Sunday, April 16, 2006
Words seem destined to take on meanings that distort what the original author meant. The word I have been thinking about lately is “gospel”. English has changed enough over the centuries that the old English phrase “god spel” which meant “good news” was turned into a single word: gospel. The original word in the Greek text of the New Testament is written euangelion in the Latin alphabet. Euangelion is the root of the words evangelize and evangelical. The gospel is the good news about Jesus. Telling others the good news is to evangelize. One who believes and shares the good news may be termed an evangelical.
Somehow, before I was a Christian, “gospel” didn’t mean good news to me at all. It meant true, as in “you can take that as gospel” when one wished to be emphatic about an assertion. Occasionally, I might hear someone argue in favor of the bible and assert “it’s the gospel”, seeming to mean that it is unequivocally true. A lot of the quotes I heard from the Bible seemed to say that we were bad enough that God would send us to hell for some pretty gruesome, eternal punishment. The only way out was to “repent” which I interpreted as “stop doing bad stuff”. I can’t remember a day in my life where I wasn’t pretty aware that I was thinking and sometimes doing some pretty bad stuff. I suppose when I was 3 or 4 years old I may have not been aware. But I don’t remember those years at all. Some of the “bad” stuff seemed pretty nice at the time and I didn’t want to quit. Other bad stuff seemed genuinely bad, but I didn’t seem to be able to stop it, no matter how hard I tried. Of course, I tried my best to rationalize that maybe it wasn’t really all that bad. I would always have been quick to say “nobody is perfect”, but it was more of a defense of my own frailties than it was a recognition of the sinfulness of all people. It was pretty much the same as saying “everybody does it”.
So the gospel seemed like pretty bad news. God was going to eternally punish me for my sins. Some of the sins didn’t seem to be sins; in fact they were some of my favorite things to think or do. Others were “imperfections” that every human on the face of the earth seemed to share to one degree or another. When people declared that the Gospel was true, it seemed to me that they were declaring that I was indeed doomed to an eternity of hideous pain.
I don’t think I ever felt certain that God did not exist. I said I was an agnostic. I was, however, very hopeful that God did not exist and that the “gospel” was indeed false.
For many years I struggled with the feeling that “witnessing” or “sharing the gospel” meant telling other people that they are sinners and that they will suffer eternal pain unless they get their thinking and actions right. Even after I put less emphasis on the actions and more on proper thinking, it still felt pretty brutal to let someone know that despite the fact that they shared that screwed up thinking with every human on earth, they needed to change or burn in hell.
Bit by bit, I see things differently now. I see the evidence of God’s grace in my own life and in the life of others. Grace may be defined as “unmerited favor”. It can’t be earned, that would make it “merited favor”. More and more I understand this as very good news! Now “witnessing” or “sharing the gospel” become more and more the actions of telling or showing people that I know we are all imperfect and the God is too good to tolerate that, but there is still some extremely good news that I have personally experienced. I have come to have faith that God loves me so much that he planned a means for setting me free from what would otherwise be the consequences of my failings.
I used the term “bit by bit” because, just when I think I have a pretty solid grip on how good the news really is, I then learn a bit more about it and about God’s love for me. And every time something painful or difficult happens in my life, I am a bit less likely to fall back to the idea that I am reaping the painful penalties for my sins. Instead I see the pain or difficulty leading me to cling more tightly to God. I need his love. I need his help. I am unashamed of the good news, because it really is good. The gospel is so good that I hope to spend the rest of my life experiencing and understanding the breadth and depth of God’s grace, mercy, and love.
I cry out, “May God have mercy on me, a sinner”. What great news it is that he does forgive me and cleanse me of those sins. Once I have passed through life on this earth, I will be made completely new! I will live forever in his presence! Meanwhile, each day I can choose to serve God’s purpose and plan for me.
It is very good news indeed!