In 1 Cor.7:26, Paul offers a judgment about marriage that is rooted in “the present distress”. I’m uncertain as to the exact nature of that circumstance (though many suppose it involved some kind of persecution). What is clear is that an inspired man is offering an opinion to God’s people that he deemed wise in consideration of the events going on in the world at that time. Boy howdy, can we use some of that wisdom today.
I suspect most spiritually inclined people would have little difficulty identifying the “present distress” of our day. A global pandemic. A cultural shift away from godliness and morality. A virulent political climate. Explosive, and sometimes violent, racial unrest. Economic challenges, resulting both from the pandemic and from evolving economic philosophies. How many more elements could be added to this list? I cannot recall in my lifetime such a period of polarization, stress, vitriol, anxiety, and dissension. I have no doubt that history is full of similar “distresses”, but it’s been a generation or so since we’ve experienced such in this country.
There are many pundits presently who have determined the reasons for the circumstances of the day. Social media, and education, have made experts out of everyone, and there is a daily identification of “the problem.” You know – “The problem is……” And the closest thing there is to consensus in our day is that the problem is political (which includes the present regime, the regime immediately preceding the present, or some regime in the past that is responsible for all of our present issues). Thus, the solution is often, “change the regime…change the people in the regime…change the past…and everything will be OK.” Or… “keep the regime…keep the people in the regime…affirm the past…and everything will be OK.” Funny that we try that in this country every four to eight years and things don’t change much. But, I digress….
The problem in our country, and the problem in every country, and the problem in every generation has nothing to do with politics or economics or health or race. Certainly such issues contribute to unrest and difficulty. The problem is a dismissal of God, and therefore a dismissal of judgment. If you knew that you would stand before God and be judged by His will at the end of this day, would it change your behavior, your attitude, your priorities, your heart? I affirm that it would. And as we are living in a world that distances itself farther and farther from God, we are reaping the consequences.
One of the fundamental elements of God’s revelation is that He will hold every man accountable for his/her life. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden in Gen.3 is a powerful statement from God. He will judge men for their actions and He will not have fellowship with those who violate His will. While there are few references to eternal judgment in the patriarchal era, God certainly illustrated such in events such as the destruction of Sodom or the promise to Abraham which was to be fulfilled at the completion of “the iniquity of the Amorites” (Gen.15.16). God was rendering judgment temporally, and those men must have understood that God would do so eternally. At times, Job appears to look to an eternal existence, and Heb.11.8f offers a heavenly inheritance as motivation for Abraham and his descendants. Moses clearly appreciated the idea of eternal judgment, offering his own soul for those of the Israelites (Ex.32.32f). David expresses his desire for God’s mercy and eternal association repeatedly through the Psalms, and Solomon provides the clearest OT reference in Ecc.12.14, “For God will bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
Obviously, the NT echoes this sentiment in a number of passages: Mt.25.31f; Jn.5.28-29; Acts 17.31; Rom.14.11f; 2 Cor.5.10; 2 Tim.4.1; Rev.20.11f. If the bible is true, and therefore an accurate expression of God, of our moral history, of His plan for our redemption, and of the destiny of our universe and existence, then we will stand (or rather kneel) before Him and be judged. In Rom.13.1f, Christians are instructed to submit ourselves to temporal government both because God tells us to, but also so that we might be spared from punishment, “for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (v.4). We are seeing a debate presently about the necessity of a police force in our society, and we are also seeing violence escalate as people no longer fear the consequence of their actions. As is so often the case, we see the reality of the spiritual in the expression of the temporal.
“OK,” you might respond, “you’ve offered your pundit’s response. So what?” Here’s my “so what.”
First, eternal judgment is a powerful incentive to faithfulness. I realize that God’s mercy and goodness draw us to Him, but God’s justice contributes a healthy fear, and He demands that of us (Ecc.12.13). Notice that Felix responds with trembling to Paul’s teaching about “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” (Acts 24.25). The picture of everlasting destruction in 2 Thes.1.8-9 or the fire, anguish, decay, darkness, and gnashing of teeth in Matt.18.1f; 22.1f; or Mark 9.39f are doubtless circumstances that everyone would avoid. And yet, people daily risk such a destiny in their godlessness. We are witnessing a world and culture that is in the process of dismissing and denying the very existence of God. Rom.1.18f is playing out before our eyes. Or, as Paul goes on to note in Rom.3.23, “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” Perhaps those of us who are disciples of the Lord have been negligent for too long in our call to the world around us. Christianity in general has muffled the Lord’s cry for repentance. Many have catered to the political correctness of the age, hesitating to identify sin as such, and underscoring to the point of perversion the love, grace, and mercy of God. Certainly Jesus came to offer, reveal, and illustrate such. But where there is no warning of judgment, there will be no condemnation of sin, and no call to repentance. And the end result is a selfish people who pursue our own will, all the while convincing ourselves that God will save us in spite of such. God help us to start talking to people again about judgment.
Second, we need to remember that we will be judged as well. It’s easy to fall into a “we/they” mentality when the world around us is decaying morally. Those who are really striving to be disciples of Jesus Christ are hopefully avoiding the hatred, greed, violence, and disdain that is engulfing society. However, we should be asking ourselves some questions right now, because ungodliness is not only measured in immoral display, but in immoral disposition as well. And I will be judged for “every secret thing” (Ecc.12.14), for “the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb.4.12). So… How am I responding to the evil around me? Am I looking to save souls, or to merely deride others in my self-righteousness? How am I responding to conflict? Do I look for solutions, or do I fan the fire? Where is my focus? Am I promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ, or more concerned for the United States of America? Am I advancing some popular social issue, some cultural problem, or am I advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ? What is my attitude toward others, and is such more determined by where they are economically, politically, racially, etc. or by where they are spiritually? Am I isolating people by my social media posts, rants, diatribes, and hobby riding, or am I being salt and light in an already divided society? Am I sacrificing my temporal opinions in order to promote peace with my brethren, as instructed in Rom.14-15 or 1 Cor.8-9? Or does unity in Christ end where my politics begin? Have I forgotten that I will be judged for my abrasiveness, my arrogance, my deriding sarcasm, my dogged adherence to what is temporal and insignificant? Am I caught up in it all? The Lord will judge me for my response to the present distress, just as he will all of those who are prompting it.
There is so much opportunity for God’s people right now to show the world what it means to live under the reign of Jesus Christ. But we must stand up for right, and warn people of the end of their ways. Furthermore, we must not forget our own accountability in doing such. It’s so easy to fall victim to the very godlessness that we deplore. God help us.