Volume 25 - Issue 2
What Do Miserable Christians Sing?By Carl Trueman
Many of us despise the health, wealth, and happiness teachings of the American televangelists and their pernicious British counterparts, as scandalous blasphemy. The idea that Christianity, at whose centre stands the Suffering Servant, the man who had nowhere to lay his head, and the one who was obedient to death—even death on the cross—should be used to justify the idolatrous greed of affluent Westerners simply beggars belief.
Nevertheless, there is a real danger that these heretical teachings have seeped into evangelical life in an imperceptible yet devastating way, affecting not so much our theology as our horizons of expectation. We live, after all, in a society whose values are precisely those of health, wealth and happiness. Look at the number of medical dramas and documentaries on television: is our obsession with the medical profession not a function of our obsession with health? Listen to the politicians: New Labour finance ministers say they want to reward ‘risk takers’. Are they referring to the men and women who work in the slums with the drug addicts, who bravely stand against the paramilitary control of their communities in Ulster, who go to areas of conflict and put their lives on the line, who take ‘real risks’? Of course not. They mean the entrepreneurs and the ‘wealth creators’—often those whose sole motive (whatever the altruistic rhetoric) is personal profit and whose only ‘risks’ are the irresponsible financial speculations in which they indulge with the hard earned savings and pensions of others. And look at the veritable explosion in the litigation and compensation arena: once upon a time, compensation was linked to loss of earnings; now it is often apparently linked to loss of comfort and happiness, with all of the trivial court cases that inevitably brings in its wake.
Where does the church stand in all this? First, let us look at the contemporary language of worship. Now, worship is a difficult subject and, having experienced—and generally appreciated—worship across the whole evangelical spectrum, from Charismatic to Reformed—I am myself concerned here less with the form of worship than I am with its content. I would, however, like to make just one observation: the psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, have almost entirely dropped from view in the contemporary Western evangelical scene. I am not certain about why this should be, but I have an instinctive feel that it has more than a little to do with fact that a high proportion of psalms are taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented, and broken. In modern Western culture, these are simply not emotions which have much credibility: sure, people still feel these things, but to admit that they are a normal part of one’s everyday life is tantamount to admitting that one has failed in today’s health, wealth, and happiness society.
Now, one would not expect the world to have much time for the weakness of the psalmists’ cries. It is disturbing, however, when these cries of lamentation disappear from the language of the church. Perhaps the Western church feels no need to lament—but then it is sadly deluded about how healthy it really is. Perhaps—and this is more likely—we have drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that we simply do not know what to do with such cries and regard them as little short of embarrassing. Yet the human condition is a poor one—and Christians who are aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and are looking for a better country should know this. A diet of unremittingly jolly hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party—a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is—or at least should be—all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades—China, Africa. Eastern Europe—would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience. Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair—and joy, when it manifests itself, is very different from that found in so much of our modern Western Christianity. In the psalms. God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does the absence of such cries from contemporary worship indicate that the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church, making us consider them irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?
I was once present at a church meeting where someone argued that the psalms should take a higher priority in evangelical worship than they generally do—and he was told in no uncertain terms by one indignant person that such a view betrayed a heart that had no interest in evangelism. On the contrary, I believe it is the exclusion of the experiences and expectations of the psalmists from our worship—and thus from our own horizons of expectation—which has in a large part crippled the evangelistic efforts of the church in the West and turned us all into spiritual pixies. By excluding cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. It has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, and generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity. In the last year, I have asked three very different evangelical audiences what miserable Christians can sing in church. On each occasion my question has elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical—and yet I posed the question in all seriousness.
One might also look at the content of prayers—those we speak in private and those at the church meeting. How often did Abraham, Moses, and Paul pray for health, for worldly success, for personal happiness and satisfaction? How do the concerns of these men compare with the content and priorities of our own prayers? Do our intercessions, despite the pious theological padding, unwittingly mimic the priorities of the Elmer Gantrys of this world who peddle a pernicious gospel of health, wealth, and happiness?
Then, look at our own aspirations: big houses, flash cars, double incomes—all feature in the dreams of many of us, wrapped up as we are in making personal comfort and satisfaction our primary goal. Yet we should not build our lives on the basis of personal satisfaction but on the vision of self-sacrifice and service that the Bible lays before us. Given the choice, what would many of us involved in the professional theological sphere, students and academics, do: speak at a major academic gathering and hob-nob with the great and the good, or talk to the church youth group? Of course, many times we can do both—but what if we had to make a choice? The answer will speak eloquently of where our real treasure is stored. Has the gospel of our own personal ambition not upstaged the gospel of sacrificial service? It is faithfulness, not happiness or worldly reputation, which is the criterion of Christian success.
The church in the West is caught in a maelstrom of decline. One might suggest a whole variety of ways to overcome this. Some suggest we need to be more ‘postmodern’ in our worship; others suggest we need to rethink how the gospel is communicated. I confess to being sceptical about these proposals, not because they are too radical but because they are not radical enough. They reduce the causes For decline to the level of methodology or sociology and offer relatively painless remedies to what is, if we are honest, a very serious, even terminal, disease. Indeed, those who see the problem exclusively in these terms are in danger of merely replicating the kind of solutions which the very health, wealth, and happiness culture itself would propose: in the consumer culture. Christianity is a product, and poor sales can therefore be overcome by new management, better packaging and more astute marketing. Now I am not suggesting that sociologists and postmodernists have nothing useful to tell us—we must, of course, take care that we present the gospel in a way in which society can understand it—but we must remember that to reduce Western Christianity’s difficulties to the level of bad techniques is to miss the point: the real problem is ultimately one of morality, not methodology. Quite simply, the evangelical church has sold its soul to the values of Western society and its current decline is thus not in the final analysis simply the result of secularisation; it is ultimately the result of the active judgement of God upon our secularised church culture. We have bought into the idolatry of the secular values of health, wealth, and happiness, and until we all, on both the individual and corporate level, realise this, repent of it, and give ourselves in painful, sacrificial service to the Lord who bought us., we will see no improvement.
How can we do this? First, let us all learn once again to lament. Read the psalms over and over until you have the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax necessary to lay your heart before God in lamentation. If you do this, you will have the resources to cope with your own periods of suffering, despair and heartbreak, and to keep worshipping and trusting through even the blackest of times; you will also develop a greater understanding of fellow Christians whose agonies of, say, bereavement, depression, or despair, sometimes make it difficult for them to sing ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’ with gusto every Sunday morning; and you will have more credible things to say to those shattered and broken individuals—be they burned-out bank managers or down-and-out junkies—to whom you may be called to be a witness of God’s unconditional mercy and grace to the unloved and the unlovely. For such, as the Bible might put it, were some of you …
Second, seek to make the priorities of the biblical prayers the priorities of your own prayers. You can read all the trendy sociology and postmodern primers you want, and they may well give you valuable technical insights, but unless your studies, your preaching, your church life, your family life, indeed, your whole life, are soaked in prayer and reflect the priorities of the Bible, they will be of no profit to you or to anybody else.
And finally, as regards personal ambitions and life-plans, ‘Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!’
Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.