Materialism versus pilgrimage
In pleading for the traditional family in this postmodern society, one of the major obstacles I encounter is the materialism and individualism that has so thoroughly permeated society. In postmodern thinking, the basic unit of society is assumed to be not the family but the individual. This individualism characterized Western society even before the emergence of postmodernism: let nothing stand in the way of your self-actualization! Add to this the sentiment that I am worth every material pleasure within my grasp, whether it be a more exclusive abode, a swankier car or a posher holiday, and before we realize it both husband and wife simply have to go out to work.
Biblically, the family is a nursery of godliness. This means that we must have time for our spouses and our children, if it has pleased God to grant us any. Having time for the family means making sacrifices. That availability far outweighs material pleasures, and accordingly we must be willing to deny ourselves those pleasures. There is no denying that moderation — temperance, to give it is old-fashioned word — is as indispensable a part of a Christian lifestyle as righteousness and godliness. In permissible pleasures, a Christian does not need to have it all or be involved in everything that is going on. To do so is detrimental to our walk with God. A Christian is self-controlled in his grief over all earthly losses, and tempered in his joy over any earthly pleasures, because God is the Source of his joy.
A real walk with God requires the attitude of being a stranger and pilgrim on the earth; it calls for a focus on the new Jerusalem, on the wonderful reality that thanks to the work of Christ is coming, and that far excels this present earthly reality. The Epistle to Diognetus, from which I have already cited, has this to say about Christians: “Each of them lives in his own country, but only as sojourners. They participate in everything as citizens, yet endure everything as aliens. Every foreign country is a motherland to them, and to them every native land is strange.” A sterling example of this attitude in the Bible itself is that of Daniel, who felt responsible for Babylonian society, while dwelling as a stranger in Babylon.
This society is a materialistic society. It is also a society in which many exalt physical health to the status of the Greatest Good. The Christian church has from her inception been characterized by care for the weak and the sick. However, there is a higher good than bodily health: it is peace with God, and ultimately it is God Himself, for He is the saving Goodness of all who know Him. Besides, sickness and any imaginable form of brokenness are means used by God to cast people upon Himself. The joyful bearing of suffering that we encounter, in the knowledge that God is leading our lives as our Father, is part of a Christian lifestyle.
Our society is not only a materialistic society; it is also a society that has moved with great alacrity to ban all possible risks. One is now supposed to hedge oneself in from every conceivable threat. For what other reason than this have insurance companies and legal departments gained such a mighty position of influence in our society? Now, in no place does the Bible forbid us from taking precautions, but the Bible does teach us that a child of God ought not to be worried about anything. If there is one area above all in which we are so beset with difficulties when trying to loosen the culture’s grip on us, it is surely this.
What our Lord requires of us is a disposition of dependency and a holy carefreeness. This issue, again, throws into relief the essential need for prayer and inward communion with God. Health is incredibly highly valued in our society. What is more, death has come to be seen very emphatically as the natural conclusion to life, in the sense that while a few decades ago impending death was a subject hushed up even beside sickbeds, it is no longer taboo in general. This is progress of sorts, but a counter-consideration is that society has entirely lost sight of the concept that death is the wages of sin. Biblically, death is not a natural condition! Even for the people of God, death remains an enemy, albeit a defeated one.
The chief teaching of the Bible regarding what happens after a person’s death is that he or she must meet God and be judged. We will only pass the trial of God’s justice if we have already in the spirit been placed before God’s just demands in this present life and have received pardon from our guilt and punishment on the grounds of the blood of Christ. To determine the minimum level of knowledge that someone can have of the Biblical message while yet being a genuine child of God is a tricky matter. What is certain is that every true Christian confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, in Whose Name forgiveness of sins and repentance toward God are obtained.
There are few occasions on which we preachers notice the influence of postmodernism more obviously than on pastoral visits to the terminally ill and the dying. More and more often, the nearest and dearest have just one criterion by which they will deem the pastoral visit to be either appropriate or indecent, namely putting the dying at their ease. It does not matter how this comfort is given, nor whether it is a reassurance that has any Biblical basis/foundation. Relatives and friends are looking no further than the present reality, and even if attempts are made to look beyond, then any prospect of gloom ahead should be ignored or denied as far as possible.
How great are the difficulties that the pastoral visitor can face; how often it is hard to speak honestly about the Biblical significance of death and coming face to face with God! So much the more when those whom one is talking to are further away from the Biblical Christian faith. Yet the Lord does demand that we be faithful. The way for us ministers to be faithful is that we ourselves should be conscious of standing and living in God’s sight
Emphasis on experience
Postmodernism does not believe in universal rationalism as regards the answers that philosophies of life have to questions. What it does set very great store by is authenticity, and, by association, experience. Actually, giving consideration to experience is also something inherent to the authentic Christian faith, although that consideration does not play the same role in Christianity as it does in postmodernism. There are tendencies within the Christian church that have allowed the impression to arise that any consideration of experience is wrong. The theologian Karl Barth is one whom I would name on this point. For Barth, justification by faith, for example, is a purely objective phenomenon. As all mankind is sinful before God, he argues, all mankind may know itself to be included in God’s grace. It is no coincidence that Barth had very little esteem for Augustine’s Confessions.
The experience of faith has an evident place in Scripture itself: one need only think of the book of Psalms. The key consideration in this matter is that we do not go to God as determined by our experience, but we learn to understand and interpret our life in accordance with what God has revealed to us. There can be no faith without experience; however, there can be experience without faith. The Christian experience of faith is many facetted.
A fine description of the two poles around which our experience of faith revolves is found in the answer to Question 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism: namely, the accusation of conscience on the one hand that I have sinned against all of God’s commandments and the confidence of faith on the other with its ‘But God’; a confidence that the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ is imputed and imparted to me. We could also express it thus: Christian experience is all about the lived knowledge of sin and grace, or as the Scots believers used to put it, forgiveness is better felt than told.
The Christian identifies himself with the world in its guilt, yet at the same time knows of things the world has no inkling of, namely access to God through Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sins and the tasting and seeing of the first principles of eternal life already here on earth. That element of Christian experimental faith is inextricably linked with the inward, personal experience of forgiveness of sins. Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God, as Augustine writes. There is a void in every human heart that can be filled by Jesus Christ alone. We have to do here with a joy that the world has never given and never can give to anyone; I am not saying that this is a joy that the Christian experiences equally strongly at all times. In fact, often there is a pronounced sentiment of falling short. The English poet William Cowper writes:
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?
What peaceful hours I then enjoyed,
How sweet their memory still!
But now I find an aching void
The world can never fill.
Yet Isaac Watts may still proclaim:
The men of grace have found
Glory begun below;
Celestial fruits on earthly ground
From faith and hope may grow.
The believer who has been grafted into Christ through a genuine faith already belongs to the new creation and is privileged to know the first stirrings of the joy that appertains to that creation. A Christian is homesick for God, homesick for his Father’s house, longs for the marriage feast of the Lamb. Those who are homesick come home. We are born as children of Adam and we breathe the air of the secularized society in which we live. Through God’s quickening grace, people are also enabled to breathe the air of the new Jerusalem, a city to which access is gained only through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. I affirm with Pascal that true Christian faith consists in the knowledge of two persons, namely Adam and the wretchedness of us all, and Christ and the bliss of all who are His.