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Americans are more optimistic than we have been in fifteen years: The danger of “untethered sympathy” and the power of God’s love

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Americans are more optimistic than we have been in fifteen years: The danger of "untethered sympathy" and the power of God's love
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According to a poll taken last weekend, Americans are more optimistic about the nation’s direction than we have been since December 2006. However, our partisan divide remains: 78 percent of Republicans think keeping taxes the same is more important, while 80 percent of Democrats say it’s important that the government spend money to help the economy.

The next generation of COVID-19 vaccines could come as a pill or a nasal spray and be easier to store and transport. They have the potential to provide longer-lasting immune responses and could be more potent against newer and multiple viral variants, possibly heading off future pandemics. However, experts warn that persistent hesitancy about vaccines and widely circulating coronavirus variants make “herd immunity” unlikely in the US.

Last Sunday marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden. However, the jihadist revolution he sparked continues its quest to build a global caliphate.

The peril of “untethered sympathy”

It seems that good news always comes with a “however.” So long as fallen humans live on this fallen planet, good news will never be the only news in the news.

Well-known pastor and author John Piper recently addressed the Ravi Zacharias scandal, writing on his Desiring God website: “There’s a lesson to be learned from Ravi’s manipulation of people—a lesson to be learned about the need for tethered sympathy.” He explained that sympathy must always be “tethered to the truth, so that it is given lavishly when the truth calls for it and withheld when the truth clashes with it.”

Piper asked, “How did [Ravi] manipulate people into sinfully providing him with sexual stimulation? He did it by demanding untethered sympathy. He portrayed himself as an embattled, burdened, wounded warrior in the righteous cause of the gospel.” Piper said he had seen this “demand and manipulation for untethered sympathy repeatedly among fallen Christian leaders.”

Author and pastor Michael Youssef added that Zacharias’ downfall illustrates the urgency of accountability for ministers. “Whether a church has ten members, a hundred members, or ten thousand members, [the pastor] must have accountability,” he noted.

I agree wholeheartedly and have spoken and written often over the years on the significance of accountability. Here’s the problem, however: We can lie to those who seek to hold us accountable. We can deceive them and even ourselves.

If we do not see sin for what it is and ourselves for who we are, we will persist in “untethered sympathy” for ourselves and the temptations we face.

Smokers and alcoholics

I have been writing in recent days on the urgency of personal biblical morality as we face the rising antagonism of our anti-Christian culture. If our lives do not align with our words, our critics will obviously reject both. But if we live with courageous integrity, our lives can draw skeptics to our Lord.

Of course, Satan knows this as well. That’s why he works so hard to lead us into “private” sin that inevitably destroys our public witness.

In the moment of temptation, it can be hard to see sin for the enemy it is. We are like cigarette smokers who convince themselves they won’t get cancer or alcoholics who tell themselves that they can stop with one drink. In “untethered sympathy” for ourselves, we tell ourselves that we can handle this sin and that we deserve it.

Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,” so “she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). And you know the rest.

A boy under a tree

A significant key to refusing temptation and strengthening our personal character is deciding before temptation strikes that God is always right and Satan is always wrong. It is choosing to believe that our Father knows better than we do and that he only wants what is best for us.

A boy was playing under a tree when his mother stepped onto their porch, saw him, and immediately ordered him to “get down on the ground now!” He instantly obeyed her, falling to his knees. She then called to him, “Crawl to me, now!” Again, he obeyed. When he got to the porch and looked back, he saw the deadly python hanging from the tree where he had been playing, ready to strike.

The boy obeyed his mother because he knew that she knew what was best and wanted only his best.

The next time you are tempted to do what you know God forbids or to refuse what you know he commands, remember these truths:

  • “God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
  • “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
  • “Give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:26).
  • “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Billy Graham’s final campaign

I recently read Greg Laurie’s insightful book, Billy Graham: The Man I Knew. Laurie, one of the most effective pastors and evangelists in America today, considered Billy Graham his spiritual father. His book movingly describes their very close friendship and offers us a fascinating window into Dr. Graham’s personal life and global ministry.

Laurie was present for Dr. Graham’s 417th and final evangelistic campaign in June 2005 in New York City. The three-day event drew more than 230,000 people. Dr. Graham was eighty-six at the time and dependent on a walker due to a pelvic fracture.

Laurie writes: “Everyone knew this was the last time this warrior for Christ would speak publicly. As he was assisted to the platform, he looked out at the crowd and said, ‘God loves you!’ pointing in one direction. ‘And you,’ pointing in the other direction.”

And you.