In our day Christians are being stretched. With every distraction and every demand of our full calendars, we are being stretched in all our capacities.
Who among us is not feeling spread thin by the repetitious news cycle which demands our attention second to second and so creating in us the dreaded “fear of missing out”?
Our desires are being stretched too. Careers which offered fulfilled dreams have been ended with mere severance. Or they continue to demand time and, toil yet our desire is not slaked.
All people in the West possess great convenience epitomized in the power of our fingertips on ready touchscreen apps. Who has not felt tired but wired with all of this instant power, yet less and less instant gratification?
Stretched Thin or Just Crushed?
This stretching we feel is not a capacity that we are growing in, but a sense of being flattened or crushed. Crushed by the desire for relationships. Crushed by the desire for justice. Crushed by the need for meaning.
As Douglas Murray noted in The Strange Death of Europe, “one of the notable characteristics of Western culture is precisely that it permanently fears itself to be in decline”.
This fear acts like a double-drum compactor rolling over the happiness and hope of people like they are so much asphalt. Radical calls for justice in this life show how heavy these fears can be. It is easy to be flattened with frustration that there is no sufficient justice in this world. We can agonize at the question, “why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jer 12:1, Psa 73:3, Job 21:7, Ecc 8:14).
At the same time, there is the weight of fear which crushes the comfortable and the privileged. It is the fear that their status and privileges will be lost. The fear of losing power, prestige or influence can turn the comfortable life into a life of panic.
In the culture wars of the West, we fear the loss of power and influence on the right, and we fear unaddressed injustice on the left. Both can be easily captive to the concerns of this-world and think little of the world to come.
Fear and Panic in Renewal Time
Christians can also get paranoid at what they see as they assume the worst. Fear rolls over them. Even as the small reformed renewal enters into its intermediate to mature stage, Christians can see the expansion of churches and the few renewed institutions in Evangelicalism and be rolled over with the fear of its collapse. It is easy to be disillusioned when someone sees the sins of their heroes within the ‘gospel-centred’ movement.
Likewise Christians can be suspicious of the visible success of the reformed renewal, and have the uneasy feeling that they must divert its strength to address the more relevant concerns of society. Then a ‘gospel-centred’ movement is no longer enough. It must also be a movement to mimic the issues in the news cycle.
Fears about losing the big conferences, the public champions, and the mass of Christian publishing can be so crushing that people can be anxious to shut down refining critiques, or overinflate the importance of the movement as if it is too big to fail.
Either way, fear dominates many of us, so that we can’t see the gospel good being done, nor see that the renewal is neither a full-on revival, nor is it heaven.
All of this kind of fearful stretching is bringing a fatigue to churches. It is not the kind of stretching that we need. Instead, today more than ever, we require a renewal of our desires. We need to be stretched heaven-ward.
Of Springs and Soap Bubbles
Our desires have lost their elasticity and vigour, because they have been attached too long and too tightly to the world that is. “This-world” desires have overstretched us and our spring is unsprung.
In the church, it started with good intentions. There was the recapturing of the doctrine of vocation, rendering to God worship through the work of one’s hands. But as Michael Allen writes in his book, Grounded in Heaven:
“Too often a desire to value the ordinary and the everyday, the mundane and the material, has not led to what ought to be common-sense to any Bible-reader: that heaven and the spiritual realm matter most highly.”
Nowadays we are trying to find meaning in our work, but struggling to suffer in it, mistakenly assuming that emphasis on “faith and work” brings more heaven on earth.
On the one hand, there has been an increase in books that revel in the ‘ordinary’. This may have started with Anne Voskamp’s best-seller and her extended meditations on ordinary things like soap bubbles. On the other hand, even the books on heaven have been reduced to “tourism” to gain lessons for what really matters, life in the now. Allen goes on to say:
“Too rarely do we speak of heavenly-mindedness, spiritual-mindedness, self-denial, or any of the terminology that has marked the ascetical tradition (in its patristic or, later, in its Reformed iterations).”
It is not to say that we shouldn’t see the dignity of God’s creation, nor value the mundane work we must do as an opportunity to glorify God according to the priesthood of all believers. But we need to re-calibrate where our strongest passions and deepest desires are directed. Are we conscious of the will of God being done in heaven first and fundamentally? Then we can reset our desires to pray that God’s will be done, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
Augustine’s Grocery Bag
Augustine offers a picture of the ways that we need to be stretched and it offers a compelling alternative to the chase-your-own-tail existence of the modern social media feed. Augustine likens our desires to something like a grocery bag. It is folded and narrow to begin with, but when it is stretched wide, it can recieve a large capacity of things to put in it. He says:
“so God, by deferring our hope, stretches our desire; by the desiring, stretches the mind; by stretching, makes it more capacious.”
Our desires are to be stretched heaven-ward, to the beatific vision of being in the presence of God.
As John put it in 1 John 3:2-3, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
There is a pressing need to be stretched. Christians need to be stretched in our desires for heaven. Such stretching will deliver us from the emptiness of Your Best Life Now, and the exhaustion of the new cycle’s incessant demands.
Our fear of catastrophe can be dispelled by this invincible hope, not in movements or men, but in the Lamb and his eschatological kingdom, which shall have no end.
As Augustine said, “Let us desire therefore, my brethren, for we shall be filled.”