As the 2024 presidential campaign season begins, I have a bold prediction to make. To be clear: I’m not going to choose sides, endorse a party, or forecast a winner. As the leader of a nonpartisan ministry, none of these actions would be missional for me.
But as a cultural apologist, this is: I predict that every Republican candidate will do his or her best to convince us that America is doing terribly and in urgent need of change. And I predict that President Biden, assuming he runs for reelection, will do his best to convince us that America is doing great and in urgent need of staying the course.
This is not a function of personality: when Mr. Biden was running against then-incumbent President Donald Trump, he was as negative about our nation’s welfare as he is positive today. This is the way all sales work: the salesperson must first convince us that we need what they are selling.
The same is true of evangelism and pastoral ministry: we must convince lost people that they are lost and in need of a Savior before they will seek salvation. And we must convince Christians that they need more of Jesus than they have before they will seek more than they have.
A personal confession
At this point, however, I must make a confession: I tend to be conflict avoidant. This is for two reasons.
One: In ministry, our job status depends in part on our popularity.
If we make too many people angry this Sunday, they won’t come back next Sunday. If I alienate too many readers with tomorrow’s Daily Article, they won’t read my article the next day. And, like it or not, our salaries depend on the contributions of people who like what we do.
Two: I grew up with a low self-image and need the affirmation of others.
I tend to measure myself by what others think of me. The old counselor’s maxim applies far too often to me: “I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.” I have discovered that many pastors share this problem—we are relational by nature and measure ourselves by how others relate to us.
As a result, I tend to struggle with conflict even though I know that telling hard truth is often the most loving thing someone can do.
The surgeon who looked at my MRI and told me I needed four-level spinal fusion last summer delivered what was bad news at the time. But if he had chosen to tell me what I wanted to hear, my back would be in even worse condition today. If the Sunday school teacher who told me I needed to confess my sins and seek God’s forgiveness had instead told me I was just fine as I was, I might still be lost today.
“You cannot make men good by law”
Jesus did not share my problem with conflict avoidance. For example, he pronounced numerous “woes” on the hypocritical religious leaders of his day (cf. Matthew 23), drove moneychangers from the temple (Matthew 21:12–13), and consistently warned sinners that they needed to repent of their sins.
Our Lord was able to be so straightforward because he did not share my two problems: he trusted his Father for his daily needs (cf. Matthew 6:11), and he was confident in his personal worth as God’s “beloved Son” (cf. Matthew 3:17).
If I will see myself and my Father as he did, I can speak the truth in love as Jesus did (Ephesians 4:15).
It helps when I remember that those I serve need spiritual truth from me even more than I needed medical truth from my surgeon. In fact, the health of our society and the future of our nation depend on such truth-telling and its results.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis asked, “What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behavior, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them?” He concluded: “You cannot make men good by law; and without good men you cannot have a good society.”
“Imitate the love of Christ”
St. Asterius (c. 350–c. 410 AD) was a lawyer who became Bishop of Amasea (in modern-day Turkey). His observations regarding our theme resonated with me: “You were made in the image of God. If then you wish to resemble him, follow his example. Since the very name you bear as Christians is a profession of love for men, imitate the love of Christ.”
What does this mean in practical terms?
“Reflect for a moment on the wealth of his kindness. Before he came as a man to be among men, he sent John the Baptist to preach repentance and lead men to practice it. John himself was preceded by the prophets, who were to teach the people to repent, to return to God, and to amend their lives.
“Then Christ came himself, and with his own lips cried: Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. How did he receive those who listened to his call? He readily forgave them their sins; he freed them instantly from all that troubled them. The Word made them holy; the Spirit set his seal on them. The old Adam was buried in the waters of baptism; the new man was reborn to the vigor of grace.”
Asterius then pointed to the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to rescue the one wayward sheep (Luke 15:3–7). He concluded:
“We should not look on men as lost or beyond hope; we should not abandon them when they are in danger or be slow to come to their help. When they turn away from the right path and wander, we must lead them back and rejoice at their return, welcoming them back into the company of those who lead good and holy lives.”
Will you ask the Lord to put some of his “lost sheep” on your heart today?
Will you then “lead them back and rejoice at their return”?
Hard truth prompted by the Holy Spirit is holy truth.