William Abraham was a wonderfully gifted theologian who sought to reform the Methodist church. He went to his eternal reward on Oct. 7. Here is wonderful example of his grace and brilliance:
Note to readers: This post does not address who is to blame for the debacle we are witnessing in Afghanistan. If that is your interest, you have ample things to read elsewhere.
“Let’s be realistic…” Three words that remind us that we have set our expectations too high. Three words that remind us that the real world is full of pain and suffering, so we better adjust our assumptions accordingly about how life really works.
But realistic can also be a cheap dodge from moral responsibility. Invoking the need to be “realistic” can protect us from the critical obligations of a moral life. And this moral life is messy and difficult whether we are looking to address our own life or the life of a country like Afghanistan.
It seems utterly irrational to hang onto a plane when it is taking off, but we Westerners make our judgments far too hastily. When King David numbered his troops and the non-military men, he fell under the discipline of the Lord. God gave David three possible options for his punishment. Let David’s response sink in deeply: “…I am in great distress. Let us now fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” Like the terrified Afghans, David knew full well how ruthless people can be.
From the comforts of our homes, it is understandable why we Americans feel helpless in offering anything of lasting benefit to the Afghans. I know the feeling. I wonder what I as a sixty-three-year-old man living in the safety of the American suburbs can do. It seems crazy to think I can do anything of consequence. Yes, I am terribly sad over the ghastly images I witnessed of those desperate people in Afghanistan, but then my inability to do anything screams with a clarity that seems undeniable. And inability eventually leads to a cold logic that says I have no real responsibility. It is a brutal calculus, but it permits me to go to go to bed with a clean conscience.
Realpolitik is a fancy word that describes geopolitical decisions being made based on pragmatic realities instead of allowing our moral outrage or ideological commitments to set the agenda. For example, our government (and this is true of both sides of the political aisle) understands that calling the Chinese to task for their abuse of the Uyghurs is impractical because it would hurt our economic interests. Our government can certainly offer some periodic outrage over the Uyghurs, but everyone knows, including the Chinese, that we are simply grandstanding for a hollow sound bite.
Realpolitik reminds us that America cannot be the police force for the rest of the world. It is a terrible thing to admit, but in our big and complicated world it is hard to gainsay. We Americans must simply nod in sad resignation that this is the way things are and carry on with our own lives.
During my days of college ministry, I recall hearing about a study that explained why people get more animated with lesser causes like saving the whales. Nothing wrong of course with wanting to save whales. The author of the study said people get exercised with lesser causes because the more important ones seem impossible to address. The lesser causes give us a sense that we are making some difference in the world.
It’s understandable why we are tempted to pass on bigger problems, but perhaps the crisis in Afghanistan is one we can do something about. Perhaps we are too easily invoking “Let’s be realistic about Afghanistan…” to escape things we can do.
What are those things? More than the stifling “Let’s be realistic…” will allow. Fresh brainstorming among those who know and love the Afghan people ought to be encouraged. “Let’s be realistic…” will hardly provoke the kind of creative, out of the box thinking about the issues that most vex us. “Let’s be realistic…” may also be a bogus excuse to do little to nothing when other possibilities exist, the kinds of things that only come into view when one is committed to thinking with moral clarity.
We live in turbulent and divisive times.
We may be tempted to focus only on the ungodliness of the “culture” in general, but ungodliness is hardly limited to those outside the church.
Inside the church there is suspicion among Christians, even hatred. Christians have told me that they can’t talk about their differences on important issues…with their best friends! How much hope is there then to discuss controversial matters with those we don’t know? Growing numbers seem pessimistic about the prospect.
The gadfly sensation, Jordan Peterson, likes to tell young people that they have no credibility to protest in public unless they first keep their own bedrooms neat and tidy. It is good counsel and one we Christians ought to take more seriously, even if others don’t. To change the imagery a bit, I like to say that we Christians regularly want to start a landscape company when the weeds in our own backyard need serious attention.
Consider the following not so hypothetical conversation:
Pro-Life Christian: I can’t believe that people think partial-birth abortion is okay.
Pro-Choice Friend: How come?
Pro-Life Christian: Because it is the killing of a human being!
Pro-Choice Friend: Why do you believe anyone two and younger is human?
Pro-Life Christian: Because the Bible says so!
Pro-Choice Friend: Would you show me a few of those Bible verses?
Pro-Life Christian: Uh, let me see…I know they are in there somewhere…
Whether it is engaging in conversation with those inside or outside the church, we ought first to consider whether we are adequately literate to speak with such confidence and conviction.
The final chapter of Stuck in the Present offers a way forward…
Danny Akin is the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Danny and I are bound together (literally) because his commentary on Song of Solomon and mine on Ecclesiastes were matched together in B & H’s series of commentaries on the whole Bible.
Danny believes the shocking truth that the gospel of Jesus speaks to all of life.
Some within the Southern Baptist “denomination” (see my post on June 15, 2021) dubbed Danny a “woke liberal.”
If shrewdly “plundering the Egyptians” and seeking to have an irenic spirit makes one a liberal, then I guess many of us must wear that moniker. 🙂
And by the way, before you are tempted to sling out the word “woke” ask yourself whether you have done the hard work of lots of biblical and theological study along with ample historical work. If not, it would be better to ask questions than make confident pronouncements of who is and who is not “woke.”
If you want to better know history, here is a pretty good book to get you oriented:
Thousands of Southern Baptists are gathered this week in Nashville for their annual convention.
A number of controversies and conflicts look to make for a challenging week.
“Southern Baptist” is big tent that has strongly divided constituencies over issues like Critical Race Theory and the handling/mishandling of abuse victims.
Since Southern Baptist churches function with lots of autonomy, and since there are deep divides on many issues, I am thinking we should call the Southern Baptists what they really are: a very loose affiliation of Protestants who have some semblance of agreement about the gospel…though that may now be in jeopardy as well.
No matter what Christian tradition we align with, or group we associate with, all of us should consider the following questions. Over the years I developed this list to ask myself these kinds of things on a regular basis:
*Am I fearful of speaking up due to the fear of losing my livelihood? As a pastor I regularly reminded myself that the folks at church were not responsible for paying me. They were God’s instruments to be sure, but God was in charge of my well-being. I am glad for a father who instilled in me the virtue of doing the right thing no matter the cost.
*Am I fearful of speaking up due to jeopardizing opportunities for ministry (or business) in certain venues? Much could be said about this, but the reality is that many don’t press important issues over fear of losing out on speaking and writing opportunities.
Years ago, I talked with a guy who lost his job at a big, Christian publishing house because he protested them accepting a book which contained heresy. The best-selling author stayed and the editor left. It cost him in some significant and very tangible ways, but it did not cost him his integrity.
*Am I fearful of speaking up because I truly like these people and don’t want to lose my “community”? This is understandable as indeed all of these temptations are, but we must ask how good the friends really are if any pushback and challenge is viewed as a threat to the friendship.
Personally, I don’t mind hearty disagreements and have had them with many friends. I do mind when a lack of respect, not actively listening to one another, setting up straw-man points, ad hominems, or the all too common practice of passive-aggressive behavior takes place.
*Am I fearful of speaking up because I don’t want to be tagged “a critical spirit”? Labels can be lethal. I have seen the “critical spirit” label wielded with wicked efficiency.
To be candid, I have been guilty for labeling some “company men” who may not have deserved it. Others probably did, but that still is not the best way to communicate. We label because as David Dark said so well, we are lazy and want “mental shortcuts.”
In either case, we ought to be willing to be misunderstood, but actively seeking to understand others better. I am absolutely convinced this is greatly aided by proximity. If I don’t know someone it is easy to label them in an unfavorable light. If I do get to know them, we might still disagree, but be less keen on categorizing one another with our unflattering arsenal of terms.
One example is the mea culpa a popular blogger gave over his less than flattering review of Ann Voskamp’s, One Thousand Gifts. Tim Challies candidly registered his dismay over how he treated Voskamp (http://www.challies.com/articles/in-which-i-ask-ann-voskamps-forgiveness). Wonderfully, it was Voskamp’s invitation to Challies and his family for a meal with the Voskamp family which got that ball rolling. So proximity is powerful. Repeat it often!
My go to verses which have helped me better navigate (no perfection achievable this far from Eden!) the choppy waters of simultaneously not fearing man, yet remembering the need to remain a man growing in peace with others whenever possible are:
“Stop regarding man, who breath of life is in his nostrils; for why should he be esteemed?” (Isa. 2:22)
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7)
“If possible, so far as depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Rom. 12:18) while always remembering the balancing verse of “Woe to you when all the people speak well of you; for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way.” (Luke 6:26)
“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19)
Late last night, I was overcome with grief. The tears were not expected.
It is impossible to digest properly all that happened yesterday. As I write in my forthcoming book Stuck in the Present, we need the longer view of history for that, so I am heeding my own counsel.
Over the years, I have heard warnings to not take the American experiment in democracy for granted. It is sturdy in one sense, but still fragile. I remember hearing that each generation of Americans must commit to it. I thought it was good to issue such a warning but was never too worried. No longer.
Have things been this bad before in America? An argument can certainly be made for that and the antebellum period is the one historians typically mention.
Are our cluster of present problems unique to the more modern period of American history? Again, I think the 1960s offers another example of serious strife and deep division.
My deepest sadness, however, is not over our country’s present chaos and strife.
My deepest sadness is over the state of the Christian faith in America.
For many decades I have witnessed Christians who are apathetic about knowing God’s Word, loving one’s enemies, an unwillingness to suffer for Christ in the most modest of ways, prayerlessness, and much more.
Most Christians are poorly prepared for times of crisis. We love the church programs that meet our insatiable desires. We adore our celebrity pastors. We are biblically and historically illiterate, but more than willing to offer our superficial opinions on the most vexing issues of the day.
This sad state of affairs is due to a lack of making long-term discipleship and serious grounding in the Christian faith our priorities. These simply do not take place in many churches (or parachurches for that matter). We have sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind. We should not be surprised where we find ourselves.
Things are not going to be any better by avoiding these realities. Things also might not be any better if we face these realities but at least we will have been faithful.
I pray for God’s mercy, but I do not find myself too sanguine. My lack of “optimism” is not because the culture is so bad. Rather, it is because many of us Americans claiming the name of Christ have become dull of hearing.
God’s Word makes it clear that Christians can lose their influence (Mt. 5:13; Rev. 2:4,5). We are kidding ourselves if we think this is not happening right now.
All of us who claim the name of Christ need to ponder and consider Peter’s dire warning:
Indeed, none of you should suffer as a murderer or thief or wrongdoer, or even as a meddler. But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?… (I Peter 4:15-17)
I added this in the reply link, but will also add it here:
Again, to underscore the biggest point of the post: Yes, shock over the events of yesterday, but I am much more worried about the state of Christianity in America. And my concerns go way back before Trump or any other politician.
We must look at ourselves!
In light of my recent posts, I thought it might be good to offer a few principles that I try to apply when engaging issues where sharp disagreement occurs. These are from my forthcoming book, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians.
First, it is possible that we did not properly understand the other person’s position. We may be jumping the proverbial gun and thus setting up a straw man argument. A great antidote, and one we have noted that is characteristic of humble people, is listening well. We should make certain we are properly tracking on what is communicated. We are told in Scripture to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (Jas. 1:19 NASB)
Some of you may be familiar with the folks from Westboro Baptist Church. They are the ones that like to show up with signs announcing that some person or group is “going to hell.”
The Christian teaching on hell has occupied most of my adult life. My thesis then first book was on hell.[i]
The people of Westboro Baptist think they are being brave by proclaiming the scandalous message that people who don’t trust Christ are going to hell. A few years back, the following illustration came to mind. I think it illumines the folly of approach among those who align with Westboro Baptist.
Most people have not been to either Yuma, Arizona or Dubrovnik, Croatia. I have. Yuma is a fine place. Some quaint things to see there, but Dubrovnik is absolutely stunning in its beauty. Now let’s say I offer someone an all-expenses paid trip to either Yuma or Dubrovnik. Most would have to guess which one is better because they know nothing about these places beyond perhaps hearing their names. They have no context for what I am offering. The folks at Westboro jump right to the topic of hell, but there are so many important biblical truths to know before one can even begin to appreciate hell. I have found many church-going folks needing more teaching on the character of God, the nature of sin, and so forth, to better understand Scripture’s teaching on hell. If that is true of regular church-attenders, how much more for those who know little of the Christian faith!
Listening well and making sure others understand what is being said is not a strength of the folks at Westboro Baptist Church.
Second, we may not understand our own position as well as we think. The most secure in any debate are those who have taken time for adequate preparation. Our need here is to dig deeper and see if in fact our position holds up. Spiritual growth, as we talked about earlier in this book, is tied directly to our growth in knowledge. And this comes from recognizing when we really don’t know what we are talking about! We can learn something especially important from the ancient philosopher, Socrates. The Oracle of Delphi said he was the wisest man in all of Athens. Socrates thought the pronouncement was over the top and so sought to demonstrate that it was untrue. He assumed, rightly he thought, that there were others wiser than he. Like a good interviewer on radio, he sought to interact with various people. It turned out that everyone acted wise but were in fact plenty foolish. Socrates ended up accepting that the “oracle’s declaration was actually correct, for at least he recognized his own ignorance.”[ii]
It is also interesting to note Augustine’s admiration for a non-Christian teacher by the name of Faustus:
I wanted Faustus to tell me, after comparing the mathematical calculations which I had read in other books, whether the story contained in the Manichee books was correct, or at least whether it had an equal chance of being so. I now did not think him clever enough to explain the matter. Nevertheless I put forward my problems for consideration and discussion. He modestly did not even venture to take up the burden. He knew himself to be uninformed on these matters and was not ashamed to confess it. He was not one of the many loquacious people, whom I have had to endure, who attempted to instruct me and had nothing to say.[iii]
Third, we may properly understand the other person’s position as well as our own but give them more importance than they deserve. We typically do this in one of two ways: by making a secondary (or even tertiary) issue into a primary one, or by failing to remember that there are in fact “grey” issues sincere Christians do disagree over (see I Cor. 8; Ro. 14).
Last, we may properly understand the other position and our own, it may be an important issue, but we still need to communicate with grace and truth. Again, having a gracious spirit does not mean there must be a toning down of one’s convictions. It does mean we proceed cautiously ever aware of our fallen and finite state.[iv]
[i] David George Moore, The Battle for Hell: A Survey and Evaluation of Evangelicals’ Growing Attraction to the Doctrine of Annihilationism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995).
[ii] James S. Spiegel, How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 176.
[iii] Augustine, Confessions trans. by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.7.
[iv] For a terrific reflection of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, especially with respect to our limited perspectives, see David F. Ford, The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014), 56.
Some of my friends tell me that they have lost friends over so-called political differences. I say so-called because most of us use that word “politics” in a diminished, and so unhelpful, way.
Politics comes from the word polis which means city. The original meaning carried the idea of what good I should do for my community. The modern idea of politics has denigrated as a synonym that means simply advocating for one candidate over another. We certainly ought to be able to talk about who we are voting for and why without animus, but there is so much more we ought to first talk about.
It would be more productive if we first spent ample time pondering what good we ought to do for our community, then, and only then, moved to specific candidates. Jumping too quickly over the first makes for either nasty conversations or people steering clear of talking about controversial matters altogether.
There is a better option. Engage thoughtfully, challenge your own assumptions, and have conversation partners outside your own tribe. Don’t exclusively watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX. Read widely, including those who make you angry. They just might have something to offer that your own tribe is either blind to or unwilling to say.
Here are three pieces I recommend:
Senator Marco Rubio:
Timothy Dalrymple, President and CEO of Christianity Today:
Shai Linne at the Gospel Coalition: