Our Discomfort with the Strong and Joyous

Protestant theology and preaching do better with the person in the gutter than with the person at the top. Our Augustinian horror of human pride and self-assertiveness prods us to tell strong and joyous persons in our midst that they are really weak and miserable. We seem to have good news only for the wretched, dependent, weak, and poor. What do we say to the strong?

In my role as a parish pastor, I frequently meet men and women who, from all that I can observe, are happy and fulfilled human beings. Some of them are rich, some poor. Some are well educated, some poorly educated. They seem to be the kind of mature, sensitive, integrated, caring people that the churches need. And yet they do not relate to the church. And I rather doubt that they would relate to most Protestant preaching that I hear (or that I preach). They would not respond well to the kind of parent-child relationship that is the psychological basis of much of our evangelism.

No doubt some of these strong people have hurts, deep cares, and an assortment of big and little sins within. In fact, in their strength and maturity they are likely to be more aware of their needs, more candid in admitting them, than other less secure people. But it seems a bit contrived to insist that they admit some wretchedness or weakness before they can hear the good news.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, certainly a person of strength himself, discusses this area in some of the writings collected as Letters and Papers From Prison (quotations will be from the revised edition, Macmillan, 1967). Bonhoeffer notes that even though the Scriptures frequently tell us to “be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13, Eph. 6:10, 2 Tim. 2:1; 1 John 2:14), many pastors and Christian ...

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