Joel Osteen’s disturbing inability to say that Mormonism is something other than Christian reflects a particular affliction from which our culture suffers. I’m not sure what to call it other than the cult of agreeableness, a widespread tendency to avoid disagreement, conflict, and contradiction whenever possible, a disposition to never draw hard lines for fear that we’ll upset or make ourselves unattractive by the action. Continue reading
Often we see a crisis or a need and jump to fix it. We raise funds, join a movement, buy a T-shirt, send our tithe, blog, campaign, distribute voters guides, do all kinds of things — many of them good. But they’re not enough. All those things are externally focused, which is only half the picture.
“The strongest weapon in the world,” says Peter Kreeft in How to Win the Culture War, “is sanctity. Nothing can defeat it.”
For Christians to really make a difference, we need to join our desire to right wrongs in the world with a desire to right our own hearts. Holiness matters. And sanctification, the process of increasing in holiness, matters for more than ourselves. One of the ways we fight poverty is to become poor in spirit. One of the ways we reduce the power-hungry is to become meek. We cannot bring the kingdom to bear on the world if our hearts are not subject to the king.
Jesus’ warned about that in the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said, “but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” Holiness has real power. But if Christians are not holy — and are not striving to become more so — our efforts are empty and meaningless, salt with no savor.
So what’s stopping us?
What’s preventing us from being poor in spirit, from being meek and merciful, from being people who hunger and thirst for righteousness as well as people who mourn, from being peacemakers, from being pure in heart, from being people willing to suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake? Kreeft answers the question by quoting from a book by William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life:
If you will look into your own heart in utter honesty, you must admit that there is one and only on reason why you are not, even now, as saintly as the primitive Christians: you do not wholly want to be.
Wow. Kreeft calls the statement an indictment, and it is. Here’s what’s tricky. By focusing on the externals — what we’ve done for this cause or that — we can dodge the charge, ignore it, push it aside and behind us. Our good deeds serve as masks for bad lives. But masks eventually slip.
Do-good activity unmatched with holiness always peters out. Real change in our world comes with real change in our hearts. To make a lasting difference, we have to work on both.
Pew conducted the poll, released June 22, at the Third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, in October of last year. Started by Billy Graham in 1974, the Lausanne gathering represents evangelical leaders from all over the globe.
Significantly for us, those from the U.S. seem especially dour:
Evangelical leaders from the United States stand out for their particularly high levels of pessimism. More than half of U.S. leaders (53%) see the current state of evangelical Christianity in America as worse than it was five years ago; only 17% think it has improved. And as U.S. leaders look a few years ahead, about half (48%) expect the state of evangelical Christianity to worsen, and two-in-ten (20%) expect things to remain about the same; only three-in-ten (31%) think evangelical Christianity will be in a better position in five years than it is today.
That shouldn’t be, right? At least not if we believe what we’ve been told since the late 1970s about evangelical cultural and political engagement, engagement that seems hardly on the wane. Earlier this year, for instance, Pew reported that the very influential Tea Party movement was not only conservative politically, but also religiously. The culture wars, particularly fought through the political system, promised conservative Christians greater influence, not less.
But political leadership holds false promise, or at least overinflated promise. People confuse politics with some sort of magic lever; just yank it hard enough and the world is yours. But at its most basic, politics is just legal coercion. That can only get you so far before diminishing returns set in — something we’re apparently witnessing before our very eyes.
Christian leaders should take this as opportunity to consider, to remember, where real influence lies: The gospel. The gospel turns on love, Christ’s for us and us for our neighbors. And love is anything but coercive. As the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13,
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Such love is highly persuasive because it answers the most basic questions of human validation, suffering, hope, and expectation. And unlike politics, as Paul continues, “Love never fails.”
The early Church flourished without any political power. Yet the influence of the gospel was undeniably felt wherever Christians took it, even the seat of world power, Rome. This is not to say that all political involvement is unprofitable or wrong. But let’s not be distracted or confused or, worse, deluded.
The love of Christ is transformative and upturns empires. So while some Christians lament a loss in influence, let’s welcome an opportunity to be reminded of what real influence looks like and from where it comes.