I finished the last chapter in the book, and laid it beside me, feeling the increasingly familiar sensation- historical whiplash. He had just really said all the things and they may have been acceptable thoughts in the day, but boy they wouldn’t fly now. The book, “The Art of Divine Contentment”, by Thomas Watson, a Puritan minister in the 1600’s, deals with the text of Philippians 4:11-13. It’s strong on encouragement and admonition but just so short on empathy and the reality of the pain of people’s experiences. Here’s the personal kicker for me: 10 years ago I would have never noticed. It’s kind of the way things were longer ago.
I can’t be the only one feeling the whiplash these days. Wondering how to hold the tensions of what was and what now is. Wondering how Scriptural truths twist and morph and spin as they travel through history.
This isn’t a post to elevate the past and trash the present. Saying they had it right then and we’re messing it up today. The Gospel is for all places and for all times. It makes sense that since we don’t talk like they did in the 1600’s, our language concerning Biblical principles will reflect the times in which we live currently.
I don’t pretend to understand it all but after some good conversations with friends recently, I thought I’d spill out my jumbled thoughts and hope it makes some sense.
I think there probably must’ve been spiritual and cultural movements all throughout church history. But very localized because there weren’t good ways for ideas to travel fast. It’s only been within my lifetime, that the exchange of ideas and the mediums to move them around quickly and infiltrate large groups of people has become a reality.
The first movement I can remember was the movement in the 90’s, addressing, if I had to guess, the sexual revolution of the 70’s and the negative impact it was having on society and the church. Books were written, organizations were formed and an entire culture emerged, ready to wage war on sexual immorality. I, like many of my friends, owned a copy of “I kissed dating goodbye” and heard many talks on emotional purity and the like. I wouldn’t say the movement had a huge impact on me, positively or negatively, but I can assure you I was pleased to own a copy of the most popular book around.
We’ve now lived long enough to see the life cycle of that movement. A lot of devastating stories have emerged, of a well-intentioned movement that ended up with unintended consequences. Of “fixes” that were just as bad as their problems. I see the fall-out from that movement as a kind of catalyst for the movement we’re in today, but as I watch this current movement unfold, it’s got the same ingredients as the last one.
Basically, the 20 year old mess on aisle four that we’re trying to clean up? I fear we’re just moving it to aisle five. And our children will get to clean up that mess.
I wish there would’ve been some prophetic voice of wisdom and caution back in the purity culture movement saying something along the lines of “this carried out to the extreme will have terrible consequences” and people would’ve had some warning about what could be.
There is no purity ring, no anti-racist and diversity training, no best-seller, or podcast that can truly change the real issue that humans have been dealing with from the beginning of time. And when you turn the whole discussion into an industry, with money to be made and profit to be be gained through it’s advancing, and when cultures emerge and language is created to explain and defend it, then the implosion is going to be that much more dramatic.
It’s not possible to be too morally pure or too kind and compassionate, but it is possible to elevate qualities like these to the exclusion of others that keep everything in balance and spiritually healthy.
The end of the moral purity movement was crazy amounts of control and shattered people, because humans would rather smash dials than adjust them.
If I had to guess what the end game of this current movement will be, where empathy, inclusion and tolerance is the achieved end, I’d guess that in 20 years we’ll all be numb, and possibly more divided and cruel, because if everyone’s story must be told and listened to and responded to in all the perfect ways, then we will be both exhausted and maxed out emotionally, and probably wrecked spiritually. We can’t carry everyone’s pain. Only One has ever done it and we know that experience as Gethsemane.
So what do we do? How do we live in a culture that swings wildly from one extreme to the other? Whose books get burned every other generation? That’s guided by social contagion? How do we think about and address real issues in ways that don’t leave shattered people in their wake?
I don’t have a lot of good answers because I’m still pretty young in movement- years and I’m still trying to figure it out myself. But here are a few things I want to live by:
- Be inspired by and learn from those whose lives faithfully reflect spiritual qualities, when they aren’t popular or trending. The problems culture attempts to solve aren’t new, and there are many people throughout history, and living around us today, who have faithfully done the right thing and lived the abundant life in quiet, unassuming ways. Their history of integrity is more helpful to me than the new best-selling author, whose character I don’t know and can’t.
- Be actively involved in your immediate, physical world. There’s always some truth in the critique that the current movement is attempting to fix and most times you can do something about it right around you. Do it for the right reasons. If I feel a prompting to help a homeless person, I will do it because it’s the right thing to do and not because I get extra brownie points because it’s trending. We are called to be compassionate and loving and just because the movement might be emphasizing it in not so healthy ways doesn’t mean we get to check out and say we’ll be back when the mood is over. We will live these qualities in ways that are God-designed and honoring.
- Keep a quiet heart that is maintained, nurtured, convicted and and kept by God Himself. It is when our beliefs and convictions are formed and shaped by the movement, that we get shattered when they implode. God works in quiet ways, in private places and in the turning of our hearts toward His, and that impact has a much more powerful effect than the noise of the thousand voices trying to tell us what to think.
I’ll always pay attention to movements because they are the temperature of a generation and a society. But I’m beginning to see more clearly their inability to actually solve anything, and I don’t want the damaging scars of whiplash to be my spiritual legacy.
And as C.S. Lewis said,
“Courage, dear heart!”