A Great Point

[Please note: the following are words from the newsletter I receive from Russell Moore. On this day after our nation recognizes the freedoms we have through the sacrifice of others, these thoughts are too good to pass on the opportunity to share. ALSO, since Brent just finished preaching through the book of Hebrews, it was PERFECT timing of the author’s final thoughts!]

Hello fellow wayfarers, I’m packing up boxes for the move to Christianity Today (though I will still live in Nashville). Let’s take our consciences with us, and our joy. Let’s talk about Jiminy Cricket and J.I. Packer and lots of other stuff along the way.

A Conscience in a Moving Box

The other night, after Maria and I had a dinner celebrating our twenty-seventh anniversary, we stopped by my office to pick up some papers I needed at home (romantic, I know). As we were turning to leave, I noticed two items on the little table to the side of my desk that I wanted to take with me—so they wouldn’t get lost among the boxes. One was a bookend, which almost looks like a chess-piece, of the revered nineteenth-century Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon. The other was a small statue of Jiminy Cricket.

I had both of them high on a stack of stuff and I said to Maria, “I hope I don’t drop these; I don’t want to lose my conscience or my mission on the way out of the door.” She said that I am a little too captive to my metaphors. Of course, she’s right. But, even so, the world is held together by metaphors. In this case, I kept thinking about those two little statues the rest of the evening because I think they are of critical importance. And if I had to give a word of advice to any of you, as you carry out your own lives and callings, I would point to both of them.

Conscience is more than just an internal prompter saying “Do the right thing,” as in a cartoon. Conscience is a way of knowing—like reason and imagination and intuition—a way of knowing that is embedded deep in the human psyche. Conscience alerts us to the fact that we live in a morally-structured cosmos, and that our lives exist in a timeline that is moving us toward a day of accountability (Rom. 2:15-16), a Judgment Seat before one who endured, for us, his own judgment seat (Jn. 19:13).

What that does is to equip a person to have a long-term view of the universe, and of one’s own life. With a short-term view (of, say, a hundred years or so), one could easily conclude that ambition is the driver of life. One could conclude, as does the Psalmist and Job, that the ruthless prosper, and that therefore the way to prosperity is through ruthlessness. Conscience, when functioning well, points a person to a broader scope—toward the day when everything is brought to accountability, and one’s life really begins.

This is hardly incidental to the Christian life. The writer of Hebrews ends the letter with, “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things” (Heb. 13:18). And the Bible likewise warns that consciences can be seared over, if they are not “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). How do you hone that practice? By living in the storyline of Scripture—making the Word of God your own plotline, and thus able to see both signposts of grace and warning-signs of a conscience seeking to justify itself. And you also train your conscience through repentance. Baptism is, after all, “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21). The danger to your conscience doesn’t come over your brokenheartedness at your own failures. The danger comes when you stop being brokenhearted at all.

Only when your conscience is shaped by Word and Spirit, and only then when your conscience shapes your mission, can you find meaning. Otherwise, all that is left is ambition and safety and belonging. That’s how Pontius Pilate ended up a crucifier of Jesus. It’s not because he was plotting to see this Messiah killed, but because he was “wishing to satisfy the crowd” (Mk. 15:15). Pilate, Matthew writes, “saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning,” and so he washed his hands of the matter (Matt. 27:24). That’s how it happens. Pilate saw the stakes as being about what he was gaining or losing—in that moment, or in the sweep of his life. He defined his mission in terms of ambition and security rather than in terms of conscience. And so his conscience adjusted to his ambition, not the other way around.

The same can happen to you—no matter if you work in a grocery store produce department or in an accounting firm or in a screenwriting guild or as a missionary. The pull will always be to quiet the conscience because you can’t afford what you fear it may ask of you. In that direction lies disaster. The problem is not that you will find yourself moving in ways you never wanted to move—but, rather, that you will not notice at all how you are moving. You will not even see that you are chasing the “Inner Ring” of whatever crowd to which you want to belong, to whatever goal you want to achieve, until only after it is too late do you see that you no longer recognize yourself.

As Wendell Berry put it in his best (in my opinion) poem, that clamor for ambition and belonging will lead not to an absence of conscience but to a misdirected conscience that feels shame about what is not shameful, and feels nothing about what is. As he wrote:

The antidote to enslavement to the desire to belong, and to the shame that comes from failing to do so, is not shamelessness—as we so often see in our popular culture and our politics and even in religion. The antidote is, instead, “candor,” an alignment of the outer life with what one knows to be true—a “yes” that is “yes” and a “no” that is “no.” And the antidote is “an inward clarity”—a clear conscience. For Berry, the end of all of that is freedom.

A clear conscience does not lead, as we imagine, to inner tranquility, at least not right away. A clear conscience is a conscience that is alive—and thus is vibrating with prompts to repentance and redirection and pleas for mercy. But, in the long run, a clear conscience leads to peace—because it casts out fear. If your ambition is your standard, you are enslaved to whatever can take away your ambition. If your belonging in your tribe is your standard, then you will be terrified at any threat of exile. But if your mission lines up with your conscience and your conscience lines up with the gospel, then you have no need to live in paralyzing fear, and you also have no need to live in defense of yourself.

That’s why Jesus told his disciples, “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matt. 10:26-27). If you are aware that there is a Judgment Day to come, you do not need to call your own judgment day now. And if anyone asks anything of you at the cost of your integrity, know that the price is too high.

Jiminy Cricket is now here at home, perched right over my shoulder. I remember that it was given to me as a joke. My students knew that I would quip that I look like a cricket, and they knew that I would always dismiss the Jiminy Cricket pop culture depiction of the conscience. But here he is, to remind me that a conscience is an easy thing to move from one place to the next—but a very hard thing to rediscover after it’s been lost.

Even a cricket knows that.

Onward to Christianity Today

As I’ve written here before, my teenage years included a time of deep spiritual crisis—over some ugly things I could see in the Bible Belt. I’ve written here, and elsewhere, about how C.S. Lewis’s writings helped pull me out of that crisis. But there were, at least, two other factors. One of them was a youth pastor who might have been the only one who knew that I was grappling with this sort of disillusionment and doubt. He didn’t try to argue me over to the other side, nor did he really try to answer all my questions. He was present. He was willing to talk to me, and to be there, to remind me what a Christian really is.

The other was receiving Christianity Today magazine—which I started reading because I had read elsewhere a column by Philip Yancey. His story was much like mine—someone having lived through both the joys of Christian community and the horrors of separatist fundamentalism—and I wanted to read more of him. Once I started, I also encountered the writings of J.I. Packer and Chuck Colson, Carl Henry, and John Stott. There I could see a biblical saturation and, with it, a personal joy, a cultivated imagination, and a love for people. I know that none of these people were perfect, but they communicated to me that one could keep one’s soul without losing one’s mind or heart or conscience. They seemed to be aware that there were multiple ways that one could veer from the gospel—not just in the direction of whoever one’s “enemies” were defined to be. And they conveyed that they believed the gospel was actually good news. I needed that reminder, month after month.

Two things happened to me a couple of weeks ago. Christianity Today asked me to come aboard as their public theologian. And the son of my former youth minister asked if I would record a video honoring him for his anniversary in ministry. As someone who thinks Frederick Buechner was right to say that one should listen to one’s life, I can’t help but hear in these coincidences a reminder that God has been present and gracious, if often hidden, and that he seems to be prompting me here, in this year before I turn fifty, to gratitude. Gratitude for those who pictured Jesus—not just the truth about Jesus, but Jesus himself—to me.

And that’s what I think God is leading me to do—to orient my mission field, through Christianity Today and also another ministry alongside it—toward the people who are now where I was as an adolescent. And that’s a lot of you—disillusioned by what has become of “evangelical Christianity” in the United States, at least in many of its public-facing forms. Many of you are clinging to Jesus, but storm-tossed by the thought that maybe Christianity is just a means to an end—to an end of politics or culture-war resentment or denominational institutions or racism or misogyny or abusive cover-ups. For some people, they are starting to feel as though they have been living in an M. Night Shyamalan cut of The Lord of the Rings, in which the Shire turns out to have been Mordor all along. That’s not true, but it can feel true.

I know what that’s like—and I have come to know, and to bet my life, that Jesus is alive right now, that he is who he said he was, and that he loves us. I want to use whatever tiny gifts God has given me to speak to those of you who are, or who might one day be, where I was. And I want to—in whatever way I can—to reclaim the word “evangelical” for what it was meant to mean all along—“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

That’s worth giving the rest of my life to—the Christianity today I once found in my Christianity yesterday, for the sake of Christianity tomorrow.

Note: Russell Moore was most recently the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. After eight years serving in that capacity, he announced that as of today, June 1, he will assume a new role at Christianity Today as public theologian and director of the Christianity Today Public Theology Project.

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