There’s a worrisome quality in many of today’s would-be prophets—writers and pundits who foresee only doom for the future of civilization, who seem perpetually distressed by the desecration of the church’s witness (whether by external pressures or internal rot).
I don’t take issue with the plausibility of the dire scenarios they predict. I often share their diagnoses and agree with their warnings. Apart from the church acting as salt in a manner that slows down societal decay, and apart from a God-sent revival that arrests and redirects our cultural decline, we are indeed on the path toward some kind of dystopia. Meanwhile, the humiliating revelations of hypocrisy and injustice in the church prove how frail and compromised God’s people can be.
When you look at the state of the world and the state of the church, you might think, There’s nothing to smile about. And yet there’s always something to smile about. We believe in the sovereign goodness of God. We believe in the lordship of Jesus Christ. We believe in the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit who blows where he wishes. As the apostle Paul showed us even in his prison writings, there’s a joy in God more powerful than circumstances.
Loss of Joy
The worrisome quality I find in much of today’s cultural commentary is the absence of joy. It’s as if our souls have shriveled until all that remains is a sense of hopelessness, a quiet resignation that assumes the church cannot thrive in this strange new world.
There’s a place, of course, for Jeremiahs—those who weep over the spiritual state of the city, who mourn its desolation. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, and alas, there’s much in our world to mourn. “There are such things as Christian tears,” John Stott wrote, “and too few of us ever weep them.”
But so much of today’s punditry seems marked not by the weeping that lasts for a night and the joy that comes in the morning, but by resentment, and by anger toward injustice that begins as righteous before succumbing to sinful impulses—an indignation that no longer knows the tears of Jeremiah or the unstoppable joy of Paul.
And so, when we survey the landscape of the church and culture, we must make sure to keep in sight the opportunities that accompany today’s challenges.
Hope for the Future
Consider the church. As painful as this season of humiliation may be, we must acknowledge this is the road to humility. Perhaps when some of the societal privileges we’ve taken for granted are stripped away or when the trappings of worldly status and prestige disappear, we’ll find ourselves in a place of desperate dependence on the only One with true spiritual power.
Humbled, we drop to our knees in prayerful, quiet desperation. The renewal of the church will be known not by leaders with celebrity and fame but by faithful service in the vineyard of the Lord, by men and women marked by the shovel of service rather than the scepter of status. And after the storms of humiliation blow through, the garden of humility will be refreshed by the sun, and the flowers of renewed dependence on God will blossom again.
Consider the culture. We can endlessly decry the developments of a society careening toward insanity and injustice. But it’ll take more than talk to do the hard work of rebuilding in the aftermath of severe societal decay. It will require sentiments stronger than resentment and anger. We’ll need the power of joy and hope.
In previous eras of societal disarray when the church gave witness to the gospel, our forefathers and mothers in the faith were marked not by their sober assessment of the situation, ever somber and solemn, as if the grim business at hand made impossible the grin of faith. They were known for faith in their God-given purpose, for ebullient hope no matter the circumstances and for their love directed even to the people they opposed.
Gladness Stronger than Resentment
The church must often stand against the world for the good of the world. Some things we must oppose. But it’s the church’s irrepressible joyfulness—the smile of confidence in God’s good providence—that stands out in a world of dour debates and sour dispositions. That sense of deep-rooted gladness must be present at the dinner table, in our neighborhoods, and in our church services.
Resentment will not heal an ailing society; it only adds salt to the wound. The world needs the church to embody serious joy, a rock-ribbed assurance that the truth has set us free in a world that falls for falsehood.
So the next time you read the headlines, listen to podcasts, and take in the latest developments that portend trouble for the church ahead, don’t shake your head and succumb to helplessness. You may not be able to pull levers that bring about change all over the country, but you can shape the culture of your home and the culture of your church family—and you can be a source of joy that spills out into the culture of your neighborhood, for the good of your city. What’s the point of battling Mordor if you’ve lost the joy of the Shire?
Yes, let’s equip the next generation for the challenges ahead. Let’s prepare them to be seen as the “savages” in Brave New World, whose commitment to eternal truths will cost them the acclaim of polite society and institutional elites. Let’s not sugarcoat the present or close our eyes to the challenges of the future.
But above all, teach them to smile. Give them a cheerful confidence and ground them in a happiness worth spreading. Remind them that truth is ultimately irrepressible, and come what may, as Sam told Frodo, “It’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”
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