The Gospel Today: Mistakenly Individual
This piece was written by contributor Abigail Imperial.
When I was younger, my mother taught me how to pray. So, I prayed. I asked God to save me from my many many sins, and I asked him to give me my daily bread. When I was older, I learned how to thank him for my many many blessings, and to ask him for the answers on my calculus tests.
God was always someone who was in relationship with me and for me. Though my relationship with him was selfish, I felt as if it was honestly real. He was my God, I was His daughter, and we had something good going on.
This year, I asked God to heal my cousin from cancer. And He didn’t.
This year, I asked God to protect my friends. Three of them committed suicide.
This year, I asked God if He was still listening to me.
This year, I’ve realized that my personal relationship, though necessary and important, is not enough: it is not enough to answer the questions that come rising in my throat when I see the hopelessness wracking our society. It is not enough to counter the lies that this culture is drowning in, and dying with.
We walk, surrounded by blurred faces, buried behind glass boxes and plugged up with headphones and speakers. Someone trips, someone falls.
We pass by on the other side.
Do we notice the screams? Hear the pain, the loneliness? Do we look in their eyes and see them?
We talked about him—once, in our gossipy book clubs and study groups. She mentioned that he started doing drugs—once. But did we know that he just wanted to quiet the voices that whispered in the dark? Did I know that he fought the demons, fought hard; and when he brought the tip of that gun to the tip of his chin he was aiming at the voices, his voices, that whispered and chanted and screamed his insignificance.
Because we did not know. Because we walked on by. Because we were silent.
We are the ordinary millions, wrestling our way to some sort of appropriate success. We buzz and shrill, making noise that we hope will make us something.
We don’t need anyone to tell us we are nothing.
The world is graying, fraying, detangling at the sleeves and all our fussing and bustling does is wear out our knees. We need something. The world groans being burdened by the weight of us.
And we cry.
Are we responsible?
I say that a personal relationship is not enough because Jesus did not preach individual salvation—he preached a social gospel. Yes, Jesus came for me and for me to know the One for whom my soul longs. I was made for communion with my God. And yet, if that is where it ends, with me, then I have not known my Savior. The fact that I know Him is not where His story ends.
Tim Keller, in a conference this fall, spoke on evangelism in a post-Christian society. He emphasized that we can no longer rely on church programs, youth retreats, and special seminars for our individual daily fill of spirituality. We need a social Gospel—something that takes into account that we are social creatures and offers answers to us as such. We do not live in isolation, so why would we individually serve God? We need good news that does more than give personal satisfaction—we need good news that heals our world. And Keller says that this begins with first recognizing and criticizing the values of the culture in which we live. This is what we are good at.
We can clearly see the values that America holds so dear: health, housing, income, wealth, and civic duty (United States, 2016), but at the sacrifice of our social connection, community, and rest.
We can clearly see that these values are failing and leaving us unsatisfied and empty. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide has increased in frequency, making it the fourth most common cause of death in the United States—and suicidal thoughts are most prevalent in adults 18-25 years old (Suicide, 2016).
The principles of our society cannot fill the dissatisfaction that echoes in our bodies. The drops we sweat for beauty will only increase with every passing minute. The toil we give for happiness will only hurt longer as we beat the ground with our dull plows. The yoke of all our failures will only grow heavier the longer we try and ignore them.
Here is where one has to learn how to move beyond criticism to social action. Keller used an image to describe the ways that our culture’s values are ill-fitting to what we actually need as humans—a suit. Our culture asks us to wear a suit, asks us to fit into a set of beliefs that will make us culturally equipped. But this suit is a few sizes too small. Rather than remaining in a place of protest against the small suit, we must wait—wait for the suit to tear. For once the suit tears then the message of a new suit, of new worth, of new significance is a salve rather than a judgment.
But we are not in the waiting period. Our society is already torn, and it is waiting for healing. This world does not need people who are merely preaching the gospel to themselves, who are privately practicing humility and holiness. No, the world needs people who have seen the hurt and are willing to answer the cry for help, who feel the responsibility for our community, city, country, and world.
Jesus saved me from standards that I could never meet and secured in me a purpose that nothing in this world can give. But if I remain in a gospel that is preached only to my own soul, then Jesus saving me was merely to further my success—it is another tool for my American Dream.
Jesus spoke out against the injustices he saw in his society. But more importantly, he was there with the grieving, he was there with the prostitutes, liars, and cheats. He was with them when their morals failed, and they were hurt by what was supposed to lift them up.
This is where we are now. Our desire to be beautiful is grounded in shifting standards. Our need to be intelligent is a lifetime of comparison. Our values for material things rust and crumble in the dust of our tragedies. The world is torn.
So where is the church? People are dying, people are crying out and where is the church to answer them?
Jesus, teach us how to pray. Holy, holy is your name and let your kingdom come, let your kingdom come.