“We don’t live in a moralistic age where we need to prove people to be sinners. We live in an anxious age where we need to prove to people they’re worth something.”
The Gospel Coalition highlighted this from a quote of Sam Allberry in a recent tweet, and I think we need to talk about it.
First off, let me just say that even if Allberry is right that we live in an anxious age, it does not follow that a crisis of self-confidence and valuation is the cause. Nor should we assume words of affirmation are the chief cure.
I hold that we have been conditioned to place too high an importance on self-esteem. And maybe that is our problem, specifically in proportion to how we esteem others – especially first and foremost our Maker.
The ratios are all out of whack.
Iron sharpening iron is good, for instance. And so is one man to another, as Proverbs 27:17 says. But some take this to mean something which I believe is untoward. There is an overcorrection of what men like Allberry are claiming in our day, methinks.
Do we see, for instance, Christians rebuking fellow Christians in the New Testament for their feelings of anxiety, depression, or distraction? Or do we see God’s people in the Old Testament being rebuked by one another for their feelings? Maybe I missed it, but someone will have to point positive examples of these out to me in the Biblical text, if indeed they are there.
You will just have to forgive me for doubting they are there in the meantime, and for not just taking anyone’s word for it. But I do see other things – ‘Weep with those who weep,’ and ‘rejoice with those who rejoice,’ for instance. And if ‘Be anxious for nothing’ and ‘Fear not’ are commands, then so also this kind of Biblical sympathy must be regarded as a command.
Yes, we should by all means preach and minister to the whole person – in ourselves and one another. But why do some prefer to rebuke the emotions directly, or the people for feeling their emotions?
Some of us seem to me to be affirming the premise that our emotions are who we truly are, or what we should be about. Yet if emotions are a reflection of who we are, they are at least equally as much a consequence of what we believe is true and good as a reflection of who we truly are. And that is where our efforts should be focused – on correcting our mistaken notions of what is true and good according to God’s Word.
I find this deeply concerning no less: if emotions are being rebuked than if they’re being affirmed as sacrosanct and unassailable. In the one case, we have an unassailable defense against critical thinking or second-guessing. That makes an end-run around wise counsel and correction. But in the other case, we have a potential for attacks made for which no defense can be made by those who are already faint-hearted. And that leaves us open to all sorts of abuse which we would not be guarding our hearts to remain open to willy-nilly.
Yet where the prevailing emotions and thoughts of a person are often called a disease or disorder in our day – especially when there is no medical diagnosis to explain the depression, anxiety, or trouble paying attention – the Nouthetic counseling method perceives a danger calling sickness what is actually sin. An insanity defense of sorts will be made, the Nouthetic crowd fears. And then there will be no way of rebuking the sin itself. Point taken.
But what do they say to this, that to call someone sick is not to say they are not a sinner also, or that saying someone is a sinner is not the same thing as denying they are also sick?
Christ in Luke 5:31-32 uses both kinds of language – of illness and health, and of sin and repentance. And so should we.
“And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Remember that the context of Jesus saying this was that the Pharisees were challenging him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. And yet, again, there was nothing mutually exclusive about those who came to Jesus being either sick or sinners. They were both. And no excuses were made to the contrary, except in those cases where the suffering was assumed to be the direct result of sin on the part of the sufferer, like an inversion of prosperity theology where hard times are taken as self-evident proof of wrong-doing and wickedness.
But healing and forgiveness from Christ corresponded with his compassion for the sheep without a shepherd. And what does Psalm 94:19 say?
“When the cares of my heart are many,
your consolations cheer my soul.”
A few who hold to my cousin Tim Mullet’s position cite this often enough. But the Lord’s consolations cheering the soul of the careworn cannot to my mind be rightly substituted. And rebukes to those who are overwhelmed with sadness and worry, especially to the point of despair, are not at all the same thing.
Otherwise, what will we say? Is there a kind of mental and emotional prosperity theology inherent to our assumptions, and will we miss it because it works in the opposite direction along the number line from the more prominent examples we criticize?
Really, now. I do wonder at times whether some of us have never read the book of Job. Or if we all have read it, I dare say some of us have not read it so carefully as to let it speak to us, except in the way Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar would have prior to God telling the Job would pray for them to be forgiven.
And Carl Trueman is right, by the way. As he says,
“Protestantism, with its emphasis on the preached word grasped by faith, is perhaps peculiarly vulnerable to downplaying the importance of the physical. But to tear identity away from physical embodiment and to root it entirely in the psychological would be to operate along the same trajectory as transgenderism.”
This is not to say we needs embrace the opposite position, that what is physical is paramount but what is spiritual and based on grace through faith is incidental. But it is to warn against pendulum swings being mistaken for discernment.
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