I want to unsettle you.
Years ago, a movie came out that focused on the Nazi death camps of WWII. It showed two boys, one a Jew and the other a German, develop a friendship with one another through a barbed-wire fence. The juxtaposition of the two boys’ lives was alarming; one boy was living a fairly normal life, full of school, adventures in the woods and dinners with family, while the other boy sat in the mud of Auschwitz, watching everyone around him be herded and slaughtered like cattle. About halfway through the movie, after a particularly visceral scene involving a monster-like cruelty from a Nazi official, I had to shut it off.
It was an infuriating movie, mostly because you knew how it was going to end, and there was nothing you could do about it. Just sit there and watch, in vivid display, one of the world’s most atrocious evils. I felt this deep sense of moral energy swell up inside of me only to fold back in on itself in frustration – there was nothing you could do. Just sit, eat popcorn and let the horrors unfold.
I’m sure that many people would view this as a kind of cinematic immaturity in me (I just didn’t “get” it) or maybe some kind of escapism (my inability to cope with the reality of the world). It was probably both. But if there was nothing I could do about it, then I did not want to baptize my mind in the gut-wrenching ugliness of the death camps. Even though I didn’t finish the movie, I spent the rest of the day in a funk, unable to get the scene of brutality out of my mind, hoping it was just Hollywood embellishment – knowing that it probably wasn’t.
I fear that many people in the church today are treating real life like how I treated that movie. It is much easier to shut your eyes to the evil in this world than to take it in with a wide-eyed stare. There are actual news sources that promise only to present “Happy News” to you, filling your day with stories that will warm your heart. Everyone loves a happy story, right?
Well, yes – people do.
But, that isn’t the real world. Or at least, it doesn’t seem to be. For believers, we cannot accept that – we are called to be salt and light in the world, and for us to do that we have to interact with the real world. And the real world is a dying world, not an okay world that needs a little sprucing up and some TLC.
Our mission is not easy, and it is not simple. Christians have a uniquely complex worldview that should lead to “unceasing anguish” (Rom. 9:2) and “rejoicing always” (Phil. 4:4, 1 Thess. 5:16).
Christians should be, in one sense, profoundly sad people. Why? Because we are commanded to love people, and many people are suffering. Jesus explains that the most important command in all of Scripture, second to loving God, is to love people like we love ourselves (Matt. 22:36-40). We are commanded to love all people, even our enemies (Matt. 5:44). If you obey that command, you will hurt.
You will hurt because to love someone you are intertwining your heart with theirs. Their pain becomes your pain, their joy your joy, their tears your tears. Loving someone is a costly act because it makes you so vulnerable.
If you love people, you will hurt. If you are not regularly saddened by what is happening in the world, you probably don’t love people.
If you can hear about a natural disaster, terrorist attack or riots in a city, and it not affect you, then you don’t love people.
If you can see people openly reject Jesus and cherish a life of sin on their way to hell, and it not affect you, then you don’t love people.
The world is brimming with suffering and pain, and the more you love, the deeper you will hurt. Christians, above all people, should love most, and therefore be saddened most. However, when you attend most churches in America, you don’t typically feel that kind of weight or burden of love. You hear jokes and positive messages of how to live a happier, more fulfilling life. Where is the tone of Jeremiah, weeping over his people’s sin?
“Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease, for the virgin daughter of my people is shattered with a great wound, with a very grievous blow.” (Jer. 14:17)
The shallowness of our worship may not just be a style choice, it may be the absence of true, deep, Christ-exalting love.
However, while followers of Christ may hurt, we rejoice! We rejoice because there is a hope that extends beyond the pitiable walls of this darkened world, and He has broken through! We rejoice because the embodiment of Life and Light Himself, Jesus Christ, descended into the murky depths of sin to declare Good News: Jesus has atoned for our guilt and adopted us into His eternal family (Eph. 2:1-8). And, we rejoice that one day He shall renew the world, right all wrongs and wipe every tear from every eye, and we shall behold the very face of God (1 John 3:2).
No amount of ugliness in this world can make that any less beautiful. As overwhelming as the pain in this world may be, it is a flea bite in comparison to what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. The mountain of despair, dark and looming over us now, is nothing more than an ant-hill in comparison to Mount Zion. The anguish we experience in life can no more stop our joy than a spider-web can stop a locomotive.
Maybe this explains why Paul was able to say that he could be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” (2 Cor. 6:10)
Our culture runs on a false dichotomy when it comes to joy and sorrow. They think that to posses one means the absence of the other. And since most people want to live happy lives, they work really hard to keep sad, unsettling things at a comfortable distance. Should Christians be acting the same way?
May it never be!
Look, Christian: you have the greatest news in existence. No matter what happens, your faith in Christ has secured you an eternity with the One your soul longs for. That means that you can stare down the darkest of evils without losing hope AND that means that you have the one message of hope to bring light into that darkness.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14-16)
But sadly, there are not enough people out there willing to do that. Many Christians are like me sitting on my couch, reaching to shut the movie off. It’s uncomfortable to think about all of the poverty, injustice and spiritual lostness in the world. Better to change the channel and focus on happier things, after all, you can’t change anything anyways.
STOP IT. YES YOU CAN.
God has put His church in the world to be His agent of change! Just because the American church has typically been more committed to comfort than loving people doesn’t mean you have to. God has called you to love the world, and therefore to do something about its pain. When we are profoundly disturbed by something, that could be God telling us that He is disturbed by it too and He wants you to do something about it.
Don’t change the channel. Let the pain unsettle you; let it wash over you; stare it in the face. Taste a drop of what the Father experiences as He looks at a world rejecting Him. Taste a drop of what the Son experienced dying on the cross for you. And then let it propel you to do something. Pray, give, correct, rebuke, weep, share, preach the Gospel – do something!
If we insulate our life so that we are never exposed to suffering, we will slowly begin to think there is no suffering, and then never do anything about suffering. If we never do anything about evil than we, slowly, subtly, and often comfortably, become evil.
Dear Christian, open your eyes. Be loving, be sorrowful, and rejoice.