They’re subtle. They’re just biblical enough to sound right. But the greatest deceptions are the ones that contain the most truth. As I reflect on things I’ve seen and heard among Christians over the years, sometimes I have to wonder: Are we trying to be godlier than God?
As humans, we tend toward extremes rather than hitting the balance. We don’t take things far enough, or we take them way too far. It’s easy to do. But when it comes to spiritual things, the results can be damaging, even devastating, when truth is bloated and applied beyond the bounds of what God Himself has prescribed. And when these quasi-truths are paraded as truth, people can be damaged and led away from the heart of God Himself.
I’m sure there are many examples, but I’ll speak to a couple that burden my heart the most.
One way Christians sometimes seem to be godlier than God is in the area of grief. The truth is that death stinks. Death, in and of itself, is bad. Which is why the concept of turning funerals into “celebrations of life” can so easily miss the mark. To be clear, I know there are times when someone’s death can in some ways bring relief to family and friends. When someone has been suffering long with pain, it’s a relief for the person to be released from their pain and their soul soar to God. But even then, death is still separation, and separation is still bad. It is still wrong. It still hurts. We weren’t created to be separated from the people and things we love.
Therefore, attempting to mask over the grief with celebration can potentially be harmful, because people need to grieve. Grieving is normal. In fact, it’s kind of abnormal to NOT grieve in the face of death or separation or loss. Consider this, if you want your funeral to be a celebration of life—your funeral is not for you. Your funeral is for those whom you leave behind. You won’t need to grieve, but they will. And perhaps a celebration isn’t in their best interest (then again, perhaps it is. Again, I’m not saying that’s wrong to do. Just pointing out it’s not necessarily godlier or better to do so in all situations).
I’ll often hear people laud the fact that the widow of a man who died was smiling and singing and praising God at his funeral. And of course, that’s well and good if that’s what is in her heart and is helpful to her. But it troubles me that Christians see rejoicing in the face of death as the only appropriate expression of strong faith, the only response worthy of emulation. Can strong faith not cry, grieve, and mourn at the funeral? And for days, weeks, and months after? If not, then Jesus certainly wasn’t an example of strong faith when He wept over dead Lazarus.
Strong faith cries. Strong faith grieves. Let’s not try to be godlier than God when death comes, and let’s certainly not impose on others an ethic that’s more stoic than biblical. While Christians should absolutely be the ones with the most hope in the face of death, they should also be the ones who see and feel the profound horrors of death the most.
As R.C. Sproul notes in his teaching series “Surprised by Suffering”:
“One of the things that distresses me in the Christian community is that somehow this idea has gotten around that it is wrong for Christians to grieve or mourn. And that when we go to a Christian funeral, we should see those who have just lost a loved one rejoicing and grinning and smiling and having toast unto the glory of God because their child or husband or wife has now simply passed onto glory, and isn’t it a wonderful thing to go from this world to heaven. Well yes, it’s a wonderful thing to go from this world to heaven. But when Jesus went to Lazarus’ funeral, He cried because He entered into the pain of the situation that comes from separation. Yes I can rejoice that my loved ones have gone to a better place, but I and those who are left behind have to face the enormous burden of living life without the presence here of someone that we love. And that’s an occasion for grief and mourning. We need to learn how to mourn and to allow people to express their grief.”
Or to put “godlier than God” another way, let’s not try to be more “spiritual” than the earthy humans God created us to be and wants us to be.
Another way it seems Christians sometimes seek to be godlier than God is in the area of rewards. The Bible speaks often and plainly about storing up treasure in heaven. It speaks clearly that those who have given up certain worldly treasures will have treasure in heaven to recompense what they gave up. It strongly suggests that those who suffer more in this life will receive greater reward in the eternal state. For those who suffer in this life, it can be a great motivator.
But some Christians want to cry “foul” at this notion. To them, it seems dirty. They argue that Jesus is the reward being spoken of (contrary to what the text literally says), and any Christian who would want rewards other than Jesus is an opportunistic spiritual gold-digger.
What’s interesting here is that God Himself is the one who has chosen to provide motivation to His people in this very “earthy” way. He knows who we are. He knows our frailties. After all, He’s the one who made us, so He’s the one who knows best how to motivate us, especially in our fallen state.
And so if God Himself is offering rewards as a motivator for godly living, how can we be “godlier” than that by spiritualizing all the references to rewards and calling them dirty? Could the pursuit of rewards go off in a bad direction? Of course… anything can. Could people be motivated to please God for the wrong reasons? Of course. We do it all the time. The point is, we can’t reduce or alter what God has said because we’re afraid that people might take it in a bad direction. We need to let the truth stand as God has delivered it without trying to doctor it. When it comes to rewards, we can’t try to be godlier than God.
On this topic, R.C. Sproul says the following:
“There are degrees of reward given in heaven. I’m surprised that this answer surprises so many people… We owe much of this confusion to the Protestant emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We hammer away at that doctrine, teaching emphatically that a person does not get to heaven through his good works. We emphasize this doctrine to the extent that people conclude good works are insignificant and have no bearing at all upon the Christian’s future life… Again, it may be surprising to people, but I’d say there are at least twenty-five occasions where the New Testament clearly teaches that we will be granted rewards according to our works. Jesus frequently holds out the reward motif as the carrot in front of the horse—’great will be your reward in heaven’ if you do this or that. We are called to work, to store up treasures for ourselves in heaven.” (Now, That’s a Good Question! pp. 287-289)
All to say, just because something sounds very spiritual doesn’t mean that it is. Just because something seems very spiritual doesn’t mean that it’s what God wants or what He says in His Word. The problem with culture, even Christian culture, is that when it’s the air we breathe every day, we can become blind to where we get off track. It can be difficult to have clear eyes and ask good questions when we just assume that what we’ve heard is right without really exercising critical thinking and discernment to test everything, and after that, to hold fast to what is good.