“Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’ ” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:1–6, NASB95)
Our nation is literally on fire right now. Before I begin, I want to offer full disclosure by way of two important points. First, I have not seen the video. I don’t plan on watching the video. Our culture has adopted a sort of “virtual viral voyeurism” that is neither healthy nor altogether sane (another post for another day). I have heard the story. I have seen the still photos. It is enough for me. I am not compelled to watch one human kill another human in real-time. Second, I am writing this from a classically orthodox, evangelical Christian perspective. I am predominantly writing it for the benefit of others holding to that same perspective. I will be making some statements those outside of the Christian faith might find assumptive, disagreeable, and perhaps offensive. If you choose to continue reading beyond this point, you have been warned…
Racism Is A Problem, Just Not The Problem
Racism is a symptom; racism is not the sickness. Let me explain what I mean by way of an illustration. I have known people with lung cancer. Perhaps you have too. Lung cancer is accompanied by a variety of symptoms, one chief symptom being an uncontrollable, violent cough. In many cases, the cough can become so severe that it is accompanied by blood. It is a dangerous, potentially deadly cough. It needs to be controlled. It needs to be stopped. As awful as the cough is, however, it is merely a symptom of a deeper, more dangerous problem. Treating the cough will not cure lung cancer. So it is with racism. It could be argued that a number of social ills we experience in our culture are also symptoms a much deeper, deadly sickness. Racism is a violent, even deadly cough. It can destroy a person (and a society) just as readily as the disease itself. Treating it directly, however, without dealing with the underlying cancer, will not actually bring about the healing for which everyone is longing. Only treating the outward symptom will cultivate a false sense of well-being, a fabricated notion of security. The true problem, the real cancer, will continue to grow. As it grows – left untreated and unhealed – most (if not all) of the symptoms will return. The thing so diligently fought against will rear its ugly head once again and we will hopelessly wonder why we can’t overcome it.
The True Sickness: Pride and Unbelief
I began this post with a reference to Genesis 3:1-6. This story is typically referred to as “The Fall.” It describes humanity’s cosmic rebellion and subsequent relational separation from God. What was the great sin that led to this Fall? What was the true sickness? Most will errantly say, “The eating of the fruit.” This would not be an accurate answer. The eating of the fruit, much like racism, is a symptom. It is an outward sign of an inward reality. It is a problem, just not the problem. What was The Fall really about? Throughout Christianity’s rich theological history, most have narrowed the scope of the true sickness of humanity to two key issues. The true disease that plagues every human person is the two-headed monster of pride and unbelief.
Consider our text from Genesis 3:1-6. The serpent challenged the Word of God. “…has God said…” was the serpent’s first line of attack. Here we have a temptation to unbelief. In place of the truth, the serpent offered a subtle lie. “…you will be like God…” Now we have the temptation to godless pride. In essence, the first temptation was this: “Don’t believe what is true. The truth is restricting you. Instead, claim your own truth. Become what you want to be, rather than what you ought to be.” The human heart became the marriage bed of this two-headed monster of pride and unbelief. The union of these two creatures has given birth to a great many children, each as deadly and disgusting as the other. Racism happens to be one of these children.
When a person rejects the truth that humans are made in the Image of God and they exalt themselves above all else for any reason (e.g. race, gender, politics, education, socio-economic status, etc.), then we produce an outward symptom of an internal disease. In our case today, that outward symptom is racism. The socio-cultural ills that are produced, the anger in response to those ills, the vicious, self-destructive, self-defeating cycle of pain, sorrow, and suffering are all born from the true sickness: pride and unbelief. 1 John 2:16 tells us, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but from the world” (NASB95). An intense, inappropriate longing for that which is not mine, that which I should not have or be, is pride. The “boastful pride of life,” as John calls it, is part of the sickness. The unwillingness to yield to the truth that God has a better way of being, a proper way of Image-bearing, is unbelief. This is the sickness. This is what needs healing. This is what needs to be killed in us if any of the symptoms are going to go away.
The Cure for the Cancer
I will now run the risk of being over-simplistic. What is the cure for the true cancer of pride and unbelief? What is the treatment that will get at the heart of the human problem, thus allowing for the reduction (and potential elimination) of the outward symptoms? Jesus. More specifically, Jesus and His gospel.
Now, I know what you are thinking. “Phillip, so many of the people that are perpetuating the symptoms claim to know Jesus. A great many Christians are a big part of the problem.” Amen. I agree. There are a number of reasons for this (e.g. abiding sin, lack of sanctification, poor discipleship, etc.). I would like to offer one reason why many Christians continue to be part of the problem.
American Christianity, on the whole, has embraced a cheap, weak, soft gospel. Pride and unbelief are dangerous cancers, killing our souls, separating us from God, destroying our lives, and the lives of others. This sickness of the soul requires a brutal, robust treatment. The great Physician must be called upon to do profound, life-altering surgery. The Bible describes this process as a heart transplant. Ezekiel declares that there is a removal of a heart of stone (a proud, unbelieving heart) and a replacement with a heart of flesh (a humble, believing heart) (Ezekiel 11:19 & 36:26). The gospel is this surgery, this aggressive treatment, this transformative medicine. It is a sad truth for most American Christians that the gospel we live by, the gospel we embrace is of the Bandaid and Tylenol variety. We are only minimally treating the external symptoms, never truly allowing the Word of God to do a deep dive into our lives and excise from us those parts of us that distort and mar the Image of God. We rarely examine ourselves; we are rarely held accountable by other believers. We live lives of self-congratulations, self-justification. We are individualistic in our Christianity. We are still so engulfed in our pride and unbelief that we can’t see that we need others to expose our own short-comings and faults. We are so entrenched in our unbelief that we disregard the Scripture’s call for us to daily be conformed to the Image of Jesus. We have embraced a bobble-head Jesus, one that we expect to always nod yes to our every whim. We have a buffet Christianity, one in which we can take the parts we like best for ourselves and leave out the parts that might actually be best for us. Pride and unbelief, the monstrosity that lives within our hearts and should progressively and systematically be crushed by the full weight of the gospel of Jesus, lives on in us unscathed.
Does the church need to stand against social ills? Of course. Does the church need to address the outward symptoms of the sinful human condition? Of course. When a doctor treats a patient, he or she will treat both the root cause and the symptoms. It is both/and, not either/or. What I fear for Christians today, particularly in the American context, is that we have been merely treating the symptoms – and we have been doing even that with the wrong medicine. It is time for us to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5); it is time for us to embrace humility (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5); it is time for us to take seriously the call to put to death the deeds of our flesh (Romans 8:13). None of this can happen under a cheap, pride-filled gospel. The gospel is a call to come and die that Christ might make us alive in Him and like Him. The gospel isn’t a call to partner with Jesus: me bringing the best of me and adding it to the best of him. The gospel itself is an offensive, but a life-giving declaration that there is no good in me. It is an acknowledgement that there is nothing I can offer that makes me worth saving. All I bring to the foot of the cross is my brokenness and the mire of my sin. Coming into the gospel requires humility and faith – the exact opposite of our sickness. Living out the gospel – to effect change, to cure the symptoms of my sin – requires the same thing.
It is time for the Christian community to address the sickness that dwells in each of us with renewed vigor. We are proud and we are unbelieving. We want the path of least resistance, the easiest road, the least amount of suffering, an “easy” Christianity. This is not the call of the gospel. We are called to a narrow road, a tight path, to participate in the suffering of Jesus, to take up our cross, to pluck out the right eye, to deny ourselves. We are called to be humble. We are called to have faith. Until the church returns to the proper internal war, we will never see any long-standing victories in the external battles.