Tough-Love Encouragement From The Early Church

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Real Christian life looks nothing like a Facebook or Instagram feed.

The moments between those glamorous selfies and heartwarming scenes are often filled with the exact opposite…tears and heartbreak. Of course, life doesn’t always disappoint, but it often does.

I think it has to do with our unfulfilled expectations. Especially what we believe God is supposed to do for us.

For this reason, I’ve been doing an expectation tune-up for the past several months.  I’ve been reading very slowly through Acts specifically looking at the prayers, practices, and problems of the first Christ followers. I’m also reading a great book on second century Christians, paying close attention to how they worshipped.[i] One observation I can boldly relay is this: the prayers and expectations (or at least what is recorded about them) of these first believers look very little like most of what we see in Facebook (contemporary) Christianity.

To be transparent…they look nothing like some of my own prayers.

I’ve not read one record of people gathering round asking God for the guts to dream big or for boldness to speak their own truth or for confirmation of their true calling. I never see anything remotely close to believers encouraging one another with self-empowerment messages…or quoting Jeremiah 29:11 out of context to either trivialize or over-spiritualize life circumstances.

They didn’t encourage one another that way.[ii]

If the voices of those faithful could travel to me (and to you) through time, I believe their encouragement would look far more like this:  


Christian life is not about your happiness.

I don’t know about you, but this is great news for me because I’m not happy all the time. I wake up with the glass empty nearly every morning and need time in the Word and in prayer just to make it to half-full. If happiness was an indicator of God’s love for me or of my value and place in His kingdom, I’d feel so hopeless right now.

Jesus didn’t live a sinless life, die on the Cross, and rise from the dead so we would be happy. He sacrificed His life to pay the penalty for our sin (one we could never pay), to be the propitiation for God’s wrath that we deserve (removing it), to reconcile us to the Father who is perfect in all His ways (our righteousness would always and only stink to Him), and to free and redeem us from slavery to sin.[iii]

Disappointing life circumstances can’t take one bit of that away from us.

But they can take away our happiness. And that’s why happiness can’t be an indicator of how Christianity is working for us…or be the fuel behind our faithfulness and obedience.

Christianity isn’t about happiness. It’s about holiness—Christ’s holiness—and the true, sustaining joy we receive from being transformed into His likeness.


Christian life is not about your dream.

Again…fantastic, because I don’t have a dream. This is such wonderful encouragement for those of us who faked our dream board assignment in high school. Yes, I’ve had fleeting thoughts of being a heart surgeon (too much chemistry), a lawyer (a life of boring reads), and a news anchor (too many pounds to lose) … but I’ve never had a consistent dream of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I don’t even really have a bucket list.

Now, I’m not saying that having a dream is a bad thing. I find stories of people who dreamed big and eventually got there fascinating and even inspiring. I even believe life dreams can be God-given. But that’s not what Christian life is all about.

Christian life is not about our dream, it’s about our death. And sometimes even the death of dreams.

Jesus says in Matthew 16:24 “…if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Contrary to what many believe, taking up our cross does not mean dealing with a difficult child or belligerent boss. To first century believers, the cross represented the most vile, humiliating and disgraceful mode of death, and when Jesus asked His disciples to pick up theirs…what He was asking for was complete surrender to Him and His plans and His ways. A complete emptying of self.

The invitation to die to self is an invitation to freedom. Dead people don’t have to build platforms or build impressive financial portfolios or even stand out in a crowd. What a relief!


Jesus is not all about you.

Wonderful, because if He was I’d probably be even more self-focused than I already am.  (Anyone else feel like the person in the mirror is the one you’d most like a weekend away from sometimes?)  

While scripture assures we are loved more than we can comprehend, that we will be well-cared for, and that we have immense value as adopted children and God-glorifiers (humans), it is incredibly narcissistic to think that Jesus is all about us. Truth is, Jesus is all about the Father. He came to obey, represent, and glorify…the Father. Read through John’s gospel and take note of all the times Jesus declares this purpose. He did nothing but what the Father told Him to do for the purposes of the Father’s will and glory.

Do we benefit from everything Jesus did? Of course. More than we can imagine. But His primary focus was not us…it was the Father. Remembering this helps ward off sneaky entitlements that rob our joy and instead keeps us in a posture of deep gratitude as recipients of the Father’s generous love.


[i] Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church by Michael J. Kruger

[ii] For a beautiful example of how they did encourage one another, read Acts 13:13-52.

[iii] Romans 5:19, 1 Peter 2:24, John 3:16, Romans 3:25-26