Myth, Memory, & Reality

Atheists have long accused Christians of casting God in their own image. Their complaint has some warrant. In human relationships, the people we like the most often seem to be those whose thinking is like ours. It is the person who reflects our own thinking that we deem to be the most astute, just as it is the person who asks questions about us that we consider a great conversationalist. Something similar happens when it comes to God.

Sin has left us with a penchant for seeing ourselves in God. We want to believe that God is like us. We can easily persuade ourselves that He thinks like us and mirrors our values. Scripture says otherwise:  “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). In the apostle Paul’s description of the downward spiral of sin In Romans 1:23, he notes that it caused humanity to exchange the glory of the immortal God “for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). The biblical word for this is idolatry. There is more to idolatry than the worship of images. It is ultimately a deconstruction of the image of God. The Bible does not treat idolatry as an art form or even a curious artifact of culture but as a symptom of moral degeneration.

Idolatry deconstructs God by reversing the order described in Genesis. According to Genesis 1:27, God created humanity “in his image.” The impulse of the idolater is to move in the opposite direction. Instead of seeing ourselves as those made in God’s image, we look to find our image in God. We ascribe to God the features we most admire about ourselves, or we attribute to Him the deficiencies that we suffer. We especially see the latter tendency in the ancient myths of the Greeks and Romans, whose gods are narcissistic and selfish. Irritable and unpredictable, their exploits seem to exhibit all the worst traits of human nature. Indeed, in those stories, it is often not the gods who are the heroes but the mortals who outwit them. Although more powerful than mortals, in the end, the gods of myth frequently prove to be petty and stupid.

The original myth, and the prototype of all subsequent myths, is recorded in the book of Genesis. The world’s first myth was spun by Satan when he told Eve that the command not to partake of the forbidden tree sprang from the creator’s selfishness and jealousy. “You will not certainly die,” the serpent assured the woman when she explained that disobeying God would lead to death. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5).

Satan framed his false account in the classic triangle that one so often finds in mythology. In the ancient myths, the gods enjoy some blessing that in their vanity and might they withhold from the mortal hero. What is prohibited is usually forbidden because it is a prerogative of the gods or perhaps out of spite. A third party enters the story and shows the hero a way to obtain the boon. The hero usually accomplishes this by outsmarting the deity or performing some great task. But in Satan’s myth, the task is simple. Disobey. Do what God has told you not to do, and you will become like God. The terrible irony in Satan’s lie was that the gift he urged them to steal was already theirs. Adam and Eve had been created in God’s image. They were already like God in some measure (Gen. 1:26–27).

In the tempter’s story, Satan plays the role of savior. He claims to offer secret knowledge that will enable them to seize what God withholds. But the testimony of Scripture, as well as the record of human history, shatter the tempter’s myth and show Satan for what he is. He is not their savior, only the trickster of old. Satan is not a helper but a thief who “comes to kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10:10).

The purpose of Scripture in recounting this first and oldest story is not to entertain us with tales but to set the record straight. The Genesis account, and all that the Bible says subsequently, shows that God’s intent from the very beginning was not to withhold but to grant. He created us in His image so that He could share Himself with us and so that we might ultimately be like Him. Even though sin has profoundly marred that image, it has not erased it (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). We were made to resonate with God. Just as the strings of one musical instrument will cause another to vibrate when their frequencies match, we are designed to seek God. As David puts it, Psalm 27:8, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Ps. 27:8).

To change the metaphor, we might think of the divine image as a vestigial memory of the God who created us embedded in our nature. When the gospel comes in power, It sparks recognition. Not only do we begin to see our sin for what it is, but we remember God and His goodness. Jesus portrays this moment in the parable of the prodigal son. According to Jesus, when the prodigal came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father” (Luke 15:17-20).

 “The repentance of the lost son is therefore not something merely negative,” theologian Helmut Thielicke observes. “In the last analysis, it is not merely disgust; it is above all homesickness; not just turning away from something, but turning back home.” We usually understand repentance to be a feeling of disgust over our sins. But Thielicke notes that this by itself would not have helped the prodigal. It might have made him a nihilist or driven him to despair. But it would not have motivated him to return to his father. The dismay the prodigal felt was a byproduct of something else. “It was the father’s influence from afar, a byproduct of sudden realization of where he really belonged,” Thielicke explains. It wasn’t the far country that made him sick but the consciousness of home. In other words, according to Jesus’ story, repentance begins with remembering. Not the memory of our sin but a grace provoked memory of God and His goodness.

It should not be lost on us that these lessons about our nature, humanity’s fall into sin, and the way to recovery have all come down to us in story form. One reason atheists accuse Christians of mythologizing God is because the Christian message is often couched in forms that sound to them like myth. There is a garden, a serpent, a virgin who bears a child conceived by God. This God who comes in human form dies and rises again to save the day. As C. S. Lewis observed, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.” In saying this, Lewis was not minimizing the historicity of the biblical accounts, only noting that God revealed these things to us in forms that echo the myths of old. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history,” Lewis explains. “It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable consequences.” In this way, God not only captures our attention, but He also shatters the original myth, spun by Satan to our first parents in the Garden of Eden.

By acting in history, God turns the old myths on their head, retelling the ancient story in its true form. God is not the enemy. He is the hero. He alone can restore our memory, and along with it, our lives. By acting upon us through the gospel story, God brings us to our senses and restores our memory of home. That recollection causes us to see ourselves for what we are. It also reminds us of what we were meant to be. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we return to our Father to be restored to our true image, the image of the God who made us (Col. 3:10).

Dangerous Virtues: Satisfaction-Coping With the Hunger that Cannot be Satisfied

I have been bothered by my weight most of my life. As a child, I was heavy, a condition which my mother euphemistically described as being “big-boned.” I was so obsessed with the fear of being fat that even when I thinned out in my adolescence, I did not think of myself as thin. I am no longer thin, and I am still bothered. I am not alone. According to some estimates, forty-five million Americans go on a diet each year. In our weight-conscious culture, you would think that we would have a greater sensitivity to the sin the Bible calls gluttony. The truth is most of us wouldn’t recognize a glutton if he swallowed us whole. We certainly wouldn’t be able to tell whether we are gluttons, and the mirror will not help us. That’s because gluttony isn’t really about one’s weight.

Gluttony is essentially a sin of inordinate appetite. The ancients measured gluttony by the amount of food one consumed. The Christian ascetics viewed hunger as both a virtue and a tool. They seem to have believed that it was better to be hungry than to be full. They thought that hunger and thirst could be employed to bring all the bodily passions into submission. Most moderns do not think that the consumption of either food or drink belongs in the category of sin. We are, however, willing to admit that people have psychological problems in these areas. In the twentieth century, the church’s perspective on eating changed from the ancient practice of fasting for the spirit to the modern habit of dieting for health.

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John’s latest, Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good, will be released in September, 2020. Preorder your copy today!

Gluttony is not a matter of body size. It is a sin of consumption. Gluttony is to food what lust is to sex. Gluttony distorts and magnifies bodily appetite until appetite becomes an end in itself. Food, drink, indeed, all our ordinary bodily appetites are part of God’s design. But what exactly is His design for our hunger? Functionally, appetite is a means to an end. Proverbs 16:26 says, “The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.” This proverb echoes Genesis 3:17–19, where the link between toil and eating is a consequence of sin. But the proverb reveals the complementary benefit that comes from this connection. Hunger is a motivator that drives us to work. We work because we do not want to go hungry (see 2 Thess. 3:10). Hunger also motivates us to take in the sustenance we require for life. But, similar to the curse of Genesis, hunger has two sides. Like work, hunger existed before the fall. As was the case with the first temptation, ordinary hunger can be a gateway to inordinate appetite. Part of the appeal of the forbidden fruit was that it was “good for food” (Gen. 2:9). Sin has the same effect on all our bodily appetites. Hunger can be a motivation, but it can also be a master. Just as sin distorted God’s design for work by introducing an element of drudgery into its execution, our hunger can make us slaves.

Slavery to food can take many forms. For some, this bondage expresses itself in a variety of eating disorders. Binge eating, starvation, and binge eating followed by purging are destructive coping methods for dealing with perfectionism and low self-esteem often related to body image. By eating (or not eating), those with eating disorders attempt to heal themselves or make themselves feel better. Food plays an increasingly larger role until it becomes the central focus of life. For others, bondage to food is reflected in an unhealthy, almost paralyzing, fussiness when it comes to eating. In Paul’s day, this was usually a result of misguided religious conviction. In 1 Timothy 4:3, the apostle warns that the last days will be marked by false teachers who demand that their followers live an ascetic lifestyle. They will “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.” Likewise, in Colossians 2:21, he speaks of those whose rule of life was comprised mainly of prohibitive regulations, which he summarizes in the three commands: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”

Slavery to food can take many forms.

According to the apostle, a combination of ignorance and pride fueled this bankrupt approach to spirituality. Those who adopted its practices thought that they could obtain eternal life by keeping traditions that focused on “things that are all destined to perish with use” (Col. 3:22). Today’s culinary aesthetes are more liable to be driven by a political and social agenda than a religious one, but their spirit is the same, and Paul’s directive to the Colossian church equally applies: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink” (Col 3:16). Righteousness is not a matter of one’s dietary preferences. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (Rom. 14:17).

In an affluent culture like ours, eating is not just a necessity; it is also a form of recreation. This leads to another type of bondage when it comes to food. Some people are fussy about what they eat because they scorn simple fare. Every meal must be a grand experience. These people view their food the way others look at their possessions. Only the rarest and most expensive will do. Their problem is not that they eat good food but that they view ordinary food, along with those who eat it, with contempt. Their diet is a symptom of greed and pride. They are addicted not to food but to luxury. In the book of Revelation, this is the fare of the great whore of Babylon (Rev. 18:3).

Does this mean that it is a sin to enjoy our food? Are we acting unchristianly if we eat a meal at an expensive restaurant? The Bible teaches that the enjoyment of food is a gift from God. One of the ways God shows His love to the world at large is by supplying us with food.  Acts 14:17 says, “Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

The mistake of gluttony is the error of thinking that appetite is the gateway to satisfaction. In reality, it is the opposite. Hunger by its very nature can never be entirely satisfied. Ecclesiastes 6:7 observes, “Everyone’s toil is for their mouth, yet their appetite is never satisfied.” Satisfy your hunger with a meal now, and a few hours later that hunger will return. There is nothing to be done about it. When eating becomes an end in itself, it turns into a kind of slavery (1 Cor. 6:12–13). Gluttony conflates desire with satisfaction, expecting more from food than it can supply. The glutton does not eat to live but lives to eat. In reality, our appetites are merely signposts which point to a hunger that cannot be filled by any human means. They point out our emptiness and our need for God. When we look to earthly means to fully and finally satisfy ourselves, we become those whose “god is their stomach” (Phil. 3:19).

Jesus’ perspective on eating was personal and practical. Scripture says that Jesus came “eating and drinking” (Matt. 11:19). He taught the church to ask for “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:11). Ordinary food played an important role in Jesus’ ministry just as bread was a central image in His teaching. The connection between food and Jesus’ ministry should not surprise us. He lived in a culture in which worship and eating were connected. Jesus made communal eating a part of the sacred life of the church. At the same time, Jesus taught that life is more than food (Luke 12:23). Food is necessary for life but is not itself life. We do not live by bread alone (Matt. 4:4). Life is more than food just as the body is more than clothing. Food is necessary for life but is not synonymous with life. The power of Jesus’ teaching on this matter is grounded in His assumption that food is needful. We need to eat, but when we conflate life with the means we rely upon to sustain that life we set the table for idolatry.

When we conflate life with the means we rely upon to sustain that life we set the table for idolatry.

It does not have to be food. We can rely upon our health or finances or even clothing. Like the Israelites who worshiped the bronze serpent that Moses held up in the wilderness, we forget that our life does not come from the things that God uses to sustain it (2 Kings 18:4). How then do we deal with gluttony? The primary method the Bible prescribes is self-denial. “When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony,” the writer of Proverbs warns. “Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive” (Prov. 23:1–3). Self-denial is not an end in itself. By practicing self-denial, we discover how God supplies all we truly need.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but food is an important part of our earthly life. Eating has played a vital role in the worship as well as the ordinary fellowship of the church, and it will continue to be part of our experience in the life to come. As important as food is, it was never meant to be an end in itself. The basic rule when it comes to our eating is the same rule that guides us in all of life: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Dangerous Virtues: Love-The Seduction of Desire

I first learned about sex from my father. The lesson came in the form of a brief hallway conversation. I don’t think my age was even in double digits at the time. I don’t recall who initiated the conversation, though I suspect it was in response to a question I had asked. I didn’t understand much of what he said. The whole thing sounded pretty unappealing to me at the time. I was sure I would never want to have sex with anyone. I was wrong, of course.

I didn’t know it then, but the sexual revolution was just getting started. I turned sixteen in 1969, the summer that Woodstock happened. At the time, I was just a kid growing up in the rust belt of the Midwest, too young and too far away to attend the event whose posters promised “three days of peace and music.” It turned out to be three days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. During the summer of love, sex and love were synonymous. The sexual revolution changed not only the shape of sexual morals for a large part of the culture, but also our view of the place of sexual desire in human experience.

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John’s latest Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good will be released in September, 2020. Preorder your copy today!

But sex isn’t really the problem. The problem is desire and the unrealistic expectations that are born of our desire. The biblical word for this is lust. Sin entered human experience through common desire. Genesis 3:6 says, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” The appetites mentioned in this verse are commonplace. The forbidden fruit was “good for food.” In other words, the tree was edible. The tree was also appealing to the eye. The tree appeared to be “desirable for gaining wisdom.”

It’s important to understand that our struggle with lust is much larger than the desire for sex. In the New Testament, the Greek term that is translated “lust” refers to desire. It can speak of both legitimate and illegitimate desires. In its sinful form, we may fix our desire on many things. It is just as likely to be focused on someone else’s possessions or on their success as it is to be an illicit desire for sex. John hints at the full scope of this cardinal sin in 1 John 2:16: “For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” As far as John is concerned, when it comes to lust, everything in the world is a potential target. Lust is such a common feature of our culture that it is hard to find a dimension of our experience that is not somehow shaped by it.

Our struggle with lust is much larger than the desire for sex.

But what is opposite of lust? What is the virtue that answers the sin of lust and is its antidote? If the essence of righteousness is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself, then the essence of sin must be the opposite (Matt. 22:37, 39). To sin is to love yourself at the expense of your neighbor. More than that, it is to love yourself at the expense of God. Sin-shaped love expresses itself primarily in the form of narcissism. It is self-absorbed love. This affection is a distortion of love that, once it has achieved its full effect, actually proves to be an exercise in self-loathing. It is hate masquerading as love, compelling us to engage in self-destructive behavior. Sin promises freedom and delivers slavery. It speaks the language of friendship while treating us like enemies. Sin is a cruel master who promises good wages only to reward our loyalty with hard service, disappointment, and death. For some reason, we return again and again to this false lover and expect a different result.

The answer to sinful lust is love—God’s love, which comes to us from the outside, like the righteousness of Christ. Adopting the language that Martin Luther used to speak of Christ’s righteousness, we might call it “alien love” because it does not originate with us. It is a love that begins with God and can come to us only as a gift. For the Christian, this greater love is the organizing force for all our other desires. In this regard, love is not so much an emotion as it is disposition. We might call it a divinely empowered direction for our lives.

Our natural love is limited. The impediment of sin skews our interests in the direction of self. Jesus implies this in the second of the two great commandments, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31, see also Lev. 19:18, 34). We are by nature self-protective and self-interested. We are able, even in our natural state, to show some concern for others. We may enquire about the health of others when they are sick, or express sympathy when they are grieving. We might even sacrifice ourselves for someone if we feel the cause is good enough (Rom. 5:7). But the ability to love others to the same degree that we love ourselves is not natural. Our default orientation is skewed toward our desires. We will easily sacrifice the desires of others on the altar of our self-interest unless something more powerful moves those interests in a different direction.

What is true of lust is true of all the capital sins. Change may require discipline, but it does not begin with discipline. What is required is a miracle of grace. Redirection is necessary if we are to love others in the way that Jesus describes, but there is only one force powerful enough to turn the tide of our desire so that we are as interested in others as we are in ourselves. It is the power of God effected by His love for us. That is why the love that Jesus describes begins not with us but with God. We love others because we love God (1 John 4:21). We love God because God first loved us (1 John 4:10–11, 19).

This may sound too mystical to be practical. Do we merely wait until some divine energy strikes us from the outside and makes us care about those for whom we previously gave no thought? God is indeed the source of this love, but it does not operate in some hidden mystical zone. The opportunities to show it and the forms that this love takes are ordinary.

With this in mind, the basic rule that Jesus lays when it comes to practicing love is simple to understand: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). We do not dismiss our desires but allow them to be our guide by providing a mirror image. What would we want for ourselves, if the circumstances were reversed? Nothing could be simpler. It is the execution that poses the problem for us. We can see it easily enough but we often do not want to live by this rule. The corruption of our sinful nature further complicates matters. Often what we desire from others reflects our sinful self-centeredness, making it an untrustworthy guide for our own behavior. An honest evaluation of Jesus’ rule soon reveals that to follow it, we must say no to our desires. We do not need to deny that these desires exist. They are what they are, and Christ already knows that they exist. But we must often deny ourselves. Our mistake has been to believe the lie that we cannot live without the things we desire. This was the original lie that was sold to Eve by Satan. It is the lie that comes with every sinful lust that arises in our hearts.

The ultimate answer to the false virtue of lust is not better intentions or even willpower. The ultimate remedy is the cross of Jesus Christ. It is only by the cross that we can say no to our sinful desires. This ability is a gift of grace as much as forgiveness. It is the grace of God “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). The denial is ours, but the power is God’s. This capacity to say no to ungodliness is natural only in the sense that it comes from our new nature in Christ: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The Christian does not lose the capacity to lust. Instead, believers gain the ability to deny their sinful desires.

The answer to lust is more than willpower.

What does this mean for our struggle with desire? First, it means that we should not be surprised to find that it is a struggle. The stirring of sinful desire does not mean that the gospel has failed. Second, the general tone of the New Testament when it speaks of sinful desire is one of hope rather than despair. The stirring of sinful desires is not necessarily the evidence of a spiritual defeat but may be just the opposite. We should treat these stirrings as the death throes of the old nature as it rails against the Spirit.

Finally, we should not be so afraid to see our desires go unfulfilled. Countless hours of exposure to marketing has trained us to think that we should have everything we desire. Contemporary teaching about sex implies that we cannot be humans without fulfilling our sexual desires. The truth lies in the opposite direction. Our worst fate may not be that our desires will go unfulfilled but that they will be met. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling  about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who want to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea,” C. S. Lewis explains. “We are far too easily pleased.”  This is the problem with human desire. Not that we desire too much, but that we desire too little.

Dangerous Virtues: The Way of the Living

Detail of painting of Garden of Eden. Eve gives Adam fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We are sinners. We don’t deny it. But most of the time, we don’t think much about it. We don’t seem to obsess about sin the way the ancients used to, at least not about our own sins. We don’t punish ourselves or go to extreme measures to fight sin off. Most of the time, our sin feels more like a low-grade fever than it does a raging fire. Its presence is an ongoing irritation that may hinder us from being our best, but it doesn’t keep us from functioning. Sin doesn’t bother us that much, either. If anything, the fact that we are sinners serves as an escape clause when things go badly. “What did you think would happen?” we want to say. “We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Of course, we went off the rails.” The fact that we are sinners is one of the few religious concepts upon which a majority of people agree. Most people identify with the label sinner.

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The ancients weren’t as sanguine about the subject. The early Christian monastics went into the wilderness not only to pursue holiness but also to study their sinfulness. One monk, who probably lived in the fourth or fifth century, described the benefit of a life of solitude by pouring water into the cup and pointing out that its cloudy nature became clear after allowing it to stand for a time. “So it is with the man who lives among men. He does not see his own sins because of the turmoil,” he said. “But when he is at rest, especially in the desert, then he sees his sins.” 

Those early Christians analyzed sin and categorized the many ways it manifests itself. They were interested not only in identifying the specific acts that should be regarded as sinful but wanted to understand the internal dynamics that generated sinful behavior. Why do we think so differently from previous generations about sin? One reason is that we have radically different notions about virtue in our day. Moderns think as little about virtue as they do about sin in the traditional sense. The word seems outdated. Virtue sounds more like something that would have concerned our Victorian great-grandparents.

The ancient idea of virtue grew from a desire to overcome the human disposition that the Bible labels sin. For Christians, God is the key component in any notion of virtue. He is also the key component in any notion of sin. Virtue doesn’t just involve the measure of what we think is good as individuals. It is more than the community standard. In the Christian view, God is both the measure and the measurer of what constitutes genuine virtue. That same measure provides the dividing line that separates sin from virtue.

Moderns think as little about virtue as they do about sin in the traditional sense.

David understood this. In Psalm 51:4, he declared, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” This is an astonishing statement, given the events that prompted it. David committed adultery with Bathsheba. He arranged the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, after he learned that she had become pregnant. Or as theolgian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.”

Virtue or goodness has God as its primary reference point. Virtue is what we were made for. It is a life that reflects our design as creatures made in the image of the God who is Himself good and the source of all that can be rightly called good. But it it is equally true that we can’t think about personal goodness or virtue without also taking our own sin into account. Any possibility of true goodness depends ultimately upon God. We must receive goodness as a gift before we adopt it as a practice.

Perhaps all of this sounds too abstract and detached for ordinary people like us. It’s one thing for theologians and philosophers to debate about sin and virtue. Why should we concern ourselves with such matters? We have jobs to go to and bills to pay. We mow the lawn and drive the kids to school. What does any of this have to do with the real world in which we live? The answer is that sin and virtue lie at the heart of everything we do. Our ideas of sin and virtue shape the way we work at our job, live in our neighborhood, and treat the members of our family.

What is more, these matters are a deep concern for us. Sin and virtue drive the storylines behind the television programs and movies we watch. Our lawcourts are backlogged with cases in which the parties involved dispute with one another over these same concerns. We may use different language when we talk about sin and virtue. We may speak of “doing the right thing” or talk about what people “ought” to do. We also seem to know intuitively when others have crossed a line. We may not agree about what is right, but nearly every one of us has a kind of moral radar that is hypersensitive to those who do something we consider wrong.

We must receive goodness as a gift before we adopt it as a practice.

However, our moral sense seems to be one-sided. We are hypersensitive to the transgressions of others but find it difficult to see our own. Not only do we disagree with the ancient consensus of the church about the gravity of our sins, but we are also strangely comforted by its universal presence. For some of us, the comfort we take in knowing we are sinners is the kind that a poor student might take who places their trust in the grading curve. We reason that if sin is normal, then we are normal. Even if there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it.

In general, our thinking about both sin and virtue is backward. We think more of individual sins than we do of sin. We treat virtue the same way. We tend to see virtue as a collection of righteous actions. Our concern when it comes to sin is that it will grow. Small infractions will become larger. Anger will accelerate until it becomes murder. Lust will take control and lead to adultery. According to Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount, sin moves in the opposite direction. It does not start small and increase. Those sins that we usually treat as minor infractions bloom from the same root as those we think of as large. Sinful anger springs from a murderous heart, not the other way around (Matt. 5:22). A lustful gaze is the offspring of an adulterous desire (Matt. 5:27–28). This does not mean that there is no difference between thought and action, or even that every sin is the same. Angry words are not the same as a shotgun blast to the head, though some might argue that both can be equally destructive in their own way. They might even say that between the two, the effects of someone’s cruel words might last longer. 

Righteousness in the Christian life is not a collection of good acts that balances out our bad deeds. Righteous actions spring from righteousness. Individual acts reflect the nature of those who do them. We have been made righteous to be righteous. Those who come to Jesus Christ in faith do not lose their capacity to sin. They gain the capacity to obey. This new ability springs from a changed nature, which is a reflection of their new standing before God. The Christian can do good because he or she has been made good through the blood of Jesus Christ. When we look at sin and virtue through the lens of Christ and His saving work, we discover that vritue or goodness is not a way of life. It is the way of the living. It is the pattern of life of those who have been made alive by Christ.

Fathers & Sons: The Hero’s Journey

I think about my father every day. I can’t help it. Every morning when I stare into the mirror, there he is staring back. As long as I can recall, people who knew my father have said that we look alike. The comparison was a point of pride when I was a child and an aggravation when I became an adolescent. That irritation grew into something stronger in my teens and  20’s. Not hatred, exactly, but certainly anger mixed with aversion.

I did not want to be like my father. There were many reasons. For a long time, I thought it was because of his drinking. I didn’t like the person he became when he drank. I didn’t like the old school jazz that he listened to on the weekend–the blues warbling voice of Billie Holiday, and the Dixieland rat-a-tat of Bix Beiderbecke’s horn. I didn’t like his jokes. I came to love them all later, after he was gone, because they reminded me of him. But at the time, I felt a strong desire, almost a compulsion, to be separate from him. The more I grew to look like him, the more I worried that I would become him.

Picture of cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
John’s latest Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good will be released in September, 2020. Preorder your copy today!

No doubt, some of the impetus for this angst came from the vibe of the culture at the time. In the 1960s and 70s, sons weren’t supposed to want to be like their fathers. We disdained their workaday ethic and the suburban values of their American dream. The Monkees sang sarcastically of Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, and Joni Mitchell grieved over The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

Yet even though we lived on a suburban street, my father had no real interest in the suburban dream. He was an artist and a bohemian at heart. Our lawn was wild and unkempt, much like family life we lived inside the small brick home that it bordered. Even though he drove a Chevy and worked for the automobile company that produced it, my father was possessed of wilder dreams and aspirations. In his youth, he had wanted to be a commercial artist.  Quiet when sober, he had a quirky sense of humor that compelled him to fill our Christmas stockings with lumps of coal and with feet that he had fashioned out of clay. He was an avid reader, and I can still remember my sense of wonder when he introduced me to the grownup’s section of the local library. Some of the first books that I read there were books he recommended.

Of course, I saw none of this during the years of my flight from him. I only recognized it much later, after my anger had subsided. But by then, it was too late to thank him for what he had done. I now recognize that the divide I felt was, in part, a product of the natural divergence that occurs between fathers and sons. It is a kind of centrifugal force that seems to repel us from one another, even when we are on the same trajectory and anchored to the same center. Nearly every son feels it. It is part of the human condition. Myth and literature are replete with examples. It seems that every son must make his own hero’s journey and then return home wounded but hopefully wiser.

I don’t mean to sentimentalize the picture. There was real pain in our relationship. My father’s drinking was admittedly a significant contributor to the rift I felt. But it was not everything. Time and distance have the power to soften, and there’s no greater distance than death. Age is also a help. It enables us to be selective in our memory. I know this is true for me. I sometimes wonder if the man I now recall is better than the man I knew. If it’s true, I suppose it is a kind of mercy. But I suspect it’s the other way around. I see him more clearly, now that I have surpassed him in age. I am better able to recognize the man who stares back at me from the mirror. It is not just the shape of the face, but something in the eyes that I recall. I remember the look.

I no longer see my father as an adversary or a superior but recognize that I have become his peer. I’ve often wished that we could compare notes about our respective journeys. But such conversations are impossible. They are for most sons. The really interesting questions do not come until it is too late to ask them. When we were young, we weren’t interested. Or it didn’t occur to us to raise the subject. The best we can now do is to compile the story after the fact by relying on secondary sources and oral tradition. We reminisce with our siblings and marvel at how different their recollection is from ours. We ask the living to recall the dead, never quite sure whether they are relating facts or expressing opinions. We piece together our own memories, which arise from the depths in fits and flashes like dreams. We don’t always remember the fine details or the context. It is a little like working on a giant puzzle, but without the benefit of the picture on the box.

It has also helped me to be a father. Nothing has taught me more about the nature of unconditional love than fatherhood. Few things have made me feel as frightened or as helpless. Like me, my sons left home in their 20’s and moved across the country. The pain I felt upon their leaving mirrored the expression I recall in my father’s eyes on the day that I moved away. I have since marveled at their boldness, boasted in their successes, and worried over their trials. But I haven’t stopped missing them. Yet I sense that the distance between us is measured in more than miles and wonder when they will turn for home. It is a long journey.

The primary work is to forgive.

The primary work of the hero’s journey of sons where their father is concerned is to forgive. For me, this has been the work of learning how to forgive both my father and myself. I have had to forgive my father for being the man that he was instead of the man I thought I wanted him to be. Likewise, I had to forgive myself for being born in his image. And sometimes for being the man that I became. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains.  “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.” This is the hero’s journey. It is also the work that transforms us from child to adult.

The last conversation I had with my father was in 1987. I was sitting beside his hospital bed. Years of alcohol abuse had finally presented its bill, and renal failure had set in. The doctors told us that there was nothing they could do for him. I sat silent, holding my father’s hand, and trying to think of what I should say. With so much left unsaid for so long, I could only fall back on an old script that we had repeated many times before.

“I love you, Dad,” I said.

“I love you too, Johnny,” he whispered back.

Maybe it was all we needed to say.

The Hand that Moves the World

Not long after I started following Christ, my mother became so sick that my father had to carry her to the car to drive her to the doctor. Unable to diagnose her condition, the doctor admitted her to the hospital, where she grew worse. All the Christians I knew at the time believed that miraculous healing was an everyday occurrence.  I decided that it was God’s plan to heal her. Like the blind man in John 9:3, I thought God had allowed her sickness “so that the works of God might be displayed” in her. What better way to show my parents to the truth of the gospel?

With my heart pounding, I stood at her hospital bedside and prayed, but nothing seemed to happen. Instead of getting better, over the next few days, she grew worse. And then she died. But I continued to pray, thinking that what God had in mind might be even more remarkable. I had read about Jesus raising the dead in the gospels. Maybe that’s what He planned to do. My father had asked the funeral director for a closed casket ceremony. But if God could move the stone from Jesus’ grave, surely that would be no obstacle. I prayed on. I think you can guess how this story ends.

Someone has said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world. But if that means we can force God’s hand by praying, I have found it to be otherwise. To me, prayer seems more like a discipline of waiting than an act of call and response. I am not saying that God never grants my request. Sometimes He does. But He rarely seems quick about it. God takes His time. Days, weeks, months, and even years may go by without any signs of movement on His part.

Picture of cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
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The irony, or perhaps I should say awkwardness, of this, is that Jesus claimed that God is not slow. In the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18, Jesus promised not only that God hears those “who cry out to Him day and night,” but that He will “see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7–8). It seems that my definition of what constitutes delay and God’s definition disagree.

In His parable, a widow goes to a judge with this request: “Grant me justice against my adversary.” And for some time, the judge refused. But when she kept coming to him, the judge said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t wear me out!’” Jesus aims to contrast the disposition of the judge with that of God. The comparison in the story turns on the similarity between the widow’s experience and our perception that God is ignoring us. Jesus says that God doesn’t delay, but it often feels like He does.

What, then, are we to make of the apparent contradiction between God’s haste and our experience? Those who claim the most for prayer tend to lay the blame at our feet. God can do anything, they say. If our prayers go unanswered, it is not His fault. The reason must be our insufficient faith or our lack of perseverance. Maybe we have secret sin or some other spiritual impediment that places an obstacle in the way of God’s answer. The power is God’s, yet somehow, at least for them, we always seem to be the key that unlocks it.

Jesus’ parable implies the opposite. Where the widow is concerned, all the power lies in the hands of others. She cannot protect herself against her adversary, and she cannot control the judge. Despite the helplessness of her position, nevertheless, she displays a kind of brazenness through her persistence. She keeps coming to the judge with her plea, despite his repeated refusals. One can’t help wondering why anyone would do such a thing. It couldn’t have been based on her confidence in the judge’s character or his sympathy. According to Jesus, he “neither feared God nor cared what people thought” (v. 2). The only plausible explanation is that it was her own helplessness that made her persevere. She had no one else to whom she could turn. Jesus’ point in this parable is really a counterpoint. God is not like the judge. If the widow can be so persistent with someone who has no natural regard for her, how much more should we persist with God, who cares for His own? In other words, the point of Jesus’ story seems to be that the real situation when it comes to prayer differs from our experience.

Jesus says that God doesn’t delay, but it often feels like He does.

The key that unlocks the parable is the language of the widow’s petition. Most of the translations say that the woman asked for justice against her adversary. We immediately think of this as a request with a terminal point. She is looking for revenge. She wants the judge to render a decision against her opponent.

Most of the prayers we pray are like this. They may not be prayers for vengance, but they are terminal in that they have a specific fulfillment in view. We want a particular job. We want God to heal our disease, or maybe we need money to pay a bill. There’s nothing wrong with such requests. Quite the opposite, it was Jesus who taught us to pray for daily bread (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). No request could be more concrete than this.

Furthermore, the bread which Jesus teaches us to ask for is a non-renewable resource. Once eaten, it will be gone. Yet anyone who has prayed the Lord’s prayer instinctively senses that the point of the petition is not terminal but ongoing. We know that having asked for bread today, we will need to ask again tomorrow. We grasp that this is the lesson of the prayer for us. The God who fed us today will also feed us tomorrow.

The widow’s request in Jesus’ parable is similar. The word that some versions translate as justice really means protection. “What the widow was seeking was not fundamentally vengeance on her adversary, but relief from his oppressions,” theologian B. B. Warfield points out in an essay on this parable. Although there may have been punishment inflicted on the man, Warfield explains, “. . . punishment was not the main end aimed at or obtained; it was only the means by which the real end of relief and protection was secured.” The widow’s request was actually a plea for ongoing protection. Warfield points out that Jesus uses her language to say that God will do the same for His chosen ones. When He promises that God will see that His chosen ones get justice quickly, He is: “. . . giving a gracious assurance to them of the unfailing protection of God amid the evils which assault them in this life.”

Warfield’s clarification eliminates the seeming contradiction between Jesus’ application and our experience. God hears us when we cry out to Him night and day. When God hears, He responds immediately. Although He may not always grant us the particular object of our desire, we can be sure that He will act in our interest. Warfield expresses it beautifully when he asserts that the intent of Jesus’ parable was to “deny that God is indifferent to the sufferings of His people; and in its most natural interpretation it declares that as his ears are always filled with their cries he will not be slow to act in their defense.”

God’s ears are always filled with the cries of those who are His.

I have often wondered why God’s failure to heal my mother or subsequently raise her from the dead didn’t shatter my newfound faith in Christ. Perhaps it was because I knew that I wasn’t confident in my prayer. I was young in the faith and still had many of the rough edges of my former life. Maybe it was because I realized how audacious the request was. Maybe I didn’t believe He would grant it to begin with. But I’d like to think that, even in the infancy of my faith, I understood the point that Jesus made in His parable. That God’s ears are always filled with the cries of those who are His. And, no matter how He may respond to our specific requests, He is never slow to act in our defense.

In one of his sermons, Clarence Macartney called prayer the word that conquers God. “What is the word that turns back the shadow of death on the face of life’s dial? What is the word that gives songs in the night and that lifts the load of guilt from the conscience smitten heart?” he asked. “That mighty, all prevailing, God-conquering word is prayer.” Perhaps, the old poet who said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world was right. But if it’s true, it’s not because we can strong-arm God with our prayers. It’s because prayer moves the heart of the one whose hand moves the world.

The Trouble With Normal

Since the tragic death of George Floyd, I have been trying to decide what to say, or whether I should say anything about it. In part, this is because I don’t know what to say. Little of what I’ve read on social media regarding the subject seems helpful to me. It is mostly a mixture of anger and guilt, with a few conspiracy theories mixed in. I have been reluctant to speak because so many others have said that silence is complicity. This rubric seems overly simplistic. It does little to help people process what has happened. Such a sentiment is merely an attempt to predispose people to a particular response. If the precipitating event weren’t so grievous and the subject less incendiary, we might even call it a thinly disguised attempt to bully others into a preferred opinion. Silence in times such as these can mean many things. Silence can be an expression of grief or dismay. It can signify disapproval. Silence may simply be the response of those who don’t know what to say. And, sometimes, silence is the disposition of the wise (Prov. 17:28).

Cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is now available for preorder!

For people of my age, the distress of recent days must seem strangely familiar—smoke billows behind a rocket that hurtles American astronauts into space. Cities burn as people march in the streets and loot stores. It feels like the 1960s again, except without any of the hope. The timing of this latest crisis was also striking, coming as it did just as some states appeared to be on the verge of reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people, whether joking or serious, posted memes that implied that the death of George Floyd was part of a larger conspiracy.

I am more inclined to think that there are more ordinary forces at work. Call it sin or fallen nature; it is the principle Bruce Cockburn describes when he sings, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” But to attribute the state of things to sin seems too simplistic. Just as Jesus is the answer of the Christian to every problem, sin is the stock explanation of their cause. The problem with this explanation is not that sin is trite. It is our view of sin that is the trouble. It is too anemic. We are inconsistent and double minded, congenital hypocrites where sin is concerned.

In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. notes how newspapers and television often use the adjective senseless to describe acts of murder. Plantinga finds this description puzzling, noting that unless he is grossly impaired, every murder must have made sense to the killer at the time. “He was trying to silence a witness or gain revenge or express his power or act out his racist hatred or stimulate and satisfy his lust,” Plantinga writes. “In a culture in which up-to-date intellectuals often drift toward moral subjectivism, how can an act that makes perfectly good sense to its perpetrator be judged senseless by outsiders?” The answer, according to Plantinga, is that “when pressed, even the most avant-garde observer drops his moral subjectivism, forgets all Nietzschean attempts to get ‘beyond good and evil,’ and joins the rest of us in expressing shock, indignation, and the metaphysical judgment that a murder does not belong in the world,  no matter what its author thinks of it.”

“A murder does not belong in the world, no matter what its author thinks of it.”

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

C. S. Lewis writes about the same moral sense that Plantinga describes in Mere Christianity, calling it the “law of human nature” or the “rule about right and wrong.” According to Lewis, it is most observable when people are quarreling. When this happens, two things are apparent. First, the aggrieved party appeals to a standard that he or she expects the other person to know and assumes it will be evident to them. Second, the offender almost always affirms such a rule exists by giving a rationale for their action. As Lewis bluntly puts it, “. . . the other man very seldom replies: ‘to hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.”

In other words, our moral radar seems to operate on only one band. We are hypersensitive to the transgressions of others but find it difficult (often impossible) to see our own. At the same time, we are also strangely comforted by the universal presence of sin. The comfort we take in knowing that we are sinners is the kind that a poor student might take who places their trust in the grading curve. We reason that if sin is common, then we are normal. If there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it.

This downgrading of sin inevitably leads to sentimentality. Sentimentality, in turn, produces superficiality when it comes to our assessment of the problems sin creates and their solutions. In an essay entitled “Beauty, Sentimentality, and the Arts,” Jeremy Begbie identifies three traits of the sentimentalist. First, the sentimentalist misrepresents reality by evading or trivializing evil. Evasion makes us selective in our attention. We refuse to focus on those things that are too disturbing to us. Trivialization compels us to put a spin on sin and its consequences. We are willing to acknowledge the presence of evil in our lives but blunt its sharp edge so that it does not make us bleed.

Second, the sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent. For the sentimentalist, emotion is an end in itself. “In other words, the sentimentalist appears to be moved by something or someone beyond themselves but is to a large extent, perhaps primarily, concerned with the satisfaction gained in exercising their emotion,” Begbie explains. It is enough to feel. There is no need to do. The sentimentalist is outraged by particular acts of sin, but that is all. They may even be outraged at themselves but it is all a display. “We like others to realize that we are compassionate, tender, and so forth,” Begbie explains. “And even if others are not around, there can be something deeply gratifying about exercising feelings that most would admire.”

Our moral radar seems to operate on only one band.

Third, according to Begbie, the sentimentalist fails to take appropriate costly action. Begbie describes several symptoms of this pathology. Sentimentalists resist any challenge to their way of life. They are more moved by the plight of strangers than those close to them. They deal in ethical generalities like love, peace, and justice, but struggle with awkward individuals. They are impatient and lose interest when the cost of dealing with those in pain is long-term or too great. They rely on banalities and clichés. For the sentimentalist to feel is to act. It is not necessary to go any further.

All of these traits seem to me to characterize the conversation sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Actually, to call it a conversation is too generous. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are not really suited for conversation. They do not lend themselves to reflection or careful deliberation. Social media is a forum for outbursts. They provide a catharsis for the one who posts but I question their power to change anyone’s mind or to move people closer to reconciliation or solution. Those are long term, costly projects, and few on either side of the divide appear to have the patience for them.

It is not silence on social media that makes us complicit in the death of George Floyd but our complacency with sin. The trouble with sin is that it seems so normal. It respects no boundaries either of race or economics. It ravages our lives but remains an abstraction to us until its evil is made concrete to us. We only seem to recognize its true nature when we are on the receiving end of sinful behavior. If George Floyd’s death does anything, perhaps it will at least enable us to imagine what it might have been like to have that knee upon our own neck. What it will not do is let us know when the knee is ours. It will not tell us what to do about it. For that we will need a more potent medicine than the accusation or guilt of social media. For that we will need grace and mercy, combined with a conviction that only comes from God Himself.

Nativity Poem

Do not be afraid

the angel said

in such commanding tone

that we almost believed

he could put to flight

our fears with a Word.

And all we like sheep

each one scattering

in his own direction

with the sheep themselves

skipping and bleating

like waves dancing

on the water.

We were sore afraid

but not so afraid

that we could not leave

those few sheep

in the desert

and hurry off.

What do you think

we found when

we got to Bethlehem?

Nothing but a child

wrapped in rags

and lying in a manger.

And His shy mother

so patient with

our blushing and fumbling

until she was distracted

by the child’s cry.

Preaching in a Crisis

One of my former students recently asked me how I thought the COVID-19 crisis was affecting pastoral ministry and preaching in particular. How do you preach in an environment like this? The simple answer is that you do the best you can, given the circumstances. Preaching is challenging enough under ordinary conditions. The nature of the current crisis has completely upended our normal patterns of meeting and communicating. Preachers are speaking to empty seats and recording their messages for broadcast over social media. As one popular meme observes, we are all televangelists now.

The answer to my student’s question involves more than the medium, though much could be said about that as well. The medium of delivery matters, but the content of the message is always primary. Whether we preach live or by means of a video, we are still saying something. What should we say? The Sunday school answer to this question, of course, is that we should preach the gospel. There is a sense in which preachers only have one message to deliver. Our determination, like the apostle Paul’s, is to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Yet as true as this may be, to put it this way in answer to this particular question seems like and oversimplification. It is not.

Preaching More than the Facts

The gospel offers hope for the present life as well as for the future. It is about living as much as it is about dying. Living the Christian life is more than a matter of willpower and information. The Christian life is Spirit-driven and grace enabled. It is a life that is lived not only in response to the gospel but through the power of the gospel. Paul’s letters are proof that the saints do not need to hear a different gospel after they have believed than the one that was preached to them prior to faith. The apostle was just as eager to preach the gospel to the saints at Rome as he was to proclaim it those who had never heard Christ named (cf. Romans 1:15 with 15:20). While the saints do not need a different gospel, they do need a gospel which is explicated in terms of their experience.

This means that preaching the gospel to the saints during this season of COVID-19 demands that we do more than state the facts of the gospel. What is especially needed is gospel preaching that demonstrates priestly sensitivity. In the Old Testament priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Leviticus 10:11). The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Hebrews 5:1). Preachers, like the priests of the Old Testament, do not stand apart from those who hear them. The default disposition of every sermon is one of sympathy. Priestly sympathy is not pandering but a compassionate ministry that is born of shared experience. Priestly advocacy should not be confused with trite slogans, pat answers, or simplistic explanations. Unfortunately, our culture’s bent toward pragmatism makes us especially vulnerable in this area. We are too eager to come to God’s defense–too quick to fill in the silences God leaves behind and attempt to explain what he himself has not explained.

Similarly, it can be tempting for preachers to use a crisis like this to leverage their favorite rebuke. If the posts I see from pastors on social media are an indication of what we are saying in our sermons, not a few of us have seized the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to teach the church a lesson about our favorite cultural or congregational irritation. We are saying that this crisis has come upon us because of abortion or that it is God’s judgment because of homosexuality. Some suggest that God sent it to show us that we are spoiled or that He allowed the churches to be shut down because we took worship for granted. Some are saying that God has forced us out of the building so that the church could be the church. The intent of these assertions, I think, is to be prophetic. Unfortunately, such varied explanations merely gives the impression that God cannot make up His mind about why He is angry with us. He is just mad. I am not saying that God would never deal out judgment on a national or even global scale. The Scriptures show that He has done so in the past and will do so again. What troubles me is the underlying note of smugness that seems to attend so many of these kinds of statements. Perhaps before we try to call down woes upon the nation like the prophet Jeremiah, we ought to learn how to weep like him first.

Some of this comes from the pressure we feel to exonerate God. Like many others, I have had more than one person ask me what I thought God was up to by allowing such a devastating pandemic to occur. In our effort to provide an answer, we may overreach. We can make the mistake of thinking that since we speak for God, we may also speak as God. Like Moses at the rock, we speak rashly or out of spite (Numbers 20:10). We jump to conclusions about God’s intent. We make statements about God’s motives and reasoning that sound like certainties but are really only speculations. It is not wrong to address the questions that people ask. One of the preacher’s most important responsibilities is that of leading the congregation in the collective practice of theological reflection about the questions and challenges which are peculiar to their context. But they must do this with what I describe as priestly advocacy.

The key to priestly advocacy is identification (Hebrews 2:17). This means that the preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. Because we stand in the place of our listeners, we ask the questions they would ask. Some of these questions are obvious. Many are mundane. If we are to be true advocates for them, we must also ask the questions our listeners would like to ask but dare not. We can give voice to the questions that plague our listeners, but we cannot always answer them. Our priestly role demands that we speak the truth, and the truth is: God does not always explain himself. Part of the priestly responsibility of preaching is to give voice to the congregation’s unspoken questions and then listen with them to the awkward silence that sometimes ensues once the words have been spoken. It is not our job to answer all the congregation’s questions. When we try to say what God has not said, we inevitably replace God’s judgment with our own.

What We Can Say

What, then, can we say? We can affirm the congregation’s questions and fears. To admit that we don’t know what God is doing is not the same as saying that God is doing nothing. To acknowledge fear, grief, or uncertainty can itself be a great relief in times like these. Of course, it is crucial that we not stop here. More needs to be said. We do not want to only point at the problem. But if preaching aims to facilitate an encounter with God,  a precondition must be that we face God as we truly are, with all our doubts, fears, and questions in plain sight.

If our aim in preaching really is to help our listeners meet God through His word, then the second thing we can do in the sermon is to speak of God. More particularly, we can speak of God as He has revealed Himself to us through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. This may sound too simple, so let me make clear what I do not mean. I am not talking about hawking God as a product by selling the audience an airbrushed version of the Christian life. Such sermons try to resolve every serious problem within a matter of minutes, much like the television dramas and commercials that so often provide contemporary pastors with their themes. This “airbrushed” portrayal of Christianity is not preaching at all but a form of sentimentalism that trivializes the gospel. Trivialized preaching is triumphalistic. Triumphalism is a perspective that grows out of our evangelical heritage of revivalism. The revival tradition of preaching emphasizes the transforming moment, when the listener’s life is forever changed. Certainly this is true of the gospel. We are forgiven in a moment. But the redemptive process takes much longer. Triumphalistic sermons give the impression that every problem can be solved in a matter of moments simply by leaving it at the altar. Undoubtedly there have been remarkable instances where this has been the case. Sinners plagued by long standing habits leave the sermon miraculously freed from bondage. Yet for many others–perhaps even most others–the experience is different. For them transformation is progressive rather than instantaneous. These believers do not skip along the pilgrim path but “toil along the winding way, with painful steps and slow.”

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. 

Preachers who do not acknowledge this resort instead to clichés and platitudes. Their sermon themes are flaccid and the remedies they offer mere placebos. Such sermons are unable to provide any real help to those who hear. How can they, when truism stands in the place of truth? In order to be true to our audience’s experience, preaching must reflect the reality of living in a post–Eden world in anticipation of a new heavens and earth that have not yet come to pass. Times like these, where not only our congregation but the entire globe must deal with the collateral damage that sin has wreaked upon us, are uniquely suited to such a task. Never has Paul’s statement that creation itself is in bondage to decay as a consequence of Adam’s sin been made more vivid (cf. Romans 8:21).

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. The root of our fear in this current crisis is the fear of sickness and death. Some would like to promise that Jesus will protect us from all such threats. But this is not the hope that the Bible offers us. The message of the gospel is not only the story that Jesus died and rose again. It is the good news that Jesus suffered death “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). The gospel does not assure us that we will be able to avoid the experience of physical death. It tells us that Christ will meet us on the other side. This promise is no small hope.

A Distanced Congregation is Still the Church

A third thing that we can say, especially at a time when our normal community life has been so disrupted, is to remind the church that they are still a church. Some Christians seem to feel a kind of glee over the fact that the church cannot meet together during this season of social distancing. “At last,” they seem to say, “the church can finally be the church.” I find this reasoning odd. The language that the Bible uses to speak of the church implies proximity. This aspect of the church’s nature is best expressed by the phrase Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:18, “when you come together as a church.” The fact that the church comes together is not a weakness. It is not an indulgence. The church is, by its nature, an assembly.

I find it ironic that while some Christians seem to be celebrating the fact that the church cannot meet, the rest of the world recognizes the need for a sense connection. Nearly every commercial I see on television that mentions the pandemic also says, “We are in this together.” They assure me that “We will get through this.” What surprises me the most is how moved I am by such assurances. Those who record their sermons while preaching to empty seats need to remind the congregation that the bond they share with one another in Jesus Christ has not been diminished by physical separation. They really are in this together. The church will survive, and one day we will come together again as a church. But even though we are now separated, we continue to be “members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic may be unusual but the experiences of fear and uncertainty are not. If you doubt this, just take note of how many times God tells His people not to be afraid in the Scriptures. Those who preach often speak to people in crisis. While not as massive as a pandemic, each individual crisis a listener faces under ordinary circumstances can be just as shattering. Pastors and teachers were not an invention of the church. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that they are Christ’s gift to God’s people. The church needs its preachers. What is true during this singular time of crisis will still be true when things return to normal. How should you preach during this season of the coronavirus? You should preach like someone whose hope is cast upon the word of God. Speak the truth with priestly sensitivity. Point your listeners to Jesus Christ. Do the best you can. You can do no more.  

If you want to learn more about preaching, check out John’s books Folly, Grace, & Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching and The Moody Handbook of Preaching. To see several short videos about preaching, click on the Tips for Preaching tab on John’s website.

Holy Week’s Trajectory of Hope

The seven days from Palm Sunday to Easter have a rhythm. It is one that moves from anticipation to fulfillment. The week begins with the crowd’s shout of acclamation for Jesus and culminates in His stunning victory over death on Easter morning. Between these two are the Last Supper (sometimes commemorated with foot washing on Maundy Thursday) and Christ’s suffering on Good Friday. These two events strike an entirely different note, providing a counterpoint to the upbeat mood of the two Sundays that bookend them. The difference in tone is often reflected in the church’s observance.

Yet even during those sober moments, there is still a trajectory of hope that mitigates what would otherwise be impossibly gloomy. This sense of direction enables believers to move through the awkwardness of Maundy Thursday and the gloom of Good Friday with a sense of expectation. We know how this story ends. That was also true for the original participants. Jesus told His disciples how it would all turn out. But their actions make it clear that they had either forgotten or had refused to believe what He had said. “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” Jesus would later say to them (Luke 24:25).

Our Interrupted Hope

In the Scriptures, the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday is a day of silence. The Bible does not really say where the disciples were or what they were doing on that day. When Jesus appeared to them on Sunday evening, He found them behind locked doors and afraid (John 20:19). This description resonates, especially now that the spread of COVID-19 has disrupted the church’s normal rhythm of Holy Week observances. We too are huddled together in our homes. For many fear ear grows along with the body count.

To call Jesus the Lamb of God was

to say He was under

a death sentence.

When we pass through a crisis like this, we often feel a burst of energy at the outset. Maybe its adrenaline or just shock, but it propels us through an impossible situation. That drive empowers us to act, sometimes in heroic ways. This initial burst of energy generates a kind of optimism. You can hear it in the way people talk. They say things like, “We’re going to beat this thing!” or “I’m a fighter.” Spiritually oriented people talk about God doing a miracle. But if the crisis wears on, something changes. Those first heady days of optimism may give way to weariness and lethargy. What was once disorienting starts to feel like a new normal. The days become marked by silent waiting. Because we are busy with the work of survival, we are no longer as vocal about our expectation of coming out of it. God, for His part, also seems to be silent. The hope that God would resolve everything in short order is set aside, at least for a time. We are no longer sure what God is doing or even how things will turn out. For the moment, the trajectory of hope that we felt we were on has been interrupted.

Upon closer inspection, however, the comparison I am trying to make here seems to break down and in a rather spectacular way. For one thing, the disciples’ time “in-between” lasted only a day or two. At the most, they were confined from Friday to Sunday. Then they understood that what had seemed like a tragedy to them was actually something else. I’m not saying that they understood everything completely. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). When He was done, they still had questions.

Peace, Prosperity, & Safety

Our expectation during the COVID-19 crisis is also somewhat different from theirs. For the disciples, the expectation was the hope that Jesus would redeem Israel and usher in the Kingdom of God. Our aspirations are more modest. We would like to return to our jobs, our churches, and our friends. We aren’t looking for utopia. We just want everything to go back to normal. Yet such workaday ambitions may not be that far from the initial hope of Jesus’ followers as we might think. Before Jesus’ death, their vision of the kingdom had a decidedly earthly flavor. We sense it in the lament of the two who spoke with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” they said (Luke 24:21). But what did that mean to them? Before Jesus’ death and resurrection,  their understanding of Israel’s redemption was primarily a vision of peace, prosperity, and national safety.

This Messianic vision was roughly equivalent to an ambition to “Make Israel Great Again,” a view of the world with Israel on top and all its enemies subdued. The law would go out from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Swords would be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Everyone would sit under their own vine, and no one would be afraid anymore (Micah 4:1–5). None of these expectations was outside the realm of what Jesus promised to do. The disciples’ mistake was an error of timing. During the forty days between Christ’s resurrection and ascension, they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” In His reply, Jesus never said that they were wrong to expect such a thing. Instead, He told them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).

Jesus’ disciples had also underestimated the scope of what Jesus came to do. They were right in thinking of Jesus as the redeemer of Israel. He was the Messiah. But from the very start of His ministry, Jesus gave indications that He had come to do more. John the Baptist captured the full extent when he called Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; 1:36). John’s declaration, which Jesus later affirmed, contained two surprises. One was the expansion of this kingdom promise from Israel to the whole world. The other was the means by which its victory was to be accomplished. Unlike all others, this kingdom would come not by the sword but by sacrifice.

The Lamb of God

One can only imagine how unsettling it must have been for John’s disciples to hear him describe Jesus in such terms. To us, the lamb metaphor has a certain charm. Lambs are tame creatures. They are soft and cuddly. We think of lambs as pets. But for John and his contemporaries, lambs were for food and sacrifice. John’s contemporaries bred lambs for slaughter. Their presence on the temple altar was a continual reminder of a plague far more deadly than the coronavirus. To say that Jesus was the Lamb of God was to say that He was under a death sentence. To call Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is to say that we too are under a death sentence and that He is the only remedy.

The last enemy to be destroyed

is death itself.

If there is a gift in the COVID-19 crisis, it is not in the heroic effort of nurses and doctors, as admirable as those are. Nor is it in those spontaneous acts of goodwill we see taking place between our neighbors. If there is a gift to be found in the current crisis, it is the stark gift of forcing us to face up to the collateral damage of the world’s greatest pandemic. Death always does this, though we are skilled at suppressing its message. Now it is as though the suffering of every nation on earth shouts the warning of Romans 5:12: “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”

The death of so many is a great tragedy. But perhaps it is not a mistake that such loss should also coincide with the week that many in the church commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The humility of Thursday, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and His suffering on Good Friday, are both in keeping with the redemptive trajectory of Christ’s final week. They are the pivot points that make the acclaim of Palm Sunday and Easter’s shout of victory meaningful. “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,” Hebrews 9:27–28 says, “so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

This is the gospel. It reminds us that, in these days, as the death toll continues to rise, the last enemy to be destroyed will be death itself (1 Cor. 15:26). It is a reminder that even though the normal rhythm of our Easter celebration has been interrupted, the trajectory of hope still holds. God’s message to us has not changed since that first morning when the disciples rushed back from the empty tomb to declare, “Christ has risen!” To which, we can only reply, “He has risen indeed!”