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How to Stay “Orthodox” Without Getting Angry
by Kevin Offner
Liberals and conservatives agree about one thing these days: something is seriously wrong with American culture. Hardly a week goes by when some pundit does not decry our shocking “lack of values,” “sleazy ethics,” or “inability to feel shame.”
I’m not even 40 years old, yet I often find myself repeating the “I-can-remember-when” refrain: I can remember when my neighborhood was safe and I felt comfortable walking at night. I can remember when public schools disciplined students, and when parents generally trusted that their kids would be taught a modicum of truth and morality there. I can remember when the majority of people thought that divorce was wrong (as a child I remember knowing only a few people who were divorced), and that one, committed, life-long, heterosexual spouse, was right. I can remember when you could leave your child alone for an hour in front of the TV, relatively confident that he would not see Opie cuss out Andy, Barney gleefully shoot someone’s head off, or Aunt Bea take off her clothes.
So how ought an orthodox Christian respond to our culture’s deterioration? First, there are three tempting responses that must be avoided.
Three Wrong Responses
The first wrong response is a fly-off-the-handle anger. How many of us would not admit that our silent (or audible, depending on who was with us) response to Pat Buchanan’s 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention was something like, “Damn right, Pat! It’s about time someone said things clearly and boldly. Those damn liberals are ruining our country!”
I remember vividly my visceral response to Madonna’s book, Sex. Sitting in my favorite coffeeshop—one of the combination bookstore-coffeeshops that are so delightful here in Cambridge—I noticed people huddling enthusiastically around a “New Books” table. When I discovered that the object of their glee was Madonna’s racy book, I was tempted to rush over and hurl the books off the table, shouting as I went, “This stuff is trash! How can you guys gawk at this pornography? Don’t you realize what this junk does to your soul?” When I heard of Paul Hill’s murder of an abortionist, I shuddered, for I understood and empathized with his anger.
Of course in one sense anger is good and right. God is a God of wrath, whose anger is kindled against those who repeatedly disobey him. We are to “be angry but sin not.” It is right to hate sin. Surely one aspect of being created in God’s image is that we have sensitive consciences that are revolted by evil.
But in my experience it often seems that our anger is less a zeal for God’s glory or a righteous indignation at evil than a frustration over our Christian loss of cultural hegemony. We sense that we are losing the culture wars and we frantically want things to return to “normal.” The public dam that holds back external sins leaks in more and more places, and it angers us that those in power—the government, the media, the entertainment industry—are gaining in strength almost daily.
Yet what long-range good does a reactive anger achieve? It merely fragments and polarizes, and increases John Doe’s fear of the Far Right. The moral wrongs of our country will never be righted by angry conservatives who find new avenues in which to force their views on others. Any lasting cultural change will be accomplished through persuasion, not anger.
The second wrong response is simply to give up and withdraw. “Let the world go to hell. I’m gonna blow up my TV, stop reading the newspaper, and buy an extra lock for my front door. I’ll simply concentrate on controlling my own private world.” So we have only Christian friends, we read only Christian journals, our kids go to Christian schools.
But a spirit of hopelessness must never dominate Christians. We accept by faith Christ’s promise that hell itself will not prevail over his Church, for God truly is in control. Christians in 1995 are called to be salt and light in those subcultures where God has placed them. We must be convinced—and not in a trite, fatalistic way—that God has called us to be faithful and not (necessarily) successful.
The third wrong response is to give in. “It’s just too painful and too difficult to stand against the tide, so why fight it any longer?” I am deeply saddened by the number of Christians who come to Harvard who have gradually softened in their convictions. They no longer believe in the authority of the Bible or the exclusivity of Christ or the biblical standards of sexual purity.
Just as the tide slowly but surely can erode a beach over time, so the relentless pressure of secularism can gradually weaken faith. As the cultural, public notion of what passes for normal moves further and further away from righteousness, Christians are increasingly tempted to stop resisting and to go with the flow.
It should not surprise us when the ungodly go from bad to worse; but it is appalling when Christ’s very own, those who have been delivered from the kingdom of darkness and have been transferred to the kingdom of Christ, are lackadaisical in their obedience to God. Yet our Lord’s words must resound in our ears: “The gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
The Best Response: Let the Church Be the Church
Anger, withdrawal, or accommodation will not do. Instead Christ’s Church must simply be the Church. Our primary strategy must not be to save American culture; our primary goal must be to be holy and to love our Christian brethren. To realize this goal, there are at least four things we must do.
First, we must pray. Throughout history God often has revived his people when they have prayed. There is no cause-and-effect formula here, of course, where prayer somehow forces God’s hand. But God delights to show himself strong on behalf of a humble people who are poor in spirit, who mourn over their sin, and who cry out to him in their hunger and need. Our many local congregations must cry out unitedly to God for mercy. If we are convinced that the greatest, deepest changes can occur only by God’s action, then private and corporate prayer will be our continual response.
Second, we must seek to be holy as God is holy. Personally and corporately, privately and publicly, we must make it our chief business to live in a way that pleases our heavenly Father who sees in secret. Acknowledging that all our striving is for naught unless God first gives us grace, we must seek to be pure with all our energy. We are to compare ourselves not with secular culture but with God’s character and will, and we must be willing to stand alone in an unashamed pursuit of righteousness. No tiny act of faithfulness, however invisible to others, is insignificant. We must repent of our spiritual sloth and begin anew along the path of obedience.
Third, we must love one another. We must begin with our families and our local churches, daily dying to ourselves and putting others’ interests above our own. Our commitment to Christian community must take a higher priority than our commitment to our professional jobs, though both are done in obedience to God. And our love for Christians must transcend ecclesiological boundaries. Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and the Orthodox, must quit their fraternal quarrels and seek to love and follow Christ together. Unity must never be at the expense of truth, and we must be willing to disagree sharply with one another; but every Christian’s posture and heartfelt cry must be a humble longing for unity. Full reunion, if it is ever to happen before Christ returns, is ultimately God’s business; but each Christian and each communion must make it their focused ambition to love one another.
Fourth, we must love non-Christians. We must neither withdraw from the world and retreat into our invisible Christian cocoons nor lose our saltiness by spending time and energy with pagans at the expense of Christian community. Rather, we must look for creative ways to expose our non-Christian neighbors to our Christian communities. The radical, countercultural, sacrificial love that goes on daily in our Christian communities should be visible and attractive to a lonely, individualistic, relationally dysfunctional society. We must expect to be misunderstood and persecuted, but we also can hope that God will draw many to himself as people experience firsthand a loving community.
It is time, by God’s grace, to turn the energy of our anger and frustration into radical holiness and love, as we make it our life’s ambition to be obedient to God. Only in this way can we truly be “orthodox” in the sight of God.
Kevin Offner is on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He has written for Re:Generation Quarterly, Critique, Student Leadership Journal, and First Things. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Amy. They are members of the Presbyterian Church in America. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.