The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Is there anything that you would not be willing to give up, under any circumstances, out of your love for the Lord, even if you understood, without a shadow of doubt, that you must give it up or let it go?
When the Israelites made the golden calf, their sin did not lie, as Muslims believe, in the fact of making a metal representation of an animal, but in their reason for making it: to worship it as a god. Sometimes the sin that we must confront is not something that is wrong in itself, in an absolute sense; it might not be theft, deceit or murder.
Sometimes it is something that only God knows is displacing Him in our hearts. For this reason, difficult though it might be to believe, some "sins" are sinful in the lives of some people, but not in others. Only the Lord, who sees into the deepest recesses of our hearts, can convince us of the fact that what is absorbing our spirits and our energy is, in fact, a sin against Him.
Idols can take many forms, and they can be totally sensible things in themselves. Basic common sense. They are usually good, beautiful things which God has created, or things which he has given us the ability to do. But they become idols as soon as we are no longer able to give them up out of love for the Lord.
And that, in fact, brings us back to the key question: Is there anything that you would not be willing to give up, under any circumstances, out of your love for the Lord, even if you understood, without a shadow of doubt, that you must give it up or let it go? In asking us to give this thing up, the Lord is not being capricious; it is not because he does not want us to enjoy life.
He does it because our "golden calf" can offer us no love or affection, and it cannot give life meaning or save us from death. We are so twisted that sometimes we cling to things that do not even make us feel good; they only offer a momentary relief, even though we know that, in reality, they are wreaking havoc on us.
Our idols are very often beliefs that are so deeply rooted in us that, even when we have a Bible in front of us pointing us in another direction, we refuse to give them up. We prefer to dance around what the Bible is telling us, and come up with far-fetched interpretations of certain texts, and totally ignore others, rather than give in.
One wise person I know once said that God does not want to be the first thing in our hearts, but at the very centre of our being, and that absolutely everything in our lives must, in the last analysis, submit to Him; and this is how we know that (albeit unwittingly) we have erected an idol in the place that belongs to Him: everything is suddenly in a state of disorder.
When God is in the centre, we experience peace and order, but when He is not there, we become aware of background vibrations, a feeling of unease underlying all our activities and relationships, which prevents us from gratefully enjoying what should be moments of pleasure, and robs us of our peace when we are suffering. God is there, we are still his children, but we seem to be deriving no benefit from this fact.
Idols do not arise out of nothing. The Israelites did not decide to make an image of a calf in the same way that they might have decided to make the image of an apple. The calf, in Canaanite culture, symbolised strength and fertility. This was something worth believing in.
Nowadays our idols also spring from the culture in which we live, and they seem to represent very sensible ideas. But no one wants to hear about this. We do not want to believe that we are under their influence, and that, at bottom, they are things that cause us to cease believing in the love and faithfulness of God.
And the most difficult idol that we have to deal with now, in present-day Spain, has become so deeply embedded in our ideas and beliefs that the mere fact of pointing it out, I know, might annoy many people: we adore economic stability.
No one would suggest that this is not a sensible idea; like all idols, it might be something that God approves of (1 Timothy 2 : 1-2). God himself provides us with what we need so that we lack nothing. That is not where the problem lies, but rather in the place that it occupies in our lives, in whether we are giving our allegiance to economic stability, or to God.
Among all the debris that the economic crisis has left in its wake, and which we will have to examine seriously during the years to come, is the profound impact that it has had on the church and on spirituality, as well as its impact on the country's social and economic fabric. There has occurred a sea-change in the way in which we understand the gospel, faith, the church, and the Lord Himself.
There is an entire generation of young people who have only ever heard about crisis, who do not know what it is like to live without its dark shadow over their present reality, whose future is irremediably maimed, both in the short and long term. Everything is uncertain. And in the midst of this generation, a body of people have appeared on the scene whose faith in God is new, different and powerful, much more akin to what is recorded in the book of Acts than anything we have seen in Europe during the last hundred years.
In recent years I have had the privilege of getting to know many of these people, and I never cease to be surprised by how alike they are to each other, even though they have so little in common: people who do not come from the same background, or belong to the same denomination, or live in the same geographical area, but who share a faith in God that is luminous and audacious, a faith which it is thrilling to see in action.
All those of you who have been crying out for revival in Spain, here you have something which gives us hope for revival in the coming years.
Idols arise out of their surrounding culture, and the culture that has given rise to this generation is very different from that of our forebears. They have had no access to social stability, and nor do they even feel attracted by it. They have turned their uncertainty vis à vis the future into confidence in the Lord, and they dare to do things purely and simply out of their faith in God's provision.
However, one of the main problems they face has been something that they did not expect, and that they find difficult to deal with: some people in the church (though not all) don't understand them. They regard these young people as naive, irresponsible and too idealistic, because many of their projects, ideas, visions and missions necessarily involve abandoning any intention of being normal in a world of "normal" people, and not aspiring to "normal" jobs, with regular salaries.
This happens very often among the artists and creative people that we have got to know during recent years. In none of the plans for their lives that the Lord proposes, disposes or nourishes is economic stability a factor; on the contrary, they are driven by the profound conviction that God will provide the necessary resources, and they live by the economy of the kingdom, which has nothing to do with economic theories; and yet, for some reason, this puts some sectors of the church on the defensive. They are incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of the other, and they refuse to accept that God could ever require something like this.
It's like someone getting angry with God, or calling Him cruel, because he told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. These people would have sat down with Abraham (just as they do with some young people) in some kind of church disciplinary meeting, and would tell him how worried they were hearing him say things like that about God, and they would have tried to convince him, for his own good, that he could not have heard God giving him a command like that.
Then they would have used their authority as leaders, and the good name of the church, to tell Abraham to give up that idea and get on with his life, that he already had enough on his plate just looking after his family. In the experience of these people, God is not likely to go around asking anyone to put the lives of their children in danger.
The thought behind all this is being able to say, however unpopular it might be, that we don't have to accept bad advice, especially when it comes from people who don't understand that God sometimes delights in doing things that are far from being "normal", and that he sometimes asks us to give up all we have, even our stability, to advance his kingdom. All the great men and women of faith in history went through this kind of experience.
They all found themselves facing something which challenged the broad, comfortable paths of this world, to follow a narrow path with risk-fraught edges which, more than anything else, required them to give up their idols. Pastors, missionaries, preachers and the founders of movements and ministries.
If it were God's purpose that we enjoy a peaceful, stable life, with economic abundance and no unwelcome setbacks, the apostle Paul would have been the greatest of all sinners. To say nothing of Jesus himself, who didn't even have a home of his own and lived by donations. And if anyone, whoever they are, out of their inability to perceive let alone confront their own idols, comes and says to us that we could not have received from God a message which, in the last analysis, is perfectly in keeping with God's Word, but is out of synch with a certain kind of lifestyle, then we can be sure that it is simply bad advice.