First Check the Coffin
MARCH 1, 2023
I once identified Gerald May (the author of Addiction and Grace, from which I had quoted) as dead in a book I wrote.
As soon as my book was published, I started getting emails, letters, and phone calls from his friends, letting me know that he was alive and kicking. I was so embarrassed. I wrote to Dr. May and apologized, “I told people you were dead, and I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. When and if there is a second printing, I’ll correct that. Meanwhile, don’t worry too much. My books don’t sell that many copies, and only a few people will think you’re dead. Besides, there’s an upside to people thinking you’re dead. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
(By the way, I received an unbelievably gracious reply from Dr. May. He said that his staff was still laughing about my apology. Then he told me that I wasn’t far off because he had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and asked that I pray for him. And I prayed for Dr. May daily until he died in 2005.)
It’s a good policy not to reference anybody’s death until first checking the coffin.
That’s not only true of people but also of the church. The Roman Empire tried to kill the early church while in its infancy as just a small group of nobodies. They failed. In fact, by the second century, the church had grown to such proportions that Tertullian, an early Christian apologist for the faith, wrote to Roman leaders, “We are but of yesterday, but we have filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum—we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.”
What Tertullian wrote was true, but Pagan hope springs eternal. In the third century, the Roman emperor Julian (often called “Julian the Apostate”) tried to destroy the Christian faith and failed. On his deathbed, Julian is quoted as having said, “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean.”
He always does. When you think he hasn’t conquered, it’s best to go back and check the coffin. Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead.” But God said in response, “Nietzsche is dead.”
If you read much, you’ve heard that we live in a “post-Christian” world. So many thought leaders (even Christian ones), scholars, and sociologists have said Christianity is over. As the world becomes more advanced and sophisticated, the Christian faith will have served its purpose and died.
It might be wise to check the coffin.
I just finished reading Joshua Mitchell’s really good book, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. Dr. Mitchell has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is a professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University, from where, for a while, he took leave to serve as acting chancellor of The American University in Iraq. His book enabled me to see, for the first time, the nature and many causes of the rapid political and cultural changes that have happened in our time. Dr. Mitchell writes of the difference between supplements and substitutes; and how there is no hope when supplements become substitutes. He uses the example of a courageous soldier whose weapons are supplements for courage. The soldier is still courageous, but the weapons supplement that courage. But that soldier will eventually be destroyed when the weapons become the substitute for courage.
Dr. Mitchell believes that we are very close to a Christian awakening in America because so many of our supplements have become substitutes . . . and that is especially true in the area of religion. We have bought into the law (albeit a law of political correctness, woke standards, and canceled sinners) without even nodding in the direction of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. A lot of modern culture has the smell of the worst kind of fundamentalism in which judgment and condemnation of the guilty is on steroids. Our culture is naive and shallow about the nature, depth, and reality of human evil and holds the spurious belief that everything is fixable. That has led to a cancel culture of arrogance, giving self-righteousness a new and dangerous platform. Dr. Mitchell says that that view isn’t sustainable because there is no hope without an understanding of universal evil and sin and a concomitant grasp of the need for redemption, mercy, and forgiveness.
The proclamation of innocence (“virtue signaling”) against those who are stained and guilty eventually devastates any society, culture, or nation. Our medicated addictions for happiness, the exploding suicide rate, and the pandemic of depression and fear are signs of a major breakdown. Christianity thus becomes the only hope in the darkness. It is the last resort of the drunk who has come to the end of himself. The only alternatives are sobriety or death.
I believe that Dr. Mitchell, and a number of other Christian scholars and thinkers, are right about a coming awakening. We don’t live in a “post-Christian” world but a “pre-Christian” one. When the Dark Ages happened in western Europe, rapid and destructive economic, intellectual, and cultural decline occurred. Today, we don’t refer to that period as the Dark Ages but as the Early Middle Ages, but renaming reality doesn’t change it. At any rate, Christians receded into the background during that time and waited, watched, and prayed. When it got really bad and dark, their light shined. That was one of the important causes for the Christian awakening and revival that followed. I believe that history is about to repeat itself.
A number of years ago, when John Piper faced cancer, he wrote a really good book, Don’t Waste Your Cancer. In other words, everything that you experience in your life is a part of the light that shines in the dark. It’s what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). That “light” isn’t what a lot of preachers (me, too, on occasion) generally think of when we think of ourselves as “the light of the world.” I suppose that sometimes our pristine walk with Christ and our goodness is a sort of light. But frankly, if that’s it, we don’t do very well. Nevertheless, we are the light and maybe the only ones around. For those who have tried everything and have no place left to go, it is important that somebody shines a light. As Christians, we need to prepare to welcome the refugees from the “far country” where the world has gone crazy.
For instance, we do that by not wasting our sin. That was exactly what Paul did when he gave his confession (Romans 7) and claimed that he was the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). You’ve probably heard me often say and it bears repeating: Our sin is the best gift God has given us . . . when we know it. And our obedience is our most dangerous place . . . when we know that. That’s true for a lot of reasons—the danger of self-righteousness, pride, arrogance, etc.—but here’s another. When our present dark age runs out of gasoline (and it will), leaving people to look for answers, our goodness, purity, and innocence are not only lies; they won’t help anybody. Our culture has already tried that, and it was a dead end. We are the light of the world, and that is a light proclaiming with Martin Luther that we are all great sinners and Jesus is a great Savior. All of us! If we simply create another cancel culture with different and Christian players (we’ve done that before, by the way), we invite people to hell when they’ve already been there and done that.
We shouldn’t waste our truth, either. Once when I was a young pastor in a small town, one of the pastors there quit coming to meetings. I asked one of his friends what had happened to him. He responded, “Jack has quit ministering to them and joined them.” As everything changes, one of the real temptations for us is to set aside our truth and “join them.” It’s dangerous to want to be accepted by the “cool kids.” Our truth about what is right and wrong, what is sin and what isn’t, what will build and what will destroy, and what will bless and what will curse, is precious. Our truth about God’s grace isn’t just precious, either. It is at the heart of our faith. When the tired, lonely, marginalized, and sinful look for answers (and they will), we dare not give them a “mess of pottage,” like in Genesis 25 when Esau sells his birthright for a mess of pottage. Our birthright is truth. It’s the truth about who God is, what the world is really like, who we are, and the debt we owe. Truth is a light that must be shined for “them.” And it won’t be just truth for “them”; it’s an ongoing truth for “us,” too.
There is one other thing (well, maybe several, but I’m running out of space). We must never waste our forgiveness and love. I don’t know about you, but a whole lot of people, organizations (political, cultural, and religious), and events make me spitting angry. It’s not just that they are wrong; it’s that they are irredeemably and insufferably stupid. I think almost everybody knows it, but most folks are afraid to say so. A good prayer would be, “Lord, when I was, and sometimes continue to be, irredeemably and insufferably stupid, you loved me. Grant me the grace to love those who have done so much damage, hurt many people, and canceled many who disagreed.” That’s called forgiveness, and its lack is the bane of our world. Forgiveness has been missing for so long now that it’s hard to identify. That’s the reason we need an awakening. In fact, if we don’t give forgiveness, we will be no different from the culture people will be fleeing. It will come down to one thing—who has the power, money, and leverage.
If you feel what I feel as I write this, all of this is intimidating. I want people to know my innocence and often work to protect my reputation. There are many times when I just want people to leave me alone so I can be proud of my truth without the hassle of sharing it. I like to be accepted, too. So often, I don’t have enough love and forgiveness to give to those who irritate me. I’m the reason God sent his Son to die for my sins, but it is also the reason I honestly want to welcome the refugees with a confession of my own sin, the truth that sustains me, and the love and forgiveness I’ve been given. Maybe I can do some of that, however inadequately.
Here in Florida, we shine colored lights on just about everything, even weeds. And it makes everything look quite beautiful. But those lights are often low-wattage spotlights.
Let me give you an important truth. When it gets dark enough (and it is dark), even a little light will do.
He asked me to remind you.