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The Great Evangelical Anxiety
There is in the soul of American evangelicals a feverish anxiety. If our faith in Christ does not lead to our moral uplift, we jumpstart a new spiritual formation regimen that promises to lift us. If the church is not making a difference in the world, we shame ourselves to become more socially relevant and evangelistically effective.
A great deal of the literature we produce is a variation on this theme—from the fevered poll taking of our movement's politics and spiritual state, to the many jeremiads (left and right) about our lack of personal holiness and social concern, to the call to reframe the Christian faith so that we can address the great social issues of the day.
Still, the anxiety remains mostly personal. It is a deep longing for transformation, and it is evident in the responses to my last, and unfortunately controversial, column, in which I argued that it is not our transformed lives but the crucified Christ who offers something to the world. Note three comments (the caps are in the originals):
Christ's death not only freed us from the penalty of sin, but from the power of sin in this life. I am a witness. CHANGE HAPPENS.
Grace causes us to have changed lives. Or maybe u haven't read Ephesians 2 really well.
My concern must be to live the life GOD called me to live AT THIS MOMENT! I CAN CHANGE!!
Such comments suggest that the Christian faith is meaningful for many primarily because it promises to produce moral change. We are fed up with the tragedy of our lives—the failures and flaws, the coarse habits and endless addictions, the inability to do the good that we long to do consistently and sincerely. In pragmatic, practical America we look for a faith that can solve this problem—what good is a religion if it doesn't change anything?
But, of course, the change that most interests Americans, and the change the Christian faith promises, are two different things.
Contrary to our aspirations and assumptions, the Christian faith is not a bulleted list that equips us with principles to create the good life, let alone the best life now. Nor does it present us with an agenda, as some would have it, for making the world a better place. The core of the faith is good news. It is a revelation of the deeper realities that plague us (of which our anxiety about change is just a symptom) and the unveiling of an unshakable hope.
As Michael Horton puts it in his Christless Christianity, "You don't need Jesus to have better families, finances, health, or even morality." Lots of religions, therapies, and self-help regimens enable people to break addictions, control tempers, repair relationships, and even practice forgiveness. Many social reform groups help us serve the neighbor. At this level of ethics, God appears to work through many means.
The good news drills down deeper. As Horton says, "Coming to the cross means repentance—not adding Jesus as a supporting character for an otherwise decent script but throwing away the script in order to be written into God's drama. It is death and resurrection, not coaching and makeovers." The deeper reality is that our alienation is not from our better self but from the Creator of that self. And that this alienation is fixed and certain, right and true. And that this alienation will never be healed without annihilation. It demands not a makeover but a start over, a start over so complete that it begins with death.
But how can we speak of starting over with death, when death speaks of the end of all things for us? It doesn't make sense, so we try to scratch and claw our way to a better life now.
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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