Gospel Hope for Cultural Pessimists
A relevant and timely question from Alex: “Pastor John, what do you do when your pastor is fixated and preoccupied with all the negative state of affairs in the world today? When he is constantly telling the congregation that ‘Jesus must come soon’ in order to stem the moral collapse of society, and that the government is to be blamed, and other pastors who are not preaching against societal evils are to be blamed as well.” Any thoughts for Alex?
Any thoughts?! Haha.
I have lots of thoughts like, we don’t know when Jesus is coming back and there have always been cultural collapses in history worse than the one we are in — great changes in Christian civilization such that, what we are experiencing now is no more apocalyptic, say, than the destruction of a thousand years of Christian history in the Near East.
I just read Philip Jenkins’s The Lost History of Christianity a few months ago and, good night, does everybody need to realize the sovereignty of God in the flow and the scope of history! What a devastating thing as whole Christian cultures vanished in the Near East a thousand years ago, which would have appeared more apocalyptic than anything we are in now. So that is my first thought. An alarmist approach toward eschatology is usually historically naïve. By all means, let’s always, always, always be vigilant and watchful and mindful of the glorious coming of the Lord Jesus who is going to arrive. He is going to arrive suddenly when the Father has appointed it and nobody is going to be able to nail that with their prediction.
But that is not my main thought in responding to this. And I don’t think that is really the questioner’s main concern. My main concern is — and I may be guilty of this myself — how do we maintain the right balance between weeping for sin and the misery of the world around us on the one hand and joy because of what Christ has done for us and who he is and what he has promised now and forever and what is going to happen to this world ultimately? How do we put those together? That is the great challenge for the pastor and really for all Christians, but especially leaders who are charged with setting the tone of a people. So here are some thoughts about that.
1) Whatever measure of pessimism a pastor may feel or I may feel about our own society as Christians, we should be long-term optimists. And I think premillennialists and amillennialists can say this with as much or more confidence than postmillennialists, though everybody can say it in those three camps. Sooner or later Christ is, in fact, going to break into this world and put everything right. He is going to cast the weeds into outer darkness, and he is going to establish his kingdom, and the world will be full of the glory of the Lord like the waters cover the sea, and righteousness and justice and peace will kiss all for the glory of Christ. That is coming and we should be deeply, deeply confident and optimistic about it.
2) My second thought is that we must believe in the sovereignty of God as the Bible teaches it. How easy it is to put the sovereignty of God to the side while lamenting the miseries and wickedness of this world. God is in charge of the world. This is one of the great benefits of reading the whole Bible cover to cover every year. I am so thankful I have done that for, what, 30 years. You watch the terrible sweep of evil in the world — and the Bible portrays it better than anybody, the sweep of evil from century to century in the world — and you have this rugged, unwavering, biblical perspective that God is on his throne and is in charge over the world and evil does not, will not triumph. So that note must be struck, the sovereignty of God by a pastor must be struck over and over again, because his people are going to start losing it as things get bad.
3) My third thought is that every pastor should be a Christian Hedonist, whether he embraces the term or not. That means he should see the pursuit of joy in God as an essential way for him and his people to glorify God in every circumstance. And if it is essential — and I have argued all over the place that it is — if it is an essential way to glorify God, then it must be highlighted in his ministry over and over again, because people tend to drift away from joy in Christ as circumstances get bleak. We all do. And pastors are charged: Help your people not drift from joy in Christ, in the worst of times. Joy in Christ in those circumstances is what glorifies Christ. That is the essence of Christian Hedonism.
4) My fourth thought, which is very related to the third and, yet, I think deserves a special focus: 2 Corinthians 6:10 says, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” In other words, no matter how bad it gets, as sorrow mounts up upon sorrow, nevertheless, there will always be Christian rejoicing. Pastors are duty bound to help their people understand that phrase and live it and see why it is there and model it for them. To be sure, let no one misunderstand, to be sure, we weep with those who weep. We groan over the wickedness of our cities. If we don’t, we are guilty. But in all our weeping, all our groaning, there is an indomitable joy. If there is not, then the Bible is delivering a false message and our gospel is not triumphant.
5) And maybe one more, a fifth, final thought for pastors from Hebrews 13:17. It says that pastors are “keeping watch over your souls,” namely, keeping watch over the flock in their charge. And then it says: “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you,” to the people. Now what pastors should get from that sentence, Hebrews 13:17, is that if they go about their work of preaching and pastoral care with groaning and a gloomy demeanor because of the state of the world, it will be of no advantage to the people. A gloomy pastor makes a sick congregation.
So let’s pray for our pastors and for ourselves: 1) that God would make them and us long-term optimists, 2) that they he would make us lovers of the sovereignty of God, 3) that we would be totally committed to the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, 4) that we would be sustained and our pastor would be sustained by the reality of sorrowful yet always rejoicing, and finally 5) let’s pray that we and he, the pastor, would be deeply committed to doing the ministry with joy so that we will build a healthy church in the midst of a cultural collapse, not a gloomy, sick church that doesn’t contribute anything to the solution.