“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
For most of the history of this nation, the Christian church sat in the seat of power. Modern skeptics don’t like to admit this, but the United States was formed on the basis of ideas that were rooted in the Christian worldview. Yes, they were heavily influenced by several pre-Christian Greek philosophers, but the basic ideas of liberty for all and a limited government were directly influenced by thinkers who studied the Scriptures and sought to apply the principles they gleaned on the scale of nations. Times change, though. So do cultures and dominant worldviews. We are no longer in the place of cultural or political power we once held. Some note this fact with glee, others with weeping and gnashing of teeth. The question for we who are still in the church to answer, though, is this: What are we going to do now? Paul offers some advice to Timothy here that is worth heeding.
When it comes to the position the church and followers of Jesus more generally hold in this culture, most of the believers throughout the rest of the world and across most of the last 2,000 years of human history have just one thing to say: Welcome to the club. The fact is, faithful followers of Jesus have only rarely held onto the levers of power on a national scale. And, where we have held them, we’ve tended to do a pretty terrible job manning the helm. This country represents something truly unique in terms of how believers managed being in the seat of power. We had some truly wise leaders who were nearly universally beholden to the Christian worldview, but who nonetheless intentionally built a system that, while rooted in the ideas of their worldview, did not give it favor over another one.
That being said, building a system and then living within that system are two different things. The structure they built was sound. As a case in point: There is no system of government that has lasted longer or had as many peaceful transitions of power from one party to another and back as the one they created. But just because a system was designed to work a certain way doesn’t mean people won’t still fall into natural patterns of behavior. Because our system was founded on the Christian worldview, Christians have always been in the cultural driver’s seat. Even today when things have and continue to drift away from our worldview foundations in some truly profound ways, the candidate who came out on top in the party least beholden to the Christian worldview was the one who professed the most orthodox embrace of it of the available options. But times are changing.
The cultural wind is no longer at our back. Instead, it is more often blowing in our faces. And can we be honest with one another? We really don’t know how to handle this. We’re a little like the popular kid in a coming-of-age movie who suddenly finds himself unpopular and doesn’t know what to do. He starts turning to former friends and finds their backs turned to him. The teachers he once had wrapped around his finger don’t give him the benefit of the doubt any longer. He usually starts out angry, lashing out at the people who are still loyal to him until he finally drives them away. Then he goes off and sulks to lick his wounds and begin plotting his comeback. The audience which once loved to hate him now just looks on him like he’s pathetic…because he is.
See any parallels?
For our part, our lashing out took the form of the church largely latching on to a political strongman who looked to be a fighter for our cause. He played the role we gave him, but his way was most often the antithesis of the way of Jesus, and what political advantages he helped us hold on to came largely at the expense of most of the few cultural advantages we still had. The result is that our position is weaker and less respected than it has ever been in the whole history of our nation.
And again, the rest of the world says, “Welcome home.”
Come with me back to what Paul wrote to Timothy here. Timothy was pastoring the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a big and culturally diverse city. It was a big and culturally diverse city that generally had no patience or interest in the Christianity Timothy was trying to advance. Followers of Jesus had zero cultural power and could generally expect to be ignored at best, actively persecuted at worst. In Paul’s first letter to him, he gave Timothy lots of advice on how to get the church working right in such a culture from the inside out. The church has to have a firm grip on the truth if it is going to have even the remotest chance to stand in the face of cultural winds blowing in their face. In this second letter, he turns his attention to giving Timothy encouragement on how to do that standing once the inside has been secured.
That encouragement starts here: God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment. Brother and sister in Jesus, this is pretty sound advice. Let’s break this down together.
First, God has not given us a spirit of fear. We have nothing to fear from the world around us. You know, that right? The phrase “faith over fear” has become popular in the last few months. Unfortunately, this has mostly been used as a kind of banner for folks who want to somehow justify ignoring what has often been sound counsel on how to be safe amid the pandemic. What they meant was they were going to live like COVID was not really the threat it was and trust God to keep them safe from it.
That’s not the kind of refusal to give into fear Paul is talking about here. Many of those same believers are deeply fearful of the rising cultural and political power of the secular and progressive movement that has been steadily gaining steam over the past several years. Yet this is exactly the spirit of fear Paul had in mind here. We need not fear any political or cultural power in our culture that is working against us. We need not fear their threats or persecutions. We are not primarily a part of their kingdom and though their machinations against us may accomplish their aims, the aims of our king are higher and stronger and eternal. What victories they may think they’ve won will be overturned when the Day arrives and all things are made right. We can live with confidence toward that day no matter what shape our current circumstances take.
Refusing to give into fear, however, is not enough by itself. If we are casting off one spirit, we must fill the vacuum that has been created or become beholden to something worse. And indeed, our God has given us a different spirit if we are willing to have it. He has given us a spirit of power. Before you get too excited, though, let us be clear what this means. This is not power like what we see the rising culture around us exercising. This is not the power to dominate our opponents and punish them for their transgressions. This is the power to advance the way of Jesus with the methods of Jesus. It is the power to resist hatred with compassion and humility. It is the power to advance with graciousness and kindness in the face of fierce opposition. It is the power to love.
And wouldn’t you know it, He has also given us a spirit of love. We are not given leave to hate our foes. We cannot disparage them. We must not work for their destruction and watch with glee when the consequences of their bad ideas begin to have victims. We are called to love after the pattern of Jesus. His love was sacrificial and compelling. His love is always aimed in the direction of seeing people become more fully who God created and called them to be. This is not soft or weak as it is often characterized to be, though. Love is strong. The love of Jesus is able to stand firm and keep on accomplishing its goals in the face of the fiercest opposition the other side can muster. It is able to refrain from responding in kind no matter how ugly the attacks of the enemy become. It keeps reaching out with an invitation in the face being slapped down again and again. It takes far, far more strength to take this path than it does to respond with hatred and anger. Refusing to swing a fist takes far more self control than throwing one does. This is the spirit God has given us.
He has finally given us a spirit of sound judgment. He has given us the ability to discern the right way to go forward. He has given us a spirit of discernment to recognize when we should advance and when we should hold. He has helped us to know how to respond in ways that advance the Gospel rather than causing it to be rejected and despised.
As the world around us turns away from us in ways that are culturally new, we don’t have to adopt the world’s tactics in formulating our response. In fact, we must not. We dare not. Those tactics will erase the ground separating us from them and we soon won’t be able to tell whether we are fighting against the world or fighting as the world. The kingdom of God is not expanded when we try to broaden its borders using the methods of the world. That is responding with fear. We see the enemy gaining ground and so we use the enemy’s ways against him. That is not the way of Jesus. That is not the spirit we have been given. We have been given a spirit of power, love, and sound judgment. Let us use it and keep on advancing in the name of Jesus. The playing field may have changed, but our work has not. Let’s get to it.