Words are powerful.
A simple word can motivate an athletic team—or an army—to persevere through conflict and hardship. A well-chosen word from a national leader can lift the soul of a nation, encouraging citizens to make necessary sacrifices in order to achieve victory in time of war or natural disaster. By the same token, a small, careless word—hastily and thoughtlessly spoken—can discourage and deplete the wounded and weak. And may be remembered for a generation.
For the next three weeks I want to use The Front Porch Swing to consider the power of our words. First of all, I want to address what I perceive to be a depleted dictionary in many churches today. I offer three words that I will call MIA words—words all too often missing in contemporary preaching.
It was while reading one of the final chapters in The Essential Edwards that the burden to write this article first impacted me. Chapter 23 began with the following brief, untitled poem, by 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson:
Knew where they went—
They went to God’s Right Hand—
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found—
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small—
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no ilume at all
What in the world is “ignus fatuus,” you ask? The words describe the fluorescent-like light that can sometimes be seen at night above a swamp as a result of gasses released from decaying plants. Ignus fatuus is a way of describing something that only appears to be authentic. It only appears to be a light above the swamp. It’s like the weary hiker with a depleted water canteen pursuing mirages under the scorching desert sun. He sees the shimmering promise of a pool of water only to discover it isn’t really so.
Dickinson is not known for her passionate evangelical faith, but something must have been severely missing in many of the American pulpits in her day to cause her to compose those words. That’s also why I am writing this blog.
It seems to me that three words are vanishing from our Sunday morning vocabulary: sin, hell and heaven. When I reflect on five decades of preaching, it seems to me that I used those words less and less as the years went by. Back in 1969, I was more ready to use all three.
Why is that? Why would I shy away from these three vital, biblical words?
First, I suspect it’s because we don’t want to appear radical or “out there.” Who wants to be the hellfire-and-brimstone preacher these days? It’s certainly not “seeker friendly” to warn about the gravity of sin. Every sin we commit is against a holy God who will not excuse willful disobedience. We want our God to be known for His love and grace and mercy.
In Exodus 34:5-7, when God introduced Himself to Moses, He first shared His kinder, gentler, more welcome attributes—the ones we love to love. But He didn’t stop there. He went on to add, “yet, He does not leave the guilty unpunished.”
God’s holiness demands justice including wrath on sinners.
You and I can’t read Scripture without being confronted consistently about sin and the ultimate consequence of hell. We say that we love the kinder, gentler Jesus, but then try to ignore the wrathful God in the older testament. Do we realize that Jesus had more to say about hell than any other person in the Bible? Jesus believed hell was a real place of terrible suffering. He used descriptive words that, even if they were metaphors, warn about a literal place of suffering that follows every life lived in rebellion against God. So then why, if Jesus warned about hell, would we avoid the subject?
Would it be considered loving to see a family sleeping in a burning house and ignore the responsibility of trying to awaken them so that they could escape? Of course not! In fact, it would be criminally negligent.
Why then are we so passive about preaching against sin and warning about hell? Do we truly believe sin is lethal and that hell is real—or have we become skeptics? Maybe even practical atheists. Do we profess one thing yet deny it by our actions or lack of conversation about these uncomfortable truths?
We pastors would do well to revisit warnings such as these in Hebrews:
Just as a man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment… (9:27)
For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” and again, “The Lord will judge his people. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (10:30, 31)
Do we avoid sin and hell in order to “win friends and influence people” to like our church? I hope not.
I wonder if there is also an absence of teaching about heaven today? If true, why would we be silent about something so wonderful? Once again, Jesus said more about heaven than anyone else in Scripture. He called it a place that He would prepare for us. He told stories about people like a beggar who inherited peace and bliss in heaven while the wealthy man who had failed to do justice ended up in a place of severe torment. Jesus closes the book of Revelation with a promise and a warning that He is coming again and will reward those who are faithful to the end. The response was (and is), “Amen, come, Lord Jesus.”
The author of Hebrews not only used the threat of punishment to motive his readers as noted above, but he also used the anticipation of meeting Jesus face to face as a motivation to finish the race strongly. (See Hebrews 12:1-3)
When John wrote about Jesus’ glorious return and our gathering to meet Him he emphasized that, “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3).”
One of the motivations to cast off prevailing sins and to pursue holiness is the anticipation of meeting Jesus and inheriting an eternal home with Him in heaven. Could the loss of this motivation be the reason we seem to struggle spiritually today?
One last thought to consider. Why have we lost the passion for heaven? Why do we live as if Jesus isn’t returning at any moment, even if we say we believe that? I suspect our material success, or appearance of success, is part of the problem. We enjoy so much abundance here and now. Many Americans assume this is normal and appropriate. We have television evangelists promising a gospel of prosperity here and now.
The truth is, even on my worst day with nothing but leftovers on the plate, I enjoy more than my friend Kato and his family in Uganda. This is especially true now with drought and crop failure and the threat of Ebola crossing the nearby border with the Congo. I am certain Kato’s family and fellow church members think more about heaven or Jesus’ return than I do.
I trust each of our two vehicles to start at the turn of the key and to carry me anywhere I wish to go in comfort. Kato would like to have a cheap Chinese motor-bike or a bicycle. Recently I helped him buy shoes to replace those worn out by walking kilometer after kilometer every day.
Jesus warned that the riches of this life will choke our spiritual appetite for heaven and for Him.
In light of these things, here is my prayer.
Oh, God, forgive me for living like a practical atheist. For spouting all the right jargon but failing to live as if heaven and hell were real. For losing focus on the important and eternal things and for assuming I deserve the bounty You have entrusted to me.
May I be a faithful steward anticipating those words, “Well done. You have been faithful in little things. I trust you with greater.”