The Secret of Happiness: Luther’s elation
We live in a world where people are under huge pressure to look good. Young people in particular (but by no means only young people), are often tortured by what they regard as deficiencies in their appearance. They strive for the ‘perfect’ looks. We have created a society where those growing up come under tremendous stress because they think they don’t match up to the ideal appearance. They look in the mirror, and whatever magazine is to hand seems to highlight how their body shape and looks are, to their mind, sub-standard. A huge amount of misery follows.
Not unconnected with all of this, there has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of eating disorders and related psychological problems. Whilst many of these will have complex roots, the expectations that have grown out of our fashion and media cultures, are a major contributory factor, as airbrushed models are continuously displayed with what we are meant to conclude are ideal bodies. But for many, if not most, these fantasy bodies are unattainable.
So concerned has the French government become over the damage done to susceptible young mind, that a new French law is due to come into force, requiring models to have a health certificate before they may work. All of which has provoked some of the largest fashion houses to stop using ultra-thin models on catwalks and photo shoots.
It is all symptomatic of a world where we are preoccupied with whether we ‘match-up’.
This has a bearing beyond looks, and impacts on a great deal more than what we see in the bathroom mirror. We also feel under pressure to match up socially, or to achieve great success in our career, or to create the idyllic family unit, or even to perform adequately in a moral sense.
It is tremendously relevant that this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On 31st October 1517, an unknown Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther, scandalised by the commercialisation of spiritual things, caused a sensation when he published his blog on the matter! Actually, he pinned a sheet of propositions for debate, as you did in those days, on the local church door. It was the equivalent then of posting a blog.
What was at the issue was the very heart and soul of the Christian faith. To quote Michael Reeves, whose booklet ‘Freedom movement’ we will be giving as gifts to mark the Anniversary, the key Biblical truth that Martin Luther rediscovered was this:
Failing broken people ‘are not loved because they are attractive, they are attractive because they are loved.’
The heart of the Christian message is that God does not love us because we have sorted ourselves out, or tidied up our lives, or made ourselves ‘respectable’. It is quite the reverse. God loves failures, and when failures sense that they are loved, then their lives begin to flourish and a deep joy takes root. For those of you who have attended ‘Christianity Explored’ (and a new course starts in January!), you may be familiar with the slogan ‘You are more wicked than you ever realised, but more loved than you ever imaged’. It is the same idea.
All this reveals very important truths about the Church. The Church therefore does not comprise the deserving good, but the undeserving saved. Believers are not those who by their religious actions earn a status as the ‘good’; they are those who, despite all that they are, or have been, discover that God loves them; and that love is so heart-meltingly rich that change, (in the power of the Holy Spirit), begins with a new sense of poise as to who God has made us (rather than what we might be expected to be)
It is very important that we see ourselves as the failed, needy people we truly are. When we lose sight of our total dependence on the grace of God, then the Church can become no more than a club for the unattractively self-righteous. Philip Yancey tells a deeply disturbing story about a church that portrayed itself as being for the ‘deservingly moral’ and, as a result, it became the last place a needy, broken person would go:
“A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter - two years old! - to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable - I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman.
At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naïve shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.” (p.11 Grace)
Setting aside the horror of the circumstances, focus on this broken woman’s reaction to being with Christians. They would make her feel worse - presumably because they would let her know that they were superior. Let me remind you ‘Failing broken people ‘are not loved because they are attractive, they are attractive because they are loved.’
The reality is that people very like that prostitute would have gone readily to Jesus. Jesus, during his ministry, was surrounded by broken failures. The reason we are Christians is because we have had our eyes opened to the extent of our own brokenness, failure and neediness. If you grasp that, you grasp all that is truly central about the Reformation.
Your minister - Martin Thomson