These are the times that try men’s souls. Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, 1776
He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:12-14
During the American Revolution, author/philosopher, Thomas Paine, wrote a series of pamphlets called The American Crisis in which he challenged colonists at the infant stages of a revolution to stay resolved and to have hope. Considered a liberal (most such revolutions against such a long-standing government as the British empire are), he reminded the colonists that the war against Great Britain was a just war, with God on our side. He denounced any thoughts of compromise or of negotiated peace, but called the colonists to hold onto the values and principals in which their only hope lay.
Some would argue the U.S. is in another similar time of crisis. The political divisiveness of our current culture suggests as much. While I agree we are approaching a time of crisis, I think it is for different reasons than the current state of political divide. After all, is today’s divide truly deeper than the race fights of the 60s? The Vietnam War crisis? The fights over prohibition? Women’s suffrage in the early 1900s? The slavery issue and the Civil War? No, the current political divide is not what has changed, though the amplifier of social media may make it seem so. What has changed is the place of the church in the midst of this chaos. Indeed–with apologies to Mr. Paine–these are the times that try church’s souls.
The current culture wars put the beliefs of every church to the test. They measure what we say we believe about God against how we act. As a church, they test our deepest understanding of who God is and what God does.
When I read of God’s “test” of Abraham in the mountains of Moriah in Genesis 22, I realize something important. The omniscient, sovereign God of the universe wasn’t the one who needed to know whether Abraham would fear God at all costs. God knew. God always knows. It was Abraham himself who needed to know. That was the test. It was for Abraham’s own benefit. Abraham knew he could trust God to give him a son at the age of 90. Now he needed to know that he could trust God with the very life of that only son.
Christ-followers today (and the local churches they comprise) need to know where our hope is. This current culture is testing the church in this regard.
- It is testing whether the love and compassion which marked Christ’s ministry will likewise mark ours;
- It is testing whether we use culture as the lens through which we understand God’s Word or rather use God’s Word as the truth through which we understand our culture;
- It is testing whether we will place our hope in political power (whether local or national) or, rather, in the power of God (alone) to transform hearts;
- It is testing whether our allegiance is first and foremost to cultural ideologies or, rather, to an intimate and steadfast obedience to our Creator;
- It is testing whether our relationships with one another will look very much like the rest of the world’s or, rather, will set us apart as markedly as Christ foretold.
Like Abraham’s test, these tests are not for God’s benefit. He already knows our hearts. These tests are for our benefit. They will help us understand some important things about ourselves, and about our churches.
God help us. We really need to pass these tests–for our own sakes and for the betterment of the lost and broken world to whom we are called to minister.