By Joseph Pusateri
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
(Matthew 4:8-9, NIV).
For no particular reason, I have been thinking a lot about what it would be like to go back into the secular business world. Up until 7 years ago, I worked for a very exciting food service distribution company that I liked a lot. I was very good at it, I enjoyed my job, and I made a lot of money doing it. But then, after experiencing an Extreme Makeover Home Edition build in Louisville, which my dad’s company organized and executed, I caught the bug of serving something greater than myself. That experience is hard to put into words, but when I was a part of an effort that took the total focus and selflessness of a community to pull off (building a home in 4 days), I knew whatever the essence of that was, I wanted to be apart of that. So I left the food service business to work for my dad. It was an initial pay cut, but I figured that one day, I might have an opportunity to run the company if I worked hard and paid close attention.
Then came the call into ministry, which flipped my world upside down.
I took another reduction in income in order to faithfully live my calling to serve God in professional ministry. Lest I be misunderstood, I am paid well for what I do. I know not every new minister has the opportunity to serve a church that is willing to invest financially in the ministry like the one I serve does. My bills are paid and I have not yet once felt underpaid or underappreciated. That this was a pay-reduction simply reflects the socioeconomic reality that compensation for professional ministry, like education and social services, are less than some other professions such as sales in a successful distribution or construction business. I was and remain completely satisfied with my compensation, because I don’t do what I do in order to get rich.
In fact, I love my vocation. I have been in love with my vocation since God first grabbed ahold of me. I enjoy it more today than the day I first began. Which is why I have been baffled by the near constant thought lately taking up residence in my mind, that I could or should go back into the secular business world.
You see, the Devil has been at work on me. Before that phrase convinces you to go read something else, let me explain that while demonic power has fallen out of fashion to be interpreted “supernaturally,” there is still good use of that metaphor whether you think of the Devil as a supernatural being or as the personification of malevolent powers greater than ourselves, such as the demon of endless war, poverty or greed. And the Devil’s been whispering enticing ideas in my ear. You can get more accomplished, even for this God you love, in more efficient organizations than the 2000-year old church. You can make a bigger difference. You can send your kids to college. You can avoid the insulting, snide comments of people who think you only work one hour a week. You can avoid the awkwardness at social gatherings of people who think that you are some holier-than-thou religious nut. You can stop worrying about the two or three people who left the church because they don’t like you.
Supernatural, metaphorical, socio-psychological, personified or not, let me tell you, the Devil knows your weak spots, your shadow side. And he knows mine. The Devil knows that it’s the last thing I want to tell anyone, which is precisely the reason I am writing this painfully vulnerable confession: to shine light in that shadowed corner and hope it dissolves his grip.
I am addicted to comfort, approval and my own marketability. I am able to do meaningful, daring things in ministry only because I know that if it blows up in my face, I can fall back on a good salary somewhere in the business world. Several colleagues over the years have remarked that unlike them, who have been in ministry their entire lives, I “have options.” I usually try to deflect that, but they’re right. And here’s what the Devil knows: hedging my commitment to ministry by leaving the option open to leave when the heat gets too hot, as though making a some difference is better than none at all, is trying to have my cake and eat it too. I get to have it both ways: the clear conscience of “doing the right thing” as well as the comfort of a safety net. The Devil says to Jesus, fall down and worship me, and I will let you eat your cake too. You get dominion over the all the kingdoms of the earth, which we both know is your mission, and you get it now, without having to die knowing your people will suffer for centuries as they wait for this cruel drama to play itself out. The Devil tortures Jesus. Tell me what I want to hear, and I will make all the pain stop.
But Jesus says, the people you crush under the clawed foot of evil don’t get that luxury. Without me, the poor stay poor; there’s no grand bargain for them, no hedged bets. The deal they get is more invisibility and hunger. The oppressed have no leverage, so they get no deal. They require liberation from evil by a power greater than evil, and I am that power, Jesus says. So I can never bow before you, no matter how many years are shaved off the Kingdom plan, no matter how many cries of lament are extinguished in the meantime. There is only one path to the liberation of those whom God came to save, and that is for God to literally become one of them: poor, oppressed, nailed to the imperial cross, crushed by unjust economies, jeered at by religious people.
Several weeks ago, I saw the film, Selma with my 10-year old daughter. The image that struck us both was the young, thin, white pastor (who looked a lot like me) who was murdered by racists in Alabama standing next to those whom God was working to liberate from a devil named Jim Crow. My daughter asked me if I would have been one of the white people who hurt black people or one that helped black people. I told her that I was a minister precisely for the purpose of finding that out.
The Devil repeated my daughter’s question to me this morning. He whispered it in my ear: are you willing to die like that? Are you willing to die for LGBT people? Are you willing to die for poor immigrants who shoulder the burden of the label, “illegal alien?” Are you willing to die standing on the rooftops and proclaiming that God loves Muslims and atheists too? Are you willing to give up your comfort, approval, and your backup plan for God? Are you willing to put your wife and children’s comfort at risk? Think carefully; this is not a rhetorical question. This is not an easy question. If you answer too quickly, you’ve not thought it through. Because if you’re not, then go write your résumé now. You know that you’re giving Jesus a bad name.
And this makes me so mad that I can’t stand it. The Devil whispers these things and I turn to God and I cry out, “Is this is the way it has to be? Can’t I love from a distance? Can’t I love silently, behind the scenes? Can’t I preserve the approval of my community in order to advance the Gospel in safety? I’ve given up so much! I’ve said yes to your stupid call! I’ve left a 6-figure salary and a chance to own a successful business that will ensure my children go to college, to see the world and never go hungry. Must I suffer too? What does that accomplish. Do you want the welfare of my children? They had no say in the matter!”
The silence of God is unnerving. He turns away. I open the Bible and I see God instead looking down at those who have not the things I am asked to give up. He looks at those who have no say in the matter.
Jesus says to the Devil, I cannot take your path to the ends God seeks, because what God seeks the end of your reign over my people. It is up to you to take the deal, asserts Jesus, not me. And it appears as though the Devil chooses to fight this all the way to his end. So be it, God says. That means Jesus will have to suffer and die alone with only nakedness and ridicule to accompany him. So be it. The only way to dissolve supreme evil is supreme love, and the only definition of supreme love is that which comes above everything. Every. Thing. That include one’s life. And so God has made the wager that the divine love born in his touch, in his words, on Calvary’s cross as Jesus forgave those who stripped him of dignity and life, is powerful enough to flow still among those who dare to follow him.
So I stand still at the foot of mine. And I realize that I have not yet made the decision to pick it up. Pray for me that I find the strength to do so, and never fall for the Devil’s offer to carry it for me. Pray for me.