How do we engage the culture with convictional kindness? How do we remain compassionate and loving, even in the face of intense opposition and hostility? If we’re going to be obedient in this, we must have confidence.
As I wrote this, I was simultaneously watching a number of discouraging fissures within churches and ministries. Some of them involved leaders falling. Some involved petty disputes between Christians that resemble Hollywood actors in grudge-matches over whose dressing room is bigger. I told a friend that this made me all the more in awe of the ministry of Paul. After all, we have two thousand years of history behind us. He was battling external threats of arrest, and internal wrestling in the churches with heresy and immorality. And all he had to go on was a career wrecked by a light and a voice.
Paul said that the false teachers were the equivalent of Jannes and Jambres, the Egyptian magicians who mimicked Moses’ and Aaron’s signs from God with their own occultist power (Exod. 7:11-12). God’s servants authenticated their sending from God by transforming a staff into a writhing, living serpent. But Pharaoh’s court magicians turned back their argument by doing the same thing. Exodus tells us simply, “But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs” (Exod. 7:12). That’s the point. Paul concluded a section of horrifying pessimism with the words, “But they will not get very far” (2 Tim. 3:9). This is crucial.
“This country is spiritually in decline,” or “If God doesn’t judge this country, he will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” Writer Marilynne Robinson notes that those who speak in such a way rarely include themselves, or their circles of friends, in this assessment. It becomes another form of “us” versus “them” demarcation. Moreover, it feeds into a sort of apocalypticism that feels invigorating, like, she says, a panic attack—with a jolt of adrenaline to fire up the passions. But this hysteria is actually a betrayal of Christianity itself, since it assumes that history is ultimately in the hands of humanity.
The opponents of the gospel often picture the onward advance of secularization and of moral “freedom” as the inevitable march of historical progress. Christian orthodoxy is on the “wrong side of history.” They believe this, but, too often, so do we. The culture around us knows what it means when they see a church in perpetual outrage and bluster. They know that we are scared. How different this is from the mindset of Jesus himself.
The kindness of Jesus toward sinners is not that startling, at least on the surface. We know, after all, that Jesus was on a redemptive mission, even when it’s hard to see how we fit into that mission. But what is remarkable to me is Jesus’ kindness, at least on one occasion, to the devils themselves. When Jesus encountered the man of the graves, filled with unclean spirits, the Bible tells us the demons “begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss” (Lk. 8:31). The Scripture says that these spirits begged to be sent into a herd of pigs. My response would have been one of fear, I’m quite sure. These are, after all, terrifyingly dark beings, normally shielded from our perception. Jesus doesn’t panic. He exhibits as he does in all sorts of terrifying situations a calm tranquility. The Bible says, simply, “So he gave them permission” (Lk. 8:32).
Why? Jesus obviously was not seeking to redeem these spirits; the Bible says they are unredeemable, not even included in the atonement of Christ (Heb. 2:16). Jesus responded this way because he was not afraid. He was confident in his Father’s mission for him, and thus was free from the need, rooted in insecurity, to constantly prove himself.
If all we have to go on is what we see around us, then, of course, we will become scared and outraged, and our public witness will turn into an ongoing temper tantrum, designed just to prove to our opponents, and to ourselves, that we are still here. And in so doing we would employ the rhetorical tricks of other insecure movements: sarcasm, vitriol, ridicule. But we are not the voice of the past, of the Bible Belt to a post-Christian culture of how good things used to be. We are the voice of the future, of the coming kingdom of God. The message of the kingdom isn’t “You kids, get off our lawn.” The message of the kingdom, is, “Make way for the coming of the Lord.”
A gloomy view of culture leads to meanness. If we believe we are on the losing side of history, we slide into the rage of those who know their time is short. We have no reason to be fearful or sullen or mean. We’re not the losers of history. We are not slouching toward Gomorrah; we are marching to Zion. The worst thing that can possibly happen to us has already happened: we’re dead. We were crucified at Skull Place, under the wrath of God. And the best thing that could happen to us has already happened; we’re alive, in Christ, and our future is seated at the right hand of God, and he’s feeling just fine.
If the gates of hell can’t hold Jesus back, why would we be afraid of Hollywood or Capitol Hill? Times may grow dark indeed, but times have always been dark, since the insurrection of Eden. Nonetheless, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not, the darkness will not, the darkness cannot overcome it. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward Jesus.
This article is adapted from my new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.