Life, as it daily unfolds on this planet, is largely a matter of cause & effect. Things don’t just happen – they happen for reasons. We don’t always know the reasons, but if we probe deeply enough, we may discover at least some of them. My wife, for example, suffers from migraine headaches (as do some 23 million other Americans). She knows some of the reasons why she gets these devastating headaches – food allergies for example – but she doesn’t yet know the main reason. She can reduce the number of headaches she gets by avoiding the offending foods, but she cannot eradicate them entirely, because there is some deeper cause of which she is as yet unaware.
For many years, I have been subject to asthmatic attacks. I know virtually all of the triggers for these attacks, so, for the most part I am able to avoid them. There are some things – like smog and pollen – that I can’t realistically avoid, so when those are bad, I experience symptoms. I do what I can to control those symptoms with patent medicines and efforts to eat “clean” and detoxify my body. (Yes, I realize that the use of patent medicines and detoxification are mutually exclusive ideas.) I stay away from certain kinds of dogs, all cats and horses, and, where possible, dust.
These are minor examples of cause & effect. The condition of the whole world is the cumulative result of a myriad of cause & effect factors, many of which we don’t fully understand, some of which we do, and others about which we are in denial. Some of the causes of present day problems were set in motion centuries – perhaps millennia – ago. Like ripples in a lake, they spread out until they finally hit the shore.
When we, as Christians, seek to analyze these cause & effect factors, we are sometimes guilty of gross oversimplification. In many cases, causes are multiple and complex.
Everything bad that happens is not simply the result of “sin.” Sometimes it’s a lack of expertise or knowledge on the part of someone who’s causing something. Often it is because we live in a world where things happen for geological or climactic reasons. It can be misguided social policies. Bad things often happen because of the application of bad ideas, bad ideologies, and bad doctrines.
Looking at Africa
Consider the continent of Africa. Of all continents, it is the one that is the repository of the most concentrated human misery of our time. It is a place of drought, famine, genocide, disease epidemics including AIDS, millions of orphaned children, corrupt dictators, civil wars, pagan religions, and sickness of every variety. At the heart of this continental darkness is political corruption. That, coupled with militant religion, explains much of the misery – but by no means all of it.
More than fifty years after European Colonial powers left Africa, the continent is worse off than when they were present. If you want to read all about it, read Martin Meredith’s excellent book: The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. The point here is not enumerate the multiple causes of Africa’s misery, but to say that it is presumptuous of Christian missionaries to go into this great darkness with simplistic solutions to nightmarish problems. How do you quickly solve a problem of political corruption at virtually all levels of government? How do you address the moral issues that are behind the AIDS epidemic? How do you end religious persecution by another religion whose theology justifies slavery, murder and genocide?
At best, Christians can only offer Christian solutions one person at a time. Even here, within the established Church, we don’t always see Christians living consistent with their avowed principles. The divorce rate, for example, among us Christians is higher than it is in the rest of society. In some churches, alcoholism is as big a problem as it is outside of them. The Church has not demonstrated its ability to solve human problems on any significant scale. Like allopathic doctors, we tend to treat symptoms instead of curing diseases. We feed people who are starving, but we don’t teach them how to feed themselves, or to solve the problems with their present food supply – i.e. political corruption.
Furthermore, the problems of the world are simply too big for any given denomination to address comprehensively. At best, we can take on the world’s problems in bite-sized pieces. The Christian Church cannot solve the problem that is Africa. Nor can any given political ideology. A great number of factors must come into play simultaneously before anything will change: education; political will; morals & ethics; objective scientific analysis of cause & effect; money; outside help; vision; science and technology; philosophical unity; understanding; tolerance for difference; political and religious freedom; democracy etc. etc. It isn’t all about “sin.”
Sin is a factor, in fact it’s a major one; but it isn’t the only one. There are economic factors; geographic constraints; the distribution of national resources; weather patterns; political realities; tribal considerations and many other issues are in play here.
The same is true with the rest of the world. The Church cannot effectively address the totality of human problems. It can only address the spiritual ones, and even then with limited success. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “…you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8-9).
All of us participated in, and contributed to, the spiritual darkness that characterizes human society. Now, as Christians, we have moved out of the realm of darkness into the kingdom of light. Despite this, some of the darkness, like tendrils of fog, still clings to us. We are people in transition. We are not fully light though we have left behind, for the most part, the darkness. We are still finding out what pleases the Lord. We cannot claim to know it all.
There’s a great bumper sticker that says it all: “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.” We cannot afford to go stomping out into the world swaddled in noxious clouds of self-righteousness, claiming to know all the answers. The fact that we cannot resolve our own doctrinal problems, our own leadership problems, our own health and marital problems, our problems with teenagers and adult children, our relationship difficulties, and our financial issues, ought to be humbling in the extreme. Who are we to tell the world how to do it right?
If you’ll forgive me for using yet another cliché, we ought to be able to look into the darkness we’ve left behind and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” That’s really all that stands between us and the world: the grace of God.
We can seek to help those whom God plants in front of our faces – but only to the degree that we have found out how to help ourselves in the areas where they need help. I can teach people how to paint pictures because I have learned how to do it myself. I can teach them to write because I have written for more than 35 years. I can show them how to overcome what I have overcome, and teach them what I have come to understand. I can pray for them, love them, be kind to them and seek to meet them at their points of genuine need. I can strive to set an example of moral and ethical conduct. Beyond all that, there’s not much I can do, or that the Church can do.
Think about this sobering thought: If you are a Christian, then non-believers encounter and experience Christ through you. With what impression are they left? To what extent is Christ able to live in, and manifest himself, through you? When I think about that, I am sobered and humbled – even embarrassed. I need to learn better how to personify the effects of the Holy Spirit’s causes.