An eerie mood of pessimism seems to have seized Americaright, left, and center; believer and nonbeliever alike. Public opinion polls confirm what everyday conversation suggests. Last October, for example, SurveyUSA conducted 50 surveysone for each stateand concluded that, nationwide, only 29 percent of Americans thought the nation was headed in the right direction. Sixty-six percent thought the opposite. In no state, red or blue, did a majority of adults believe America was on the right course. Only in five states did as many as four out of ten think so.
True, some surveys (like one in May by Rasmussen) report that most Americans are satisfied with their own lives. But the broader sense of worry lingers and will likely have negative implications for our politics and our culture for years to come. As the late Presbyterian minister Frank Crane once said, "Depression, gloom, pessimism, despair, discouragement, these slay ten human beings to every one murdered by typhoid, influenza, diabetes, or pneumonia."
For Christians, of course, the hope of the gospel should temper our response to a broken world. Still, we are human, and we worry. Some of us are depressed by the war, others by the opposition to the war. Some are worn down by economic news. Some mourn the direction of American culture. Others are exhausted by theological battles within their denominations.
Facing such depressingly persistent battles, we cling to the words of the psalmist, hoping that we have the strength to hang on: "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea" (Ps. 46:1-2). Sometimes, however, that is easier said than done.
In an earlier column, I recommended an excellent book, The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook. Easterbrook argues that the news on nearly every topic is much more positive than most people think. To be sure, the media's relentlessly sour and often silly reporting hardly helps the public attitude. But it is important for Christians not to confuse the existence of bad news with our reaction to the bad newsand here it is useful to look at The Screwtape Letters.
C. S. Lewis's famous novel was conceived and written during World War II, when so much looked bad. One of the most striking moments in the story arrives when the inexperienced junior devil, Wormwood, chortles over the horrors of war. Screwtape sternly admonishes his nephew not "to forget the main point in your immediate enjoyment of human suffering." In war, says the senior devil, people die. But hell gains nothing from mere human misery and death, he warns. It is the state in which people die that matters.
Lewis is not suggesting that we celebrate our suffering or that we stand blind to the suffering of others. His point, rather, is that Christians should not mistakenly think that bad news here on earth means Satan is winning. Men have done terrible things to each other ever since Eden. The horrors of warlike the other pains and scars of lifepose a challenge to faith. Lewis suggests that what truly matters is how we meet that challenge: the battle, that is, in the spiritual realm.
As the writer of Hebrews said to discouraged believers, "[L]et us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the Cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12:1-3).
Lewis's vision of Satan is far more useful and scary than Hollywood's. The film industry loves making movies about hell. In these high-budget visions of the underworld, demons usually emerge to do bad things to people, causing death and destruction here on earth. The hero either slays them or works some mystic incantation that sends them back, after which life on earth returns to what it was before. The demons are just like other Hollywood bad guys: terrorists, serial killers, the ruthless rich out to rule the world. In these visions, the bad thing about Satan is that he wants to do bad things to us here and now.
C. S. Lewis's marvelous imagination, by contrast, should remind us that this vision is dangerously wrong. The terrible tragedies that befall the world work to Satan's benefit only if we despair. Suffering, as Screwtape reminds his nephew, often strengthens faith. Better to keep people alive, he says, long enough for faith to be worn away. The death of a believer is the last thing the Devil wants.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Carter wrote about Greg Easterbrook's Progress Paradox in his article "A Politics of Gratitude."
J. I. Packer wrote an article on What Oswald Chambers and C.S. Lewis teach us about living through the long battle with terrorism.
Recent Christianity Today columns by Stephen L. Carter include:
The ACLU Is Not Evil | And neither are many people with whom we disagree. (May 11, 2006)
The 'Judicial Philosophy' Dodge | Why opposing 'activist judges' isn't as straightforward as you'd think. (Jan. 3, 2006)
Evolution, Not Revolution | Christians need to lower their Supreme Court expectations. (Nov. 1, 2005)
Sticker Shock | When a judge violated the church-state peace treaty. (March 02, 2005)
Politics for Adults | A Supreme Court justice showed us how to "do business" with opponents. (Jan. 12, 2005)
Defending Our Neighbor | Can we start a war to protect others? (Nov. 10, 2004)
Loving Military Enemies | War does not exempt Christians from the second-greatest commandment. (Sept. 07, 2004)
Hope Deferred | Christians are uniquely positioned to further racial equality. (June 29, 2004)
A Politics of Gratitude | Stop whining, count your blessings, and love your global neighbors. (March 08, 2004)
Sports Mobs and Manners | There's a difference between cheering the home team and being boorish. (Aug. 25, 2003)
Roe vs. Judicial Sense | Forget briefly its immoralityit's just bad law (July 1, 2003)
Willing to Lose | By voting we place our hope in the next world. (March 4, 2003)
Virtue via Vouchers | The Supreme Court's recent decision can help prevent more corporate scandals. (Dec. 4, 2002)
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