Given the Lenten season, it is appropriate for us to examine ourselves, to come to terms with our own sinfulness, to repent of it, to be reminded of God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and to throw ourselves into the arms of that grace.
Last week, I preached from the prophet Jeremiah. I was struck by the prophet’s tone and perspective on the destruction of his people. I preached what was a personal (for me) sermon about sin and and how we related to those with whom we disagree. I wasn’t all that confident in the message, but after the fact, I’ve had several requests for a recording of it, and someone asked that I put my thoughts on this blog. So…this is me doing that.
I begin with the notion that there are quite a few angry people around right now. There’s a lot of noise trying to whip us into an outrage. When I Google the phrase, “Where is the outrage?” I get all kind of interesting hits. Politicians are outraged at other politicians. People are outraged with the president, someone is outraged over the lack of proper cancer screening for women. Some are outrage over same-sex unions. Some think the media is outrageous. Some are outraged about the environment, and someone is outraged at the greed of CEO’s (who knew?). I even found a website called “wherestheoutrage.” I could go on, but my point is that while I see and feel outrage, I don’t see much grief. At least, I don’t find the kind of grief I see in the prophet Jeremiah.
“My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick within me. Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people from the length and breadth of the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” “Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images and with their foreign idols?” “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded; I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored? Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! Oh that I had in the desert a travelers’ lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a company of treacherous men.” (Jeremiah 8:18–9:2, ESV)
I see in this passage two different, but not contradictory, responses on one serious problem.
God is disciplining the people of Israel for their sinful actions. At this point in Jeremiah’s ministry, some captives have already been taken to Babylon. Jeremiah grieves.
Those that remain in the land are wondering why they have seemingly been abandoned. “Why has the Lord abandoned us?” they cry (v. 19). God’s answer through his prophet is that he has not abandoned them, but that they abandoned him by worshipping false gods brought among them by foreigners (v. 19). Not only have they sinned, but their refusal to heed the warnings of the prophets means that the chance for repentance is past. There are no more chances (v. 20).
And Jeremiah grieves over the sin of his people. Why, in a land known for healing (v. 22), do we find such spiritual sickness?
And Jeremiah grieves.
“Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1, ESV)
But Jeremiah isn’t only grieving. He’s mad.
“Oh that I had in the desert a travelers’ lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a company of treacherous men.” (Jeremiah 9:2, ESV)
We would say, “If I could find a desert island and stick my people on it – I’m not kidding around – I would leave them. I’m done with their hard-hearted, rebellious ways! But, Oh, that my head were like a fountain that I could cry forever over the condition of my people!”
Outrage is in vogue now. Things are not going well, and we are angry. But I don’t see grief. I do see a lot of blaming.
Our problems are someone else’s fault. “Those people” are ruining our country. “They” are ruining marriage by trying to redefine it away from its historical Christian understanding. “They” are ruining the economy. “They” are here illegally. Here’s my problem with all the outrage: it’s always pointed at someone else. We are defensive, and we don’t grieve OUR sin, because we are too busy being outraged with THEIR sin. The very fact that I mentioned some of the above things will make some of my readers angry. I’ll be accused of making some sort of moral equivalency argument. Someone will be angry that I dared compare our sin with “theirs,” but this will only serve to make my point.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a time for outrage. Jeremiah was outraged. The prophets were often outraged. Jesus turned over tables in the temple because the worship of His Father, the Creator God, was turned into a sham. Outrage has its place.
But…where is the grief? We don’t grieve our own sin, and we don’t grieve for the destruction that “they” are bringing on themselves. I’m thinking of the issue of marriage that is currently being waged in our country. I believe that scripture (properly understood) and historic Christian teaching are consistent, clear, and unified on the point that the act of Christian marriage is for one man and one woman forever. I don’t doubt that the changing of our nation’s stance on issues like this will create new problems, however, who do we think is causing greater harm to the family, the 33% of heterosexuals who have experienced at least one divorce, or the roughly 4% of the total population seeking some form of legalized union? Church, we are not grieving our own sin.
Outrage without grief is just pride. Outrage is easy. Outrage feels good, but outrage without the grief of knowing that we have offended God and harmed ourselves is just me being pridefully superior.
But why don’t we grieve for those who oppose us while destroying themselves with sin? My answer is that you can’t grieve for what you don’t love.
I tell two stories from my own life…
My grandfather was an abusive alcoholic. He died around 1988 from some combination of cirrhosis of the liver and lung cancer (he was a smoker too). I was about 13 at the time. We were living on the other side of the country, and I didn’t go to the funeral. I know this sounds harsh, but it’s true. He was a miserable and unhappy man. He could be unspeakably cruel to my grandmother. He could be dangerous. He did the sort of harm to my mother and her 7 siblings that they still live with. While drunk, he once tried to kill my uncle with an axe. I did not love him. Heck, I didn’t know him. He spoke to me once in my life after he and my father got into a serious argument that nearly came to blows because he was bullying my grandmother. After he told us to get out of his house and never come back, he pulled me aside and told me to come back and see him. I was 5 years old. Those were the only words he ever spoke to me. When he died, my life went on as if he had never been. I didn’t grieve because you can’t grieve for what you don’t love.
I have been blessed in my life to have a few good friends. A couple of these guys have been like my brothers. I’ve know them since I was in the crib. We did everything together as teen agers. It turns out that one of those friends is gay. When it came out, things became complicated between he and I for reasons I can’t go into, and we’ve had no real communication in 13 years. For my part, I still consider him a friend. I think about him often, not everyday, but often. I think about his family more often. I was very close with them too. When I first realized he was homosexual, I grieved. Openly. My wife and I were newly married, and she had never seen me like that before. I don’t think I’ve been like it since. But see, you can only grieve for those whom you love.
So when I ask where is our grief, I suppose I’m really asking two questions:
- Why haven’t we loved God enough to grieve over our own sin?
- Why haven’t we loved others enough to grieve over the harm they bring upon themselves?
Outrage is common and easy. There’s plenty over which to be upset. Outrage has its place, but outrage without grief is just pride. So, I ask again, “Where is our grief?” I suspect we’ll find it only when we come to the end of pride.
(A side note: the oft quoted stat that 50% of all marriages end in divorce is a little misleading. When one breaks down the numbers you find that some people have multiple divorces which skews the overall number. You also find that for those who make Christian commitment a priority in their lives, as few as 26% of people have experienced divorce. See the Barna Group research from 2008.)