The Naked Church – Chapter 4 – Aren’t You Hungry?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.—Matthew 5:6
Aren’t you hunnnnnngry? One of the most aggressive TV commercials for a fast food hamburger chain that I’ve ever seen began with that chant.
To the driving background music a hamburger five times normal size sizzled above the licking flames. The background music, led by a driving drumbeat, grew louder. Moments later French fries suddenly splashed across the screen. Then the hamburger re turned, this time on a toasted bun. The chant kept pounding. Soon I was on the edge of my seat, every saliva gland pumping at maximum capacity. Aren’t you hunnnnnngry?
Then mercifully it was over—30 seconds that seemed like an eternity. Of course I’m hungry; I’m always hungry. And I’m especially hungry in the middle of a fast, which seemed to be the only time I saw that commercial. Hunger is a great driving force, and that commercial tapped it. We too must tap a different kind of hunger if we are going to pay the price to discard our nakedness and pursue the relationship God has designed for us.
Why is hunger so important?
History demonstrates that reawakening’s in the church come in cycles. Times of great spiritual fervor are followed by a gradual decline; then there is a fresh resurgence, and so on. As a result, many people have concluded that God’s sovereignty is the impetus behind renewal. He earmarks certain periods for revival and others for dormancy. Charles Finney found the same assumption in his day and attacked it with a vengeance. at the heart of every revival he studied he always found a person or group of people praying for that revival and expecting it—“on the watchtower, constant in prayer till the blessing came.” revival is not the result of mere historical happenstance, and Finney knew that if people pinned all their hopes for change on God’s sovereignty it would never come. God always wants to revive his people, but it is we who allow him to work so in us. Recently I had breakfast with a well published pastor who lamented how ineffective the church is today in making the gospel relevant for the unchurched. “Its structure is not conducive for it, and I do not see the church changing unless some worldwide catastrophe forces it to.”
But we need not await such a catastrophe. Hunger for God’s presence works just as well, for that is what grows out of catastrophes that spur revival. The following diagram of revival cycles will help explain why this is so. It is applicable to historical movements as well as to periods of renewal in our own lives.
The top of the chart marks those moments when God’s presence is fresh, alive, and real; the bottom where God seems only a distant memory. The flow of events runs clockwise around the chart—three steps down the right side of the chart and three up the left.
Let’s start at the top. I use the word “revival” to refer to those times when God’s presence is evident among his people. Grace, joy and peace fill every cranny of our lives. It is a time of excitement; though not necessarily ease, when every day is an adventure to see what God will do next. New believers come to discover the life of Jesus. Bondages are broken, deception is dispelled, character is developed in times of affliction, and love and humility abound in relationships with other people.
The first step away from revival is complacency. God’s work has been so wonderful and effortless that we get sidetracked from our relationship with him and instead become caretakers of his blessings. Our hunger to know him is dulled. We don’t need him as much for our own needs, and we lose his vision of extending the life of his kingdom to a dying world. But God’s life is like a river: The moment it stops flowing it begins to stagnate.
As our perception of his presence wanes, we compensate by falling in love with God’s gifts, eventually loving them more than we love him and using them for our own gain. God describes that process with Israel in Ezekiel 16. He pictures Israel as an abandoned child, lying naked in a field, covered with blood. God finds her, takes her home, cleans her up, puts her in beautiful clothes, and teaches her how to be a lady. What a marvelous story—until the young lady falls in love with her own beauty. She begins to use her beauty to get what she wants from others, and turns to prostitution.
She forgot the God who rescued her. The final step toward spiritual death is rarely active rebellion; it is more often neglect. Israel was rebuked for this over and over again. Enemies or drought rose up against them, and they fell on their faces to pray and repent. God then routed the enemy or blessed his people with rain. When prosperity returned they went off to enjoy it.
How often I’ve seen this cycle—in church history and in individual lives, including my own. When we’re caught in trouble we turn to God for help, seeking him for a new job or help with our marriage. As we learn to walk with him as our loving Father, we begin to change and so do our circumstances. Eventually the trouble is resolved. Without a crisis making us desperate for him, we soon forget about our relationship with him. The new job, ministry or restored marriage subtly becomes more important than our relationship to Father.
When God is forgotten, or takes second chair to our enjoyment of his blessings, spiritual life dries up. In time our prayers will seem to bounce off the walls, and the Word seems dry. All the forms and vocabulary still persist, but they are lifeless without God’s presence. In fact religious activity often increases during this time in an attempt to compensate for the emptiness. During these times God’s nature is sorely misunderstood. When people cry out in need but find that their prayers aren’t answered, they get angry with God, for he doesn’t seem to live up to his own theology. Jeremiah addressed this need in his own generation:
They have turned their backs to me and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble they say, “Come and save us!” Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble! (Jeremiah 2:27, 28).
How can we expect God to jump to our attention in the things we pray about when we’ve not been listening to him or his concerns? Unanswered prayers that seem to obviously be in God’s will and an inner, relational emptiness are sure indications that we’ve come to the bottom of the cycle. Unfortunately, at times like this people are often encouraged to just hang in there: “everyone goes through dry times; it will pass.” don’t believe it, and don’t acclimate yourself to God’s inactivity. Remember what it was like when God was moving in your life, and let yourself get hungry to be there again.
Hunger is your first step back up the chart. In the face of God’s promises all that the world offers is empty. Hunger will cause you to seek the lord wholeheartedly, putting him above everything else again. Heartfelt prayer and repentance will break the crust of complacency, opening you once again to his presence. Transformation follows, and with it the joy and excitement of revival.
Notice the pivotal moments in this chart: complacency and hunger. Complacency starts us on the road to deadness, taking our eyes off God and putting them on the cares of this world. Conversely, hunger puts our hearts back on God, making us willing to pay whatever cost is necessary to know God in his fullness. That’s why Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it” (Matthew 11:12).
God did not create us to spin around this cycle from high to low. Our challenge as believers is to get hungry and stay hungry for him.
“Here, kitty, kitty!”
Mama cat was the mice exterminator on the grape ranch where I grew up in central California. She had a name, but we never used it. At three litters of kittens per year, with rarely less than eight kittens per litter, no other name would do. We looked forward to each new batch and to playing with the young kittens.
Then we got Penney, a German shepherd pup who was attacked her first day home by Mama Cat for wandering too near her most recent brood. Penney’s snout was bloodied by a few well-placed claws. Needless to say, they weren’t good friends after that, and when Penney finally grew up, Mama Cat moved her deliveries elsewhere.
Now we would only see her new offspring when she brought them up to the house, ready to wean them. They would move into a thick hedge outside our back door where the dog could not get them. Having had no human contact for two to three months, the kittens were terrified of us. If we even got close they would hiss and spit, lashing out with their claws. “You either have to tame those cats so we can give them away or else I’ll have to dispose of them.” my dad’s words sounded harsh, but we knew there was no other option.
How do you tame wild cats? We used their hunger. We began by putting a bowl of warm milk inside the hedge. When they started drinking it, mama cat would wean them. Now they needed us, and we would put the bowl just outside the hedge and stay to watch them. They hated to eat with us present there, but their hunger forced them to come anyway. In ensuing days we shortened the distance between us and the bowl until we were close enough to pet them while they ate. Finally they would come when we called them, milk or no milk; they were our friends at last.
All this because of hunger! All they wanted was dinner, but we knew that food alone wouldn’t save them. They needed to be tamed, and hunger was a motive strong enough to make the larger change they needed. Our flesh is just like those little kittens—hostile to God. Everything in this world and in our old nature pulls us away from his kingdom. The only thing that will take us through the process of maturity is hunger for God that keeps driving us to him both in good times and in bad. But such hunger is a rare commodity in this age.
Hunger in an age of defensiveness
Like everyone in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, we find it threatening to challenge the status quo. It may not be what we want, but at least there is no more risk in it. We learn to get by and don’t want anyone upsetting the balance. The Pharisees had the same problem. John the Baptist and Jesus were enigmas to them. They noted a dynamic in their ministries that they sorely lacked, but they could never bring themselves to admit it. Instead they quibbled over theology (“should we pay taxes?”) and methodology (“stop healing on the Sabbath.”). In one encounter they asked Jesus directly, “by what authority are you doing these things?” (Matthew 21:2327).
Jesus’ response seemed to dodge the issue. Instead of answering their question, Jesus forced them into withdrawing it:
“I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism— where did it come from?” the Pharisees huddled. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘then why don’t you believe him?’ but if we say, ‘From men—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” They finally answered, “We don’t know.”
Jesus proved his point. The only reason they couldn’t understand his ministry is because they didn’t want to. They refused to listen to anything that challenged their vested interest, preferring the false power of ignorance to the vulnerability of hunger.
Don’t we do the same? A young man sat in my office years ago and shared with me his desire to walk in a gospel more filled with power than he saw in the church around him. “I’m going to start seeking God one hour every day and find out how I can live like the early church lived.”
My first thought was to discourage him. I didn’t have an hour to spend every day right then, and if he did he might have a more powerful walk than I was modeling. I was threatened, and to my discredit I discouraged his hunger: “don’t you think if God wanted to do more in his church he’d be showing that to us who are leading?”
This same thing happened when the charismatic renewal began in the 60’s. Suddenly people were talking about a God who wanted to be active, talking to his people and performing miracles. I know people who found that threatening. They had walked with God for 40 years and had never seen him do any kind of miracle. Their line of reasoning ran like this: “if God wants to do these things today, why haven’t I heard about it before now? Since I’ve been faithful to him, he certainly wouldn’t leave me out. Therefore God’s miracles can’t be for today.” they may even have prayed for God’s special work in desperate moments of the past, only to see their prayers go unanswered. But instead of acknowledging this forthrightly, they cloaked their disagreements in theological terms and pointed to excess and abuse within the movement to discount it. The very thing that God was doing to include them they used as a basis to resist him. Our culture does that to us. In an age of defensiveness, hunger is unthinkable. We consider successful those who are self assured, confident, and fulfilled; so even if we’re not any of these, we must pretend to be. We have come to possess the fragile identities on which our culture is so fixated; we are unable to admit need, unmet dreams, or mistakes. Too many of our relationships are based on having to project a flawless performance; gaining acceptance forces us to justify everything we do. In such a climate, hungry people are regarded at best as fanatics and at worst as rebels.
“Sensible” people accept the status quo for what it is and use it as advantageously as possible. Like the Pharisees, we hunger more to preserve our place in the eyes of those around us than to admit our need to change. That may not be what we want to do, but it’s what we do by default. In Matthew 11:2, 3 John asked a question very similar to that of the Pharisees. He got his answer because even though he had significant vested interest in Jesus, he wanted the truth. John had validated Jesus’ ministry, sending his own disciples to serve him. If Jesus weren’t the messiah, John would have to face up to the fact that he had failed in his mission to be a forerunner for the Christ. Risk it he did, though, because he wanted to be right more than he wanted to appear right.
How do we create hunger?
all the people who have walked closely with God throughout history were stir red both by a vision that burned in their hearts and by their ability to look at the status quo and admit that it did not live up to that vision. That dichotomy alone creates hunger—to see what God has promised and to be real enough about our lives to admit when we’ve fallen short of it. This is what produces the Luther’s, the Wesley’s, and the Bonhoeffer’s. They saw a great disparity in their day between biblical promise and cultural reality, and they set about to narrow the gap in their own lives.
If we’re going to be hungry for God in this age, we too need to take two looks. The first is a joyful one: Look at the promises in God’s Word for people who walk with him. See how that is modeled in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples and to the early church in the book of acts. We can look for the reality of God’s kingdom among us, making his loving presence real in the harshness of our world. We can be believers who love God enough to suffer for him, and see those bound by demonic darkness explode into the freedom of God’s life, the lame man dancing in joy, and prostitutes fully forgiven. We can see prayers consistently answered, and the sins in our lives transformed by his glory.
Promises greater than our present experience await us. Jesus said that when we really see the beauty of God’s kingdom, we will stop at nothing to apprehend it. It is a pearl of great price and at its heart is an intimate relationship with the lord of glory. Imagine the splendor of God’s love holding us, his voice guiding us, his power sustaining us every day.
The other look we need to take is not so glorious, but nonetheless necessary. God’s promises must be superimposed over our own experience to show us where we fall short. Promise alone is not enough, since we have a tendency to conform God’s promises to our present circumstances instead of hungering for change. Hunger can only flourish when we recognize that our present circumstances don’t measure up to God’s promise. Charles Finney said, “a revival always includes conviction of sin on the part of the church.” That’s what the Old Testament prophets did to try to shake their generations out of complacency. This is a difficult look to take, and one often ignored in preference to hearing about self-esteem, peace of mind, and financial prosperity. Editors know that people won’t pay good money for bad news. They’ll only do that for the doctor and dentist, because we can’t hide physical disease as cleverly as we can spiritual emptiness. Jeremiah faced the same problem:
The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end? (Jeremiah 5:31).
God has continually sent prophets to strip the facade off religion and to force people to look squarely at the state of their spiritual life. That’s why prophets are only honored after they die. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Elijah were hated by nearly everyone in their day. Jesus even noted this fact to the Pharisees: “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them” (Luke 11:47). Are we any different today? Could Luther and Wesley speak in our pulpits? As long as their words apply to another generation, we revere them. Would we tolerate them if they spoke the same about things we hold dear? Let’s try it! Luther spoke out passionately against Rome’s practice of selling indulgences—offering spiritual forgiveness and status for money that was put into a building fund at the Vatican. Here’s what he said:
The revenues of all Christendom are being sucked into this insatiable basilica. The Germans laugh at calling this the common treasure of Christendom. Before long all the churches, palaces, walls and bridges of Rome will be built out of our money. First of all, we should rear living temples, not local churches… he—the pope—would do better to sell St. Peter’s and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences.
We all know the roman church of that day had its abuses— even the Catholic Church today admits that. It is far more difficult, however, to see the problems when you live in the midst of them. We forget that Luther spoke to real people who looked up to their priests, the same way we do our pastors. Some of the most meaningful and moving events of their lives happened between those cathedral walls.
What if Martin Luther were alive today? Do you think he would look on our fund raising techniques or our opulent buildings with any less disgust? We may not be so crass as to sell forgiveness of sins for those who contribute to our cathedrals, but most fundraising appeals contain a nearly identical mixture of guilt and glory. In some facilities there are placards on virtually every piece of furniture. Though better disguised, we are still selling spiritual status to the highest bidder.
Would we listen any better if Martin Luther used those same words to cry out against our favorite TV pastor, or the megachurch being built on the outskirts of our city? Care to try it? Reread his words above and substitute the names of people and ministries that have touched your life. Do you see how hard it would be to listen? Wouldn’t we accuse him of rebellion and independence, rising to the defense of those ministries? These are well intentioned people, we would say. They are just trying to help others. And for the most part that may be true as it was of many of the priests in Luther’s day. However, the implications of their actions are not mitigated by the lack of evil intentions.
Despite our beautiful buildings and finely tuned programs, we have distorted the power of the gospel to serve the institutions of our day. We have failed to actualize the mission of Christ by inviting people into the fullness of an intimate relationship with the living God. Unless we can take an honest look at that deficiency in our religious systems today, we will continue to embrace the comfortable emptiness of the status quo.
The remaining chapters of this book will be written in couplets. The first chapter of each couplet will push contemporary Christianity to the mirror of God’s Word. Such juxtaposition is rarely pretty, but we must see not only that we are naked, but why we are. What does a lifeless Christianity offer our flesh so that it entices us away from true intimacy with God? I’ll warn you that this will not be easy. All of us can point to wonderful, even life changing moments that organized religion has provided for us. Who doesn’t enjoy the aesthetics of a beautiful worship service? Who has not been enlightened by the teaching of God’s Word? Who doesn’t have friends there whom we enjoy? No, church life today is not all bad, and that’s what makes it difficult to recognize its deficiencies.
But the larger question must still be asked: does it lead us to the fullness of an intimate friendship with Jesus? And if not, why not? Just like in Luther’s day, we’ll find that whenever the church serves the needs of the institution that surrounds it instead of equipping people to know the living God, Christianity itself will be distorted.
Even our best intentions become part of the problem. Os Guinness recognized how the church can become its own worst enemy: “Christianity contributed significantly to the rise of the modern world, it has committed itself uncritically to the world it helped create and it has been undermined by its own efforts. The church, therefore, is becoming its own gravedigger.”
Such talk is not any more popular in our day than it was in Luther’s. His contemporaries thought he wanted to destroy the church, when his motives were quite the opposite. He offered the church healing and spoke out not because he loved it less, but because he loved it more than did the others of his day, who cared less what God wanted than what they did.
Jesus warned his disciples on two occasions (John 16:14 and Luke 12:11, 12) that true disciples would often be at odds with the religious system of the day. In every age God’s people are called to take the narrow road away from the acclamation and influence of those who would use the church for their own ends. Its most dangerous days have been when the visible church, infatuated with itself, has fought against people who hunger for God. Sheldon Vanauken was right: “it isn’t the enemy lurking outside the cathedral door that the church needs to fear, but the enemy within.”
Virtually every denomination today began with a group of passionate believers who pressed for change against the institutionalism of their day and finally had to leave to find the life of God they sought. Sadly, however, each of them in turn spawned their own rigid traditions, and subsequent hungry believers had to do the same. If we’re going to recapture a hunger for spiritual intimacy we will have look at the failures of contemporary Christianity to lead people into intimacy with God. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Christian unity and charity demands that we close our eyes to that which seeks to pass itself off as the work of God if it is not!
Can it happen for me?
Seeing a distant vision and seeing how far short of it we fall is not enough to create hunger unless we know how to make that vision our own experience. My hunger for that sizzling hamburger in the commercial is a good thing only if I have the freedom or money to buy one. The second chapter of each couplet is an invitation for you to come and experience the depth of friendship that God has prepared for you. We’ll learn how to embrace his presence and walk in his glory, without our religious institutions having to make any change at all.
I hope these words provide the impetus for some of the institutions we call church to make significant changes and embrace relational Christianity, but it is not necessary. To God, ‘church’ is not a building down the street, or a name brand denomination. His church is made up of every person who walks in friendship with him. He came because he loved people, not organizations. He desires to change you, not them.
We were created to be a people of God’s presence, not of mere theology or ethics. We can know the living God and know what it means to have him live his life through us. It’s a process where each step is full of more glory and wonder than the last as he makes us more like himself. That relationship is within the reach of every child of God. That makes me hungry.
Recorded with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.