Testing Ourselves in Challenging Times
By Darrell Bock – Dallas Theological Seminary
No one doubts we are living in challenging times: massive cultural change at an exhausting pace, a world full of anger and an array of frustrations, all topped off by a pandemic leaving people to debate the best way to cope with its disruption. Conversations often devolve into arguments. Today’s U.S. election only heightens these divisions, and listening often gets cast aside. In this environment, the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbor often becomes an ethic left for another day and time.
Just as troubling, if not more so, is how believers are treating one another as a result. It haunts me, as it might you, how people who have worshipped in joy next to one another for 20 or 30 years cannot talk rationally with one another because of issues in the public square.
Such things ought not be.
What are we defined by?
I view our current climate in the U.S. as a litmus test of what really matters to us. Is it our shared faith, or something else? These issues are not isolated to one nation, race or gender, either. If we are not vigilant in our pursuit of Christ, we may all be tempted to elevate our own interests above God’s clear directives for His people. Through our Genesis study, we know that without God as the foundation, even our closest relationships can crumble.
Just a moment’s pause and thought should lead us to see that in a fallen world things are often a mess. The ultimate fix is not in politics but in our faith and the realization that until Jesus returns, we will always be looking for a better day.
Ephesians 6:10-20 tells us our battle is not against people (“flesh and blood”), but is a spiritual struggle against invisible forces with armor that is not determined by circumstances, politics or ideology. That armor is our lived–out faith: righteousness, truth, the gospel, the Spirit, the Word and prayer. Our faith protects us from “the flaming arrows of the evil one.” How we live it out relationally matters. The Great Commission reminds us to share the good news of Jesus with others in gentleness, respect and speech that is always gracious (Colossians 4:5-6; 1 Peter 3:15-16).
Two more key texts direct me in this challenging time, and two observations put a check on my responses.
Galatians 6:10 appears as the conclusion to Paul’s call to love your neighbor. This theme ties back to Jesus’ reminder in the parable of the good Samaritan that we are called to be good neighbors to every human being rather than selective about who our “real” neighbor is. This passage tells me to do good to all, especially those of the faith. Believers share a special bond! While God calls me to treat everyone well, I should go above and beyond for those who share my faith in Christ.
1 John 4:7-14 reminds believers that our love for one another marks us as God’s children and should have priority over anything else. That bond is our shared realization that Jesus is the answer to our needs. The text is clear that love is rooted only in our relationship to Him and the love He gives to us. Any other answer is less than Jesus.
Here are a few checks I find helpful:
Recognize that both policies and character matter deeply in our world, and we all make differing judgments about how to prioritize them when they are in conflict. One may lean one way or the other, and each may have good reasons for doing so. Respect and humility suggest we need to appreciate this reality. Be careful not to always elevate these issues to “life and death” or “good and evil” when all of us are making judgments about priorities, some of which are difficult calls.
Run a series of self-examination tests. I can quickly tell if I am listening by whether I am forming a rebuttal while someone speaks to me. I am listening closely enough when I can repeat what they said in different words and they respond, “You heard what I am saying.” What kind of persons are we: rebutters or listeners? Listening and understanding is not necessarily agreeing. It is working carefully to appreciate the conversation, whether in agreement or difference. When we understand one another well, we can move a conversation along when it comes to substance.
Another self-examining question is: what really defines me, my faith or my politics? If it is my politics more than my faith, then perhaps the priority is in the wrong place when it comes to Christ’s call to love well. This does not mean we should avoid politics, but we can engage with Christ as our unifying center, while appreciating the challenging judgments we all make.
Engaging with love
For many of us, current conflict is escalated by political controversy. Our culture divides everyday choices along political lines. We are asked to choose a side, leaving little room for a respectful discussion or even the opportunity to ask difficult questions, some of which have merit on both sides. This lack of respect is a sad development. Some controversial issues do force us to weigh decisions. When we weigh controversial issues in relation to loving one another and personal liberty, we can discern when and where a firm stand is required. Other times, a decision has to be made that does involve judgment.
As an example of the latter category, BSF is asking class members, when they begin to regather, to wear masks because of potential health protections and benefits. The rationale for this decision is another kind of litmus test. When has Christian love said that what matters is my liberty and not care for my neighbor? Love is directed toward others, not self-focused. Regardless of some scientific debates, if my wearing a mask could save someone from a disease that can kill or damage another’s health, then my sacrifice is a form of love. It is being pro-life (as well as pro-love)! Our call is always to love well. This organizational decision reflects expressed care for my neighbor in our corporate context and gives testimony to our willingness to love.
I pray members listen to the concerns of their brothers and sisters on both sides. In a culture that feeds off controversy, believers must weigh the cost and benefit of decisions while considering Christ’s call for love, action and unity, especially when the choice does not involve moral or theological compromise.
No matter what the future holds, we are in challenging times. But believers have the Spirit of God to overcome whatever goes on in the world. “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). We do not live in fear, but we live confidently in the power (enablement), love and self–control that comes only from our faith (2 Timothy 1:7). If we examine ourselves with these perspectives, maybe we can check ourselves and engage in fellowship rooted in the main thing. Perhaps by remembering the most important thing that unites us, we will grow together as we engage one another in love, even with our differences.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Dallas Theological Seminary
Dr. Darrell Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He hosts The Table Podcast, leading discussions related to God, Christianity and culture.
Submit a Comment
Our BSF staff approves each comment to maintain privacy and security. It may take 24 – 48 hours for your comment to be posted. Be sure to check back for replies from the author or other BSF members!