. Other times, though, what causes us shame is more abstract. We are ashamed of ideas and of being associated with them. One of the ideas that is increasingly bringing people shame today is the Gospel. There is nothing new under the sun. Paul here wrote to Timothy about this very thing.
One of my daily headline sources is the Babylon Bee. Now, don’t worry. I’m not one of those people who thinks they are writing real news. They are Christian, conservative satire. They are just as willing to poke fun of crazy stories from within their own camp as they are that of their ideological opposites. They are pretty good at what they do too. They have managed to get under the skin of some pretty powerful mainstream media organizations, which just goes to show you how good they are at what they are doing. In any event, one of the headlines I saw yesterday announced that Kevin Max has come out as a “spiritual-but-not-religious-freak.”
Without any cultural context, that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. It made me chuckle, but it also made me go look up the story they were skewering. Kevin Max made it big as one of the members of the classic Christian rock band, D.C. Talk. He, along with Toby Mac and Michael Tait, have been three of the biggest and most successful names in Christian music for more than a generation. Their biggest hit was the song Jesus Freak. It was the banner song for millions of church youth groups.
The real story here is that Kevin Max announced himself on Twitter a couple of days ago to be an “exvangelical.” That’s the buzz word nowadays for folks who are leaving the evangelical church. Usually their stated reasons are cultural, theological, political, or some combination of the three. Max announced that he is still a believer, whatever exactly he means by that. He has “deconstructed,” to use his word, his former beliefs, but still believes in the “universal Christ,” again, whatever exactly he means by that.
I don’t profess to know Max’s heart and I have no intention to put words in his mouth or analyze his real motives. What I can say, though, is that it is culturally popular nowadays to be ashamed of the Gospel. Some of the reasons for this are fairly easy to understand. The church has often been a pretty poor representation of it in recent years. Feeling the pressure of a culture turning away from us, we have too often doubled down on a politically-motivated selection of the moral teachings of Scripture in ways that have been unloving toward those who disagree and embarrassing to (often former) members of our tribe who have not been catechized well in the Christian worldview and thus struggle to see a meaningful distinction between the world and their faith in some of these matters. In other words, we have too often been our own worst enemy in these matters.
On the other hand, there is a growing group of people, with strong cultural winds at their back, who are increasingly comfortable expressing shame of the Gospel. As our culture continues to embrace moral insanity at almost every level, the sound and, yes, conservative (at least on matters of sexuality) morals held by the guys who contributed to the Scriptures are embarrassing for folks whose foundation in them is not secure. The Scriptures hold firmly to concepts like God’s love for us does not depend in any way on our race, a person’s ethnic background has no bearing on her ability to embrace salvation, there are only two gender options, non-heterosexual desires are fundamentally disordered, any non-marital sexual activity is immoral, and marriage is definitionally a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman. It’s hard to imagine a set of values that are more out of step with where our culture is and the direction in which it continues to race forward.
In Paul’s day, the reasons for shame at the Gospel were different from ours, but they still existed. In his day, cultural power was everything. If you didn’t have that, your God wasn’t worth following and your message wasn’t worth embracing. If you were suffering for some reason, you were obviously playing for the wrong side. There was also no real concept of serving other people. If your message was really worth embracing, it was bringing you power over the people around you. If you were serving others, you weren’t as powerful as them and thus weren’t worth much at all. Well, the Jesus followers then were encouraging people to follow a man who had been crucified. Few things were more shameful than that. They called people to a path of suffering after the pattern He had set. They called people to follow His example of serving even the lowest of the low without expecting anything in return. The Gospel they proclaimed took what the world declared to be right and true and turned it all over on its head. It was, in a word, embarrassing.
Paul’s advice to Timothy in light of all of this? Don’t be ashamed. Don’t be ashamed of the Gospel or even Paul himself who was writing to him from prison – another mark of the shamefulness of the Gospel as far as the culture was concerned. He called Timothy to reject the power the culture promised to give him if he would only lean back in its direction and instead embrace the power of God.
The power of God does not work like the power of the world. It has all the appearances of not being powerful at all as far as the world is concerned. It looks like it gets trampled on and put down. It looks hard and unloving. It looks weak and pathetic. Whatever the world values in a given cultural moment, the power of God reflects the opposite. This is not because it looks to be contrarian, but because the world always values things that are the opposite of the power of God. The form of that opposition may vary, but the fact of it does not. But what the world and those who embrace its Siren song don’t understand, is that it is a stronger power than anything it will be able to produce. It is the power of humility and gentleness and patience and compassion and love. It is the power of service. It is the power of righteousness, holiness, and purity. It is the power of a crucified and risen Savior. Such power may not seem like much in a moment, but it can transform the world when it gets unleashed. It has transformed the world many times over and will yet do so many times again in the days ahead. It will ultimately be the only power left standing when all things come to an end. It will be standing in honor and glory whereas the world will finally have its real shame laid bare. It means having to play a long game, yes, but it is a game that is already won.
Paul goes on to tell Timothy that he is not ashamed of this Gospel “because I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day.” His confidence is not in the message or the mission or even the Scriptures themselves. It is in the character of the God who called him to embrace it; who called him to suffer for it. It is in the resurrected Savior who brought it all to the world.
Listen, if you embrace the way of the Gospel nowadays in this culture, you are going to suffer for it. It does not matter which political party you choose. Both are drifting away from the Gospel in opposite directions. One embraces moral insanity. The other embraces worldly power that is the antithesis of the power of Jesus. Walking a Gospel path that goes between this Charybdis and Scylla will be fraught with risk and danger. Both sides will call you hateful and weak. You will be rejected and despised. The imputed shame will be intense. Embrace it and keep walking with confidence. You don’t need to deconstruct anything. You don’t need a new conception of God. You certainly don’t need to leave the church (although you may have to find one that gets the Gospel right and doesn’t lean in either direction). The God who called you to walk this path is able to guard what He has entrusted to you until the day He delivers it in full in Christ Jesus.