Reading through Simply Good News, I discovered one other important idea that I want to mention. The idea did not strike me as significant on first swipe. It wasn’t until several pages beyond that it hit me how impactful this idea was, so I turned back the pages, re-read, and then pondered for some time. It has to do with the progress of God’s kingdom here on earth. Let me explain.
After stating in undeniable terms that the proposal of any social gospel is misguided (whereby God’s kingdom is brought about by our own efforts apart from God’s help), Wright clarifies that we must “work for God’s kingdom, to produce advance signs of his saving rule, his holiness, his justice, his joy, his celebration of every good thing…because we stand on the ground of the resurrection, believing that the forces of darkness have been put in their place” (p 117). Of course the Christian Church has always understood its mission in these terms; that its works are its witness and vice versa. However, these terms need to be set in the greater context of the biblical storyline, which turn on five propositions that, incidentally, sum up Wright’s entire book. They are: (1) “the lordship of the risen Jesus…means that real and lasting change is possible at personal, social, cultural, national, and global levels.” Second that “real and lasting change is costly.” Third “real and lasting change in everything from personal to global life is always sporadic.” Fourth, “there is an equal and opposite danger that Christians…will retreat once more into the gloom and negativity” and fifth, “therefore, it is vital that those who believe the good news work tirelessly for real and lasting change in individual lives” (pp 118-19, emphases his).
It is the second and third of these which I wish to engage here. My “important idea” is about change. Specifically: Unless and until we get an existential grip on the fact that change costs us something and that change is at best sporadic this side of kingdom consummation, we run the risk of missing the abundant life Jesus offers.
The fact that change is costly has much (if not everything) to do with suffering in this present life. Wright states “Yes, the basic victory has been won on the cross,” but “this suffering, whatever form it takes, is the way the true signs of God’s kingdom will appear on earth as in heaven” (p 118). In other words, suffering is not for naught but has a purpose, a meaning, an intended end toward which everything in the universe is moving. Later, he notes that “we can never suppose that God’s purposes will go forward automatically and all we have to do is to get on board” (p 120). Strapping ourselves onto God’s ship and passively enjoying the ride to heaven is not the biblical way of advancing God’s kingdom here on earth as in heaven. Indeed I’m reminded of this “promise” from Scripture, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Yes. The text says what it means and means what it says. “Everyone who desires to live a godly life” and that would necessarily include all true believers! This is not to say that a spurious faith is invalidated if suffering is absent, nor is it to say that a genuine faith is validated when it is present. It is to say, de facto, that suffering is part of the lot of everyone who moves forward in Christlikeness. No one is excluded! This, in itself, may not be news. But it does provide a needed perspective on life when things are not going so well and reminds us as Christ-followers that this is our lot and we should not be surprised by it.
In addition to costly change, the idea that change is sporadic, often incidental or even episodal shows us that the trajectory of our moral progress is not always (if ever!) in a solid nor even in a straight line. There will be bumps in the road. Just a cursory reading of the Old Testament (or church history as Wright opines) and we see that motif repeated over and over again. Change “is never smooth, linear progress” nor is it a step-by-step procedure whereby we inch our way ever so closer “from glory to glory” until we finally reach the intended, blissful end. We must admit “there have been great losses” and “the music of the gospel is not moving in a steady crescendo toward a glorious climax” (p 119). Progress often feels like three steps forward and two steps backwards and real change is negligible at best.
If these things be true, that change is costly and change is sporadic, then they can provide us a richer perspective on living the daily Christian grind. We can rest in the fact that the gradual, subtle and often silent movement of God in our hearts, our lives, and the world around us is sure to reach its glorious end, no matter how inconsistent or challenging the road may be. To paraphrase Wright (and to take considerable liberties, p 121):
Just as Jesus did not appear with a flourishing of trumpets to blast God’s kingdom instantaneously across a world that was expecting a decisive triumph over oppressive Rome, we too may suppose God’s kingdom will be brought about in the same subtle, and often silent, ways. Yet these seemingly tacit maneuvers must never dissuade us from the assurance that God’s kingdom is decisively marching forward toward that moment when God is “all in all.” Let every tear shed and every pain felt remind us of these things. This is the abundant life to which we’ve been called and in which we’ve been blessed.