One of my favorite writers in China is Shi Tiesheng. He summarized the human life in precisely three words: “loneliness, misery, and despair”. He says that whoever you are, if you live in this world and dare to think, you will find one thing to be sure—that life is doomed to be lonely. Whatever you think, however you want to approach others, and however close you are with someone, when you get up in the deep on the night, you will discover that you are a lonely person in this universe.
Even worse, he says that life is doomed to be miserable. We pursue happiness throughout our lives, but he says we are doomed to misery because our abilities are limited but our desires are not. Yesterday you said you would be happy to earn ten thousand RBM a year. Today in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, most middle-class people have an annual household incomes of ten thousand yuan, but they have become ‘the moonlight tribe’. When you have ten thousand, you dream of having a hundred thousand; when you have a hundred thousand, you dream of having a million. Your ability will never catch up to your desire, so you are doomed to be miserable.
We experience loneliness, misery, and then finally despair, which is even more horrible. Once someone is born, we say he is alive, but from another perspective, the moment you are born, you are approaching death. Humans have tried all kinds of ways to remove death from their memories and their lives. But death does not wait; it will come, and no one can escape from it.
Since mankind came to understand life as such, we have tried everything to find a solution. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, humans have been trying to figure out how to live this life. Through Psalm 115, God reveals in a few verses all that humans have been trying.
Augustine once said that idols are the most miserable; even dead men are better than idols. Dead men at least lived for a while, but idols know nothing about life and death. Strangely, those who make idols gradually become like them. When someone makes an idol, he thinks that he can gain control through it. But when you want to control others, you become controlled by Satan, and this is the scariest. There is a saying in China that goes, “Clever people fall victim to their own cleverness.” We Chinese believe we are the cleverest. No one else in the world is as smart as the Chinese. No one else is like us, going to all lengths to figure out all the loopholes. Yet we are relegated to being the hardest-working people. You think you are something, but once you start playing tricks, Satan has taken hold of you. This passage tells us that if you worship an idol, you will become like it.
A Society of False Gods
The world we live in is full of false gods. In this passage, the idols are all visible; but today, these idols have been disguised in other forms. What is the most magnificent building in your city? If it is a financial tower or a bank, that shows the city’s worship of wealth. If government offices take up the most magnificent buildings and cover the most area, it shows the city’s worship of power. If the nightclubs and shopping malls are the most splendid, it shows people’s worship of material comfort and lust. False worship is still with us today, and we take part in making and worshipping false gods. We live entirely within our own idols.
In China some people imagine that people can be perfect, but this is the biggest lie of all. The Bible tells us that when we start to worship false gods, we are enslaved by them. A society of false gods is a dog-eat-dog society. Since the fall, humans have been best at harming an devouring one another. The whole of human history since the fall is one of men harming and devouring each other. Today, your nation has ravaged this nation; tomorrow, that nation will in turn consume yours. Even so-called eras of peace are merely times when people ingested each other more gracefully. When we strive for our own interests while ignoring the interests of others, we are devouring the people around us. Therefore, we find our society to be one in which people trick each other, hurt each other, hate each other, curse each other, envy each other, and devour each other. This is the consequence of idol worship.
But thanks be to the Lord! God reveals to us that the worship of false gods is nothing more than human beings devouring each other. He knows that even if we want to be good and say that we will not devour each other, we cannot do it. He shows us the reality of human nature and the true image of society. But the Lord is not only the God who reveals, he is also the God who saves.
Psalm 115:9-15 reveals two crucial, corresponding topics: trusting and blessing. There is a Chinese idiom which means, ‘over and over again’. When God tells you something over and over again, God is serious about it. He emphasizes trust three times and blessing four times to show how much he wants to bless you. He says, “Trust me, and you will be blessed.” We see that Jesus Christ came into this world with all authority, but out of his own initiative, he gave up everything and came into this world with nothing. He said that he was willing to obey, and he obeyed so that sinners could be blessed. This is true obedience. The obedience of Jesus Christ guarantees the transfer of all grace and blessing to Jesus.
When we believe in him, we say that we believe we are in Christ. Our blessed assurance is not that I keep a certain distance from him. My blessed assurance is that I must fully enter Jesus Christ. From history we see that all who have believed in Jesus Christ have understood this point—Jesus’ obedience leads to my blessing, and my obedience can lead to blessing many others.
The Blessings and Temptations of the Church
What is the church? The church is our obedience which leads to blessing the world. Today many of us come to the church, saying, “If I am obedient, then I am blessed.” This is wrong; it is still idol worship. The church is the manifestation of our obedience to God, which brings blessing to others. Therefore, we see Paul, Peter and others in the apostolic age being obedient and bringing blessings to other regions. Missions began, and the church came into existence.
Under the marvelous preservation of the Spirit, this gospel has been proclaimed through the generations until it reached us. We are blessed. The Chinese church has been through a brilliant development. Our numbers have increased, our knowledge had increased, our evangelism and testimonies have increased. Glory be to God! But eating habits die hard in Chinese culture. There is a horrible phenomenon of devouring in the church today. When people from a dog-eat-dog society come into the church, their old habits die hard. When people do not truly understand the gospel, they keep their cannibalistic nature.
First, I will emphasize the problem of pastors devouring the church—people become pastors or ministers and impose their leadership style. Pastoral training can become like Communist Party school training. Mission trips become traveling at the church’s expense; reception of visiting pastors turns into fine dining at the church’s expense. Pastors spend more time in meetings than in prayer, and more time soaking in scenery than in preaching. The space of our public worship is increasing, and because of it, house church pastors are facing great temptations as well as confusions of identity. We know some people are always calculating ways to go from being an ordinary house church pastor to a large church pastor, from a pastor of one church to a leader of several churches, from a pastor in one city to a pastor of national or even international fame.
Let us look at the problem of believers devouring the church. Relationships among the Chinese are centered on personal interests. A pastor once said that believers in the Chinese church are like locusts—they swarm into a church that has resources, consume them, and then, upon locating another church with more resources, swarm into that church. They fly to and fro and devour every church they go to.
Dear brothers and sisters, today we see society overheating. The temperature is rising, and the church is also overheating. Do not forget that God does not plan for us to be thermometers but rather people of a fixed temperature. Do not be transformed by the changes in the world, but transform the world.
Psalm 115:16-17 says, “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man. The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down in silence.” God is not competing with space for men, saying, “I cannot rule over this; it’s yours.” On the contrary, God is saying, “You cannot come up to heaven and rule over it, so I entrust the earth to you, and you shall rule over it.” Since the creation, humans have been entrusted with the ability and duty to rule over the earth, but we have been unable to do so.
Feeding on Christ
How can we rule over the earth? How can we solve its issues? God gives us a very simple method. It is, “To be eaten.”
God calls us through Paul’s words in Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” This does not mean you are to be put on an altar, for there is no altar anymore. Rather, God says that to offer your body means you are going to be eaten. For all Christians, pastors or lay believers, offering your body to God means offering yourself to the church and practicing being devoured.
To love others means suffering. Love leads to pain. Brothers and sisters should practice responding to sin, allowing themselves to experience what it is like to be devoured. As God says, “In the church of the Lord, you should have love for one another and forgive each other. This is what must be implemented in my kingdom. You are safe in the church, because this is my house. I have clearly instructed you to learn how to love one another; that is, to be devoured by others.”
In the story of Jesus feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish in Luke 9, the disciples say they don’t have enough food for the five thousand people with them. Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” This passage demonstrates that when you are well practiced in the church, you are ready to go out into the world. To be devoured by this world means to genuinely suffer, to be taken advantage of, to sacrifice; then, in that moment, the world will begin to change.
This is an excerpt from Simon Liu’s sermon of the same title, published in Grace to the City: Studies in the Gospel for China. Published with permission from China Partnership.