Be Strong and Fervent in Spirit in the Cause of Truth and Life
Sanctity of Life Sunday
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. . .
A Word I Did not Know
I chose this text on this Sanctity of Life Sunday because of a word in an article by William Bennett that I did not know and had to look up. Many of you know who William Bennett is. He has become famous as the editor of The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass and as the former Secretary of Education under President Reagan. He was writing about how the courts in America, especially the Supreme Court, are finding various rights in the Constitution that the framers of the Constitution never dreamed of and which remove from public debate crucial moral issues that ought to be settled in the political process rather than by arbitrary judicial decision that has no clear root in the constitution.
What he said was that this problem with the courts today is not the main problem in America. Then came the word I had to look up. He said, "The problem is not simply with the Court; the problem is also with the citizenry itself. It seems to me that that is the heart of the matter: a culture of acedia has taken deep root in the soil of late twentieth century America, which has led to acquiescence and passivity. Have we lost our capacity for justifiable outrage? Can we be roused to act against the spread of foul and wicked practices?" (First Things, January, 1997, No. 69, p. 20, emphasis added).
So I looked up "acedia" in my Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary and it simply said, "Apathy, boredom." So he is saying that, here at the end of the twentieth century, a culture of apathy and boredom has taken deep root in America. This is different from fear. It's also different from disinterest in moral issues that comes because one has a passion for something else. This is a cultural yawn.
"Acedia" = Boredom, Apathy
It's the sort of mood that explains the incredible prevalence of sports and video games and movies that explode with tension and danger and risk and close calls, and stunning explosions and feats of daring. In all these things we see the attempt of a culture to find excitement and adventure and strong feeling in a workaday world that is just plain boring. It's as if we were made for exploits and adventure and exertion and passion and risk-taking in some great cause, and instead what we do all day is sit in front of a computer or shuffle papers or make deliveries or drive a bus or clean a room or sell a product or shuffle portfolios or prescribe medicines or fix gadgets. Life in the real world seems to fall so far short of what our hearts cry out for that the best we can do is create substitute, artificial exploits—football, basketball, hockey, explosive movies, shocking video games—anything to transport us out of the boredom of the real world, and give us a little taste of passion and zeal and daring and energy and strategy and courage—even if it is an artificial world. Somehow it seems to help satisfy the craving of our hearts.
I think William Bennett is right—there is in America today a deep cultural acedia—boredom and apathy. We look like we are having a great time as we go from one entertainment event and program and mall and movie to another, but it is all artificial. We are not excited with real life. We are desperately waiting for the weekend when we can play, because real life is just not connected with any great cause that inspires in us exploits of courage or daring or risk or adventure or strategy or dreaming or deep camaraderie. We wonder why our relationships are so feeble and thin and fragile. And deep down we know that part of the reason is that relationships go deep when arms are linked in a great cause that you are ready to lay down your lives for. Deep relationships are not cultivated by watching television or going to movies.
So I looked up the word acedia: apathy, boredom. As I thought about this in relation to abortion—one of the greatest evils of our nation—what struck me was that God's will for us in relation to the cause of truth and life is that we not be bored or apathetic, but zealous and fervent and strong in the service of Christ and his kingdom. The culture of acedia is contrary to the Christian mind and heart. That is why I chose Romans 12:9-11, especially verses 9 and 11.
The words used in verse 9b are strong words. Really strong. "Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good." "Abhor" and "cling" are not your ordinary, workaday words for dislike and like. They are not acedia words. They are words that say, GET UP! Think about this! Look at this! Is this evil? Is this evil? Well if this is evil, abhor this. Feel intensely about this!
Don't abhor people, but abhor evil. Abhor this evil! And cling to the good. Don't just say, "Yes, that is good. Birth is good. Life is good. Adoption is good." Take hold of the good and love the good. Embrace the good. Cherish the good. Feel strongly about the good. You can hear in these words a call to fight acedia. These are not words that fit with boredom and apathy. They are words that call our personalities into question. We may say, "Well, I am not a passionate person," and then justify lukewarm responses to evil and good. But in Christ we are all being changed into the image of God—and God is not lukewarm about evil and good. Christianity is diametrically opposed to the culture of acedia—the culture of boredom and apathy.
What We Already Know About Abortion
For many years I have been delivering messages here at Bethlehem describe the evil of abortion and the goodness of birth and, if necessary, hardship or adoption.
- We have seen that abortion is evil because what is happening in the womb is the unique person-forming work of God, and therefore abortion is an assault on the Creator-rights of the King of the Universe to bring eternal persons into existence.
- We have seen that abortion is evil because taking non-criminal life is the blessed privilege of God alone, not man. I call it "blessed" because that's what Job called it when his ten children were killed. "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).
- We have seen that abortion is evil because the babies torn apart in the womb bear the image of God. It is profoundly significant that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother's womb (Luke 1:15). Therefore human life, born and unborn, has a dignity that should not be despised.
- We have seen that abortion is evil because God has revealed to us that his way is to care for the weak and the helpless, and that is why any of us is saved (Isaiah 25:4).
- We have seen that abortion is evil because it is a sign of unbelief in the promises of God to think that killing the unborn is the only way God can make a livable future for you. "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:14).
- We have seen that abortion is evil because those who perform the act know what they are doing, with many of them admitting it is the killing of a child, but saying it the lesser of two evils.
- And we have seen that abortion is evil because it is essentially a way of providing women with the same supposedly consequence-free life of unlicensed sex that men seem to get.
And there are many other reasons why abortion is evil. We have seen all these. We need to be reminded of them, lest we be become calloused to the carnage down the street. But as I asked myself about this morning's message, I said, "Do I add to the list of reasons that abortion is evil, or do I assume that the people will share that conviction and so, rather, preach to stir them up not to grow weary—not to sink in the culture of acedia. I decided that is what I should do.
Especially when I read on in William Bennett's article, and read on in Romans 12. Let me read one more paragraph to you. Here he gives evidence that we are a nation in the grip of weak, irresolute, lazy acedia with regard to abortion.
But before I read it, I wonder if you all know what partial-birth abortion is. Both the Senate and House of Representatives passed a bill banning this hideous procedure unless the mother's life were at stake. On April 10, 1996, President Clinton vetoed the bill and the override was not sustained in the Senate. The President insisted that there must be an exception clause for the "health" of the mother—which, as in Roe v. Wade, has proved, as everyone knows, to be an abortion license whenever the mother wants one.
What is this procedure?
In September, 1993, Brenda Shafer, a registered nurse with thirteen years of experience, was assigned by her nursing agency to an abortion clinic. She considered herself pro-choice and didn't see a problem. She was wrong. Here is what she said:
I stood at the doctor's side and watched him perform a partial-birth abortion on a woman who was six months pregnant. The baby's heartbeat was clearly visible on the ultrasound screen. The doctor delivered the baby's body and arms, everything but his little head. The baby's body was moving. His little fingers were clasping together. He was kicking his feet. The doctor took a pair of scissors and inserted them into the back of the baby's head, and the baby's arms jerked out in a flinch, a startle reaction, like a baby does when he thinks that he might fall. Then the doctor opened the scissors up. Then he stuck the high-powered suction tube into the hole and sucked the baby's brains out. Now the baby was completely limp. I never went back to the clinic. But I am still haunted by the face of that little boy. It was the most perfect, angelic face I have ever seen. (Quoted from the Internet Home Page for "Campaign to End Partial-Birth Abortions.")
Now this is what prompted William Bennett to say that we are gripped by a culture of acedia. Here is what he said. And I hope the words land on you with the weight they should.
The Congress' failure to override President Clinton's veto of the 'partial-birth abortion' legislation is illustrative [of the culture of acedia]. When it comes to the subject of abortion, I believe that there are a limited number of hard wrenching cases. But here is an easy one: the presidential sanctioning of a procedure that is, for all intents and purposes, infanticide. What was most striking to me was the lack of virtually any public response [I think this is a serious overstatement even if the outcry was far from what it should have been]. Now it is true that most people do not know about the partial-birth abortion procedure, that most people who do are opposed to that awful procedure; and that the pro-abortionists spread misinformation. Still, we cannot escape the fact that we had something of a national debate about infanticide—and infanticide prevailed (because of a popular President's veto); that very little was heard from those Americans who did follow the debate; that the Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and many congressional candidates, said little or nothing about the issue during the 1996 campaign; and that Americans reelected a President, by a wide margin, the man who looked at infanticide and said yes to it." (First Things, January, 1997, p. 20)
"Not Lagging. . . Fervent"
That is what I saw when I kept reading in William Bennett's article. Here is what I saw when I kept reading in Romans 12—verses 10-11: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord."
It's verse 11 that I believe God wants us to hear this morning with a new responsiveness. These words are launched directly against the culture of acedia—the culture of apathy and boredom.
Not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.
All of life is a serving of the Lord. We do not serve the Lord one day a week and serve some other god on the other six. This is a verse about life. About living life as to the Lord, whether we are eating or drinking or whatever we are doing—to do it in the name of the Lord and for the glory of the Lord, since all of life belongs to the Lord. That includes all your family life and vocational life and leisure life and civic life and political life. So this verse is about how we deal with significant issues in public life.
There are two phrases that describe how we are to serve the Lord. They are the opposite of the culture of acedia. One expresses the opposite of acedia negatively and the other positively. First we are to serve the Lord by "not lagging behind in diligence." Literally, "not lazy in earnestness." The RSV says, "Never flag in zeal."
The NIV says, "Never be lacking in zeal." This is a rebuke to passivity and laziness and lethargy and apathy and boredom. Paul assumes that if you see this in yourself you can do something about it. We have been given the Holy Spirit and the Word of God and the power of prayer precisely to fight against the encroachments of the culture of acedia in our own hearts. So he speaks this word directly to us this morning as relates to the cause of truth and life: don't lag, don't float, don't drift, don't sit mindless in front of TV, don't have only little dreams of playing on the weekend. Stir up zeal for God and for the cause of God and truth and life. There are great things worth living for; and giving in to acedia is a sacrilege against the greatness of God and his glorious purposes in the world.
Second, in verse 11, Paul says, "[Be] fervent in spirit." The Greek word behind "fervent" --"zeontes"—means "boiling." That's where we get the English word "fervent," because it comes from the Latin word "to boil." Here is the positive side. Don't lag behind in diligence and earnestness and zeal, but rather, positively, "be fervent," "boil" in the spirit. Today we might say, "Be passionate" in your spirit. This is why our Church mission statement is not just a trendy adaptation to the use of the word "passion," but an explicit effort to capture this biblical demand. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. The word "passion" is based squarely on Romans 12:11, "boil in the spirit." "Be fervent in the spirit."
"Boil in the Spirit"
So my simple pastoral plea to you this morning is that you not be part of the culture of acedia, especially when it comes to abortion. That you fight against the encroachments of apathy and boredom and laziness and indifference. That you go to the word of God and let the Lord of glory speak life and energy and hope and zeal and passion and earnestness into your spirit. I'm talking to the young and the old.
That is his will for you this morning. If you have it—this "boiling in the Spirit"—you will find ways to pour your life out in the cause of truth and life. God will give more significance to your life than you could get from a thousand artificial games. Remember, we are Christians. Our lives are linked with Jesus Christ by faith, and he is the Lord of all things.
Through him and for him all things were made (Colossians 1:16).
God calls you to invest your life in something great. There is not Christian warrant for the culture of acedia. Christ is too great for that. Boredom with Christ and his kingdom means we are blind. Open your eyes this morning and let him inspire in you afresh a passion for his supremacy in all things, including the cause of truth and life in our tired and decaying culture.