When we read passages of scripture like the parable of the sower, we see four types of people. And three of those four are not saved. One of them doesn’t accept the Word from the off. But the two others appear to believe but later fall away. One of those falls away as a result of suffering and hardship, which seems to be what we expect. The other falls away because they get taken up with the cares of the world and exactly how that works its way out is interpreted slightly differently depending on who you are listening to.
I think many of us instinctively recognise the first two of those. We know there are those who never believed and those who face hardships and fall away. So far, no surprises really. The third group is often interpreted – often thanks to the more old fashioned ‘cares of the world’ translation – as being those who are consumed with worldly troubles and anxieties that drag them away. I’m not so convinced this is necessarily intended to convey cares as anxieties and troubles necessarily, so much as the things of the world. But because of that interpretation, those who fall away are thought to be those experiencing trouble of one kind or another.
It is this, I think, that makes Deuteronomy 8 so jarring to us when we read it. Here is what vv6-18 say:
6 So keep the commands of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and fearing him. 7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams, springs, and deep water sources, flowing in both valleys and hills; 8 a land of wheat, barley, vines, figs, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; 9 a land where you will eat food without shortage, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you will mine copper. 10 When you eat and are full, you will bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
11 “Be careful that you don’t forget the Lord your God by failing to keep his commands, ordinances, and statutes that I am giving you today. 12 When you eat and are full, and build beautiful houses to live in, 13 and your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold multiply, and everything else you have increases, 14 be careful that your heart doesn’t become proud and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery. 15 He led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, a thirsty land where there was no water. He brought water out of the flint rock for you. 16 He fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your ancestors had not known, in order to humble and test you, so that in the end he might cause you to prosper. 17 You may say to yourself, ‘My power and my own ability have gained this wealth for me,’ 18 but remember that the Lord your God gives you the power to gain wealth, in order to confirm his covenant he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
Though the Israelites were prone to grumbling when things were not going so well, the greater danger for them was when the Lord had provided all of their needs and more besides. They were far more likely to become complacent and care far less about the Lord when everything was going well. In other words, one of the greatest dangers for God’s people was their own comfort. The Lord would bless them with every good thing and, just like that, they would be tempted to forget the Lord and begin to think that all had been accomplished by themselves.
What is particularly interesting about this is that the wilderness wandering for Israel was part of his means of forcing them to trust him fully. Indeed, one of the other things the Lord says in Deuteronomy, in earlier chapters, that if Israel turn away from him, he will strip them of everything but himself. His material blessings – including the land – will all be taken from them so that all they have left is the Lord alone. If their comfort causes them to forget him, the Lord will make them uncomfortable in order to remember him again. If blessing gets in the way of their relationship with the true and living God, he will take it away so that they remember him as they ought. If they remember the Lord as he blesses them, they will remember him and enjoy the fruit of a real relationship with him. But the biggest barrier to them doing that is the comfort these things will bring.
The point here is not that discomfort for its own sake is good. It isn’t. Nor is it to say that comfort will necessarily draw us away from true and proper worship. The point is simply that the danger of comfort and blessing is that we become complacent, proud and soon forget God altogether. The warning is, if we truly belong to him, he will go to some considerable lengths to ensure that we come back to him and remember him rightly again.
I have said before that the biggest problem facing the Evangelical Church in the UK is our comfort. I believe we have become complacent in the UK church. We hear Jesus’ words to ‘count the cost’ and listen to him say ‘take up your cross’ and think that he only means so far. Certainly not far enough that we need to totally die to self, aspiration and all.
Of course he wouldn’t want me to sell my house and move to a so-called hard place. Of course he wouldn’t ask me to be in a church full of people who are nothing like me. Of course he wouldn’t ask me to send my kids somewhere with no children’s work, where nobody looks like them in school, where the operating language is different and the OfSTED rating not so great. Of course, of course, of course. All he meant was that some of my mates might think I’m a bit different to them and poke fun at me for catching religion. That is taking up my cross.
Except, I just don’t think that is what Jesus meant. He literally called people to sell all they had to follow him. He told other would-be followers that they wouldn’t have a home to call their own. He told others to give up their jobs and follow him about wherever he went. He told people to go and speak to women who they didn’t rate as on their level, people from other countries they despised and those from places they literally considered unclean filth. In quite a lot of cases, he literally sent his followers out to die. He did not send anyone out with a testimony that says, ‘I met Jesus and he made my life better!’ (our usual testimony evening tripe). He told Peter he would do what he asks and die. John was going to Patmos to be exiled. Pretty much the story of the Apostles all down the line. Jesus didn’t come to make their lives more comfortable.
And the truth is, he didn’t come to make any of our lives more comfortable. He calls us to give up all that we hold dear, all that we are, to die to ourselves and follow him. And though we may sit in our churches week by week, we seem to be in danger of forgetting the Lord in our comfort. We want to live in nice places, with nice jobs, nice schools, nice cafes, full of nice people who are just like us. We are happy with our routine of an hour or two on a Sunday and – if we’re particularly keen – once midweek too. And we are so comfortable with it all.
But I think this has stymied our growth. We grow when we are pressed into action by the Lord. When we are reliant upon him in our service. We grow when we are faced with difficult and annoying people, who are nothing like us, who do not think, speak or act like us and we have to try and love them, serve them and worship alongside them as they do our heads in. We grow when we seek to expends ourselves in the service of the gospel – both in reaching out to the lost and building up and equipping the saved. When we look at what we are doing week-by-week, many of us if we’re honest with ourselves, aren’t doing anything like this. Our opportunities for growth are limited because we have grown comfortable. And in our comfort, we forget the Lord. Obviously we don’t forget him altogether, but we forget what he actually demands of us. Because, in truth, if we hadn’t, we would be doing it. After all, Jesus said, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’ and that includes all those difficult and highly uncomfortable things. We need to take seriously the call of Jesus and make ourselves much more willing to become much less comfortable.