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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Russell Moore

Russell Moore's Blog
We’ve been warned that social media can distract us, shorten our attention spans, disconnect us from real-life relationships. But what if our Facebook and Instagram are also making us miserable?
Journalist Libby Copeland wrote a few years ago that Facebook might “have a special power to make us sadder and lonelier.” How can this be, though, when Facebook is generally so, well, happy, brimming with smiling faces and beautiful families? Well, that’s just the point.
“By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people’s lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles’ heel of human nature,” Copeland writes. “And women—an especially unhappy bunch of late—may be especially vulnerable to keeping up with what they imagine is the happiness of the Joneses.”
In other words, Facebook presents a highly edited, selective picture of life–one without the tears, struggles, and tedium. Other writers have noticed that Instagram can have a similar effect, and that “social media envy” can be a powerful and afflicting emotion.
Now in one sense, what happens on Facebook and Instagram really doesn’t matter.  If you find yourself absorbed in comparing yourselves to others in this way, the best option might be to turn off the iPhone and detox from the blue glow.
But, it seems to me, the very same phenomenon is present in the pews of our Christian churches.
Our worship songs are typically celebrative, in both lyrical content and musical expression. In the last generation, a mournful song about crucifixion was pepped up with a jingly-sounding chorus, “It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day!” This isn’t just a Greatest Generation revivalist problem either. Even those ubiquitous contemporary worship songs that come straight out of the Psalms tend to focus on psalms of ascent or psalms of joyful exuberance, not psalms of lament (and certainly not imprecatory psalms!).
We can easily sing with the prophet Jeremiah, “great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:23). But who can imagine singing, in church, with Jeremiah: “You have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through. You have made us scum and garbage among all the peoples” (Lam. 3:43-45).This sense of forced cheeriness is seen in the ad hoc “liturgy” of most evangelical churches in the greeting and the dismissal. As the service begins a grinning pastor or worship leader chirps, “It’s great to see you today!” or “We’re glad you’re here!” As the service closes the same toothy visage says, “See you next Sunday! Have a great week!”
Of course we do. What else could we do? We’re joyful in the Lord, aren’t we? We want to encourage people, don’t we? And yet, what we’re trying to do isn’t working, even on the terms we’ve set for ourselves. I suspect many people in our pews look around them and think the others have the kind of happiness we keep promising, and wonder why it’s passed them by.
By not speaking, where the Bible speaks, to the full range of human emotion—including loneliness, guilt, desolation, anger, fear, desperation—we only leave our people there, wondering why they just can’t be “Christian” enough to smile through it all.
The gospel speaks a different word though. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). In the kingdom, we receive comfort in a very different way than we’re taught to in American culture. We receive comfort not by, on the one hand, whining in our sense of entitlement or, on the other hand, pretending as though we’re happy. We are comforted when we see our sin, our brokenness, our desperate circumstances, and we grieve, we weep, we cry out for deliverance.
That’s why James, the brother of our Lord, seems so out of step with the contemporary evangelical ethos. “Be wretched and mourn and weep,” he writes. “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (Jas. 4:9). What would happen to a church leader who ended his service by saying to his people, “Have a wretched day!” or “I hope you all cry your eyes out this week!” It would sound crazy. Jesus always does sound crazy to us, at first (Jn. 7:15, 20).
Nobody is as happy as he seems on Facebook. And no one is as “spiritual” as he seems in what we deem as “spiritual” enough for Christian worship. Maybe what we need in our churches is more tears, more failure, more confession of sin, more prayers of desperation that are too deep for words.Maybe then the lonely and the guilty and the desperate among us will see that the gospel has come not for the happy, but for the brokenhearted; not for the well, but for the sick; not for the found, but for the lost.
So don’t worry about those shiny, happy people on Instagram. They need comfort, and deliverance, as much as you do. And, more importantly, let’s stop being those shiny, happy people when we gather in worship. Let’s not be embarrassed to shout for gladness, and let’s not be embarrassed to weep in sorrow. Let’s train ourselves not for spin control, but for prayer, for repentance, and for joy.
 
Publication date: May 25, 2016
The United States Supreme Court today handed down a unanimous ruling, remanding the case of Little Sisters of the Poor and other petitioners, back to the lower courts to pursue an accommodation. What this means is that the government cannot fine and penalize these groups for objecting to the Administration’s demand that they authorize contraceptive coverage for their ministry’s employees. This is an encouraging development, but it also tells us how much work there is to do in rebuilding a culture of religious freedom in this country. Here are four lessons we can learn from this case.
1. Religious Liberty Is Alive and Well
On the one hand, the ruling is a tremendous win for religious liberty. I, for one, was worried about this case after the death this year of Justice Antonin Scalia. The Court ruled unanimously that an accommodation for these conscientious objectors must be pursued. This is after the attorneys for the Little Sisters and their allies produced evidence that there are all sorts of ways to get a win-win, where the government can carry out its objectives without paving over the consciences of religious objectors (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of directors of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Little Sisters).
This ruling puts a stop, for now, to the government’s bullying of these organizations, threatening to wipe them out of existence for holding to their theological and moral principles. The Court didn’t share the government’s cavalier disregard for these principles. That’s good news.
2. Religious Liberty, Even in Victory, Is Imperiled
While this ruling is a good one, the fact that the case had to be even argued at all is a bad omen of the times. Who would have predicted a few years ago that the Supreme Court would have to weigh in on whether the government could forcibly use nuns to deliver contraceptive drugs and devices? In this sense, this case is similar to another unanimous decision a few years ago, Hosanna Tabor, which ruled that churches and ministries set their own qualifications for ministers. The ruling was welcome, but the fact that the debate has to be had at all is troubling.
3. Religious Liberty Requires an Explanation of Religion Itself
Throughout this case, the government has insisted that its proposed “accommodations” solve the conscience problem. In this, the government has tried to instruct nuns and others on their own religion, with the catechism of state power. Behind this is a larger problem. Increasingly, secular progressive people have diminishing contact with orthodox religious people (and vice-versa), through the sorting of American society and even American media into self-contained silos. If one doesn’t know people who believe they are going to give an account before God for their use of their lives and their resources, one is not going to see religious freedom as all that important. That’s why so many dismissed this case with a roll of the eyes and a “just sign the form” They don’t understand why the petitioners couldn’t have their consciences implicated in what they believe to be sin.
Our defense of religious liberty, then, cannot simply be about explicating the meaning of the First Amendment or even the way that religious freedom helps the common good (although both of these are important). We must explain to our more secular neighbors why we believe the things we do. For those of us who are orthodox Christians, that means explaining to an often incredulous world why we believe the turning-point of history is the Judgment Seat of Christ.
4. Religious Liberty Means Standing Up for Others’ Rights of Conscience
The plaintiffs in this case all agreed that the Obama Administration’s mandate is burdensome, but they disagreed at points as to why. I, and many other evangelical Christians, object in every case to abortion-causing drugs or devices but not necessarily to contraception itself. The Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholic groups conscientiously object to all artificial contraception. We don’t have to agree with one another on all these things in order to agree that the government shouldn’t be in the business of violating the free exercise of one’s deepest held religious beliefs.
Advocacy for religious liberty is not about special pleading for one’s own religion. Religious liberty means that even if one were to work out a “deal” with one’s government protecting one’s own beliefs and practices, that’s not enough. Religious liberty is not a government favor but a right granted by God. That’s why Christians should be the ones standing up for our Jewish neighbors’ right to circumcise their sons or our Muslim neighbors’ right to construct their houses of worship or our Sikh neighbors’ right to wear their religiously-mandated beards and head-coverings. This isn’t moral or theological relativism but the reverse. We believe that these spiritual disagreements we have with one another must be resolved by spiritual means (that is, through the gospel’s open proclamation of the truth), not by the coercive power of the government. We believe, after all, that external conformity does nothing. Only through new birth can one enter the kingdom of God, and that cannot be legislated or dictated by bureaucrats.
Today’s Supreme Court ruling means that this issue lives to fight another day. We should be both encouraged and steeled in our resolve to stand up, always and everywhere, for soul freedom.
 
Publication date: May 17, 2016

light

Not long ago I got an email from a Christian man who asked me, “What can I do to become knowledgable in Christian ethics?” Obviously, I think that’s a good question. Ethics is not, after all, something that only academic types or pastors have to think about. Every Christian has a mandate to be able to articulate the truth of the gospel and to apply it in every season of life.

Here are the three most important things you can do to develop a solid Christian ethic:

1) Know the Bible.

Knowing the Bible goes beyond being able to recite individual verses. There are a lot of Christians who know specific proof texts, but they don’t know how to understand the whole fabric of the Scriptures. They’re unable to inhabit the world of the Bible and see how it applies to ethical and moral issues in their life, especially those that feel new and difficult.

We live in a time when, because of everything from technology to cultural change, there are all sorts of ethical issues that we haven’t had to think about before. But we know, as the Scriptures tell us, that there is nothing new under the sun, just new applications of old principles.

For instance, one question that I get a lot from parents is: What do I do about a smartphone for my pre-teen or young teenage son or daughter? That’s the sort of question that, if you had described twenty years ago what a smartphone is and what it does, would have sounded like science fiction. And we can speculate about the sorts of questions that people are going to have to address in the church in the next twenty years, questions like “What about artificial intelligence,” or, “How do we think about that child in Vacation Bible School who was cloned?” Those are questions that may seem outlandish to us right now, but they are really dealing with very old, ancient issues being brought to the forefront in a new way.

2) Know People

Developing a Christian ethic means understanding human nature. And that means listening and developing empathy for people, especially people who are in a different situation than you.

One of the things that I miss the most since I transitioned out of full time pastoral ministry is counseling. When I was serving as a pastor, people would come to me every day in crisis situations. Counseling them through these circumstances helped me to understand and to develop empathy for people in situations that I just don’t have to face—people who have different points of vulnerability or different points of suffering than the ones I have.

I may not have experienced what a widower who is lonely after the death of his wife is experiencing, but in talking to him and ministering to him, I can enter into his life and develop empathy for others whose loved ones have gone. When I am helping someone addicted to gambling or prescription drugs, even though those aren’t my specific areas of temptation, I can no longer caricature those struggles because I’m looking for how this person can find healing.

Getting this close to people can also help us see what’s at stake in our own lives. I remember talking one time with a married couple where the husband was having an extramarital affair. He was sitting across from me as he listed all these reasons why what he was doing wasn’t wrong after all. But right next to him, they had a little six week-old baby in a car seat on the floor. All I kept thinking was, “Do you not see what your sin is doing? Do you not see what it’s costing you?” Later I found myself thinking about those areas in my own life that I don’t see—those blind spots that those around me can point out but that I can’t see.

3) Know Great Stories

Reading good literature, especially fiction, is more important than keeping up with current events. That’s not to say that it’s unimportant to keep up with current events, but reading good fiction can help you to get inside the minds of people different from you in a way that is more significant than simply knowing what this or that group of talking heads are saying.

Fiction can sometimes, like Nathan the prophet’s story of the ewe lamb, awaken parts of us that we have calloused over, due to ignorance or laziness or inattention or sin. One night, in the car on my way home, I was talking by telephone to my eighty-six year-old grandmother. She was telling me a story about the last time she saw my grandfather alive. She told me about feeling the coldness of his feet as she changed his socks in his hospital bed, about how his eyes were focused on her, though he couldn’t speak. She talked about how, when the nurses told her she had to leave, she kissed him, told him she loved him, and that she could feel him watching her as she left the room, for the last time.

I knew she had lost my grandfather. I know that people die. I know “Husbands love your wives” (Ephesians 5). But that story awakened something in me. It prompted me to hold my wife with a special tenderness when I walked in the door. I had imagined what it would be like to say goodbye to her in that way, and, suddenly, all the daily pressures of kids and bills and house repairs and travel just seemed to fit in a bigger context. Fiction often does the same thing. When I read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych, I gain an imaginative sympathy with something I might avoid in the busyness of life: what it’s actually like to die. When I read Wendell Berry’s stories of Henry County, Kentucky, I can gain insight on what it would be like to face losing a family farm in the Great Depression. This fiction gives a richer, bigger vision of human life.

If you want to become more well-versed in Christian ethics, start with these three things.

Publication date: May 16, 2016

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