Lamenting Sin, by Joe James
Scrolling through my Newsfeed on Social Media is gut-wrenching exercise for me. It sometimes feels like a who’s-who list of people Christians despise. Latest on our hit-list is Beyonce, Cam Newton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, Kanye West and Johnny Football. We love to judge. But the problem is not that Christians practice judging. The problem is that Christians practice judging the wrong things.
This is the final post in a short series on lament, the ancient Hebrew tradition of God’s people praying their varieties of pain to God in faith that God will act. It is normally external forces that drive us to lamentations. Violence. Anger at injustice. Oppression. Brokenness. Death. Affliction. But there is a sort of crying out that has nothing to do with God. There is a sort of lamentation that is more about appearing righteous than it is about trusting in the sovereignty of King Jesus.
So there is story in Genesis 14 about Abram having to intervene in a bloody international war to rescue Lot and his soldiers from a terrible mess. In the war, Abram ends up fighting alongside the King of Sodom. After the war, a mysterious high priest named Melchizadeck brings out bread and wine… communion and offers it to Abram and the King of Sodom. After they break bread and share the cup, the King of Sodom offers Abram the plunders from their war. Abram refuses. 5 chapters later, the King of Sodom, and his city with him, are destroyed with fire from heaven. The reason? The didn’t share their wealth with the poor (Ezekiel 16:49).
What interests me most about this story from Genesis, is that when it comes time for God’s judgment on Sodom, Abram begs and pleads God not to judge Sodom. In the first and one of the most beautiful prayers in Scripture, Abram tries over and over again to strike a deal with God. Abram wants the Sodomites to live.
Abram’s righteousness strikes hard against contemporary Christian culture in America that would rather hold up Sodom’s wickedness as an example of what we are not so we appear good against them. Abram on the other hand, would rather lament to God their impending doom and beg God to rescue them. And God credited it to him as righteousness.
But I think Abram understood something that contemporary Christians forget very easily. He understood that we are not at war with Sodom. There is no line drawn in the sand between Sodom and us. There are no borders mapped between the good and the wicked. There are no walls tall enough to keep evil from bleeding into good. “The line between good and evil runs right through the heart of each one of us.”
And he also understood something that Jesus reinforced in the parable of the weeds and the wheat, thousands of years later – that it is not our job to root out evil from this world. That is God’s job, not ours.
And here is how I think Abram learned all this: prayer.
You see Abram wasn’t interested in winning a culture war. Rather than dragging his enemies into the public square to see them trampled underfoot, he prayed for them. Because Abram understood that humiliating his enemies does nothing toward redeeming them.
In his book, “To Change the World,” James Davison Hunter says that Christianity has lost its soul when it comes to its mission in the world. Attempts to manage the world and judge the world radically miss one massively important point: we too, are part of the problem. And our attempts to manage, control and judge the world creates a deep divide between us and the world we claim we want to see redeemed.
“What is even more striking than the negational character of this political culture is the absence of robust and constructive affirmations. Vibrant cultures make space for leisure, philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, and artistic and literary expression, among other things. Within the larger Christian community in America, one can find such vitality in pockets here and there. Yet where they do exist, they are eclipsed by the greater prominence and vast resources of the political activists and their organizations. What is more, there are few if any places in the pronouncements and actions of the Christian Right or the Christian Left (none that I could find) where these gifts are acknowledged, affirmed, or celebrated. What this means is that rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by its rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others.”
In other words, when we set ourselves against the world, when we insist on bringing our lamentations to Facebook, instead of God, we work against our own mission – and more fearfully, we work against God.
So, I end this short series on lament by calling on Christians to absolutely and resolutely drop out of the judgment game. Instead, we need to sing songs of lamentation to God.
Lament that things are not right. Weep over sin. Weep over the brokenness of the world. Cry out over injustice. Cry out over immorality. But also, pray for your enemies. And remember our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil that rule the old age.
In his book, “Beauty Will Save the World,” Brian Zahnd says this:
Instead of angry protesters shaking our fists at secular culture, we should be joyful singers transforming the secular with the sacred… If the church of the twenty-first century will lay down its anger and frustration, and instead joyfully sing the melody of Christ in the malls of meaninglessness, we can perhaps once again astonish a weary world with the beauty of the gospel… Our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ. We do this best, not by protest or political action, but by enacting a beautiful presence within the world. The Western church has had a four-century experiment with viewing salvation in a scientific and mechanistic manner, presenting it as a plan, system, or formula. It would be much better if we would return to viewing salvation as a song we sing. The book of Revelation doesn’t have any plans for formula, but it has lots of songs. The task of the church is to creatively and faithfully sing the songs of the Lamb in the midst of a world founded upon the beastly principles of greed, decadence and violence. What is needed is not an ugly protest, but a beautiful song; not a pragmatic system, but a transcendent symphony. Why? Because God is more like a musician than a manager, more like a composer of symphonies than a clerk keeping ledgers.
So sing songs of justice. But, please… by all means, sing them to God. Because while our hymns of hatred we offer to the false gods on our newsfeeds may satisfy our desire to be seen in the right, we all know God is not now reconciling all things through our public condemnation. Weep over sin. Weep over your own sin too. And when you weep, be like our father Abraham and weep as one with hope for salvation – even for your enemies.