When I bought the new book, Jesus Among Secular Gods: The Countercultural Claims of Christ, by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale (Faith Words, 2017), I wasn’t thinking about Lent. But more than two weeks into this liturgical season reflecting on Christ, I couldn’t recommend it more.
Zacharias, an internationally respected apologist, and Vitale, who taught philosophy of religion at Princeton University and the University of Oxford, explore Christ’s teachings in a contemporary context. In alternating chapters, the two address six modern belief systems –atheism, scientism, pluralism, humanism, relativism, and hedonism – and the way Jesus would respond to each.
The one I found most compelling, most surprised me: hedonism, which the authors describe as the pursuit of “Whatever makes you happy.”
“Hedonism is not the desire of our hearts;” Vitale writes, “it is all that is left when every other ‘ism’ has failed us.”
Vitale says that people often tell him that they don’t need God because they are happy. “That’s great!” he writes, “I believe that happiness is a gift from the God who ‘fills your hearts with joy’ (Acts 14:17). But Christianity offers so much more than happiness.”
Instead of seeking a shallow existence devoid of pain and suffering, as do those who pursue hedonism, Jesus subjected himself to a life of discomfort – and ultimately death on a cross – to pursue our ultimate comfort.
“Here is how Jesus understood His life purpose:” Vitale says, quoting Luke 4:18-19, “’The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”
Good news for those who lack the luxury of pursuing a prosperous, Western lifestyle. Or those suffering from devastating illness. Or those imprisoned by modern slavery or addiction. Or those expelled from their homelands. Jesus came not to satisfy himself but to bring justice, deliverance, and everlasting satisfaction to the broken and oppressed.
In like manner, Vitale says, “Jesus calls His followers not to the endless, exhausting pursuit of pleasure, nor to the futile evasion of pain, but to sacrificial love.”
This type of self-sacrifice goes against our natural instincts. It calls for a complete surrender of what I want to embrace what God wants. It is willing to be hurt – like Christ – to bring healing to others. What surprised me was how entangled much of our affluent Western Christian culture is with a hedonistic lifestyle. Vitale suggests a different path.
“God is a troublemaker,” he says. “He goes looking for trouble and He asks His followers to go looking for trouble with Him. So what trouble is He calling you into, in order for you to be His agent of healing?”
Even when the journey requires great sacrifice, the answer will fill your heart with genuine joy – not just during Lent, but for always.
Meadow Rue Merrill writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. Her memoir, Redeeming Ruth: Everything Life Takes, Love Restores, releases May 1.