Things that Change and Things that Never Will for the Church

Minneapolis endured two nights of curfew last month due to unrest that erupted after a false report of another black man shot by police. The mayor acted fast to stem the turbulence, not wanting a repeat of the awfulness that happened with George Floyd’s killing and its aftermath. Huddled in my home fairly far from downtown Minneapolis, I prayed for others—in Kenosha and Portland and elsewhere. Nineteen years since 9/11, a nation united has fractured. “We have met the enemy and he is us.

The chasmic political and economic divides in America, driven deeper by a relentless pandemic, seem hopelessly unbridgeable. Our culture and political systems—fueled by the merciless thrill of social media and conspiracy crazies—thrive in the zero-sum game. Only now the online vitriol has spilled onto the streets. Reactions vacillate between the call for police to restore order and worry against police overreach.

The hallmark of free speech and rightful assembly in America relies upon civic order. Civic order relies on a commitment to common good. Theologically, the common good ties to our commitment to all persons made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) and to the common grace generously and indiscriminately bestowed by God upon the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matt. 5:45).

To the extent the common good untethers from common grace—a doctrine based on God’s undeserved love for all people—goodness perverts into partisanship and subjects to societal whim, market value, individual rights, and personal preference. Once we feel we deserve what we get or are owed what we lack, common goodness turns tribal. We fight to preserve what we’re jealous for and fight against what we envy.

Longtime pundit Andrew Sullivan asserts that American democracy can’t survive “without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.”

Christianity, the faith, cannot be reinvented. The divinity of Jesus as God in the flesh, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and the Bible’s authority, among other tenets, remain nonnegotiable no matter the urgency.

However, Christianity as practiced by the faithful could use a reboot—a computer term analogous to theological words such as restoration and reformation. The motto for the Protestant Reformation was Semper reformanda: the church must “always reform.” Christians need to reground ourselves in core distinctives to shake salt and shine light in these viral, vitriolic, and violent times.

Among these core distinctives is the discipline of self-suspicion. I’ve written already about the need as Christians to always assume our own wickedness and wrongdoing—especially when we feel we are right and have done nothing wrong. Virtue requires a continual skepticism of what’s going on inside us, a low-grade leeriness as to the true content of our character. Our hearts can be murky as to motive such that even our very best and brightest intentions dim in the shadow of self-interest (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:15). The Reformation’s insistence on total depravity does not indict every human as intrinsically evil but rather insists every aspect of our being is tainted by sin and worthy of suspicion. As sinners, we’re capable of perverting goodness even as we seek to do it.

A second discipline crucial to a reboot is Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27). To love an enemy runs counter to every impulse in our age of outrage. Jesus’ injunction to pray for our persecutors comes off as weak and naive. To respond to meanness with kindness—turning the other cheek, giving up your coat, and going the extra mile—elicits strong objections and cries of cheap grace. But grace always begins with indictment. To forgive is to blame. Step up to any stranger, announce, “I forgive you,” and watch the reaction.

Forgiveness does not demand the suppression of anger. Instead, Christian forgiveness taps into the energy anger generates. If by righteous anger we mean the impassioned hostility against those evils that offend, frustrate, threaten, or endanger, then the cross of Jesus—the passion of Christ—is anger’s fullest and finest expression. The sin Jesus bore—of which we all share guilt—brought down the full fury of heaven. And yet God’s anger against us redeems into an eternal relationship with us. Righteous anger hungers and thirsts for justice; it has love as its lodestar and reconciliation as its endgame. The Scriptures remind us love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor. 13:7). Love seeks first the kingdom of God and the goodness of others. Without love, anger is but a cataclysmic explosive set on destruction.

Lastly, a reboot of Christianity should exude a strong confidence in a future yet to be revealed. Christ’s return portends dramatic hope—a Judgment Day when all wrongs are made right and all things are made new, a perpetual nativity of heaven and earth, a home in glory land that outshines the sun. Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, a new dawn breaking back into our present, a love from which nothing can separate us, a hope that cannot disappoint (Rom. 5:5; 8:39).

Christian hope fosters no illusions of human self-improvement. Self-suspicion abides. We cannot escape our hardships or raise ourselves from the dead. Suffering, rather than meaningless pain or just desserts, translates through the Cross into meaningful redemption and reinforced character. Death, rather than a terrifying end to be feared, becomes the gateway to life everlasting. Resurrection weaves life’s hardships into its beautiful tapestry of new creation, anticipating that day when all things will be made right. Our hope is in God who has already done this, started and finished, beginning and end.

Christian hope is not for a future that may happen but anchored in God for whom the future has happened already. Our sure hope is such a sure thing we can endure whatever troubles come our way in the meantime.

Daniel Harrell

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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