The temptation we don’t discuss

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

Clergy face a temptation that is not talked about much and certainly never breaks into public attention the way other temptations we face do from time to time. It is the temptation to tell our congregations what they want to hear.

A sizeable number of our people want us to soothe their fears and worries with easy assurances. They want to be able to get on with life and not think about things like sin and death and eternity. And if we help them do that, they will thank us and love us, or at least they will until the day comes when they are staring into the black night of death and they discover the elixers we’d been feeding them were strong enough to numb what had been haunting them but not strong enough to cure them.

Too many Christians get to a crisis of faith and discover they have built upon sand. They face death and find themselves overwhelmed by grief and terror. They experience the loss of a loved one and uncover deep wells of bitterness toward God that drive them away from church forever. They encounter hardship and find that they have no spiritual reserves to draw upon because they have been fed straw rather than true food. And it is people like me who have helped them arrive at this point because we are too afraid of upsetting people and too worried about how we will stand up to the charge of hypocrisy. We make a secret and unspoken pact with our people. I won’t talk to you about sin and salvation too much and you will bring me lovely little cakes. It all works out fine until the sand start to give way beneath their feet.

I am a far from perfect man and a far from perfect pastor. I am going on to perfection and have much distance to travel still. But I truly do believe that we preachers do a grave disservice to our people when we offer them words of peace when what they need is to have the source of their fear and unease brought forth where it might be exposed to the light of the gospel. That is scary work and painful for all involved, but it is the only way we can truly help people. Soothing their pain in the moment only sets them up for much worse down the line.

The Uncle Bob problem

Recently, I had a Christian in passing conversation refer to a relative who was living in active sin. The person said to me that the sinning relative believed in Jesus so should be okay.

“As far as I understand it, if you take Jesus Christ as your savior, you will go to heaven,” this person said.

Most of this was an exercise in easing the Christian’s own anxieties about the fate of the relative, and it was literally a conversation in passing, so I did not respond very deeply or well in the moment.

But the brief exchange has stuck with me. I’m wrestling with how to best re-engage that person. And I find myself wondering how many other people have this view — despite all the preaching that gets done.

The fear that a person we love might be damned to hell is powerful. It is the question I hear Christians wrestle with most often — even more than they wrestle with their own salvation. And the pressure to not face the threat of hell for a child or spouse or parent is powerful. I would venture to say the most common response is to conclude that since we cannot contemplate the damnation of the person we love or a person who has already died, it must not be an option. Surely, God forgives. Surely, at the last second, Uncle Bob repented.

I understand these thoughts. And as a pastor, I am the first to say that I don’t know what the Lord has decided in the case of those who have already died. We all stand before the Lord on the day of resurrection. It is not for me to know or say what Jesus will judge in the case of others.

And yet, I worry about the Uncle Bob theology that spares us the heartache of contemplating hell for those we love. I worry because it does not just slide into antinomianism, it is antinomianism. It discounts what Jesus Christ and the apostles taught regarding holy living and the narrow way of salvation.

All these leads me to wonder how powerful spiritual denial is in our theology. To explain, let me compare it to medicine. We all know people who engage in willful denial about their own health problems. They can be in pain or suffering, but if you suggest they change their ways or go see a doctor, suddenly they tell you that it is not a big deal or that they are really okay. The problem with this, of course, is that cancer and heart disease don’t go away just because we don’t want them to be there.

In spiritual matters, we find it even easier to engage in denial because the consequences of our spiritual maladies are easily ignored. When sin brings trouble and strife to our life, we blame these present fruits of our sin on other factors — mean people, bad luck, coincidence, misunderstanding parents, etc. As for the future fruits of our sin, we deny they exist or talk ourselves into a theory that “God loves us” and “Love wins,” so we don’t have to worry about that.

This is all comforting, but, if the Bible is to be trusted at all, it is fatal.

I am at a loss when it comes to dealing with this fatal disease among our people. Jesus said, “Let those with ears, hear!” We seem to be pretty good at stuffing spiritual ear plugs into our heads.

But the problem seems real to me.

Putting faith in two inches of humus

In some ways, I want to be a pastor the way Wendell Berry is a farmer.

I wrote that sentence so I could decide whether it is true. Reading it now, I think it is. At least no part of me rises up to resist that statement as my own.

I admire the way brother Wendell found a place and worked it and let it work him. I admire the way he writes. I admire the way he says standing by our words is the test of who we are. I admire so much about him that I can forgive him for being from Kentucky.

All these thoughts came up today as I was reading his mad farmer manifesto.

These thoughts probably come up because I am at seminary, and being here with so many other students from so many different places and traditions always shakes up what I think I know and sends me back to the places that feel solid and true. This also happens because I’m contemplating commissioning as an elder next year and the always on the move, never setting down roots kind of ministry we do. How do you love and cultivate the land when you are barely there long enough to break up the soil once or twice?

I’ve been writing this week about national headlines and denominational politics and the thoughts of our best and most glittering pastors. It makes me long for some small, good work to do, a few acres in God’s kingdom and the confidence of knowing that spring will follow winter and the apple blossoms are hidden there waiting for rain.