Cheerful Confidence after Christendom

Article
10.21.2014

The Preacher warns, “He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them” (Eccl 10:9). I have always thought of that as the law of occupational hazards.

I’m a historian. Therefore, one of the professional dangers that I most need to guard against is nostalgia. I can all too easily slip into longing for the good old days when public entertainment was more wholesome; children were more dutiful; biblical knowledge was more widespread; and so on. Fortunately, the Preacher also has advice to meet my very case: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not wisdom that you ask this” (Eccl 7:10).

THANK GOD FOR GRANTING US NOW

God has granted me the privilege to live now—in my own times. To wish otherwise is not only pointless, it is ungrateful. It is also self-defeating. Every season of life has its own joys. Foolishness is to want to have the joys of adulthood when still a teenager or the joys of adolescence when middle aged and so on.

Likewise, there are unique joys, privileges, and opportunities for serving God in each generation. We are called not to hanker after a different age, but rather to jump in with relish to following Christ at this moment. There is an old Puritan saying: “If you would make the greatest success of your life, try to discover what God is doing in your time, and fling yourself into the accomplishment of his purpose and will.”

YES, THERE ARE UNIQUE CHALLENGES

Our times, of course, have unique challenges. We are witnessing the dissolution of Christendom. Christendom was a long period of time in the West when Christian commitments and beliefs were buoyed up by political and cultural supports. In Christendom, there were worldly incentives to at least pretend to believe Christian doctrine and to observe Christian practices. To do so was good for one’s professional and social success.

The notorious eighteenth-century religious skeptic David Hume actually advised his non-believing friends to fake a Christian identity, even cynically to pursue the Christian ministry as a good career move: “I wish it were still in my power to be a hypocrite in this particular. The common duties of society usually require it.” With such worldly prompts gone, the result is inevitably a culture in which many more people are willing to openly reject the Christian way of life.

This is certainly not all good. I prefer a culture where people refrain from making obscene comments because they want to maintain the illusion of being more righteous than they are.

BUT THERE ARE GAINS AS WELL

Nevertheless, it is surely not all bad. It is a gain as well as loss to have a better sense of what is really going on in someone else’s mind, heart, and imagination.

Despite some official political props remaining in place, the decline of Christendom is much further along in Britain than it is in America. I lived in Britain for some years and was struck by the extraordinarily high Christian commitment of the people in the churches I attended. Over and over again, I witnessed a minister explain that the kingdom of God would be advanced if a vital Christian church was planted in a town or region currently without one. What was the response? A half dozen or more families would cheerfully decide to move there to make it happen. They would sell their homes, quit their jobs, and set off on an adventure of faith.

Meanwhile, I knew Christians in America who were planning to move across the country because, quite literally, they liked the weather in another region better. They seemed to assume that they would find a church and friends and the kingdom of God as may be, but they were going to seek first a place in the sun.

Again, one can go back and forth with listing the upsides and downsides, but the point is that there are upsides.

AND WEREN’T THE WORST TIMES ALSO THE BEST?

The darkest forecasts I hear anyone making now involve the post-Christendom period we are entering being like the pre-Christendom period before Emperor Constantine: a world in which the surrounding culture will decide that Christians are “haters of humanity” who deserve to be persecuted. There is probably a bit of paranoia in imagining that this one nation under God is just about to turn into something akin to the Roman Empire under Nero or Diocletian.

But let’s face this imagined worst at least as a thought experiment. Were those not splendid times to serve God? Was the church defeated or triumphant? Were they not times when the power and blessing of God was manifest, when conversions were frequent, when discipleship was authentic? Where not even the most elite Roman pagans rattled by the intellectual confidence and resolve of figures such as Justin Martyr, Perpetua, and Polycarp?

SO CONFUSE THEM WITH CHEERFUL CONFIDENCE

The world is used to Christians who are alarmed, angry, fearful, despondent, grumpy. Such a posture only reinforces their complacent assumption that faith is a relic of the past which is in the process of passing away forever. I have found they are confused and intrigued by Christians who are confident, witty, and cheerful. They start to wonder if we know something they don’t know about what is really true and how things are really going to turn out. And do we not?

Far from this being merely a tactic or form of capitulation, such a posture, at its best, can be an expression of faith—of confidence in the victory of God and the lordship of Christ. Who but Christians really believe that the story we inhabit ends as a comedy and not a tragedy?

Frederick Buechner once observed, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Surely it is profoundly Christian and right to minister the gospel of Jesus Christ to a needy world out of a place of deep gladness.

THE CHURCH WILL PREVAIL—BE JOYFUL!

To believe that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church is to not allow oneself to become defeatist. The right response to our times is one of faith and joy.

God is looking for men and women who are glad to be alive; who count as a privilege to be his servants at this moment; who are thrilled to be taking part in the coming of the kingdom of God in this generation.

To return to the Preacher by way of conclusion, he envisions someone who has learned “to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil” and is kept occupied by God “with joy in his heart” (Eccl 5:19-20). May their tribe increase.

By:
Timothy Larsen

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.