Two years ago I was privileged to have read, as an assignment in my systematic theology class, Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be by Neil Plantinga. Essentially Plantinga takes a hard yet enlightening look at the way sin infects the world. To a secular person this term “sin” may not resonate, and that is why I will define it. Sin is how you felt at recess when they laughed at you for dropping the ball and falling on your face. Sin is the feeling you had after you lied to your parents about the party you went to back in high school they weren’t so keen on. Sin is the reason your marriage is not better. My sin is why I don’t have the trust that I could.
Hopefully I’m not singling any one group out. I myself am personally complicit in the systematized problem of our exciting yet strange and difficult world: us. Yes, we are each contributors to the big problem. In this essay I want to propound the concept that when we read about God’s concern for the world, his glory includes the success of human community. Let me unpack that. When Christians say, “that does not honor God,” what they mean is that “that act is outlawed by God because it deeply damages people who are created in his image.” God is not, as Jim Carey in Bruce Almighty hilariously declares, the “almighty smiter.” And when John Piper talks about the glory of God, he advocates for people honoring God for his own sake as well as their own.
At this point a brief excursus is needed regarding the problem. The forces at work, the powers that be, the dark realities. These require definition. Christian Scripture, in Ephesians 6, emphasizes the need for metaphorically arming oneself for battle against the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places [v. 12b, ESV].” This requires the “whole armor of God” and Paul is explicit to reference the enemy – the devil – in verse 10 also. He goes on to describe what it takes to withstand the buffeting forces of evil. So, for the Christian, people rebel, but not only because we are bent toward ourselves but because there are powers that be: namely, Satan. Epitomized in films such as The Exorcist, there is a known and felt reality of evil in the world, and Christians have a name for its leader. We rebel. We collaborate with evil.
That said, we are back to a human community, influenced by the powers that be: the spiritual forces of evil, and the self-promoting pride which we wrongly use to support our perceived autonomy and independence. Now we must must discuss the Creator, God. Christians believe there is a God who has been made known in history, most clearly in Jesus Christ the Son of God. In the first book of sacred Christian writings, the Bible, God set apart a people, the Israelites. They were fathered first by a man named Abram who changed his name to Abraham. He set them apart to be different sort of people. One document he used to set them apart was delivered on a mountain. In the second biblical book, Exodus, we read in chapter 20 about what the rules consist of exactly. The first few relate to God and how he sees his created people. The last six-seven translate much more to honoring human relationship.
All that to head back to the thesis: God’s ordering of the world for his glory includes the deep and vibrant wellness of people. Recently I was substituting, assuming for just one day the role of teacher at a high school here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Stepping away from the desk momentarily, I returned to discover someone had rummaged through my shoulder bag and stolen my iPhone. Classes were transitioning, and by the time I realized it was truly gone, all the students had left for their next class. Accordingly, the rest of my day consisted of calls to Verizon, conversations with administration at the school, and a police report. And since then, many plans have been altered. The phone is in the process of being replaced, and I am deeply thankful for the help of Amanda, a kind woman in Charlotte who faithfully serves at a Verizon call center.
We can begin to pick this situation apart in many ways, but here is a start. Someone broke a commandment, number eight to be precise. They stole something that happened to be an integral part of my life as a member of the human community. And now, I am left with that sense of looming distrust of others. I question the motives of people I did not question before. Like ripples on a pond surface, I can list countless effects of the splash that was the theft of a mobile device. They were not so bad in comparison to many other ripples. My difficulties included inconvenience, monetary loss, frustrating conversations. A small loss. But each of us connects here; each of us has experienced loss. We have experienced loss actively and passively, thoughtfully and carelessly. A junior high boy may shrug off the insults about his weight, but he feels the ripples. A loving mother may write off her daughter’s rebellion as “just a phase” but she feels the burden of rejection. The ripples.
God’s insistence on an ordering of human community confronts our self-assertion. When we are wont to serve ourselves first, we send out ripples. Sometimes when we feel the effects, the ripples of someone else’s sin, we respond by sending ripples of our own. Insults. Gossip. Slander. People, this is the destruction of human community. We often see headlines about the amalgamation of many different ripples that create tsunamis of human conflict. Phrases are born that serve as reminders of how disordered we can become. The Holocaust. 9/11. The Killing Fields.
God grieves seeing these human realities. We are sure that he suffers in this affirmation from Romans 5:8, written by Paul: “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God suffered. Ironically, the perfect Son of God was killed by a world that so desperately needed to see real and lasting hope. And in Revelation, the last book in Christian writings, we read about God’s judgment. We read about his righting of the many wrongs that pervade the world. It takes a long time to undo the many problems caused by a bitter and hateful world. But after undoing so much, heaven – the place of God – is no longer different than the place of people. The extant evil is gone, its ruler finally defeated. And people dwell in peace and safety.
So does the Christian, changed by God in Christ and continually encouraged by the community of belief known as the church, continue to send out ripples? The hope is an affirmative no. And yet, we as followers of Jesus continue to battle the powers that be, the systems and the habits that press the hope out of humanity. And we still participate in the systems at times. Maybe one way to enact change is by recognizing this simple maxim: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12). Jesus said it in his famous Sermon on the Mount. Maybe we can send ripples of hope. Maybe we, who have received so very much from a generous, extravagant, yet suffering God, can help point the way to the hope that is yet to fully come. When we are tempted to send ripples of malice and judgment and hate, we can, with the believing church, anticipate the fullness of God’s ultimate hope for the world. We know the sources of the destruction of human community. But we also know God’s response. He is on our side, searching for those who are concerned for loving him. And this is made obvious in loving others.