The Limits of Outrage

Republished, with permission, from Voice magazine, Sep/Oct 2013.

Recently I read a blog post written by a conservative political columnist and radio host for whom I have mixed feelings. Even though I find that I agree with many of his political views, I find his tone and style of politics not to be my particular style. Still, he’s a gifted writer and this time he shared something I think Christians need to hear. His point is that while he cares about politics and advocates for his point of view, outrage is not all there is to life.

This columnist wrote:

I’m sorry, but I can’t live my life constantly fixated on the political outrage of the day and I can’t be outraged about every…thing under the sun. I go out with friends and talk about stuff other than politics, I play with my kids, I love my wife, I cook gumbo and make fantastic ice cream, I watch a bit of TV, don’t read as much as I should, I go to church, and I try to focus on the good in a world filled with sin and bad and evil.*

There is such an important message here for Christians. A message for me, particularly. While it is good and right to be outraged at injustice in the world, we can’t live on outrage. While it is good and right to roll up our sleeves and make a difference in the world by our lives and our actions, we can’t live on activism. You see, the narrative of the Scriptures is not just about what’s right and what’s wrong in the world and in our own hearts. The grand story is that there is good news available.

God didn’t ignore the evil that the Fall produced by sin. He spoke by the entrance of His Son, Jesus, into the world (Hebrews 1:2). When Jesus cried those anguished three words on the cross, “It is finished,” it signaled the beginning of the end. The power of sin and death, which so strangles the human soul, which ravages the planet, which obscures the glory and grandeur of our great God—this has been defeated, and like a helium balloon, is dying a slow death. Evil, my friends, is not winning.

Importance of faith, hope, joy

The story of the Bible is that there is hope in the death, burial, and resurrection of the Perfect One, the Son of God. This is why Paul, in his letters, didn’t speak with outrage about the world around him. Do you notice that about him? Take Philippians, written from imprisonment, an unjust one. And yet in this letter he lifts high the risen and glorious Christ and commands Christians everywhere to rejoice. He doesn’t use this as a diatribe against the despot, Nero, who used Christians as torches to light his dinner parties. He doesn’t vent his frustrations at the Christians who were embarrassed by him and turned their backs on him. Paul doesn’t do that.

Neither does Peter in his letter to the “strangers and foreigners” of the 1st Century, a church marginalized by his culture. He instead calls them to courage and faith and joy. Yes, joy. The same word used by the very first pastor of the Jerusalem Church, James. He says to his people that they could find joy even in the worst of persecutions (James 1). This is not to be confused with a sort of happy-clappy, saccharine Christianity devoid of proper lament. This is not to replace the brokenness that God brings to the hearts of Christians when they see the state of the world. Think of Jesus who wept over Jerusalem. Think of Jeremiah, the tear-soaked prophet of God’s people. Think of Habakkuk who asked God, “how long?” Lament is a profound part of the Christian life. Grief is a necessary function of processing life in a fallen world. Even Jesus wept at the fruit of sin, the death that stole away the best years of his friend, Lazarus’ life.

To find joy, to live for joy, to extol the beautiful Christian story of hope is not to adhere to the Prosperity-Gospel “everything turns out fine” mentality, because everything doesn’t always turn out fine in this life. But to find joy means to process everything in life: death, headlines, politics, evils, injustices, bad medical diagnoses, car breakdowns, corrupt leaders, wayward churches, divorce, foreclosure, abuse—all through the lens of the Gospel story. After all we are citizens of another kingdom, we are people who look for a new city, whose builder and maker is God. This is what the Bible tells us is reality.

Philippians 4:8 freshly considered

I enjoy keeping up with current events, politics, and movements in the Church. But I know that because I see “through a glass darkly” even at my best, my view of the world is tainted by sin. It’s a good thing to help people size up the world biblically, but if we’re not careful (and by we, I mean me), people can assume that the Christian faith is all about cynicism, negativity, and opposition.

I recently read, afresh, Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We typically use this verse as a guideline for what kind of entertainment we allow ourselves to view. Some tape this to their television set or computer. This is a good application of this verse, but I wonder if seeing this only as a sort of entertainment filter limits the application. I think there is more here.

Think on these things. Paul is repeating a theme common to his writing. He’s applying the Gospel message to the way we think. God has given us minds with which to love him. And Paul is asking a question, “How are we stewarding our thought lives?” There is a lot of bad in the world. There is a lot of sin. There are many injustices which demand the prophetic voice of God’s people. There is a lot of bad in the Church. There is a lot of sin. There are injustices, even in the Church, which demand the prophetic voice of God’s people. And yet…should the negative occupy all we speak and write about?

Should we be primarily reactionary? Or, does Paul counsel us here to operate our ministry from the position of what is beautiful instead of what is ugly?

Let’s review where Paul was when he wrote those words. He’s in jail. He’s been unjustly treated. He lost his religious freedom. He’s in the Roman Empire, governed by one of the most sadistic, authoritarian madmen ever put in power. He’s got friends, Christian friends, who’ve betrayed him. He’s probably very sickly. And yet Paul says, to paraphrase, “In light of what we have in Christ, let’s think on these things: truth, honor, justice, purity, loveliness, what is commendable and what is praiseworthy.” In other words, let’s not singlehandedly focus on what is bad in our world, let’s not simply react to everything negative. Even though this world is so tainted by sin and there are evil people and tragic circumstances, there is still a lot of goodness and beauty and joy in this world. Let’s find those things and rejoice in them. Let’s ponder them. Let’s revel in them.

Yes, there is time for lament and sorrow and weeping. But given that we know the Man of Sorrows who has born our grief, let’s train our minds to find what is beautiful in this world, what is lovely and pure and wonderful. Let’s rejoice in a golden sunset. Let’s revel in the beautiful laughter of our children. Let’s appreciate good art. Let’s enjoy a sports event without guilt. Let’s revel in deep friendships. Let’s love our spouses and enjoy their company. Let’s admire a well-crafted piece of furniture. Let’s laugh and cry at a good theatrical production. Let’s let the best music run through the ears into the deepest part of the heart.

As a Christian, we can look at what is beautiful and we can do it to the glory of God. Why? Because anything beautiful or lovely or good can catapult our hearts into worship of the Creator who made it. Every time your child laughs and gives you joy, you can

silently worship God who is the giver of all good gifts. And you can do this with a delicious meal, a glorious soundtrack, a delightful conversation, or anything that brings you wholesome pleasure. You can do this because you know each and every glimpse of beauty is a reflection of the One who is beautiful: Jesus. What Paul is really saying, I think, is this. Don’t be cynical. Be grateful. If it was ingratitude (according to Romans 1) that turned man’s heart from Creator to creation, then it is gratitude that turns man’s heart the other way. For if we listen to Paul and think long enough about what is good and lovely and just and commendable and praiseworthy, we’ll find Jesus.

Conclusion

Life was once perfect. Sin violated it (and us). We need a Rescuer to save us, who is like us but is not like us. That Savior came. He demands our allegiance, but offers us free grace. And those who put their faith in Him are part of a new people, a new way of life, a new kingdom.

So yes, it’s good to be outraged at what is going in the world. It’s vital to let our brokenness move us to action, joining the work of God already in progress. But more importantly it’s incumbent on those who’ve tasted His joy to make the grand Gospel our melody. Let’s find the silver linings, the good things in life and use them as evidences of God’s good grace. They are all around us, every day, if only we look for them. Let’s be as intentional about finding joy as we are about fomenting outrage. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Notes

* Erick Erickson, “Reality Check” (July 11, 2013 posted at 12:01 AM). Accessed on Red State: Conservative Blog Wednesday, July 17, 2013 edition.


Daniel Darling is an active writer and speaker. Prior to becoming VP of Communications at Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, he served as pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church. He bogs at danieldarling.com.

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