This little reflection by Mbird’s Jacob Smith and David Zahl has made the rounds recently, first in Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology and second on The Gospel Coalition (where it generated quite the conversation!). We thought we’d repost it here for, you know, posterity:
The great Southern novelist Walker Percy once asked in his essay “The Delta Factor,” “Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century? Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making the world over for his own use?” The question remains a valid one, exposing how the subjective orientation of our culture tragically turns against itself. In other words, we are simultaneously more interested in self-fulfillment, and less fulfilled, than ever. That the Christian church, or “movement,” would be a microcosm of this tendency should come as no surprise.
American Christianity has historically placed a tremendous emphasis on faith as a means to happiness. Articulated most egregiously by figures such as 19th century revivalist Charles Finney, this sort of Christianity veers dangerously close to Pepsi Challenge territory, exemplified by well-meaning believers telling stories of how Jesus has made them better people: “I used to be (unhappy, selfish, addicted, mean, lonely, fill in the blank), then I met Jesus, and now I’m (happy, generous, healthy, kind, etc).” The intention may be noble, to celebrate what God has done in our lives – an area where we understandably feel we can speak with authority, giving our message an added power – but sadly, it tends to backfire, especially when confronted with someone from another faith, for example Mormonism, who has had an equally if not more dramatic life-changing experience.
Make no mistake: Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit will indeed do things within us and transform us. But that work, as profound as it may be, is not the Gospel. When the Gospel is associated with changed lives, it is immediately put at odds (and in competition) with other “spiritual products” and the “results” they have produced. The Gospel becomes only as reliable as the personal growth it may have produced, which we know – from experience (!) and from Scripture – is not always very reliable. We can wish our testimonies were sturdier, we can do our very best to keep up an illusion of inner and outer stability, but alas, an inescapable fact of human nature is that “my baby changes like the weather” (Smokey Robinson). This is not to say that our feelings and experiences need to be callously denied – of course not – they simply make lousy hitches for the Gospel plow.
St. Paul taught that if we turn people into themselves, we turn them to despair and doubt (Romans 7:14-20, 8:1). Indeed, when the church places its emphasis on faith as a means of fulfillment, it automatically precludes its goal; it creates a situation where fulfillment becomes impossible. In secular terms, one might recall the psychotherapeutic maxim that, “happiness cannot be approached directly.” Instead, the pursuit ushers in its exact opposite: despair. No wonder that a recent study by Lifeway Research found that 70% of young Protestant adults between the ages of 18-22 have stopped attending church. If you “accepted” Jesus into your heart years ago but besetting problems persist, and some circumstances even appear to have gotten worse, if the Gospel is subjective, is it still true? Does it have the same power? That someone would walk away from the whole business is a foregone conclusion. For the remotely self-aware person, a Gospel based on personal sanctification is no Gospel at all. It produces refugees. Put another way, and to answer Mr. Percy’s question, we are so sad in this century precisely because we have been so oriented toward and driven by a despair-inducing subjectivity. The Atlantic published a fantastic article on how this subject is playing out in the ‘secular’ sphere last month in their article “How The Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining our Kids.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:3-4) is good news, however, and good news for people with real problems. And it does tangibly address the subjective realities of suffering people – thank God – which is where most of us actually live. But it is helpful because it is true, not the other way around. One comes before the other. The Gospel is an objective word that has subjective power.
So what does this objective Gospel look like? Most importantly, it is outside of us: Jesus Christ died for our sins and that on the third day God raised him from the dead, so that we might become children of God, no longer subject to his just wrath and condemnation (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The Gospel points to Jesus and his work alone, that he died for our transgressions and was raised for our justification. It is specific and historic, having to do with what happened on a first-century cross in Roman-occupied Israel. To the question, “When were you saved?” we can answer with a hearty “2000 years ago, on a hill outside of Jerusalem” (John Warwick Montgomery via Rod Rosenbladt).
What, then, is the subjective power of this message? Firstly, we find that there is real, objective freedom, the kind that, yes, can be experienced subjectively. We are freed from having to worry about the legitimacy of experiences; our claims of self-improvement are no longer seen as a basis of our witness or faith. In other words, we are freed from ourselves, from the tumultuous ebb and flow of our inner lives and the outward circumstances; anyone in Christ will be saved despite those things. We can observe our own turmoil without identifying with it. We might even find that we have compassion for others who function similarly. These fluctuations, violent as they might be, do not ultimately define us. If anything, they tell us about our need for a savior.
Secondly, this freedom gives us permission to confront and confess our pain. We can look our self-defeating and regressive tendencies in the eye for once. We no longer have to pretend to be anything other than what the Gospel tells us we are: hopeless sinners in need of mercy. Honesty and repentance go hand in hand – freedom puts us on our knees, where we belong. Whereas a subjective Gospel turns repentance into a frightening affair, evidence that God is far away from us, an objective Gospel provides the assurance that actually produces repentance, forging the pathway to the place where we find forgiveness and redemption. We can finally grasp hold of the truth that it is always better to be sorry than to be safe. The pastoral implications for marriage alone are staggering.
Finally, when it comes to our fellow sinners and sufferers, we witness to the love of God found in the cross which promises and proclaims redemption despite our feelings or how we are living. To the compulsive or addicted person, this makes all the difference.
An objective Gospel is all that we as Christians have to offer one another and the world. It is the only message that has any power to sustain us, and it is the only message that has the power to absolve us and keep us coming back to Christ, finding our hope, strength, and character when we are at our very best and worst. In other words, it is the only message that has the power to reach its subjects: you and me. Amen.