Monday, July 02, 2018

Inadequate Remedies

Some people live in active denial of the trends around them, oblivious to the spirit of the age and to all intimations of God’s coming wrath. They are dull by choice.

For example, the Lord Jesus criticized the Pharisees and Sadducees for failing to correctly interpret the “signs of the times”. They were skilled at predicting the weather and ordering their workdays accordingly, but blind to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy all around them. More evidence would not be given to them because they willfully ignored the signs they had already seen.

This is not that.

Tomorrow We Die

Isaiah speaks of a people who had no difficulty recognizing the danger they were in. Unlike the Jewish leadership of the first century, they correctly read the ominous indicators around them. “Tomorrow we die,” they gloomily predicted.

Mind you, that doesn’t say too much in favor of Israelite perspicacity. They had the Assyrian army parked on their front doorstep. A blind man couldn’t miss that.

Still, the citizens of Jerusalem did what they could to delay their own demise. They “saw that the breaches of the city of David were many,” so they made changes to the way they were doing things to slow down the invaders. They made provision for a siege. They took stock of what they needed in the defense budget. They even sacrificed the present for the future, deconstructing their houses to build up the city walls.

Mechanical Solutions to Spiritual Problems

No, the problem was not that they failed to analyze, or that they failed to respond. They did plenty of both. The problem was that they failed to see God’s hand in the indicators around them, and failed to recognize their obligation to him in their circumstances. Thus their analysis was incomplete (“You did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago”). Further, their response to their looming crisis was mechanical instead of spiritual.

Now, it’s quite natural to respond to spiritual problems with mechanical solutions. I got one such proposed remedy in my email yesterday. The Parable Group offers a little book entitled 10 Tips to Sustain Giving During the Summer Slump. Churches are told they can smooth out those nasty, inconsistent seasonal donation trends by encouraging recurring giving and creating a proactive campaign to keep offerings up.

Spiritual Issues at the Root

Stop me if I’m getting goofy here, but when people are no longer giving to the Lord through their local church in large numbers and for sustained periods, there may well be a serious problem, but it’s almost surely a spiritual problem of some sort:
  • The believers may have encouraged their leadership to take on recurring expenses in their name — like new building construction or expensive programs of one sort or another — and then have failed to make good on their commitments.
  • The church may have a wrong view of its mission. Its priorities may be out of whack with scripture. For example, maybe the perceived need they are trying to meet through a multi-million dollar expansion to the building could have been met some other way.
  • Individual believers may view themselves as independent from the people of God in a way that is spiritually unhealthy.
  • The church’s leadership may have been unrealistic in their goal-setting or too aggressive in their assumption of mortgage debt. They may have looked to historic patterns of giving for their security rather than to God.
  • The people of God may have lost confidence in the priorities and stewardship of their leaders.
But all these are spiritual problems, not merely practical ones. Somebody — whether it’s the decision-makers or pew-sitters or both — needs to rethink and reorder their way of doing business in the presence of God. You can paper over the issue by running the church in institutional mode if you want, but you’ll never address the real spiritual problems that way.

Baldness and Sackcloth

Back to Isaiah. By bringing the Assyrian armies against Jerusalem, God was not attempting to teach his people to be better resource managers, more competent stonemasons or career pessimists. He was looking to produce repentance:
“In that day the Lord God of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth.”
He was looking for the recognition among his people that their problems were spiritual in nature. Those problems would not magically disappear even when the angel of the Lord struck 185,000 Assyrian soldiers dead outside the gates of Jerusalem and Sennacherib retreated to Nineveh. Sure, the crisis had been temporarily averted and King Hezekiah displayed tremendous faith, but the spiritual issues among the people of Judah remained unresolved. They would go into Babylonian captivity less than 100 years later.

Now, I’m not sure bad financial planning in local churches is cause for sackcloth and ritual baldness. That may be a tad dramatic. The two sets of problems, historical and modern, are very different in scope and degree of potential hazard. The Israelites in Jerusalem were literally at death’s door. Incompetent stewards and inconsistent givers can’t really compete with that in the risk department.

Call and Response

But the root problem is the same: failure to hear the Lord calling for repentance and failure to respond appropriately.

Think about it: in the absence of the prophetic word, how exactly is the Head of the Church supposed to get an urgent, practical message to his people these days? One way is through scripture, of course, but our hearts can become dulled to a message we have read repeatedly and failed to apply to ourselves in the real world. Sometimes a more tangible incentive to ongoing dependence is needed.

So projects fail unexpectedly and to great disappointment. The money supply dries up. People you were counting on for leadership suddenly pack up and move away. Numbers drop. Interest bottoms out. Those energetic kids in the youth group go off to college and don’t come back.

Sure, such things could also be viewed as demonic resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit and the spread of the gospel. Fair enough. But what if they’re not? What if they’re an indication of something else entirely?

One sure way to find out is to examine our ways before the Lord on our knees and in the light of New Testament revelation. If the Lord God of hosts is calling for weeping and mourning, we had better not be found doing nothing more spiritual than the modern equivalent of building reservoirs and breaking down old houses.

These are remedies, sure, but inadequate to the time and circumstances.

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Photo credit: Lior Golgher [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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