It is a common failing of any writer, teacher or preacher to impose one’s individual circumstances on a whole community – to assume that what one is going through, all are going through. Nevertheless, it is a reasonable diagnosis to say that Australian society, and Western society in general, is looking very frayed about the edges. There have been a plethora of covid restrictions; too steady a diet of American politics; the capacity of social media to overdo everything they touch and render all society binary with the exception of gender; and an increasing amount of legislation that is pandering to what is coarse and debased. Not that there are not efforts out there to save us all. Cricket Australia, Rugby Australia, the AFL, the NRL, the various education systems, the universities, and even parliament itself are all operating like Clayton’s Churches with rather more than Ten Commandments. The result, however, is not the peace which passes understanding, but just more moral confusion. All the new commandments look like reflections of a society which has already run off the road, and is no longer sure that there is a road.
What are Christians to do? How can we be as wise as serpents while remaining as innocent as doves? (Matt.10:16) We ought to recognise that, although each society differs from others, there is really nothing new under the sun (Eccles.1:9). If believers were called to be those who do justly, love mercy (or kindness), and walk humbly with God in the eighth century B.C. (Micah 6:8), that is what we are to do in our own century.
First, so many of our anxieties would be relieved if we walked humbly before God. The venom is taken out of the situation if we could say with Charles Simeon: ‘My enemy, whatever evil he says of me, does not reduce me so low as he would if he knew all concerning me that God knows.’ There is a thick hide which is just insensitive to reality, but Simeon was writing of a deep-seated humility before God who tells us that nothing good dwells in our flesh (Rom.7:18). It is not that nothing good dwells in the flesh of my opponent, but nothing good dwells in me.
Secondly, the Christian message is full-orbed. It is full of grace, but it is also full of law – God’s grace and God’s law, not man’s weakness and man’s regulations. The gospel is both winsome and convicting. The prophetic word will break down and build up (Jer.1:9-10). Christ woos us: ‘Come unto Me all you who labour and are heavy laden’ (Matt.11:28). Those who yearn to find rest for their souls will surely come. Yet there is no cheap grace; repentance is necessary. The seeker sensitive school of evangelism is duly offended when Jesus tells the Canaanite woman that it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (Matt.15:26). Thankfully, the poor woman had not learnt how to take offence at everything, and continued the conversation, resulting in the healing of her daughter and an unusual commendation of her faith by the Lord. Micah 6:8 does not separate justice and kindness but unites them.
Thirdly, beware of what C. S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters called the ‘Christianity and …’ approach. Christ is sovereign over the whole universe; He is Lord of all (Col.1:15-20). This makes Him the Lord of politics, for example. Yet it does not make Christianity a political ideology. In a fallen world, governed by fallen people who are elected by fallen people, there will remain much that is wrong. So it is better to say that Christianity has political implications. In the present age there are too many civil authorities who are acting like clerics presiding over quasi-churches, and too many churches putting their trust in princes and some form of the social gospel. The result is that truth is distorted, and there is a subsequent loss of faith, hope and love.
Be bold, be strong, be confident in the God who reigns over heaven and earth and whose will must prevail, and pray for all, especially those whom we perceive as enemies. As the American Civil War was drawing to its close in 1865, Abraham Lincoln urged his hearers to press on ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all, [and] with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right …’ One could do no better than that, looking to Christ in all circumstances. Let those who feel frayed about the edges take refuge in the Prince of Peace. With warm regards in the King,
Rev. Dr Peter Barnes,
Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia