I don’t need to tell you that we live in an increasingly dark and dangerous world that something bad has happened to our world. And, given the state of our world, I find that the operational attitude of a lot of Christians, who take our world seriously and who don’t see immediate solutions, is increasing despair.
We need to remind ourselves that Christ was born into a dangerously dark world. Soon after His birth, the megalomaniac Herod issued a decree that every boy under the age of two should be slaughtered. Think of the tragedy, think of the crying mothers and broken families. Jesus Christ Himself began his first years of life as a refugee in Egypt, and as he began his ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, was beheaded.
So living in a bad world is nothing new. What we desperately need is to understand how to navigate life in a world like this. How to live fruitfully with courage and conviction in winsome ways that brings glory to God. Hunkering down in a spirit of despair is not the answer.
I have to admit that a spirit of despair is easy to come by. Most of us are very much aware that our nation has now moved into a hostile secularism that’s robbing us of our freedoms. Our stance on issues of human sexuality and the sanctity of life have marginalized us and rendered our voices of no avail. While we have often heard that sticks and stones will break our bones but names will never hurt us, names do hurt us! It’s no fun to be finger-pointed as bigoted, or to be called arrogant, or to be falsely dismissed as homophobic.
With a lot of us, there’s a strange mixture of anger and fear. Anger that somebody hijacked our America. And fear — fear of the kind of world our children are growing up in, fear of the kind of world that our grandchildren will be growing up in. Despair is fanned by our feeling that we are helpless to turn the tide. In this environment, despair is indeed easy to come by.
So I find it interesting that Paul, writing to marginalized, persecuted Christians, called them to attitudes that are polar opposites to despair. In Colossians 1:9-13, Paul urges followers of Jesus to embrace five attitudes that seem counterintuitive to living in a dark and troubling world. He writes, “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will and all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you, first of all, may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. That you might be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance with joy, giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. For He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transplanted us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and forgiveness of sins.”
Think about what these attitudinal challenges mean to Christians living in the midst of violent persecution. How do you walk worthy of someone you have given your life to, who isn’t interceding for you, in a world where you suffer and the pagans prosper? What would motivate you to walk worthy of Christ in a world like that? Or to be strong in the face of the intimidation of the power of the Roman Empire? To say nothing of persisting when you feel like you are persisting to your own demise. Or to be joyful? Grateful?
The turning point of the text is that all five of these Biblical expectations are built on that ultimate awareness that we have been delivered from the domain of darkness and placed into in the kingdom of his dear Son. We are no longer caught in the grip of this dark world but are now firmly planted in His kingdom!
This text reminds us that there are just two kingdoms, and that we are involved in a struggle that is far above us and far below us. As Paul says in Ephesians 6, we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers and the rulers of darkness in this world. And it reminds us as well that these two kingdoms have unique defining cultures. Satan’s kingdom is a kingdom characterized by darkness. But the Kingdom of Jesus is characterized by light! As Jesus claimed, “I am the light of the world.” The light of His kingdom dispels the darkness, dispels the danger, dispels the disorientation. Satan’s kingdom is one of chaos; Christ’s is a kingdom of shalom. Satan’s kingdom thrives on anarchy where everyone does what is pleasing in his own sight; Christ’s kingdom is organized by a constitution under which mankind thrives in a world of righteousness, peace and joy (Romans 8). And Christ’s kingdom is eternal and victorious — vetted by the high point of redemptive history, the resurrection of Jesus.
On the Saturday before Easter, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece titled “The Challenge of Easter,” James Martin wrote, “What difference does Easter make in the life of the Christian? The message of Easter is, all at once, easy to understand, radical, subversive and life-changing. Easter means that nothing is impossible with God. Moreover, that life triumphs over death. That love triumphs over hatred. That hope triumphs over despair.”
So embracing our kingdom identity dramatically alters our attitude. When Paul tells me in this text to walk worthy, I’m highly motivated to do that because I serve a worthy victorious king. I can live in his power because I belong to a risen Christ whose power had defeated death and hell, and I get to participate in the victory. When life gets really hard in this dark world, I can persist because I know that someday every knee shall bow to my King, and when that day comes I want to know that I faithfully persisted to honor his name.
And joy? My pervasive sense of well-being as a kingdom person engenders that deep sense of joy. Gratitude? If Jesus Christ never does anything but deliver me from the domain of darkness and grant me citizenship in the kingdom of his dear Son, I have something to be thankful for the rest of my life. All of this to say, if you are a kingdom person, despair is not your vocabulary.
And when this world gets dark and despair threatens our soul, let’s remember the words of Jesus who said, “In this world you will have trouble. But be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”
• Dr. Joseph M. Stowell is president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a pastoral leader, former president of Moody Bible Institute, and author of several books, including “Redefining Leadership: Character-Driven Habits of Effective Leaders.” This excerpt is from his April 10, 2016 remarks at the Wilberforce Weekend in Arlington, Virginia.
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