By Tyler McKenzie
In Matthew 5 the truest preacher of all time began the greatest sermon ever preached. His topic? “What does it look like to live the Christian life?”
As Matthew recalls, Jesus made his way from the masses and up a mountain, drawing his disciples away from the crowds (5:1, 2). This sermon wasn’t for the crowds. Jesus could always draw a crowd, but the crowds usually wanted a miracle or a meal, not a message. They came to consume, not be consumed. So which are you: disciple or crowd?
When Jesus began speaking to his disciples, he skipped the formalities. In 10 verses, he introduced eight virtues that describe with unsettling clarity the absurd blessedness of living as a Christian (vv. 3-12):
1. Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .
2. Blessed are those who mourn . . .
3. Blessed are the meek . . .
4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . .
5. Blessed are the merciful . . .
6. Blessed are the pure in heart . . .
7. Blessed are the peacemakers . . .
8. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness . . .
Not surprisingly, Jesus chose the word blessed here to describe the consequence of living as a Christian. Blessed comes from a Greek word that means to be especially favored by God or even happy because of your circumstances. And who doesn’t want to be happy? But what catches us off guard is who he said are blessed. “I mean Jesus, you can’t be serious! Blessed are the poor in spirit? Favored are the mourners? Happy are the persecuted?”
Let’s just acknowledge the obvious—what Jesus called blessed isn’t what we consider blessing. It’s not what most of us expect or hope to profit from our religious devotion. In our American culture, we typically call ourselves blessed when we receive health, wealth, or prosperity (at least that’s what the TV preacher told me). “I’m blessed by God when he keeps me healthy or heals my friend. I’m blessed when living in a nice house with financial stability and a fat 401k. I’m blessed when life is pain-free.”
But Jesus spoke a different word, didn’t he? A word so different that at first glance we’re tempted to read it metaphorically or sand its sharp edges or wonder, “Now what is he really saying here?” But what if he was trying to say exactly what he said? If I had to answer the question for Jesus—“What does it look like to live the Christian life?”—this is the word I’d choose in light of his Beatitudes: different. Living a Christian life looks radically, irrationally different than living a normal life.
The Less Different We Are, the Less Relevant We Become
This is the problem with Christianity in our culture: Christians aren’t different. We’re extremely normal. We blend right in. Some will push back, saying, “No, the problem isn’t Christians, it’s the non-Christians. They’re rallying for this and legislating that and normalizing this.” But that doesn’t surprise me. The problem isn’t non-Christians acting like non-Christians; the problem is Christians not acting like Christians.
We forget our difference is what makes us relevant—our radically different yet strangely irresistible approach to life. If your Christianity doesn’t make you look different, what makes you think your neighbors will even notice? If your lifestyle, generosity, and values are normal, what makes you think anyone will pause and wonder? If the only thing different between you and your friend is that you get up early on Sundays for church, then it sounds like they got the better end of the deal (at least they get to sleep in).
Different is essential. The less different we are, the less relevant we become, and the more apathetic the watching world becomes toward our seemingly impotent faith.
A Revival of Different
If you’re looking for a revival of different, look no further than the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes display Jesus’ counter-cultural values which stand in opposition to our popular cultural values.
Every culture has certain values it prioritizes. There are always behaviors and attitudes in every culture that are deified and pursued over others. Your respective culture will tell you, “If you just pursue _____ then it will make you happy and fill the emptiness in your heart.” For example, our current American culture tells us to pursue things like:
• Personal success—This is how you earn self-worth in our individualistic society. You must climb the organizational chart, become a doctor or a lawyer, get the six-digit paycheck, raise prodigy children, achieve your Ph.D. These things aren’t wrong—but what’s your motivation?
• Freedom of choice—Our culture’s proclamation is, “I should be able to do what I want, when I want, because I feel like it.” That’s the key to happiness.
• Wealth, power, recognition, beauty, and comfort—These are universal values revered by nearly all cultures.
Now set those in opposition to Jesus’ cultural values and evaluate. Seriously, take out a pen and write down our culture’s values next to Jesus’. What do you see? They’re different. And, honest moment of self-reflection, Jesus’ are just flat out more difficult.
You see, our culture’s values are driven by the power of the moment. They deliver the joy we long for now. It’s a temporary and superficial happiness, but it’s immediate so it’s tempting. Our culture says, “Sure, seek personal success! Feed your ego and selfish ambition. Seek freedom of choice. Who doesn’t want to be their own king? Seek wealth and power. It’ll give you control over your life. Seek recognition and beauty. It’ll give you the applause of your peers. Sure, seek comfort at all costs because what’s the alternative—pain?”
But Jesus steps onto the pages of history and protests, “These appetites are writing checks they can’t cash! Sure, seek personal success, but sooner or later you will have to give it up. You will either get fired or have to retire, and in that moment if you’ve defined yourself by success you will lose your very identity and it will be crushing. Seek freedom of choice. Become your own king. But one day you’ll roll out of bed and realize you aren’t king after all. Your appetites have become your king because they are controlling. Seek wealth, but you’ll never have enough. Seek power, but it’ll go to your head. Seek recognition but it’s here today, gone tomorrow. Seek beauty, but it fades. Sure, seek comfort, but pain is inevitable. It’s just a matter of when suffering hits you and how hard.”
In effect, Jesus says, “You have two choices. You can live for the moment and reap a shallow, temporary joy or you can live for God and reap a deeper, eternal joy.” And that’s what the Beatitudes describe: the pathway to eternal satisfaction that only an eternal God can deliver. So:
1. Blessed are the poor in spirit [those who depend completely on God].
2. Blessed are those who mourn [those who take their sin as seriously as God’s grace].
3. Blessed are the meek [those who are infatuated with the importance of others more than their own].
4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [those who find happiness in God, not the other way around].
5. Blessed are the merciful [those who show mercy to others as they hope to receive].
6. Blessed are the pure in heart [those who do the right things for the right reasons].
7. Blessed are the peacemakers [those who work to reconcile relationships].
8. Blessed are the persecuted [those who do not compromise in the face of inevitable resistance].
We Must Not Compromise
Church, we must not compromise. We mustn’t lose our difference. Because the moment any church vacates its position of difference, the moment any church conforms, the moment any church reorders its values to look like its surrounding culture is the moment in which that church officially dies in that place. So let us not be the generation responsible for the death of the church in this place.
Instead, let each one of us do our part to maintain our irresistible difference. Let us be salt and light. Let us be the body of Christ, Jesus’ physical presence in a world that desperately needs him. And let us lovingly shine our strangely irresistible way of life that has been restoring the world for 2,000 years.
Tyler McKenzie is the husband of Lindsay, father of Palmer Judah, Teaching Pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and blogger at CrossShapedStuff.com.