The Pessimistic Optimistic Realism of the Bible
At times, human nature has a habit of downplaying the reality of a really bad situation. Monty Python comes to mind - "Tis but a scratch…It's just a flesh wound!"
And at other times, human nature is a dismal mess of depressing pessimism. Like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh (which I seem to watch a lot lately with small children), we often put the worst construction on everything.
Very often the church embodies this same kind of polarity. At times, congregations may highlight the appearance of the positive while conveniently ignoring the less than ideal reality that lurks beneath. And at other times churches are neurotically negative about everything. But above, beneath, and all around the church is the living and active Word of God - a Word that cuts through our optimism to reveal reality, and also silences our pessimism with the greater reality of his redeeming grace in Christ.
Anxious Optimism vs. Reality
The church's optimism may sound like this:
Look at our church, it's growing! (Reality = The growth is a mile wide and an inch deep. Sprouts with no roots. Choked by the cares of the world. In the end… no fruit)
We have an active youth group with lots of fun activities (Reality = Most of the boys are consuming porn on their smartphones like crack, and many would not be there if the hype disappeared)
We have a balanced budget! (Reality = The numbers don't reflect the true religion that God the Father accepts as pure and faultless – “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction”)
We're a strong, doctrinally sound, confessional church body! (Reality = We've forgotten our first love and our pride betrays the humility of Christ confessed in our doctrine)
Anxious Pessimism vs. Reality
The church's pessimism may sound like this:
The church is dying! (Reality = No it's not. The Lord knows those who are his. His faithful remnant remains after nominal Christianity runs its course).
The church isn't relevant enough! (Reality = The cross will never be relevant to fallen humanity. It's offensive and foolish. The call to bear the cross will never be sexy in a culture that prizes radical individualism, materialism, consumerism, and the cult of "me.")
The church needs to change or die! (Reality = No it doesn't. For the church to change means the church is apostate. The only change we need is daily repentance.)
Church is boring! (Reality = No it's not. Secular culture is boring. What could be more enthralling than the glory of God revealed in his grace to sinners?)
The Biblical Realism of the Prophets
I’ve been reading the prophet Isaiah this past week in preparation for Advent. I’m six chapters in, and so far what strikes me is how pessimistic and optimistic the prophet can be within just a few verses. He’s able to speak the reality of a situation with painful clarity in one moment – so much so that I’m surprised by his pessimism. But just as I’m crying out “Woe is me!” he rebounds with words of pure hope and promise that go beyond optimism to certainty.
I’m sure that Isaiah’s 8th century B.C. contemporaries felt like things were going fairly well in Jerusalem. A powerful and successful king was on the throne (Uzziah). The temple was busy daily with the sound of songs and the smell of sacrifice. What could be wrong?
However, the prophet possesses the gift of seeing the moral rot behind the thin veneer of religion. To use a phrase from C.S. Lewis, he knows about the rats in the cellar of Jerusalem’s outward piety.
God’s people think they are healthy. The prophet speaks reality:
Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil (1:6)
God’s people take pride in the city of Jerusalem. The prophet speaks reality:
See how the faithful city has become a harlot! (1:21)
God’s people are busy with their religion. Once again, the prophet speaks the reality of the situation:
Your incense is detestable to me. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them (1:13-14)
These are pessimistic words for sure.
Even Greater Promises
But within the same context Isaiah speaks another word – an optimistic word - and much more than optimistic words - words of promise and certainty!
To a people weighed down by the filth of their sins he assures them of God's greater reality:
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are as red as crimson, they shall be like wool (1:18)
To a faithless city the prophet proclaims God's greater reality:
Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City (1:26)
To a people whose worship is shallow and hypocritical the Isaiah prophesies, once again, about an an even greater future reality:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains… and all the nations will stream to it (2:1)
“It’s even worse than it appears, but it’s all right.”
Human nature either errs in its unwarranted optimism or pessimism. The words of the prophets do neither. Like all of Holy Scripture, the Spirit calls a thing what it is with painful clarity, but then offers healing and resolution far beyond its dire diagnosis.
The Word of God, simply put, embodies a pessimistic optimistic realism inaccessible to humanity apart from Christ, for only in Jesus Christ and his saving Gospel are we able to admit - as I heard Russell Moore recently quote the words of a Grateful Dead song: “It’s even worse than it appears, but it’s all right.”
This is a message I need. I am so apt to downplay my own sins (and not the sins of others). I am an expert at trivializing what God does not. I am uncomfortable admitting that there is a wide margin between God’s standard and my reality. But Jesus Christ gives me the freedom to admit my worst, for in doing so he offers me his best.
This is a message the preacher must preach each Sunday. Like the prophet, he tells the truth about what we’d rather hide, only to offer what we never thought we deserved – grace.
This is a message the preacher must keep in mind as he puts his hand to the plow and steadily keeps his eyes on the harvest. When he goes through the rolls of his church membership and discovers a mass grave of individuals who have sadly broken fellowship with Jesus and his supper, he can admit the painful reality of the situation, for as the prophet Ezekiel knew so well, the Holy Spirit can speak a graveyard into a garden.
Congregations must keep this message in mind as they walk together as a family of faith. In an age of consumerism we can turn the slightest pessimism into an opportunity for exit from our community, especially when our optimism about what Christian community should look like collides with reality and comes crashing down.
The truth is that at any given moment in the church catholic or the church local, there's always a mix of good, fruitful, God-glorifying stuff going on, as well as a mix of sad, carnal, less than faithful stuff going on. But it's all Jesus' church. And he works all things for his glory. So let's have the courage to admit reality - first in ourselves, and then in the church. And then let's rejoice even more in the greater reality of God's grace and mercy in Christ - a grace and mercy that increases exponentially more than our messes and mistakes.
*Note: In writing this post (or any other, unless otherwise noted) I am not speaking about the church I serve in particular, but rather about trends I see in the church at large. At Our Savior, like all churches, we have our own triumphs and struggles in our life together, and as one of the pastors here my experience serving our people often informs my writing. But none of the above is written in specific reference to this church in particular (budget, youth group, etc.).
Rev. John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church