Thursday, December 31, 2020

Protecting People from Truth

I was listening to a preacher a few days ago … just online, you know. And he said something that’s stayed with me and keeps running around in my head, because it’s just so smart. It’s something that solves a perplexity for me that I have to confess I’ve struggled with for years. I want to pass it on to you.

My perplexity has been this: When do you just say what the Bible says, and when do you hold back?

The preacher said this: “I’m through protecting people from scripture.”

He went on: “I’m not going to explain it, apologize for it, or keep you from knowing about any of it. It’s the word of God. It is what it is. Deal with it.”

Wow. Right on, brother. That’s 100% the right answer.

Why Does It Need to Be Said?

It needs to be said because I think we’ve forgotten it. I’ve gotten used to calculating and measuring how much of the truth I try to put on the table in any conversation. And as part of that, I’ve sometimes struggled with whether to tell somebody or not about some specific thing the Bible says … at least, at that particular time. I’ve been trying to be judicious, timely, strategic, even. Mostly, I’ve been just trying to get it right.

And I’m not alone in that struggle. I know other Christians who’ve puzzled over that one, too. Maybe you’re one of them. In a way, I hope you are: because if you’ve never asked yourself Is this the right moment?, then you’ve probably never witnessed. Am I right?

Seeker-Sensitivity

But the problem is also larger than just us. It’s a more general problem, one that I think all Christians face. You might remember how back in the 1980s many churches went through a vogue for becoming “seeker sensitive”. The idea of many at that time was that unbelievers are just roving around out there in the world looking for answers and hoping to find a church to settle into. They were all “seekers”, you see: they were on the way to locating the right answers, and the job of a sensitive Christian was to keep facilitating their search, encouraging them to come in, ask questions, learn, and gradually slide into faith like a weary laborer slides into a warm bath at the end of a hard day … casually, gradually, naturally and with a sort of spiritual “sigh of relief”.

This was a reaction against unduly direct and harsh evangelistic approaches. Too much was said too early about sin and hell and judgment. Instead, the approach should be winsome, gentle, persuasive and welcoming … no harsh or jarring theological note should be put forward; rather, that stuff needed to recede a bit into the background … not gone exactly, but not pushed, not presented first, not foregrounded.

Becoming “seeker sensitive” meant you had to soft pedal (or softly peddle) certain things in scripture that might offend well-meaning and delicate “seekers”. And there was a little something to that. There certainly are people for whom a gentle approach is preferable. There are sincere seekers who are already well down the road to salvation before we encounter them. And there are even people who have already a strong idea of their own sin and their personal distance from God. And there are folks who have been buffeted by unkind and unsubtle approaches from others, and so have come to associate evangelism with harshness. Such people do need the soft-glove treatment: fair enough.

But the seeker-sensitivity movement took that sort of description to be characteristic of most unbelievers; indeed, of maybe all of them. And so it contended the church should modify its theology to speak that way to everyone. If there was a place left for a direct approach — for rebuke, for indictment of sin, for conviction and repentance, or for fire-and-brimstone, it would not be in the church any longer. Maybe that sort of thing could still happen in personal evangelism, but the seeker-sensitive types wouldn’t think much of that if it did.

Ah, the Good Intentions …

There were good intentions in that movement. But there was also something tremendously arrogant. What was arrogant was the idea that God had put his truth rather a little too directly at times, and it was up to us sensitive Christians to make selective editorial decisions on his behalf, so as to make sure the message came across “in the best light”. So there were things we didn’t talk about much anymore — things like the enmity between the sinner and a holy God, the judgments of God against things like drunkenness, sexual perversions, gossip, worldliness, selfishness and especially materialism. Calls for repentance were reframed as needs for a rethink, and judgment and the lake of fire … well, they were pretty much left for folks to discover for themselves after they’d already bought into the program.

It was as if the salvation message had become like underwear — something everyone might have, but one really ought not to talk about in polite company.

How shameful.

Shame

And shame was driving the strategy, actually. People were ashamed of what the gospel actually said. They were ashamed before their neighbors, who might think us harsh and judgmental if we spoke as the Bible speaks. They were ashamed of themselves, because many of them really didn’t understand the theology they were trying to share, and so couldn’t properly explain why repentance was so demanding or why judgment was impending even for people who seemed socially respectable. They were afraid of inciting opposition to the gospel, as well; not just because rejection, abuse or persecution might follow, but also because they feared it would be their fault if the “seekers” didn’t buy in.

And they were ashamed to be asked hard questions. They didn’t know the answers. The less you demand of your listeners, the fewer their questions tend to become. So it was very attractive to keep the message sotto voce. It made for less trouble.

So they softened the message to minimize the shame. They selected, accommodated, apologized, worked gently, and hoped that in the end God would still do his work. Because they didn’t feel at all confident about their own.

Protecting

But what were we doing? We were protecting. We were protecting ourselves from trouble, yes; but underneath this, we also somehow felt that God had to be protected from his alarming tendency to speak too abruptly.

He’s like that, you know.

While everybody from liberal Christians to raw atheists seems to know and love the passage that says, “Judge not, that you be not judged”, nobody ever points out that there’s more than twice as much said about reasons to judge than not to judge. And it’s not often pointed out that “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” booted hypocrites out of the temple, and spoke at far greater length and in much more detail about hell than he ever did about heaven, and thundered at the Pharisees, “You children of hell!”

It was as though we thought the Lord didn’t know how he was coming across. And we, the late 20th century believers, were in the best position to counsel him on how the message ought to go. After all, were we not the children of the age of advertising, of public relations and political correctness? It was as though we thought we could help the Savior navigate the difficult waters of modern sensibilities, and in the end, still help him make his point.

We didn’t mean to be that arrogant: we just were.

And Today

Now it’s the 21st century. In retrospect, the “seeker sensitive” churches just didn’t really work out. They did produce a brief increase in church attendance, but it’s long ago become clear that not all that growth was genuine. The trade-off we had made earlier resulted in bloated numbers but a weakening of doctrine and of discipleship, one that has still only somewhat recovered from its low point late in the last century.

And now, as all churches are strained or shut down completely by COVID measures, we can see how feeble it is to run a church the way we did. The government can destroy all that we have built with no more than a single edict. And what will be left? Only what the believers individually knew, the ones among them who were becoming strong, mature, doctrinally-strong and committed — these ones are undaunted by the present crisis. Everybody else is at sea.

Was God not right all along? Did the all-wise God not know exactly what needed to be said, in what proportions, to whom and when? Could not the Spirit of God have given us the timing to know what to point to and when, if only we had been busy ourselves in ingesting and living the whole counsel of God? How foolish we were to select, edit and apologize for truth. What were we thinking?

Action Plan

So I’m through protecting people from scripture, too. Let the word of God say what it says. Let it offend if it will. Let it be ever so blunt, harsh and indifferent to the sensibilities of listeners, I will speak what it says. And I will learn it so I can speak it. I will study it every day, and ponder it, and turn it over in my mind, and pray until I understand it. And I will face up to the world’s questions. I will speak with my neighbors and friends, and say “Thus saith the Lord” without dodging, softening or apologizing. It is what it is. Let the word of God go forth, and let it go forth from my lips. So I will not back off of any topic. And when I don’t know the answers, I will go and look until the Lord leads me into truth.

And if there is anybody I have not been speaking to, I will do it now. There are some I have been waiting for. I thought that maybe I should hold off until they become more receptive, or give me a natural “in” for a spiritual conversation. Was there a time for such caution? Maybe there was: it is not now.

For now, brothers and sisters, I think we are in the end times. I am no prophet, nor do I pretend to be. But as I look over the world landscape today, I can see the very real possibility that from now on, the days are short until Christ comes. If he chooses to forbear, it will not harm me if I have stepped up my game; if he does come soon, I want to be found speaking the whole truth about the word of God, and preeminently to be sharing the message of salvation at all costs, in all places, in just the way he commanded me to do.

And my friends? My business associates? My family? All those difficult people I shied away from speaking to? The time for hiding is over. Situation critical: make your move now. Speak up, tell the truth, and bring as many as you can. Trust and obey. Say it now.

Are you with me?

The Point

I’m through protecting people from the word of God.

Are you?

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