My favorite moment in How the Grinch Stole Christmas is when the heart of the Grinch, once described as “three sizes too small,” suddenly begins to grow. The Grinch discovers the capacity to give and receive love, and as a result, joy swells along with his heart.
These days, the reverse seems to be happening in the United States. Our hearts are shrinking and shriveling, drying up before our eyes.
‘Wall Street Journal’ Survey of Values
Just look at a recent Wall Street Journal poll. The core values that once stood out among Americans as being important—morals worthy of pursuit and emulation—have receded. Over the last quarter century, the importance we attach to patriotism, religious faith, having children, and caring about the community has plummeted.
In 1998, 70 percent of respondents said patriotism was very important and 62 percent said the same about religion. Today, it’s only 38 percent and 39 percent. Having children? A drop from 59 percent to 30 percent. What about community involvement? From 62 percent to 27 percent. (One outlier: the importance we assign to money has climbed to 43 percent from 31 percent.) The biggest declines in these values appear to have occurred in the last five years.
“These differences are so dramatic, it paints a new and surprising portrait of a changing America,” says Bill McInturff, a pollster who worked on a previous survey. Indeed.
Several people sent me this article shortly after it began making the rounds online—no one surprised, everyone troubled. Now, it’s possible the methodological differences (shift from phone to online) as well as the small sample size (1,000) has affected the results here. A similar survey from Gallup likely gives a fuller picture, at least on patriotism. Still, it’s a slide into “record lows” no matter the exact percentages.
Sin and the Inward Curve
Sociologists and political theorists will point to various causes for these declines. We could blame the economic downturn, the pandemic, church scandals, political polarization, institutional distrust, or the rise of social media. And surely any and all of these factors affect the American outlook.
But from a theological perspective, what we’re witnessing is both an expression and an effect of sin.
The Christian tradition going back to Augustine describes sin as a “curving in on oneself.” Sin shrivels the soul. When, in our pride and decadence, we turn from God to self, we alienate ourselves not only from our Maker but also from those made in his image. Martin Luther noted how the deceit and corruption of the human heart (Jer. 17:9) leads us to be “so curved in upon ourselves” that our self-interest causes us to turn even spiritual goods into a way of fulfilling selfish purposes.
Effects of Sin
Close-knit communities can protect themselves from any number of outside threats. But the internal distress that comes from the soul-shriveling, inward turn of sin—that’s much harder to fix.
What the WSJ poll reveals is a curved-in expression of sin and selfishness in several areas.
- The loss of patriotism includes a loss of loyalty to anything beyond the self, a lack of gratitude for the good gifts that accompany one’s earthly citizenships, and a diminished love for one’s neighbors.
- The loss of religion implies the disappearance of transcendence or significance beyond this present moment, of something that reaches beyond our earthly horizons.
- The loss of community means we value the “freedom” that comes from being alone more than the mutual obligations that accompany deep and sustaining friendships.
- The loss of children means we no longer look to the future, no longer able or willing to endure the distractions and burdens of raising and training the next generation.
The effect of sin is loneliness, which often compounds the problem, leading to a further shriveling of the soul into the cocoon of self-focus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out how sin’s power grows:
“Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more attractive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.”
We weren’t made to find and express ourselves, to think freedom comes from cutting ourselves off from others, as if our meaning and significance can be excavated from the deepest caverns of our hearts. We were made not to look in first but to look up to God and then around to others.
A misdirected, curved-in-upon-itself love leads to isolation, alienation, and loneliness. It stunts our humanity. It’s only when we’re drawn out of ourselves, giving away our lives in self-giving love, that we find joy in God and in others.
The WSJ survey reveals the challenges of our time. But the church can find in these dismal results an opportunity. A chance. A way to stand out and offer the world something better.
- The church can cultivate loyalty that goes even beyond the goodness of patriotism (love for one’s fellow citizens and gratitude for earthly blessings) by helping us identify with all who pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ the Lord.
- The church can cultivate a genuine concern for the community by helping us find satisfaction not in seeking to have all our needs met but in pouring ourselves out to meet the needs of others, in imitation of our Servant King.
- The church can remind us of the goodness of creation and the glory of redemption, bursting through the immanent frame that would limit our vision only to temporal realities.
- The church can foster in us a love for families and children, a desire to see the next generation carry forward the fire of God’s love and grace, adding to the number of those who confess the name of his Son.
The gospel of grace does more than simply enlarge a shriveled soul. The Spirit replaces a heart of stone with a heart of flesh. And as the Spirit works in us, we see our souls expand, our selfishness healed, our curved-in hearts turned inside out through the fullness and wholeness of loving God and neighbor.
The WSJ poll is depressing, but Christians can take heart. We have the solution in the power of the gospel and the witness of the church.
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