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Killing Us Softly
Reborn in the Upside-Down Image of God
By Efrem Smith
NavPressCopyright © 2017 Efrem Smith
All rights reserved.
LIVING IN A BIZARRO WORLD
I love superhero movies. In the past few years I have seen The Avengers, X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, and Captain America: Civil War leap from the pages of comic books to the film screen. I have seen these films multiple times in theaters, on DVD, and on cable television. Not to be outdone by these characters from the Marvel Comics universe, DC Comics superheroes have made it to film as well, with heroes such as Batman and Superman and, I hope, many more in the future. I really love superhero movies.
This love for superheroes goes back to my childhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the summer months I would meet my friends on the corner at the end of our block. We would sit on the sidewalk, reading, comparing, and trading our Thor, Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman comics. There was one comic series that was my favorite; I still have some of those comics today. It's a Superman comic series called Bizarro World.
Bizarro is an upside-down world — so upside-down that there is a villain on Bizarro World who looks just like Superman. Our world is threatened by Bizarro World, so Superman decides to sacrifice himself, leaving our world to confront Bizarro Superman on his home planet.
To go with this storyline, you have to believe that for the most part, things on planet Earth are good. Where we live there is peace and harmony, families are stable, and communities are flourishing. Our planet is fine; it's Bizarro World that is backward and broken.
But the truth is, we live in Bizarro World. Sure, we can point to examples of good communities, stable families, and peace and harmony here and there. But if we're honest, there are far too many signs that our reality is Bizarro.
Violence as the primary means of solving conflict.
Continued racial strife and tensions.
Broken families and fatherless homes.
Human beings sold into slavery.
Poverty and disease plaguing whole nations.
Yes, if we're honest, we live in an upside-down world. From individual people to institutions and societal systems, there is brokenness and backwardness all around us. And like the Bizarro World of the comics, the upside-down world we inhabit seems, to the untrained eye, to be right side up.
As Christians, we follow a God who promises a very different kind of world. What is our responsibility to our broken and upside-down world? How do we discover our purpose in it?
It's one thing to admit the reality of the upside-down world; it's another to know how Christ wants us to engage it. It begins with a deeper understanding of the ultimate heroic one, Jesus Christ.
When Christ, the Son of God, left the heavenly realms to confront our upside-down world, he came in human form. The Scriptures tell us why he came and what he came to do: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
Christ gave us a picture of what this world could look like if it was set right side up again. When Christ gave mobility to the paralyzed, when a diseased woman touched his clothes and was healed, when he raised a girl from the dead, and when he ate with sinners, he was demonstrating the Kingdom of God — the world set right.
In his teaching, Christ declared that the Kingdom of God was at hand. You would think the prospect of such a world would be received with joy, but his declarations and demonstrations led him to the cross. Christ died for this Bizarro world. And in so doing, he demonstrated finally and emphatically that Bizarro lives matter to God.
Because Christ died for us and, in a particularly Bizarro moment, rose again from the grave and conquered death for us, we who embrace him as Lord and Savior can experience our lives being turned right side up. And one day he will return to our world and finally, emphatically turn it right side up. On that day we will experience a new heaven and a new earth — a world with no tears, no pain, no brokenness, no backwardness — no death.
Until then, we continue to live in an upside-down reality. We have to figure out how to do that well, and what our role is as right-side-up people in an upside-down world.
We who have joined with the Kingdom of God live in an uncomfortable place. Freed by Christ's sacrifice, we nevertheless continue to occupy systems, institutions, and even beliefs calibrated to an upside-down world. Our friends and neighbors have grown accustomed to living upside-down. The world is killing them, but it's doing so in a way that feels simply like normal life.
The church seems to be divided when it comes to understanding what it means to live in this sinful and broken world. Some Christians see the challenge as individual sinners in need of being saved from their individual sins. Others see the challenge as sinful systems of injustice and oppression. Still others see the challenge as entirely supernatural: Our battle is focused entirely on Satan, God's archenemy.
They're all right — to a point. Our problem is that our world is upside-down: Individuals are plagued with sin, systems and structures are steeped in sin, and Satan is engaged in a protracted battle to keep the world broken by sin. We need this holistic understanding of our challenge so that we can have a more biblical approach to engaging it for transformation.
Whether we realize it or not, our broken lives are killing us from the inside. We may not feel as if we are dying on the inside, but we are. We are being separated from the wonderful and eternal person that God has created us each to be. Sin is a silent killer seeking to strip us of our true identity and purpose. Sin can lead someone to live in a continual state of anger, hatred, pride, arrogance, low self-esteem, abandonment, prejudice, unforgiveness, or selfishness.
Sin and the broken life it engenders in us convince us on the inside that we are less than average, that we will never amount to anything. Sin can be a death sentence on a person's life. Sin can also lead to a person thinking more of themselves than they should, producing a sort of self-worship. Whether by thinking that we are less than God created us to be or by living as gods unto ourselves, living in sin and being impacted by sinful forces and structures is a slow death leading to eternal death. Sin causes us to live life on a death march.
But sin does more than just kill us. It also seeks to kill others through us. Sinful and broken people who are slowly dying on the inside can pass their spiritually toxic death sentence on to others. Sinful people collectively build broken families, governments, systems, institutions, and communities. This causes sin to go from killing a person to killing whole people groups, entire communities, and potentially a nation. This is what oppression ultimately looks like.
This killing process can look like a father who abandons his wife and child. How did he arrive at such a decision? Is he simply a sinful individual, a bad father and husband? Or is there more going on?
Considered holistically, the answer is not simple. We're dealing with someone who is dying on the inside. His own sinful behavior, combined with the sinful and broken systems surrounding the community where he lives — oppression from within and from without — leads him to an act of betrayal. Though he has applied for jobs he is more than qualified for, he is denied in every instance. Businesses have abandoned his neighborhood where just a few years earlier there were plenty of jobs. He feels like less than a man now. Though you can't totally blame his choice on systems, the oppressive systems around him have made it difficult for him to see himself as someone made in the image of God. Some days when he should be working, he finds himself just walking down the street. Some of the retired people in the community and even some of the police officers look at him as if he is a threat to the community, but he's just wandering the streets instead of working a full-time job somewhere. He is softly dying and doesn't even know how to communicate the state of his soul. Gradually his despair turns to anger. He begins to treat his wife differently. There are regular arguments that fill the home on a nightly basis. And eventually he leaves.
So, slowly dying, he makes a choice that extends his dying to others. His choice to leave creates bitterness toward men within his wife, who is now raising a child on her own. She carries anger in her heart, believing that she will never be able to trust another man again. Her pride might not show it, but sin through a broken relationship is killing her on the inside. Meanwhile, her son is now growing up without a father. This broken relationship leads to a boy growing into manhood while struggling with abandonment. Sin showing up in people, systems, and relationships is deadly indeed.
I have been a pastor, mostly in the urban context, for a little over twenty-five years. I have encountered many people who are dying on the inside as they attempt to navigate their sinful lives and this upside-down, sinful world. I have sat with some who in tears come to a place of recognizing their broken lives. What is more challenging are those who don't realize that sin is slowly killing them. This makes sinful choices and systems seem like right choices and just systems. They are so conditioned by this Bizarro world we live in that they have accepted the upside-down world as just right for them. The upside-down, sinful world is experienced by them as right side up.
Sin is both an individual and a systemic reality. There are some people who have no problem seeing how sin shows up in an individual, begins to kill that person, and affects their relationships, passing on spiritual death. They have a harder time believing that sinful systems, institutions, and structures also can play an oppressive role. But it is sinful and broken people who build our systems and institutions. Sin is just that deadly.
Sin impacts the very core of our being. We are born with broken hearts and broken minds. Sin causes us to deceive ourselves, to think that we can achieve a good life under this death sentence.
We were originally created to bear God's image, to work in relationship with our Creator, to steward God's creation and fill the world with the glory of God (Genesis 1:26–28). God created us right side up. Sin altered this. Sin causes us to fear, to doubt, and to mistrust God's truth. We are led to question God's intentions for us, isolating ourselves from God and the intimate relationship that would be available to us.
Our broken and sinful lives are directly tied to this broken relationship with God. The disruption of the relationship between God and those made in God's own image turned all of creation upside down. God, of course, remains right side up. So God seems strange to us, and the things of this broken world seem safer. Upside-down people are tempted to worship the upside-down creations of God rather than the right-side-up God.
God, of course, cannot affirm an upside-down world or the upside-down logic that goes with it. Neither can he excuse the people who bear his image for their rejection of him.
What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
The upside-down life is an idolatrous life — our hearts and worship turned away from God toward other things. This leads to dishonorable passions (the upside-down heart) and debased thinking (the upside-down mind). When a person is inordinately passionate about material things — such as houses, cars, and money, or even other people — they are exchanging the glory of the immortal God for other things. This is worldly passion, evidence of an upside-down heart. Debased thinking privileges the philosophies and ideologies of this world over and against the wisdom, revelation, and knowledge of God. When we put worldly logic over logos (the Word of God, God as the living Word), we elevate the ways of an upside-down world over God. What can seem like signs of success, power, contentment, and happiness in the upside-down world can actually be the very things holding us captive, killing us. It's not that success, influence, and power are in and of themselves bad things. It's how those things, in the context of a Bizarro world, can take hold of us.
I was able to see an example of this when I planted a church in inner-city Minneapolis in 2003. Though the Sanctuary Covenant was planted in a predominantly African American and urban community, the church grew pretty quickly not only in number but also in diversity. The diversity extended well beyond race: There were social workers worshiping in the same space as professional athletes, corporate executives, politicians, and homeless people. I have to admit that I was both surprised and excited when I began to see the number of corporate executives joining the church. As a young urban pastor, I desired to see the church become a self-sustaining, transformative force of evangelism, discipleship, and community development in our under-resourced urban setting. Seeing families who were college-educated and professional join the church built a type of security in me that we could become the type of church I envisioned. I hate to admit it, but I stereotyped people by class early on in my church-planting experience: I saw the poor as the people we would reach, equip, and empower, and the well-resourced as those who would assist me in that endeavor.
I remember the afternoon I went to visit an executive vice president of a Fortune 500 company who had recently decided to join the church with his family. I went to meet him with the intention of sharing the vision I had for church growth, deeper commitment to community development, and a potential site for a church building. I was hoping he would be inspired by all of this and give financially to it. As I sat in his office and began to share passionately about where our church could go, I noticed that he had a strange look on his face. Was I doing a bad job of communicating? Did I need to go to a seminar on how to present vision to corporate executives?
He looked at me and said that he was hoping that I had come to meet with him — not to talk about the church but to talk about him. He began to share with me about the pressures of his responsibilities, the various temptations and attacks that come your way in a position like his. He shared about the struggles of trying to balance the high demands of his job with being a husband and father. He shared in a very transparent way about how guys like him were dying inside. "I was looking forward to meeting with you because I really need a pastor, and I need the community of other Christian men. You shouldn't assume guys like me are doing fine because of our titles, wealth, and influence."
I felt ashamed in my soul. I had gone through my life up until that point assuming that people like him had great lives. Sure, I believed that they needed a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and that they needed to live the life of a disciple-maker, but I had been conditioned to believe, based on their success in this world, that their lives were already right side up.
This man's transparency totally dismantled my thinking. I had to come to terms with a faulty belief system that I had been carrying around. Because I grew up in a blue-collar urban family setting, I had grown to believe that the right-side-up life was built on achievement and success. As a kid, I dreamed of going to college, getting a great-paying job, owning a nice house, and driving a luxury car. Because I sensed a call to ministry my senior year in college, I walked away from this dream in my early twenties. Following "the call of God" into ministry was honorable, I believed, but it included sacrificing the dream of success I had.
I still, however, continued to believe on some level that the ultimate sign of living right side up was "the successful life" according to the American Dream. Moving up, the pursuit of prosperity in and of itself, was the right-side-up life I had adopted in my thinking and sacrificed for my call. I looked up to "successful" people.
Excerpted from Killing Us Softly by Efrem Smith. Copyright © 2017 Efrem Smith. Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
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Table of Contents
1. Living in a Bizarro World, 1,
2. The Upside-Down World and the Right-Side-Up Remnant, 25,
3. Jesus: The Right-Side-Up Way, Truth, and Life, 39,
4. To Follow Christ You Have to Die, 61,
5. A Child Shall Lead Us: The Paradox of Christian Maturity, 89,
6. Love Is Our Only Weapon: How God Wins, 121,
7. Turning the World Right Side Up, 145,
About the Author, 171,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
KILLING US SOFTLY Reborn in the Upside-down Image of God By Efrem Smith The author covers a subject in this book that need to be addressed in the Christian church. The subject of how God loves us and will make the changes in our heart after we accept Christ as savior. That the changes are done by Him and not by us. The changes of how we look at things of the world and things in the world. The author shares stories from of his growing up and his adult life. He shares stories from people he knows and scriptures that help us understand how these changes are needed. He uses a term upside-down world, how those views need to change and once Christ is in our heart they will start to change. How we look at others, not to accept the worldview on everything. The book is very informative and easy to read. The examples shares will help you to understand that we are God’s children and that God loves us and wants us to be His. God does the hard word, all we have to do is listen. I think this would make a great book to use working with new believers and in discussion groups. I received this book free from Tyndale Blog Network Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255