Our new century has given us a feast of potent, disturbing images. 9/11 was a scene of chaos. The initial images on TV—smoking rubble and countless faces revealing unknown depths of sorrow—were soon replaced by even more disturbing ones: pictures of makeshift memorials, and fences covered with photos of the missing. These horrors have been repeated after additional attacks in London, Boston, and around the globe, with many similar lingering aftereffects of fear and anxiety.
It’s also been an age of protest. People across the political spectrum have marched on the Washington Mall, armed with signs, megaphones, and simmering rage. Others have organized “occupy” protests in cities around the world, and revolutions in the Middle East have toppled governments and started civil wars.
On top of this widespread social unrest, Christians everywhere have been facing increased pressure to conform to the sexual tolerance of our day. The choice, more and more, is between laying aside biblical convictions and losing a job. Between hiding faith and enduring public scrutiny and mockery.
The ground beneath our feet is shifting. It’s hard to know how to keep up. Should believers respond to inflammatory rhetoric with more fire? Should we organize marches or build political machines that can combat the cultural tide crashing against us? Perhaps. There’s wisdom in working to preserve religious liberty, but sometimes our efforts to do so eclipse the subtle, simple work of faithfulness, to which Christians are always called.
Sometimes our efforts to preserve religious liberty eclipse the subtle, simple work of faithfulness, to which Christians are always called.
For me, the most interesting Scripture passage that speaks to our situation is 1 Thessalonians 4:10-12: “We urge you, brethren, to . . . make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.”
The Thessalonian church faced a situation like ours. They lived in an era of political unrest, and Christians in particular dealt with more than their fair share of public scrutiny and distrust. Paul calls them away from controversy, away from political hot topics, and back to ordinary earthy concerns. To “work with your hands” was seen by Romans as lowly and undignified, but Paul elevates it, encouraging the church to choose this life over one spent in argument, political action, or nervous speculation about the “end times.”
It’s a vision that reveals our primary means of witnessing to a turbulent world—namely, quiet faithfulness.
In the Psalms, we are told that while political parties panic, scheme, and shout, God reacts in a way that shows just how absurd the schemes of man are to Him: “Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? . . . He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:1, 4).
For some reason, reading this passage, I think of the scene in Home Alone when Macaulay Culkin runs screaming through his empty house, hands pressed against the sides of his face. It’s a great image for the absurdity of the nations’ turmoil as well as how we sometimes respond to it—matching panic for panic, fear for fear. I think, too, that it’s how we often envision God reacting: panicked, worried, crying, “What are we going to do?!”
But God doesn’t panic. He laughs. He “scoffs at them,” unimpressed with their anxiety and plotting. To “lead a quiet life “might mean to emulate God as He observes the chaos of the world. While people are busy writing angry blogs, publishing books, threatening lawsuits, and marginalizing Christians, God invites us (to invoke the English musician Thom Yorke) to a “no alarms and no surprises” way of responding.
We must remember, in whatever vernacular we might use, that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.”
Is this because we’re assured that everything will turn out okay? Yes, though not in the way you might think. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). Life could get pretty unpleasant before it gets better for any of us. However, the distress we experience—whether it’s due to the hatred of persecutors or the shame heaped on us by the politically correct—is incomparable to the goodness, wholeness, and glory we’ll one day experience in God’s presence (Rom. 8:18).
So in the light of resurrection hope, we can breathe deeply and remind one another, “Don’t panic."
Yet quiet itself isn’t enough. We need quiet faithfulness, and here, we can get really concrete. Another New Testament writer encouraging a different group of embattled Christians said, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25 ESV).
This verse comes after an extended exploration of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And it emphasizes Christians’ unhindered access to the Father. One might reasonably ask, “If I have access to God, then why go to church?” And here, the author of Hebrews provides the answer: We are not meant to be on our own. We’re to “encourage” one another—an active term, indicating that we need to help drive one another along in our journeys of faith.
The passage also says to do so “all the more as you see the Day drawing near,” which speaks to the turbulence of history. When the world unravels, we must do as the first Christians did and continue gathering together and encouraging one another with the great hope of the gospel.
It sounds like the most cliché counsel possible: The world is in a frenzy, so let’s go to church. Let’s sing, read the Scriptures, pray, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Let’s confess our sins to one another and remember, in whatever vernacular we might use, that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.”
It may seem banal, but it isn’t. Every “amen” is a rejection of the empty promises of the world around us. Every retelling of the gospel story shines a light into darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
So we gather. We sing together and learn to pray. We “waste” our time, as theologian Marva Dawn would say, doing things that are inexplicable to the world. We give generously and refuse to cling to our possessions. And perhaps if the time comes, we freely give our lives. We serve a different king and a different kingdom, and death is not the end of our stories. The gospel we proclaim brings life from death and hope from tragedy. Jesus promised that hell’s gates won’t prevail, and in saying this, He gives us an image of the gospel that’s advancing—not entrenched or stuck playing defense. Even as the world rages, Jesus’ kingdom moves forward, startling dead people to life.
So instead of answering fury with fury, let us respond to our troubled times with the words of the Psalm 95:6-7: “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.”