One of the greatest tasks of pastoral ministry is to bring the comfort of the Gospel to the people who are in your charge that are afflicted and despairing. I suppose that goes without saying, and certainly every pastor worth their salt feels the weight of this task. Of course this task runs beyond just the pastoral office, and every Christian reader of this blog ought also to feel the weight of this calling.
I have been preparing to preach this weekend from Matthew 6:25-34, which to refresh your memory, is Jesus’ teaching regarding worry. Jesus lays out the imperative to not worry, and bases that imperative upon the value of humanity in comparison to grass, and birds. God basically says, look if God is going to clothe grass with beautiful wild flowers, and if God cares about sparrows, why are you worrying when you are worth so much more to God than these things.
Strangely enough this text has been used by many well-meaning preachers to give comfort to people mired with anxiety. Anxiety is subtle, hidden epidemic in that debilitates countless people… possibly a majority of people in this world. If we take Matthew 6:25-34 at face value it is not really all that comforting of a text. What person who struggles with anxiety is not trying to not worry? Nobody believes themselves to be choosing to worry, nobody. Yet, this text, and the pastors who preach it are typically preaching a message telling people to not choose worry. It is a very condemning passage, a LAW passage so to speak. It basically tells us “stop doing something that you have no power to stop doing.” To which we might ask… “and how are we supposed to do that?”
Now many of us have seen the epidemic of worry, and it unfortunately has caused us to change our approach to the issue of anxiety. We have come to a place where we no longer approach anxiety as a sin. We take a passage that is clearly condemning upon anxiety, and we tip toe around it and fail to let the text do the work it sets out to do, that is, to condemn anxiety. Instead we treat anxiety as though it were a personal trait on par with the color of our hair or eyes. In other words we no longer treat it as a sinful disposition; instead we treat it as something inherent to our pre-fall being. I completely understand our tendency towards this, we want to bring comfort to the afflicted, we want to tell the anxious person that ‘you are ok, everything is fine, this is a natural problem that a lot of people struggle with, there is nothing wrong with you.’ The problem is that the anxious person knows better! They know that there is something wrong or else they would not feel the way they do. By taking anxiety out of the sin category, we have essentially told people that they are stuck with it, that it is no different than their hair color, or height. In our attempt to bring comfort in the short term, we actually leave people in despair for the long haul. (Please don’t get sidetracked, I am not against anxiety medication, this has nothing to do with that.)
If we are going to allow the cross to be our source of comfort, and the cross to have the final word on our reality, then we need to be able to approach issues like anxiety differently. We need to be able to call anxiety what it is, a sinful disposition. It is a disposition that fails to realize the sovereignty and provision of God, a disposition that is narcissistic and faithless. That was a harsh sentence was it not? Not really.
Here is the point. If anxiety (or any other sinful disposition) is placed properly in the ‘sin’ category, it can be dealt with in the cross. The person who is honestly struggling with anxiety, if they see it as sin, can know that they have received forgiveness for that sin in Christ, they can know that Christ has borne their anxiety on His shoulders, and has determine that anxiety would not have the last word on them. However if we leave anxiety in the personality trait column, the believer is stuck dealing with anxiety, without a Christ who has borne their anxiety. They are left to merely try to pull themselves up by their boot straps, and try harder not to worry and they are bound to constant failure, with no cross to comfort them.
Let’s try a different approach in case you are not following. If we take a different sin, say lust, and view it in the same light it becomes clear. If you take someone who struggles with lust, and tell them it is not a sin, they are left to simply stay enslaved to lust, knowing it is wrong, but not knowing of the forgiveness they have received, and not knowing of the possibility of repentance. It is a disaster. However the person who struggles against lust knowing it is a sin has the opportunity to struggle with the hope that their sin is forgiven, and that hope that by the power of the cross they will be delivered from that sin.
Naming something a sin, is not a means of condemnation to someone, though it appears that way at first, instead naming something as a sin allows that sin to come under the domain of the cross where it can be dealt with hopefully with forgiveness and grace.
A popular verse that is drawn out by fundamentalists is Isaiah 5:20, and it is usually used to call down condemnation upon people who affirm a particular sin as non-sinful. The text does that, and it is not an altogether bad approach to Isaiah 5:20, but it runs the risk of missing a key point.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)
In the context of Isaiah 5, we see the prophet pronouncing ‘present-tense woes’, not future tense. In other words, he is not saying, “look out if you are calling evil good and good evil, because in the judgment you are going to really get it from God.” He instead is saying that by calling ‘evil good, and good evil’, you have placed yourself in a current state of woe. When you call evil good and good evil, you are *currently* reaping the rewards of your paradigm.
Now let’s go back to the example of anxiety. By refusing to call it evil, you are placed in a permanent state of ‘woe’ without any way to get out. However by calling it what it is, ‘evil’, there is a cross to deal with it, and it becomes a struggle under the umbrella of grace.
Let us deal with sin as sin, for Christ came to deal with sin, and to deal with it gracefully. Let us not make the mistake of writing any sin off as being not sinful, lest we place our people in position where they must struggle outside of the cross.
If we have a disposition, that has always seemed to us to be just a personality trait, we ought to be joyfully surprised to find out that our disposition is sinful. Not because we are glad to be sin, but the moment we realize our disposition is indeed sinful, is the moment that we can have the hope of true forgiveness, repentance, and healing from that disposition.