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April 24, 2019Culture, Missiology

Staying on Mission in the Age of Outrage

How do Christians respond in a Christ-honoring way to a world awash in division and hostility?
Staying on Mission in the Age of Outrage
Image: Pixabay/WenPhotos

Welcome to the age of outrage, my friend. Who knew that technology would empower some of our worst attributes instead of our best?

Twenty years ago, we didn’t Google things on our smartphones. Now, it’s instinctual. We search the web almost without thinking, accessing literal libraries of information on virtually any topic faster than we can type the keywords. I searched the web dozens of times writing this one piece.

With today’s technology, we can communicate instantly and continuously, whether we’re facing a life-or-death crisis or just want to satisfy a curiosity. In the 1980s, American Express warned card users, “Don’t leave home without it.” Today, it seems we can’t leave home without our phones. Most days, I would more readily return home to get my phone than my wallet. We can — and feel we must — remain constantly connected with friends, family, co-workers and, well, the world.

Yet the devices that allow us to communicate with everyone anytime we want oftentimes drive us further apart. Technology has created interpersonal opportunity, but also depersonalized communication and conflict, dividing many of us from our neighbors.

The comments sections on YouTube are a greater testament to human depravity than all the reformers’ doctrines combined. Arguments, bullying, conspiracy theories, vitriol and irrational cesspools of misinformation and misdirection abound in our digital communication and marketplace. There is outrage everywhere — sometimes targeting Christians, but, unfortunately, often coming from Christians.

We live in a world where our beliefs are increasingly odd and even offensive. But, as Christians, we must allow the Holy Spirit to guide our response. You see, Christians are indeed on the receiving end of this outrage machine. However, I also see churchgoers contributing to and participating in much of the online hostility and misinformation. Our digital outrage damages our witness to the world daily. It seems like people who claim to be Christians are often the worst at spreading false or inaccurate information.

There is indeed much to be concerned about in our world, and some issues deserve our indignation, even anger. Christ followers should grieve and mourn over suffering and injustice, even as we advocate and strive for change in the world.

But when is Christian anger warranted? And when does outrage defame the name of Jesus and undermine our witness? When are we righteously overturning the tables of the money changers, and when are we just wreaking havoc concerning our pet peeves? These questions do not have easy answers, but they deserve our consideration if we want to be faithful disciples of Christ.

Much of our world seems awash in division and hostility. Outrage surrounds us, and we must decide how to navigate these new and often-dangerous waters. We don’t get to pick the time we are born or the issues we face in our day. While conflict is universal to all generations, we live and minister in a unique time. Outrage spreads like a disease across our digital platforms, and Christians are not immune. How do we respond in a way that honors Jesus? We can begin by acknowledging three realities.

Drawn to Outrage

First, people have a natural inclination toward outrage. Christians are no exception; in fact, we often contribute to it.

In Christians in the Age of Outrage, I highlight the story of Caleb Kaltenbach, who in 2013 tweeted a picture of a Bible displayed at a Costco store. He found it funny and ironic that the Bible was apparently mistakenly displayed in the store’s fiction section. After the photo received hundreds of retweets, major news sources picked up the story. As I explain in the book:

Leading with the headline ‘Costco — The Bible Is Fiction,’ Fox News promoted the idea that Kaltenbach had uncovered a conspiracy against Christians and the Bible. Kaltenbach was even quoted as characterizing the store’s decision to group the Bible with fiction as “bizarre.”

In minutes, The Drudge Report picked up the story and Christians worked themselves into an outrage over the perception of this insult with cries of boycott in the air. Suddenly a labeling error that listed Bibles as fiction had become a covert theological statement on the very nature of Scripture. What likely happens hundreds of times in bookstores every day had become an insidious spark that unleashed Christian outrage against Costco.

Kaltenbach was not outraged. He believed, and Costco confirmed, it was a shelving error. But his story — caught up in an outrage cycle — is much more complex. You see, Kaltenbach was raised by a same-sex couple. He became a Christian, changed his views, was eventually disowned, and years later saw his biological father and mother eventually come to Christ. I’ve had Kaltenbach in my home, and found him far from being an outraged Christian. He is generous, caring and kind. His book, Messy Grace: How a Pastor With Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction, is filled with wisdom and — you guessed it — grace!

Nevertheless, Kaltenbach’s conversion and family did not make the news. His Costco tweet did, because people are drawn to outrage. It was primarily Christians who drove that outrage — outrage based on misinformation. But who cares about facts when you can have outrage? We like the fire.

It seems someone is always fanning the flames of outrage somewhere. Why? Because offense attracts our interest. It’s human nature. We like to think of ourselves as the offended party in need of receiving forgiveness or the party able to exact an apology on behalf of someone else.

A Better Way

Second, most outrage is not righteous anger. Many people harbor outrage they think is righteous anger, because our culture often confuses the two. This is harmful for Christians and the world alike.

My wife and daughter recently became stranded in an airport parking garage at 2 A.M. when a car rental staff refused to acknowledge their reservation or offer even a modicum of accommodation. My anxiety rose as I tried, from hundreds of miles away, to get someone to help my family. I wanted to blast my outrage across the web to my quarter of a million Twitter followers.

But the Holy Spirit helped me focus on what would be productive rather than instantly gratifying. The car rental agency’s poor customer service was frustrating, rude and inexplicable. Yet I had to admit that it didn’t warrant righteous anger. So, I politely reached out online, and the folks at their Twitter account helped — perhaps in part because I did so rationally.

Righteous anger is directing our emotions and our passion of angst toward the things that make God angry. God is completely perfect, holy and separate from sin and brokenness. In short, God is righteous by his very nature and character. Whoever God is, and whatever God does, is right. What goes against the nature and character of God is unrighteous. And anger over those things that violate the nature and character of God is righteous, because it longs for the things God longs for in His righteousness.

While remaining perfectly in control, Jesus addressed brokenness, suffering and injustice with boldness, always with a righteous indignation and anger against sin. Being the perfect Son of God, he hates anything that goes against his character and the character of his Father. This is the same Jesus who cleansed the temple: “He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts” (John 2:14).

Often, we trade this God-focused anger for a self-focused or other-focused outrage. We may direct it toward a political candidate, a pastor or even an individual we encounter in an online comments space. Angst and aggression toward a person are cheap, quick, and sinful knockoffs of righteous anger.

Righteous anger is humble and aware of our own propensity toward sin. As we focus on the nature and character of God, it changes the way we see ourselves and others. Consider Jesus’ powerful words in Matthew 7:5: “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Jesus instructs us to look inward first and see our own gaping and overt deficiencies. As we work on these, we will have a clearer view and personal experience of the righteousness of God. Then we’ll be in a better place to help others in a loving and Christlike manner. One is dependent on the other.

Conversely, outrage arises from pride, arrogance and a lack of self-awareness that always cries, “But what about ... ?” There’s nothing wrong with taking the speck out of someone’s eye — and the Bible is clear that we should do it — but only after seeing to ourselves. Outrage silences the voice of nuance and self-reflection with the cries of hate and vehement reaction. Attempting to address the sin in other people’s lives without first addressing our own is hypocrisy.

God’s anger is always in the context of His kindness, drawing others toward repentance and faith. Outrage forgets or ignores this grace of Jesus. It seeks to drown out the possibility of mercy or grace, demanding retribution instead. It’s unapologetic, quick and severe. It is a shame Christians often follow this cultural pattern of reacting vengefully instead of mercifully.

Building Bridges

Third, outrage divides, but mission engages. “Culture war” is not a term I like to use, because it is hard to war with a people and love them at the same time. But it is demonstrably true that the culture has turned against many Christian values. In other words, in many ways, this came to us. We did not always create it. There is the redefinition of marriage, the denial of universal truth and the false accusation that Christianity has made the world worse instead of better. The fact is, Christians are right to reject such ideas. But we can stand up for truth without reacting hatefully toward those with whom we disagree.

How we respond when someone triggers us can help or hurt our Christian testimony. Jesus calls us to demonstrate his love and kindness, even when others unjustly accuse or malign us. I’m concerned that in this age of outrage — an age in which a personal response to an offense does not require a personal interaction — our character often reflects the world, not Jesus.

Our response matters. You see, we have a better way. Christians have the gospel, the best news ever. And the gospel brings us somber joy — the joy that comes from knowing we have salvation through Christ, and a sense of somberness because we see the wages of sin and know that many people still reject the only means of redemption. And how can we ever expect or hope that an unbelieving world will trust that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life if we treat them with disdain?

So, the question is this: How should we respond now? Of course, the answer is multifaceted. Some will, and must, defend religious liberty. Some will work to create a culture that draws others to the beauty of the gospel. Most of us will engage culture on a person-by-person basis rather than waging a culture war.

To accomplish the mission to which God is calling us, we need to stop contributing to the outrage and start engaging the outrage of others with the good news of Jesus. If Christians concentrated on loving others instead expressing outrage at our differences with them, if we showed people mercy instead of condemnation, they would see Jesus in a different light. I’m convinced this is, indeed, one of the greatest challenges of our day.

Now to be fair, our challenges are less threatening than those many faced in previous centuries. Most of us aren’t worried about impalement on stakes. But the stakes we face are still high. We must engage this moment well for the cause of Christ and his kingdom.

Salt and Light

It’s time to let go of outrage and find another way, a better way. Modeling Christ’s love isn’t just for pastors and church leaders. It’s what the Holy Spirit empowers every Christ follower to do. Jesus calls his followers to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

Most people love darkness rather than light. As Christians, we need a steady diet of Jesus and the gospel to resist the pull toward darkness. Unfortunately, many of our churches lack biblical engagement outside of Sunday morning, and have no plan for discipling members. And many pastors are hesitant to address the inappropriate online interactions of congregants.

But Jesus does not shy away from these things. Where he sees a gap, he fills it. Where there is a problem, he lovingly tends to it. He rolls up his sleeves and gets to work in the hard and dark places of our hearts to bring wholeness, healing, redemption, and grace.

Jesus provides the ultimate example of how to live righteously in a hostile world. As Peter describes it, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

While we humbly work on this in our own lives, we can also point other believers toward kindness instead of rage. The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us (Rom. 8:11). He will empower us to rise above outrage and respond with temperance.

Kaltenbach has received some pushback for promoting a message of respectful dialogue. But he doesn’t worry about the naysayers. After all, changing hearts is God’s job; ours is to share his truth boldly and graciously.

Scripture reminds us that those who cause division “do not have the Spirit” (Jude 19). Those who walk in step with the Spirit produce his fruit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). Noticeably absent from the apostle Paul’s list is outrage. So let us be filled with the Spirit and walk in step with him, instead of spewing vitriol through our keyboards and smartphones.

Jesus calls us to build bridges, not unnecessarily burn them.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Influence Magazine.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

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