Thursday, November 10, 2016

Addressing the Symptom or the Source?

Recently, I have been pondering the common usage of “broken” and “brokenness.”  I looked for a dictionary definition on-line and found several definitions:
  • infringed or violated
  • interrupted, disrupted, or disconnected
  • weakened in strength, spirit, etc.
  • tamed, trained, or reduced to submission
  • (of a relationship) split apart; not intact
  • (of a family) disunited or divided by the prolonged or permanent absence of a parent
  • not smooth; rough or irregular
  • ruined; bankrupt
We know the effects are common to the human condition and empathize with those currently enduring them.  Life is difficult and messy.  Desiring to convey understanding and compassion, we use such language to describe stress and hardship in ourselves and others.  As Christians, we know the real problem: all creation is ruined because of sin.  However, a question remains.  In our efforts to address and ease human suffering, do we go too far in softening our language to ease that pain?

One does not need to go far in Christian circles before encountering therapeutic language in response to the pervasiveness of brokenness.  Evangelism has become communicating the aforementioned empathy.  Songs relate how Jesus can fix the hurts and burdens.  Radio stations bill themselves as positive and encouraging.  Pastors preach a relationship with Jesus.  The problem is not the language.  We are called to compassion.  We can walk through Scripture identifying the passages that are the basis for these actions.  Indeed, we should teach and practice the care due to the downtrodden, discouraged, etc.

This is not a new phenomenon.  Decades ago, mainline denominations shifted from preaching God’s Word in truth to appeasing hearers in order to address societal ills.  In an effort to create a level social strata, immediate conditions were salved, even improved, with the desire that those receiving help would then attend church services and be grafted in the to local flock.  As time progressed, those ills became more varied and debauched as culture shifted in nature from communal to personal: “What I need (or think I need) must be honored or met.”  With this shift, the centrality of what kept the denominations grounded has been replaced with affirmations of the individual and personal choice.

Sadly, sections of conservative denominations and independent churches that watched the decline of mainline denominations has begun sinking into the same morass.  Those groups lacking a formal confessional foundation appear to be particularly susceptible to the downward slide, but they are certainly not alone.  Congregations are seeking to be relevant to the culture for the same reasons that mainline denominations tried—expecting different results.  Instead of focusing on collective ills, the congregations have focused on the personal, offering multiple ways to connect with the local assembly.

We are called to help, but there is a serious flaw in the way the above has been practiced: the root cause is minimized.  Dealing with the symptoms, scant attention is given to the source issue of sin.  Considered the new hymnody of western evangelicalism, Praise & Worship (or contemporary Christian) music gives itself over to personal feelings and experience.  Consider the following first verses from two songs written 150 years apart:

Hallelujah! What a Savior You’re Beautiful
Phil­ip P. Bliss Phil Wickham
Man of Sorrows! what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
|   I see Your face in every sunrise
|   The colors of the morning are inside Your eyes
|   The world awakens in the light of the day
|   I look up to the sky and say
|   You're beautiful

The differences between them are ever so subtle—not.  While both claim to glory in the Son, the emphases cannot be further apart: the former in a savior, the second in what exactly?  To be fair, both speak of the need for the cross, though in quite different terms:

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
|   I see You there hanging on a tree
|   You bled and then you died and then you rose again for me
|   Now You are sitting on Your heavenly throne
|   Soon we will be coming home
|   You're beautiful

The former explicitly conveys our desperate condition and need for rescue, while the latter speaks of a sacrificial act and a reunion, both of which I should appreciation, but what they entail is never given.  We are left with a selfless, humanitarian act, but to what end?  In the final analysis, we can appreciate the effort, but why does it matter ultimately?

This is one example among many methods of communication that can be given.  When presenting the Gospel, we have an obligation to make known the whole truth.  While experiences and outcomes are nice to understand, we should not end there.  Comfort and healing of soul does not come from the outward application of biblical principles.  That comes from believing on God’s promises in Christ Jesus.  In trusting the finality of a full atonement, we rest in the work completely accomplished for each of us.  He died for me, therefore all He gives is mine as well.

Many will say that because we believed once in the the saving work of Christ, we are free to pursue the upward life by through our efforts if we but have enough faith.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While freed from the law of sin and death, believers carry within them the old man that must be put to death daily.  Only by daily reliance on Christ, on the sure Word of God delivered to us, can the walk of faith be taken much less finished.  The endless appeal to relationships and emotions will produce growth that will wither and die, either through lack of depth or the heat of outward pressure.  Rather than settle for the “feels,” long for and cling to the pure milk of the Word by which you grow and might be part of a crop that produces thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold.

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