The illusion of independence: Jesus, to the Laodiceans

Here’s a literal translation of Revelation 3:14-22—Jesus’ words to the last of the seven churches featured in the first few chapters of Revelation.

(14) And to the angel of the church in Laodicea, write; these things says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of the creation of God; (15) I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I would that you were cold or hot. (16) So, because you are tepid and neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you from my mouth. (17) Because you say that “I am rich” and “I have become rich” and “I have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked, (18) I counsel you to buy from me gold, having been burned from fire, in order that you might become rich, and a white garment in order that you might clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness might not be revealed, and eye salve to anoint your eyes in order that you might see. 

(19) As many as I love, I reprove and teach; be zealous, therefore, and repent. (20) Behold, I have stood at the door and I knock; if someone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter with them and I will dine with them and them with me. 

(21) The one who conquers, I will give to them to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered, and I sat with my father on his throne. (22) The one who has ears, let them hear what the spirit says to the churches.

Usually, when I hear people talk about this passage, they tend to focus on the part about being hot, cold, or lukewarm. And by people, I mean everyone from your pastor to your old school Katy Perry: you know, “you’re hot, then you’re cold, you’re yes, then you’re no…” (Just kidding).

Focusing on these verses works pretty well for evangelical pastors. They can read this and say, well, you’re all clearly being lukewarm Christians right now, because you aren’t that excited about evangelism; or, because you aren’t giving enough money to the church; or, because you aren’t spending enough time volunteering to serve in the church’s ministry programs; or, because you aren’t [fill in the blank with whatever else I want you to be doing right now].”

(Slightly less cynical version: fill in the blank with whatever I think God wants you to be doing right now…and I definitely know what God wants for you, better than you do. Oops, I guess that was still a little cynical. #Mood.)

I’m not totally sure what to say about the cold/hot/lukewarm thing, except that these kinds of interpretations can’t be right. It’s not at all clear what exactly Jesus means when he speaks to the church in Laodicea about being hot or cold, but it certainly doesn’t involve twenty-first century American evangelical churches’ budgets or growth rates. 

Besides, is tepid food or drink to be blamed for its tepidness? It’s not like it can “fix” itself. It’s not like it can force itself to become hot or cold by sheer willpower, by trying harder, by doing more of the “right” Christian-y things. 

Maybe a more helpful line of thought, here, begins something like this: If you’re in a place spiritually where everything feels tepid, why might that be? What’s going on? Were there things that you were genuinely excited about in the past, and, if so, what changed? 

Asking open-ended questions like these can help us do some meaningful self-reflection. There are no right or wrong answers. Often there is no one in particular to blame. It’s just a means of self-discovery, of trying to be aware of what’s going on in our hearts and minds and bodies and spirits.

We might also ask some questions that have a little more forward momentum to them: What might you still be excited about? Where might these things be found, or how might they be brought to life? Are there things in your life that you really are passionate about, and what might it look like to lean more into these things? Do you feel like you have God’s permission to pursue these passions, whether or not they have to do directly with church-y stuff? 

This sort of reflection feels to me like a better, more open-ended, less manipulative way to think about the ways in which we might be hot, cold, or tepid.

Temperatures aside, though, there’s another part of this passage that strikes me as just as interesting, or maybe even more so. It’s this: Because you say that “I am rich” and “I have become rich” and “I have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked, I counsel you to buy from me gold having been burned from fire in order that you might become rich, and a white garment in order that you might clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness might not be revealed, and eye salve to anoint your eyes in order that you might see (v. 17-18).

I am rich, and I have become rich, and I have need of nothing. Isn’t that kind of the American dream? I worked hard and pulled myself up by my bootstraps. I made myself independently wealthy. I have all the material things I need and then some, and I live happily ever after in my big house in the suburbs, where I don’t have to worry about money, or interact with anyone I don’t want to interact with, or do anything I don’t want to do. I have need of nothing.

Unfortunately for those who have bought into this dream, independence is a lie. Having need of nothing is a lie. You can be as rich as you’ve ever dreamed, and yet still be miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked. You can find yourself, as T.I. might say, “unhappy with your riches cause you’re piss poor morally” (from Live Your Life, ft. Rihanna…apparently my pop music from 2008 game is strong today).

If we start to think that we don’t need others, we become among those whom Jesus calls pitiable and poor. This is not how life was meant to be lived. We all need so many things that money can’t buy: love, friendship, community, peace, joy, connection, purpose, belonging. We are miserable without these things and blind if we can’t see that we need them.

Plus, even in the times when it does feel like all our needs are being met (hallelujah!), there are likely others around us for whom this is not the case. It is a lie to think that we can flourish while we sit back and say I am rich and I have need of nothing—go me!—as others suffer from not having enough. 

Contrary to a long American legacy of white male supremacist ways of thinking (I recently read Ijeoma Uluo’s book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America—highly recommend!), the point of life is not to win, to end up with more than others, to come out on top without caring what happens to everyone else. When we make everything hyper-competitive and are willing to sacrifice others’ wellbeing to try to get more for ourselves, everyone loses. 

Not to mention all the things Jesus says about how the last will be first and the first will be last (Matt 20:16), and how we should care for the least of these (Matt 25:40), and that sort of thing.

When some people, or some groups of people, try to win at others’ expense, we all lose. The point is not to get ahead so we can have need of nothing, but to learn how to live together in healthy communities, where we all love one another as equals. 

This does not come naturally to many of us, perhaps especially those of us who grew up swimming in a sea of white American culture. So let’s buy that new kind of gold from Jesus, and that new garment, because the way a lot of us have been conditioned to think about things is completely upside down. Let’s put on that eye salve and perhaps learn to see differently, perhaps learn to see how interconnected we all are.

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