Ch 21: Living Upside Down

Have you ever spun around and around until you were dizzy and ready to puke? Maybe you like those tilt-a-whirl rides at amusement parks. Maybe you’re a dancer. Or maybe, like me, your son likes to spin your office chair around and around until you’re seeing stars. In moments like those, even when you stop spinning, the room doesn’t, and soon you find yourself on the floor with the world kaleidoscoping around you. The reason for this disorientation lies deep within your inner ear, and the delicate balancing system found there. Spinning around disrupts this system, causing it to fire contradictory signals at your brain. Your poor brain, not knowing which way is up, does its best to sort out the scrambled signals, resulting in the ground seeming to shift beneath your feet.

But of course, as jarring as dizziness feels, we all know it’s only an illusion. No matter how wobbly everything appears, no matter how the ground seems to pitch like the deck of a ship at sea, nothing is actually moving. When you’re lying on the ground, drunk on dizziness, the world isn’t really spinning around you. Reality hasn’t shifted, only your perception of it. It’s all in your head.

The good news is, no matter how rattled your brain gets, the spinning subsides relatively quickly. But what if there’s another kind of dizziness that goes much deeper and lasts much longer? The Bible’s story of king and country introduces us to a soul sickness that afflicts every one of us, a condition flowing not from external stimuli but from a twisted and broken heart. This condition has permanently upended our perception of reality, robbed us of our ability to know truth and falsehood rightly, and so thoroughly shaken up our value system that our lives are upside-down and backwards. We now stagger through life, careening from one error to another, but so taken in by our inverted senses that we don’t even realize we’re drunk.

The Bible diagnoses our condition as resulting from a catastrophic fall in the primordial past, a vertigo brought on by an ancient rebellion that afflicts the entire human race. When Adam and Eve abdicated their throne and found themselves usurped by the beguiling serpent, our collective grasp on reality was broken, and all humanity fell into a psychedelic insanity where up is down, down is up, right is wrong, and wrong is right.

Today, we have lived so long in our hallucination that the way God speaks about reality seems like lunacy. The Bible’s assurances that the meek inherit the earth, that those who give away their lives will find them, that weakness is true strength, and that servanthood is true significance, sound like the deranged ravings of a madman, or at least the silly fantasies of a utopian dream. We know that the meek don’t inherit the earth; it’s the strong who survive and the winners who get what’s theirs. Significance, we are sure, comes by climbing over people to reach the top of the ladder, not by yielding our spot in line. Fulfillment comes from grabbing all we can and “sucking the marrow from life,” not through ridiculous notions like “sacrifice” and “self-denial.” And so we press on, living our lives according to an inverted moral code, wondering what’s wrong with the world. Most of us never stop to consider that perhaps a better question to ask would be, “What’s wrong with me?”

THE GREAT REVERSAL

Into this nightmare rides the upside-down king, Jesus. He embodies a new, utterly bizarre way of living, and speaks with a strange cadence that follows the beat of a previously-unheard drum. He speaks of a new way to be human, of a kingdom invading and overturning our world, of the restoration of reality and the putting-right of all wrongs. Some reject him as an out-of-touch idealist, others fear him as a revolutionary and lunatic. But others hear the beat of his drum and realize that everything about him pulsates to a rhythm buried deep within their souls. Looking at his life is like looking through a crack in the world, and what they see on the other side captures their hearts.

Jesus is the great reversal invading our topsy-turvy backwardness. He is the new way to be human, new eyes enabling us at last to see reality the way it really is. The kingdom of Jesus is the vanquishing of vertigo, the door of escape out of the hell’s funhouse of mirrors into the wide-open expanse of God’s reality. Your entire life, whether you realize it or not, has been built on the shifting sands of an upside-down world. Your values are bankrupt, your assumptions flawed, your worldview blinded. Everything you’ve ever thought or felt is wrong, filtered through the hallucinogenic haze of depravity. We need more than just a Savior; we need new eyes to see the world, a new brain to process truth, a new heart equipped with new emotions. In other words, we need a total overhaul; we need the great reversal to start with us.

UPSIDE-DOWN HAPPINESS

That’s where Jesus starts in his famous Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, he lays out the vision and values of his kingdom, so counterintuitive to our addled minds. The opening words of his message, known as the Beatitudes, lay out a radical vision of happiness, a happiness only available to those who have passed from the death of Satan’s empire into the life and freedom of Jesus’ kingdom.

To nine different types of people, Jesus pronounces blessing. The word “blessed” is a nearly-exclusively religious word, with loads of connotations unintended by Jesus. In order to understand the significance of what Jesus is teaching here, we need to move beyond the “spiritualized” language of the text.  The Greek word translated “blessed” here is the word makarios. It’s a common, unspiritual word with a simple meaning: happy. It’s the word you would use to celebrate a birthday, or congratulate an anniversary, or give holiday greetings.

And this is the common, ordinary word that Jesus uses like dynamite to demolish our upside-down worldview. For every one of us, ever since Eden, have been chasing happiness. The quest for fulfillment and joy is what drives nearly everything we do. Philosopher Blaise Pascal writes,

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

Everything we do is motivated by what we think will make us happy. But in our upside-down world, our idea of what will make us truly, lastingly happy has been inverted as well. We think riches and popularity and success and strength and ease and comfort are the recipes for a happy life. We think getting and accumulating and possessing and hoarding is the way of fulfillment. But here comes Jesus with a vastly different formula:

Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Happy are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matthew 5:2-11)

This way of happiness flies in the face of everything we know about the world, and is so counterintuitive as to be insulting to our intelligence. “Happy are those who mourn?” “Happy are those who are persecuted?” Either Jesus has a masochistic streak, or this list is flat-out absurd.

Or maybe we’re the ones who are absurd and self-destructive. Maybe we have been so conditioned by our spiritual vertigo that we don’t even realize that we’re the ones who are upside-down and backwards, and that Jesus’ way of happiness is the only one that actually wins in the end. Maybe it’s not the successful and strong, but the empty and unable, who inherit heaven’s riches. Maybe God isn’t looking for confident people, but broken ones, to bless. Maybe God is looking for emptiness to fill, rather than gifting to use. Maybe humility really is the way to happiness, and longing really is the path to joy. Maybe the only way higher is through humiliation.

This is a lesson that even Christians need to learn and relearn over and over again. Jesus’ way of happiness runs so against the grain of everything we know and believe that if we’re not careful we will find ourselves constantly slipping back into the comfortable upside-down values of hell. Often those values come crusted with a thin religious veneer, making them all the more palatable and poisonous. My social media feed is full of pithy, inspirational quotes telling me to “be all that I can be,” “live my best life now,” “believe in myself,” “follow my heart,” “achieve your dreams,” “find strength within,” and “think positive.” Many of those phrases come streaming through social media complete with pretty pictures and Bible verse references tacked on. These are nice sentiments, I suppose, but have more in common with the serpent’s self-help strategy of death in the garden than with Jesus’ upside-down message of life from the mountain. Positivity, self-esteem, individualism, and success are the serpent’s native language, the hallucinations most palatable to our souls. They are candy-coated poison pills which cannot deliver and cannot save, and cannot do more than paper over our soul sickness with cheery wallpaper while the whole house rots to pieces.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ path of happiness is costlier, but pays far greater dividends. The way seems strange, but the reward is glorious. Happy are the spiritually bankrupt, Jesus says, those who have come to the end of themselves and don’t have what it takes; they are the ones who inherit heaven’s riches. Happy are those who feel their brokenness in their bones and grieve with longing hope, because God himself will wipe away their tears and restore everything they’ve ever lost. Happy are those who embrace lowliness and humility, who surrender their rights, because they will rule the world in the end. Happy are those who long for holiness, because they’re the only ones who get what they’re looking for. Happy are the ones who forgive and swallow their pride and absorb hurt and don’t retaliate, because they will become fountains of life and mercy. Happy are the ones who are undistracted by sin, because they will gaze on the face of God forever. Happy are those who bury the hatchet, who pursue reconciliation whatever the cost, who strive for peace, for in these the glorious image of God is being restored. Happy are those who sacrifice for the cause of God now, because they will be paid back in full. Happy are all of these, because they are the ones who are participating in the great reversal. Every other means of happiness, if we put our trust in it, will come up empty, betray its followers, and perish in the end. Only the great reversal and its seemingly-upside down happiness lasts.

This isn’t to say that all other forms of happiness are false. As we’ve seen, we were created to delight in sunsets and headphones and pizza. If your way of following Jesus means shunning the enjoyment of creation, you’re doing it wrong. Jesus’ seemingly upside-down way of happiness isn’t overly spiritualized asceticism, a subtle form of Gnosticism telling us that every physical pleasure is bad. Rather, it’s the necessary counterbalance to the temptations inherent in the gospels’ flesh-and-blood spirituality. We are physical creatures, designed to rejoice in physical pleasures. But unless the enjoyment of those seemingly “worldly” forms of happiness comes as part of an embrace of Jesus’ right-ways up values, they will ultimately prove destructive.

Let’s take one example, so you can see what I mean: money. Money isn’t inherently bad, and neither are most the things we use money to get for ourselves. It isn’t wrong to collect a paycheck, or save for the future, or buy a house, or even splurge on a beach vacation every once in a while. Collecting a paycheck as a reward for our labor is eminently biblical; laying aside resources to provide for future fruitfulness is a wise investment in an uncertain world; buying a house and putting roots down in a community is a strategic way to exercise the kind of neighborly, loving image-bearing dominion that the gospel calls us to; even spending money on vacations, leisure, and entertainment—in proper proportion—can be part of the Sabbath rhythm of rest and thankfulness that God commands. All of these things, understood correctly, can be part of the cultural mandate, in which we enjoy the blessing of God’s world and extend that blessing to others.

But here’s where we go wrong: those aren’t the categories that really govern our thoughts and emotions about money. Often our pursuit of a bigger paycheck is driven more by greed than by generosity; saving for the future is often our way of trying to control that future and reveals where our trust actually is; buying a house can easily blind us to our kingdom identity as strangers and exiles; and vacations quickly become the source of our hope rather than an expression of it. Divorced from a commitment to Jesus’ new way of being human, money—and every other one of God’s good gifts—will strangle your soul (Matthew 13:22) and ruin your life (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

This is why, to be honest, I’m skeptical of many of the Christian books written to help people steward their money better. Stewardship, of course, is biblical and a key component of what image-bearing faithfulness looks like. But most Christian financial gurus I’ve heard or read don’t sound that different from any of the other money guides I could pick up off the self-help shelf of any bookstore. They quote Proverbs and claim a “biblical model,” but they don’t speak in the same Galilean accent that spoke the universe into being and governs the kingdom. Instead, they write with a decidedly American cadence which seems, at its foundation, to not be all that different from the upside-down worldview that Jesus came to overturn. No matter how many times Proverbs is quoted, financial advice that would be welcome in a corporate boardroom is probably not in step with Jesus’ great reversal. An investment strategy that would please a Wall Street banker probably doesn’t please God. Jesus came to turn the tables on the world’s entire value system. So money “wisdom” that mirrors the world’s wisdom is probably defined by Jesus as foolishness. “Success” that would earn the world’s applause doesn’t impress the King.

Instead, Jesus relentlessly challenges our definitions. The man who wisely “lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21) is proved to be a fool in the end—challenging our assumptions as to what “wisdom” really is. “Profit” which “gains the whole world” leads to everlasting soul foreclosure and bankruptcy in the end (Mark 8:36). Self-sufficiency is actually a liability, and helpless dependency is true strength (2 Corinthians 12:10). Or, as Paul put it to the Corinthian church:

Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. -1 Corinthians 1:26-29

The great reversal that Jesus ushered in chooses the foolish and weak and low and despised over those people and things which the world would regard as wise and strong and high and honored. Everything high and exalted and self-sufficient and seemingly-special will be cast down in the end. So if the values we prioritize and the people we admire and the successes we chase don’t look any different from the world, we’re on the wrong side of history. We’re siding with Satan’s doomed empire of superficiality over Jesus’ in-breaking kingdom.

So let’s stop celebrating the same things the world celebrates. Let’s stop putting forward NFL quarterbacks who pray and Hollywood superstars who go to church as evidence for our faith’s validity. Let’s stop honoring the millionaire who tithes by naming buildings after him and start cheering on the kids putting quarters in the Sunday School collection plates. Let’s push back against the cult of celebrity pastors and evangelical icons and start honoring faithful saints who labor in obscurity. Let’s stop assuming that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing. Let’s embrace a wisdom that sounds foolish and a strength that seems pathetic, and cling to the old rugged cross that still has power to save.

In this upside-down world, living like this will seem strange to those watching us, and will probably feel strange to us too. But in the end, it’s the only way that leads to life. In Jesus’ great reversal, only the meek inherit the earth. Only those who give away their lives find them. Only the humble will find happiness. Only the servants are significant. Only the losers win.

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