When I was attending seminary, I met a recently married couple who taught me something about an often overlooked struggle between ministry and witness.
Both were students pursuing their advanced degrees, and the more I and my fellow seminarians got to know them, the more we could see that they were made for each other. This was not a case of opposites attract. Quite the contrary. Their sameness was impossible to overlook. They spoke with the same quiet tone, they were both obvious introverts, and they were both exceedingly intelligent. But none of these similarities were as noticeable as how equally devoted the two of them were to a plethora of social causes. No matter what the topic of discussion might be in a given class, when either of them contributed, it was always with a fervent passion for justice and compassion. If you saw one’s mouth open, you already knew the gist of what was about to be fiercely spoken. There were a lot of students at the seminary who could be labeled as “activists,” but these two took the cake. They were are own pair of profusely bleeding hearts.
I don’t mean to disparage them for this. In many ways, this couple served as a much-needed conscience for a lot of us who were perhaps far too concerned with our GPA and our exam schedules than we were the problematic issues of our day, which at that time included such troublesome situations as the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the 2004 Presidential election, and ever-escalating prejudices of a society still reeling from 9/11. In many ways, this couple inspired us not to divorce what we were studying from why we were studying it. There was really only one thing glaringly wrong with this couple’s presence in our community.
They were huge bummers.
You see, it wasn’t that their concerns for a wide variety of causes were unfounded, or that their political stances were not legitimate, or even that they chose to spend most of their free time holding up picket signs or circulating petitions. The problem was that the more they went about this dedicated work of social justice reform, the more their attitudes soured. They became the two gloomiest people in the school. They were often far too indignant with the ills of society to constructively contribute to class discussions. They were moody and melancholic. They may have loved each other, but whatever newlywed bliss may have existed between them was overshadowed by outrage at cultural sins. They were overly contentious even with those of us – their seminary colleagues – who held differing views, stances, or philosophies than theirs. They may have been passionate ministers, but their witness was chiefly marked by anger and resentment. They seemed completely unwilling to smile or laugh because there was just too much suffering in the world and how could any of us privileged, first-world Christians dare smile or laugh at a time like this?!
So, yeah, huge bummers.
This is not a post about the pitfalls of social justice reform. In fact, I’m sickened by the way some of my Christians brothers and sisters guiltlessly disparage the so-called “SJWs” of this age. I don’t know what exactly has happened in the last century or so, but there was a time not that long ago when the Church (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox all) was positioned on the front lines of most social justice movements, including issues of equality, education, universal healthcare, and immigration. My own faith tradition, Baptists, were occasionally viewed as dangerous liberals not two-hundred years ago.
Just because some of our modern-day social justice issues may no longer align with a Christian worldview does not mean followers of Jesus (himself considered the equivalent of an SJW in the eyes of the first-century powers-that-be) should throw the baby out with the bathwater. We certainly shouldn’t buy in to every movement getting airtime on the news today, but neither should we allow ultra-conservative pundits to lump all social justice movements together as the workings of sinister agendas of people that hate us and our country. Give me a break!
No, this post is not about the important role played by social justice warriors. It is about the dangers faced by Christians of all stripes – those who embrace social justice movements and those who are fearful of them – when our fixation on these issues begins to change us.
The term spiritual formation refers to how our daily commitment to the way of Jesus gradually transforms us from the sinful habits and compulsions of our old life to a way of thinking, speaking, and acting that reflects the fruits of God’s transforming Spirit and the higher principles of his Kingdom. At the core of this “formation” is a changing of our narratives. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves regarding who God is and what he desires of us, what matters most in life, and our perpetual need of forgiveness.
This is why new believers are encouraged to immerse themselves in Scripture, to pray regularly, and to connect with a local worshipping community. Each of these things foster the good narratives of our holy God. And that’s tremendously vital when we live in a world that is simultaneously feeding us narratives of self-aggrandizement, materialism, consumerism, and individual freedom – narratives that sap our commitment to selflessness, humility, and empathy for others.
It is so easy to spend more time in the narratives of the world than the narratives of Jesus. We can commit half an hour every morning to reading the Psalms and bowing our heads in prayer, but if we then turn around and immerse ourselves in contentious talk-radio on our morning commute, or let cable news blare away every afternoon for hours on end, why should we be surprised when our attitudes and behaviors are defined more by the rotten fruit of suspicion, offense, contention, anger, and fear than by the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness? If the majority of the narratives we’re drinking in every day are born of this world, then we will continue to exhibit the lesser values of this world. Sure, you’ll still have your conversion experience, your church membership, and your claimed relationship with Jesus, but none of those things automatically transform you into a compelling ambassador for Christ.
What bothered me the most about the couple I described above was not their commitment to issues of social justice. I know this came from a deep place of spiritual conviction. Their faith had spurred them forward into a life of service, and that was to be commended. Unfortunately, in the midst of this work they had misplaced a fundamental aspect of the life of faith.
They had misplaced joy.
Now, I’m not saying this couple was never happy. That they couldn’t take comfort or delight while singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” or listening to a sermon about the unconditional love of God. But in Scripture the concept of joy is much more than a fleeting sensation. It is a presence of thankfulness and gladness that cannot be shaken by external forces. It is as present in our trials as much as in our triumphs, because the source is not found in present circumstance but rather in the eternal truth of Christ’s forgiveness. Most important of all, this joy is supposed to be noticeably evident in the life of a Christian. The Apostle Paul wrote of it often – both his own joy and the joy he encouraged in his congregations.
“I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy,” he wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 7:4.). Paul was able to claim joy even in the midst of all his many hardships. If anyone had reason to be dreadfully morose, it was the apostle who suffered regular persecution from both his fellow Jews and his fellow Romans. And yet, again and again in his letters, Paul cites a joy that remained alive and well in him. Later in his letter to the Corinthians, he writes:
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Cor. 8:1-2)
Paul celebrates a generosity that is born from two things: joy and poverty. That was all it took for the churches of Macedonia, even in the midst of severe affliction, to provide for the needs of others in a way that Paul didn’t just appreciate, but was so impressed he had to tell their story. For him, a Christian’s witness was directly tied to one’s abiding sense of joy.
I look around today, I listen to the conversations of other Christians, I participate in Bible study discussions, and one question in particular nags at me.
Where is our joy?
What happened to Christians in America? Why have we allowed politics and cultural touchpoints to rob us of the fundamental joy of our salvation? It certainly seems to be the prevailing image of Christians today. It is as if the majority of Christians have set aside their joy until they see a return to biblical morality or newfound respect for their particular ideology. Do we really believe the alleged seriousness of this cultural moment makes it OK to speak with the same brand of contentiousness and fear-mongering as those who have never truly known this joy? That it’s acceptable to post vindictive statements and acrimonious memes on our social media feeds with as much regularity as we share favorite Bible verses and devotional nuggets? That our preferred political affiliation or our cultural worldview permits us to belittle and vilify the other side?
When Witness Becomes Worthless
When I was a teenager, I remember being told by various camp speakers and ministers that if I lived obediently to the way of Jesus then people would approach me simply to ask what made me different. They would want to know how they could have the kind of joy and peace so clearly evident in my life. This, it seemed, would be the most compelling method of evangelism – simply nurturing the overt fruits of the Spirit in my life.
Looking around these days, that idea seems woefully naïve. Young people are leaving the Church in droves, congregations are shrinking, and more and more people feel like a non-affiliation with religion is the most reasonable lifestyle option. After all…
- When the majority of our recognized leaders are as factional and cynical as the rest of the world, who would want to continue associating with us?
- When Christians in America are more interested in discussing all the sinister agendas we perceive to be leveled against us than they are in spurring one another on to love and good deeds, who would want to seek out membership in any of our communities?
- When there is nothing about our lives that stands out from the masses – that stands above the furious discord of our age – then our witness has become worthless.
I’ve heard believers talk at length about how Satan is at work in various organizations and groups to destroy the Church, and how we need to stand firm because we’re under attack for our faith. But I truly think what Satan is really up to is fostering a defensive paranoia in as many of our churches as possible, in order to hinder any actual ministry from getting done. After all, a church that sets aside its joy is a church that is effectively crippled from representing the way of Jesus.
It doesn’t take an actual sinister agenda to thwart the Church; all it takes is planting a seed of fear that we’re vulnerable. The world is more than happy to do this planting day after day after day. And, soon enough, we start spending the bulk of our time indulging narratives of self-preservation, religious liberty, and unjust persecution above anything else. We read Scripture only through these lenses. Our small group discussions devolve into lamentations about our wayward culture and the precarious position of the Church in America. And as for the narratives of selflessness, peacemaking, and Jesus’ call to take up our crosses (to actually embrace persecution), well whose got time to heed those narratives when our Constitutional freedoms are under attack?!
And, just like that, our joy becomes little more than a dying ember buried beneath the cold ash of our own fiery indignation.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of joyless Bible studies. I’m wearied of conversations that are devoid of the thankfulness and gladness. These are not fleeting sentiments, but core conditions that should reside at the center of our lives no matter how bad things may seem in our world. I’m sick of reading the angry political rants and mean-spirited opinion pieces that litter my friends’ social media profiles. If the joy of your salvation cannot stand up to the rancor of our age, I have to question whether you’ve ever really experienced that joy at all.
This life is hard, and the people of God must walk a fine line between our convictions and our humility. But it is not enough to smile only every once in a while, or to only lift our hands in praise for a few minutes once a week. The way of Jesus is a way of love over hate, peace over division, patience in affliction, and joy amidst suffering.
May we remember this not merely for the sake of our own troubled spirits, but also for all the hurting souls in whose midst God has placed us.