Wisdom cries out in the public square

By Philip S. Powell 25 Apr 2019

Christians in the West seem to really struggle to articulate, commend and defend the Bible’s perspective on the big issues affecting society. Sadly, we either privatise our faith to Sunday morning — divorced from the harsh realities of economics and politics — or, as some are trying to do, politicise our faith by seeking to dominate the totality of public life.  

Even if we reject these two extreme positions, as Christians we still seem to struggle to know how to speak with authority and clarity in the public square. This may be because we feel that our intellectual foundations are no longer as strong as they once seemed, and that what we do communicate is dismissed or drowned out by the cacophony of noises in the public square. There is simply no expectation that Christians will provide thought leadership for determining the direction of where society is heading. The secular viewpoint now has the upper hand, because it can make arguments and assertions without any reference to transcendent or theological standpoints. And even though ‘secular reason’ is self-referential and circular, it dominates public discourse, while anyone who defends divine revelation and religious dogma is dismissed as unscientific and intellectually backward. Christians feel like we are fighting a losing battle as the minds and hearts of people in our society are shaped and guided by everything other than what is written in the Bible — regardless of the fact that we cannot properly understand the story of the West without reference to the Bible. This is the state of affairs today, and we must face it head-on without giving in to despair or taking short-cuts for easy victory. How, then, do we move forward?

Let me suggest four points of wisdom. These do not directly address how Christians should think about particular ethical or political issues. Rather, they enable Christians to live well in the midst of the present crisis and communicate God’s truth in the public square — despite the opposition or intimidation we might face.

Fear of God

The first and most important thing for the Christian, no matter the period in history or what might be happening in society, is the fear of God. The Bible says: 'The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.' (Proverbs 9:10) Without the fear of God there can be no wisdom. And without wisdom we perish. A man or woman who truly fears God has nothing else to fear. We are set free from every other kind of fear, including the fear of the future. The fear of God means that in the inner sanctum of our soul we have a deep sense of reverence for God, a longing to do what is right in his eyes and a willingness to trust him no matter what. Only then can we bring God’s wisdom to bear on challenging ethical and political issues in our times. It's not about age, experience or resources, but about the condition and orientation of our hearts.

Embodied witness

There is no substitute for the lived social reality of the gospel in a particular locality. Words matter, but they can only have credibility if these words are proved true in the lives of real people. Talk without walk is like salt that has lost its saltiness, it deserves to be trampled upon (Matthew 5:13). It is one thing to talk about God as Trinity who cares about relationships, but the talk is nothing more than clanging noises if it's not based on communities of believers who live in right relationship — loving and forgiving each other despite challenges. Christians can only communicate what they actually live. Otherwise there is a credibility gap which undermines our confidence and witness. Disembodied words can do a lot of damage, and people in the world can smell religious hypocrites from a mile away.

Listening to both sides

The art of listening well to what others are actually saying is an act of love. Misrepresenting what others are saying or deliberately twisting another’s viewpoint is wrong. Christians must be committed to listening to the voices of those on the other side, including the ones who oppose us. In this way we avoid the dangers of being one-sided and partisan. Proverbs 18:17 says, ‘the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.’ A wise person will act in an even-handed way and not rush to conclusions, but be willing to listen to multiple perspectives on an issue before making a judgement. This is important during times of crisis when there is real temptation to become strident and confrontational. But through listening we can be bridge-builders across division, which is a powerful sign of God at work in our midst.

Playing the long game

We need to be strategic and make calculations not just for short-term victory, but to achieve long-term goals. The danger facing Christians today is becoming trapped by the logic of immediatism. We judge and decide everything based on what we see in the here and now, without any sense of historical perspective. We rush to take immediate action to solve 'this or that' social problem as quickly as possible. But change for its own sake can have unintended negative consequences. While we reject complacency and passivity, we must also be critical of immediatism, because it leads to all kinds of foolish action. Christians instead must work to bring about slow, inside-out, bottom-up change that is sustainable over a long period of time and across generations. This means that we understand success very differently. Just like Jesus, who refused to worship the devil to achieve the world’s wealth, we refuse to use worldly methods to achieve Kingdom success. We play the long-game, because church history tells us that God’s truth will outlast and outshine man’s ignorance and folly.

This calls for patience and perseverance on our part, and we must leave final outcomes to God’s providence.

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