Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Now there’s a question that cuts both ways. Many people today would answer with some variation of: “It’s good for the individual but bad for society.” That is, religious belief may offer significant psychological benefit, but when religious belief is forced on others it’s bad for society as a whole.
For many, Christianity has become sort of the opposite of the American Express card—whatever you do, leave home without it. A generation or so ago, Christianity was much more prominent in our social landscape. But in today’s post-Christian America, Christianity has become virtually synonymous with intolerance and oppression. So much so that non-Christians lament the power that Christianity has tried to exert in the political and social worlds. In a recent article by Frank Bruni, he affirms the right to religious liberty all the while asserting that such liberties should not extend beyond the doorsteps of the church:
“I respect people of faith. I salute the extraordinary works of compassion and social justice that many of them and many of their churches do. I acknowledge that we in the news media, because we tend to emphasize conflict and wrongdoing and hypocrisy, sometimes focus more on the shortcomings of religious institutions than on their positive contributions. And I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish — in their pews, homes and hearts. But outside of those places? You must put up with me, just as I put up with you.” (Frank Bruni, “Your God and My Dignity: Religious Liberty, Bigotry, and Gays,” in The New York Times, January 10, 2015)
Now that Christians are collectively viewed as the problem, not the solution, it’s tempting to feel discouraged by this collision of values. Christianity has sparked centuries of progress: think of all the art and charitable work inspired by Christianity over the years. Yet today such advances are glossed over in favor of condescending reminders of Christianity’s darker expressions, namely the Crusades or the (selective) defense of slavery.
In a pivotal scene from Saving Private Ryan, a German tank is bearing down on Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) position. Worn out, deprived of his primary weapon, he pulls out a pistol, and starts taking shots at the tank—with obviously no effect. If you seek to live out your faith in today’s world, if you seek to share the good news of the gospel, then you may begin to feel a bit like Captain Miller vs. the tank. Your every word returns ineffective, and in return you’re only further embattled by those who reduce your faith to a position of bigotry and intolerance.
As we’ve noted previously, the readers of Hebrews occupied a world dominated by the competing values of honor and shame. In such a world, Christian faith was looked down upon. So when the author of Hebrews issues a “warning” about the possibility of falling away from the faith, he does so also with the encouragement that yes, despite all appearances, their faith matters.
9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:9-12)
His message remains clear—if not repetitively so. Endure. Why? Because while there are plenty who fall away, there are many more reasons to keep pursuing Godliness in an ungodly world. We have the assurance that while our words may seem wasted on our friends and neighbors, God does not “overlook [our] work” or our “love…shown in his name” (v. 10).
If you’ve ever worked out—whether running, lifting weights, etc.—you know the physical feeling of resistance. Resistance builds strength as your body works against it. I discovered not long ago that as much as I enjoy running, I enjoy everything about it except the actual “running” part. I love thinking about my next goal. I love the feeling of accomplishment I get after. But during an actual run, it’s hard to think of those things when you’re just trying to make it up another hill, or the next mile. Spiritual resistance is like that. We experience it. We feel it. But we also have the assurance that when we persevere God blesses our efforts. And that’s an important distinction—that is, allowing God to bless our efforts rather than expect our efforts to “work” on their own. After all, this whole section has been something of an interlude in a larger passage talking about the superiority of Jesus. If our efforts have any impact at all, it’s not because of our greatness, but the power of the gospel.
Notice as well that we are encouraged to be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (v. 12). We need each other. We need the church. The impact we have won’t be a result of a spiritualized Lone Ranger routine. We need a band of brothers and sisters, men and women to come along side us and share their stories, their frustrations, their successes, their failures—all so that we, too can be assured that the gospel has an impact larger than any one of us. In short, we need to replace our idol of “efficiency”—that my efforts will routinely “work”—with the promise of “effectiveness”—that God will bless my efforts through His power.
In Saving Private Ryan, Miller’s pistol rounds do no damage to the exterior of the tank. It’s only when an allied plane flies overhead and destroys the tank from above that Miller is spared from the tank. If you’re feeling much like Captain Miller, armed with only your pistol against a raging culture, then you have two truths you can lift from the Hebrews passage above.
First, God has placed you with a whole team of friends and family who wish to share this journey with you. You neglect your church family only to your own peril, and you nurture your church family only to your mutual benefit.
Second, try to hang on. The battle isn’t over yet. God’s promises will one day explode before you—before all of us—and reveal truth in a great firestorm of restorative justice. And on that day we can confidently say that we, too, have had a part in the building of this great Kingdom, though only through the power of God working through us.