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.

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!

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.

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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!”

Love and Fear in the Year of the Plague

A  popular meme I often see asserts that times of crisis reveal one’s true character. Posts like this are supposed to appeal to the better angels of our nature. Unfortunately, they have the opposite effect on me. It is not my better self that answers but the irritated version. Perhaps it’s the fault of the medium. Computer nerds invented social media as a forum for talking about girls, and it soon evolved into a helpful tool for posting photos of whatever you happen to be eating or drinking. In time social media acquired a personality. That personality proved to be much like some people’s mother-in-law. It developed the capacity to offer unsolicited advice in a moral tone that falls somewhere within a narrow band that ranges from gentle condescension to outright contempt. In other words, social media learned how to nag.

If it’s true that crisis reveals a person’s true character, it also seems to bring to light aspects of one’s personality. Like birth order, the interaction between social media and the global pandemic seems to separate people into distinct personality types. Here are a few that I’ve noticed since the COVID-19 crisis began:

Skeptics

Early on some questioned the seriousness of the threat. These were often conspiracy buffs, who viewed reports of the exponential danger posed by the corona virus as a smokescreen. They claimed that the crisis was manufactured. They said it was a ploy by the Democrats or the Republicans or the Russians or the Chinese or maybe even the Templars in their quest for world domination. I confess that I leaned toward this view, until the spread of the virus became too large to ignore.

Spiritual Directors

Others take a more spiritual approach. A lot of the posts that I read about the pandemic offer spiritual advice. They want me to view my confinement at home as a kind of monk’s cell. I get the feeling from these posts that I am supposed to view this whole disaster as a spiritual retreat. “It’s not a plague; it’s a blessing,” they seem to say. I’ve tried to write a few of these posts myself but find it hard to maintain the proper balance.  To be successful they require just the right mixture of cloying optimism mixed with spiritual condescension. When I can’t stand to read what I’ve written, I conclude that I have either failed miserably or hit the nail on the head.

Comedians

A lot of us are telling jokes and posting funny memes. I get it. When I am nervous, I gravitate toward humor. It can be a great relief. But it also leads me to make inappropriate comments at awkward moments. I wanted to be funny too, but all my jokes sound lame to me. Perhaps it is because there is a dark edge to most humor, and the ordinary news seems dark enough already. Besides, one can only listen to so many toilet paper jokes before they become tiresome.

Road Warriors

A few try to ignore the whole affair. They post what they have always posted, gracing the internet with their snapshots or railing against the same old causes. Of course, with the so many restaurants shut down, there are fewer pictures of hamburgers, which I suppose is a kind of blessing. But these have been replaced by photos of all the cute things that our children have been doing during the incarceration. To be fair, their parents probably would have posted those pictures anyway, whether there was a pandemic or not. I know I should be charmed by them, but their example of perfect parenting gets on my nerves and leaves me feeling like a failure. When it comes to road warriors, I can’t decide if their decision to act as if the virus doesn’t exist is brave or just a case of denial. I tried acting like there was no pandemic but couldn’t resist the urge to log into my retirement account to see how far it had fallen.

Disease as Dis-Ease

By now, you have probably figured out what took me longer to conclude. The problem really isn’t with the people who post such things. As an old girlfriend once said, “It’s not you; it’s me.” I am just nervous and sad. This is what often happens to people during a health crisis. There is a reason illness is called a disease. “Health, as we may remember from at least some of the days of our youth, is at once wholeness and a kind of unconsciousness,” Wendell Berry observes. “Disease (dis-ease), on the contrary, makes us conscious not only of the state of our health but of the division of our bodies and our world into parts.”

As Berry notes, there is more to disease than a disturbance of the body. It also disrupts our sense of community. Any family that has had to face a major illness knows that this is true. One member may be sick, but it is the whole family that is in upheaval. In our current crisis, the effect is exponential, like the spread of the virus itself. Not only is the nation on edge but the whole world. It doesn’t help matters that preventive measures require that we isolate.  Despite all the jokes about the COVID-19 quarantine being an introvert’s paradise, one of the ordinary conditions of health is the unconscious comfort that comes from participation in community life. The loss of that sense of community is more than an inconvenience, it is a grief.

Disease is more than a disturbance of the body. It also disrupts our sense of community.

What is more, it doesn’t take a government-enforced quarantine to divide our social world into parts. Separation and isolation are often part of the collateral damage that attends any sickness. Because healthy family members and friends feel uncomfortable in the presence of those who are ill, physical distance grows and along with it emotional distance. Healthy members may be less likely to hug or touch the one who is afflicted. The social compact of family life shatters further when shared stress boils over into anger. Fights break out as family members argue with doctors and nurses about the treatment or with each other. We are looking for someone to blame.

We are seeing the equivalent as government officials argue over the best way to approach this modern plague and as we scold one another on social media. Admittedly, the divide we are experiencing was not created by the conditions of quarantine or even by the virus itself. The fault lines were a preexisting condition. The arrival of COVID-19 has merely exacerbated them. What separates the current political climate from the one we were in only a few months ago is both the gravity and scope of the problem. This is combined with a shared sense of helplessness that is mixed with mistrust. We suspect that our future well-being is tied to the decisions our leaders are making. As someone said to me the other day, “If government exists for anything, surely it exists for something like this.” Yet we do not feel confident that our leaders always have our best interests in mind. More accurately, we do not feel convinced that the other party (or perhaps either party) has our best interests in view.

Our political mistrust complicates the problem by introducing a competitive dimension to the search for a solution. Not only do we worry about ourselves and those we love. We fear that the other side will co-opt the response to our national crisis and exploit it for their own purposes. There is even some measure of competitiveness in our spiritual interactions. Many of the posts I read on Facebook and Twitter seem to designed to show that the writer is above it all. Others seem preachy and smug. “I’ve got this,” they seem to say. “What is wrong with the rest of you?”

The World of Flesh and Blood

But outside the digital realm, in the world of flesh and blood, I find a different spirit. The experience of quarantine seems to have made us more aware of one another’s presence. Neighbors inquire after one another’s welfare. Those who seek respite from isolation in a brief walk appear to brighten when they see another living soul approach them on an otherwise empty street. I don’t mean to sentimentalize. There are still empty shelves in the grocery store from selfish hoarders. Hedonistic berserkers on beaches in Florida and California are intent on turning their tanned bodies into biological weapons. The coronavirus has not ushered in the Millenium. Far from it. But neither has it hurled us into the dystopian nightmare that many movies, television shows, and novels predicted. Our encounter with COVID-19 has battered the bulwarks of common civility, but it has not breached them.

Nor has our collective trauma yet matched the level of suffering that our parents and grand-parents experienced during the Great Depression. Despite the daily comparison we hear on the nightly business report, the distance between these two catastrophes is still quite vast, at least for the majority of people. We worry about how long the drive-through line at McDonald’s will take. They wondered whether they would eat at all. It is possible, of course, that our worst fears may yet come to pass, and that our misfortune will equal or even surpass theirs. But we should not rush to meet such troubles before their time has come due.

The problem we now face is not imaginary. The threat we feel is real, dangerous, and ongoing. All indications suggest that we will still be dealing with this virus and its collateral damage long after the initial quarantine has ended. But we are not the first to suffer such things. Many who have suffered the like have discovered that they did so under the eye of heaven.

The Comfort of Christ

One of these was Helmut Thielicke, a theologian and pastor who lived through the Nazi terror, and preached to his congregation as the allies bombed Stuttgart. During that time, Thielicke delivered a remarkable series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. On more than one occasion, the church service was interrupted by the scream of air-raid sirens as terror rained down on them from the skies. As he watched his flock dwindle and its members succumb to the horrors of war, Thielicke reminded them that their only hope in such times was to look to Jesus.

“The sufferings of all the world converge in him, Thielicke said. “His eyes reach out to the farthest corner of the earth, wherever there is suffering. He hears the sobs of the lonely and those bereft of every tie of family and possessions. He is wounded by the dread of the dying and those in mortal peril. He hears the sighs of the prisoners behind their bars and electrically charged barbed wire. He bears upon his shoulders the cares that are cast upon him every hour and every minute from every square mile of the inhabited earth. He does not merely see this whole confused world situation in the large; he is not content with the divine perspective of a total view. No, he comes, as he did in the days when he walked the earth to the individual, to the nameless one who lives forsaken in some back alley. He knows the little cares of children and the grisly hallucinations of the insane that no word can describe and no heart can understand. Yes, he also knows the joy of life in a sparrow and the exultation and trembling fear of little creatures that live their lives far beneath the level where we human beings pursue our interests.”

As Thielicke notes, the comfort of Christ is not merely a comfort expressed from a distance. It is the comfort of one who has been tempted in every way, as we are but without sin (Hebrews 4:15). His comfort is that of a high priest who can sympathize with our weakness and who understands our failure. Even better, Jesus does more than provide us with a better moral example. He does not simply urge us on to better behavior from the throne of heaven. By taking our sin upon Himself, He puts us right (2 Corinthians 5:21). This fact places our current troubles in a very different light because it reminds us that the coronavirus, as destructive as it may be, is only a symptom of a more deadly condition.

I suppose the saying really is true. Times of crisis reveal our true character. They show us that no matter how good things seem, we are living in a world that is still in bondage to decay (Romans 8:21). Our response in such times shows that we are not as good as we would like to think. It shatters our denial by proving that our character is deeply flawed and our souls are broken because of sin. If COVID-19 were to disappear today, along with every other disease that afflicts the world, we would still be desperately sick. Because of this, to say that sin is the problem is not a contrivance. It is a diagnosis. And like every diagnosis of a deadly condition, it is hard to accept. To say that our only hope in such a time is to look to Jesus is not a cliché. It is simply the truth.

Prayer and the Character of God

There are some people who are skilled at prayer. I am not one of them. R. C. Trench, the 19th-century Anglican bishop, once described prayer as “the simplest act in all religion.” I am inclined to agree with him. Until I start to pray. Then, a kind of uncertainty overtakes me. I do not feel confident. It’s not that I doubt whether God can grant my requests. I question whether He will. I often feel as if I must somehow win God over to my side of things.

When I first learned to pray, I thought the goal was to persuade God. But how does one do that? I believed it had to do with the manner of my approach. I thought that before God would answer my prayer, I had to show Him that I was sincere enough or convince Him of the merits of my case. When that didn’t seem to work, I wondered if prayer was more like a contractual dispute, and I had failed to grasp the terms. Prayer became a negotiation. I made requests, sometimes even demands, and then offered promises to God in return for the thing I wanted. That didn’t seem to work either.

Prayer may be simple but that does not mean that it is easy.

Then someone told me that prayer was simply a conversation with God. This view was more appealing to me. But I quickly discovered that I am not much of a conversationalist, and neither is God. It was hard enough for me to make small talk with ordinary people, let alone with the Creator of the Universe. I was awkward and easily distracted. I mumbled through my requests, like someone reading a grocery list. If I bored myself, how must God feel? And as for God, His response to my holy chatter, at least as far as I could tell, was mostly silence. Prayer may indeed be simple, but that does not make it is easy.

How Does Prayer Work?

For many who struggle with prayer, ironically, it is God who poses the problem. How do you pray to someone who doesn’t change His mind and who never has second thoughts? God knows my prayers before I pray them (Ps. 139:2–4). The answer is decided before the request has even been made (Ps. 65:24; Dan. 9:23). If there are no grounds for persuasion, and we can convince God of nothing, how exactly is He moved by our prayers? Should we even bother to pray? Maybe we should just wait quietly for whatever God had decided in advance to do.

Of course, this doesn’t fit at all with the way we talk about prayer in church. Those who pray believe that prayer has an effect on God and that He, in turn, acts upon the world around them. So which is it? Do our prayers move the hand that made the world? Or is God’s hand unmovable and our sense that we are partners with Him in prayer merely an illusion?

The theologians teach that  God is immutable. This means that His character, purposes, promises, and plans do not change. According to James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” The theologians also say that God is impassible. As theologian J. I. Packer explains, this means “that no created beings can inflict, pain, suffering, and distress on him at their own will.” We cannot manipulate God with our prayers. We cannot wheedle Him until we get our way. We cannot agitate Him into action on our behalf.

The doctrines of God’s immutability and impassibility are a comfort when it comes to His moral consistency. But they pose something a stumbling block where prayer is concerned. If God doesn’t change, then it also follows that we cannot change His mind. If I cannot make Him feel more sympathetic toward my request or convince Him of my argument, what is the point of going to Him at all? If God has already decided what He is going to do, and knows what we will do, then why should I waste my breath?

The Danger of Two Extremes

These are old questions that are hard to answer without slipping into theological difficulty. If we lean too far in the direction of immutability and impassibility, then prayer seems both impersonal and pointless. We might as well be praying to a mountain or a machine. A God who is not moved by our prayers can only respond to them by working out of His foreordained purposes with clockwork precision. What looks to us like results has little to do with our words. The outcome will be the outcome, no matter what we say or do. The whole thing is like one of those clocks that tell a story. The figures may bend and twirl but not of their own accord. They merely show up at the right time and act out the parts that the clockmaker has programmed them to play. This is more like fatalism than prayer as Jesus both described and modeled it.

But if we lean too far in the other direction, we erode the divinity of God. We humanize God, but in the process, dehumanize prayer until it is only a matter of stimulus and response. We pray like the pagans, who “think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). We attempt to bully God with numbers, soliciting people to pray like political activists collecting names on a petition drive. Or we concern ourselves with empty forms, worrying over the method but ignoring God. This paganized view diminishes God’s role to the point where prayer becomes an occult practice. Prayer is no longer a request or even a conversation but merely a Christianized form of word magic.  If you speak the incantation and follow the right forms, then something is bound to happen. “Do not be like them,” Jesus warns, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8).

God is not frozen. He is active and involved with His creatures and His creation.

Divine immutability, whatever it means, does not mean that God is inactive or immobile. God is not frozen. He is active and involved with His creatures and His creation. God does not change, but He does effect change. In the same way, we shouldn’t confuse divine impassibility with impassivity. God is not unfeeling. There are many passages in Scripture that speak of God’s love, His anger, and even His grief. God is not reactive, but He does respond. God is especially responsive to the cry of prayer.

This was Jesus’ point in the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18:1–8. Jesus told this parable to His disciples “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” The tone of the story is one of gentle humor. Although the judge “neither feared God nor cared what people thought,” he is brought to his knees by the persistence of a poor widow. This scenario admits to the imbalance of power that exists between those who pray and God who hears. It also acknowledges what we often feel as we wait for an answer. We worry that the judge has overlooked our case. But the moral of the story is equally clear. God is not like the unjust judge (v. 7). He will respond, and when He does, that response will be consistent with His character. The God to whom we pray is both a just and compassionate judge.

Collaborators With God

Prayer is not a tool that we use to prod a passive God into action. In reality, the movement is in the opposite direction. God uses prayer to draw us into participation with Him and with His work in the world. In an essay entitled “The Work of Prayer,” C. S. Lewis observes that the participatory nature of prayer is consistent with the way God ordinarily works. “Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand,” Lewis observes. “Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all.” Lewis compares history to a play “in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.”

In another essay entitled, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” Lewis argues that it is no less strange to think that our prayers should affect the course of events than that our actions should do so. “They have not advised or changed God’s mind–that is, His over-all purpose,” Lewis explains. “But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.” Prayer changes things. Or conversely, some things do not change if we choose not to pray. “You do not have because you do not ask God,” James 4:2 warns.

Does God know the outcome in advance? Does He know whether we will pray or not? Lewis does not exactly say. But he does acknowledge the difficulty of fully grasping what it means for God to enable free-will to co-exist with Omnipotence. Lewis seems to say that when it comes to praying, we are true collaborators with God. At the same time, he warns that we must not forget that God is still God. “Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God,” Lewis warns. “Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.” The uncertainty always moves in our direction, never the other way around. God is never uncertain.

Jesus’ Prayer is the Key

If there is a key to this cosmic puzzle, perhaps it can be found in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. On the night before His suffering, Jesus prayed. “Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In this prayer, Jesus speaks both of possibility and uncertainty. He speaks of what God can do but in a way that suggests that what Jesus wants may not be the answer that God will grant. As Matthew’s version puts it, “. . . if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matt. 28:39). Perhaps even more surprising, Jesus speaks of a will of His own that diverges from His Father’s will but is not sin. When Jesus limits His request by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” He implies that the matter has been settled even before the request is made.

I find the ambivalence of Jesus’ prayer liberating because it shifts the burden of responsibility for the answer to God. It means that I can state my request simply and honestly and then trust God to sort out the rest. The old bishop was right. Prayer may not be easy, but it is simple. Prayer is as simple as the infant’s cry or the beggar’s reach. The power of prayer does not lie in the rigor of its method or the beauty of its vocabulary. Its efficacy does not depend upon the supplicant’s posture or the prayer’s length. The power of prayer is simply in the asking. Our comfort in prayer is the confidence we have that our Father knows what we need before we ask Him.

Prayer is our declaration of dependence upon the God who made the world and sustains our life. It is a moment-by-moment confession that in Him, we live and move and have our being. After all these years, prayer doesn’t seem to be any easier for me. But it really couldn’t be simpler.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.