I have always been troubled by those long, weight-loss infomercials that one sees on late night television. I have nothing against hearing the struggles of real-life people to decrease their diet or increase their exercise. Indeed, I applaud all people with the courage and grit to seize hold of their personal health and well-being.
No, what troubles me are not the stories themselves or the effort that went in to them, but the shape that those stories take. The message is not simply a pragmatic one about the best methods for lowering one's weight or cholesterol or blood pressure. The message is one of conversion: before I started diet program X, I was depressed, isolated, and starved for meaning and direction; after I finished it, I was happy, valued, and fulfilled.
Such stories--and they are used to sell everything from get-rich-quick schemes to find-the-perfect-mate websites, magical acne cream to mystical holistic medicine, female breast enlargement to male potency enhancement--represent nothing more nor less than a bastardization of the Christian testimony: I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. Americans have long yearned for the quick fix, but that yearning has grown stronger and more insistent with each passing decade. "Just change one thing in your life," the promise goes, "and, presto chango, all your failures will morph into successes and all your sorrows will be transmuted into joy.
Sadly, just as the authentic Christian testimony has been perverted into the infomercial, so the infomercial has returned the favor and infected the testimony. Televangelists and success-in-life preachers too often peddle the same quick fix as the latest diet fad. Walking down the aisle in a flurry of emotion becomes the equivalent of purchasing a mass-marketed, new-and-improved product: a split-second decision that comes with the seductive promise that, without any further changes in your life, everything will now be perfect. Your life now has purpose (don't worry that that purpose is self-focused); you've won the salvation lottery (don't worry about transformation in Christ); you've had your ticket to heaven punched (don't worry about getting to know and love the conductor).
The answer to this commercialization of the gospel is not to abandon the real Christian testimony, but to restore it to what it should be. Thankfully, a new book from the publishing arm of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) points the Body of Christ in the right direction. Edited by the editorial director of TGC, Collin Hansen, Lost and Found: How Jesus Helped Us Discover Our True Selves offers a dozen testimonies from a wide array of believers who have experienced the life-changing power of God's amazing grace.
After introducing the collection and sharing briefly his own faith journey, Hansen wisely kicks things off with the testimony of a well-known evangelical figure, Joni Eareckson Tada. Most readers will already be aware of how a diving accident at the age of 17 left Joni a quadriplegic. Since that tragic day, Joni has allowed the Holy Spirit to use her creative talents and indomitable spirit to share the gospel and to advocate for people with disabilities around the world. Though she writes here, as she always does, with great compassion for those who suffer, she does not turn a blind eye to the severity of sin.
The real problem with man, she explains, is not physical pain but spiritual pride and rebellion. "God's goal is not to make us comfortable. He wants to teach us to hate our transgressions as he grows our love for him. God wants us to hate our sin as much as he does. . . . exposing sin is more important to God than relieving human suffering, even unthinkable suffering" (29-30).
Those are difficult words to read and to contemplate, especially for a suffering-aversive age like our own, but Joni does not shrink from applying the principle to herself: "for the last 50 years in my wheelchair, I've been daily dying to self and rising with Jesus, dying to self and rising with Jesus, dying to self and rising with Jesus. My goal is to mortify my fleshly desires, so I might find myself in Christ" (31). No quick fix here, but a slow process by which the dying and rising savior molds us into fit instruments--what the late Eugene Peterson called "a long obedience in the same direction."
Vaneetha Rendall Risner's moving testimony also gives praise to a dying and rising savior who will not always deliver us from our suffering, but who will transform it and use it to mature us into the people he created us to be. Growing up in India with polio not only subjected Vaneetha to long years of bullying by her fellow schoolmates but has left her increasingly paralyzed. Add to this the death of an infant and a failed marriage, and the sum might seem to suggest that the Lord has abandoned Vaneetha.
But nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to attesting to the opening stanza of "Amazing Grace," Vaneetha proclaims boldly: "Out of the ugliness of my life, God brought beauty" (54). She even shares with us five concrete things that Christ has taught her through her trials. First, they have made her "more grateful--I notice and appreciate little things rather than expect them" (55). Second, they have "taken away my fear of the future . . . I realized that I could survive . . . [and] experience joy that does not depend on circumstances, a joy that could never be taken away by anyone or anything" (55).
Third and fourth, her sufferings have given her "an empathetic ear" (55) for others who suffer, and have driven her closer to Christ, on whom she must rely every day. Finally, they have made her long for heaven--not only because heaven will mean an end to her pain, but because there she will "see in greater clarity how he has used my pain for good, both in my life and also in the lives of others" (56-7). In one way or another, all the contributors to Lost and Found have experienced that special kind of clarity that can only be gained through a direct and intimate relationship with the God who created us.
Sam Chan in particular--who was born in Hong Kong, studied medicine in Sydney, Australia, and earned a PhD from Chicago--attests to how Christ alone can bring such clarity to a life without direction. "The first 25 years of my life," he explains, "went according to the Asian-immigrant high-achieving script. Study hard. Stay out of trouble. Get a degree. Become a doctor. It was an endless series of successes" (130). Only it wasn't. What was missing from his life were the two essential ingredients to true and lasting happiness: validation and fulfillment.
Sam spent half his life seeking validation through an ascending stairway of raises and promotions. The only problem with that plan, he found, was that "once you reach the top, there's no one up there to tell you that you've done well" (132). His simultaneous search for fulfillment proved to be "even trickier. To be fulfilled is to have achieved the goal of your mission. The mission of an acorn is to become an oak tree, Aristotle said. So, when an acorn becomes that oak tree, it is fulfilled. It has attained a full life. Likewise, if we want fulfillment, we need to know our mission in life. But doesn't that just bring us back to where we started? We can't have fulfillment if we don't know the point of life!" (132).
I hear many of my college students say that they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. That is good as it goes, but Sam discovered that the something must be backed up by a somebody. Jesus, he concludes, is "the ultimate Somebody to live for. His story is bigger than our own. If we live for him, we'll find a fulfilled life. A full life. Or, as Jesus calls it, eternal life" (137).
Along with Sam, all the contributors wrestle in their own way with the difference between the Christian and worldly definition of success. For no one is this truer than Jason Cook, a former NFL player and associate pastor of preaching at Fellowship Church in Memphis. Though he grew up in the church, the mantra Jason absorbed from the world, the pulpit, and the football field alike was that "if I performed poorly, then I could not be loved. That was the unspoken message I learned from a culture of success" (123).
Like the rich young ruler in the gospels, who thought his wealth and his external obedience to the law made him righteous, Jason had to learn "the impotence of his goodness and futility of his self-righteousness" (124). In short, he had to set "aside the idol of self-reliance" (125). Only then, when he had gained the proper poverty of spirit, could Jason do what the rich young ruler could not: follow a savior who shatters, redefines, and transcends all worldly standards of happiness, goodness, and success.
Lost and Found does not break new theological ground, but it provides a much-needed reminder that the true end of the gospel is not a Friday night make-over but a slow, incremental, often painful process of transformation.
Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 18 books include Atheism on Trial, Apologetics for the 21st Century, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, and On the Shoulders of Hobbits.