The subject was revivals and what we remembered about them. The teacher leading the class turned to me and asked what I remembered about old-time revivals. Without a second though, I said, “Some of them almost scared me to death.” And that’s true. I remember one evangelist who came to our church when I was a teen, asking, “What if you should die tonight? Are you ready?” He asked many times. I think I sat up half the night to keep from dying.
Like everything else, things have changed. We no longer hear “hellfire damnation” sermons, thank goodness. Theology, for the most part, is positive and more grace-filled. I believe God is a redeeming God, not a punishing God. We punish ourselves. Jesus said, “I have come not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through me.” He taught an uplifting gospel.
Now, this doesn’t mean we don’t need to be revived today. We need the transforming power of God more than ever. There’s a great need for renewal. A friend stopped by recently who said she was disturbed about things that were going on. She named a few situations that had worried her greatly. She asked, “What’s going on with people nowadays? For every time you turn around, someone you know is in deep trouble. There seems to be an epidemic of evil.”
History tells us that there has always been a struggle between good and evil. This battle is centered around greed, anger, hatred, lust, grudges, ignorance, etc. These are the “principalities and powers” that the Scripture talks about. This is not something theoretical, rather we experience it firsthand. Inside each of us, there seems to be a constant struggle. In fact, my own desires have been formed by this crass, egoistic and consumptive culture. Also, the “entitlement ethic” has influenced most of us. We feel that we are entitled to a comfortable home, a good job, a couple of cars and TVs, nutritious food, healthy bodies and dutiful children. I realize how pervasive this is and how it has affected me.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser, award-winning author and theologian, put it this way: “Hatred is battling love, anger is battling patience, greed is battling generosity, bitterness is battling graciousness, jealousy is battling admiration, and holding on to hatred is in bitter battle with the acceptance of God’s unconditional love,” (Column from “In Exile” by the Catholic Commentator).
One problem with evil is that it makes a bigger splash than the power of good, most of the time. It makes the news, front page of the paper, the “lead” story on television, and the impact of it all can make us very negative about human beings. I talked with a man recently who said he has several weapons in his house, and all of them were loaded and positioned in different rooms. Are we returning to the mindset of the Old West: “Get them before they get us?” It was the German Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote from his prison cell, “Who am I? This or the other? Am I one thing today and tomorrow another?”
The Scripture gives us mixed views of human nature. Almost all characters show at least two sides to their personalities. Look at Paul’s double personality, or Peter’s denial, or King David’s battle with adultery and murder. We can be a grand mixture of different forces and personalities. We can rise to the heights of achievement, making a difference. Or, we can dwell with the demons of greed, hate and revenge. This is the choice we have as human beings. King David, in the Old Testament, confessed in Psalm 51: “My sin is ever before me.” He was guilty of adultery and murder. On the other side of the coin, we hear him saying on the Judean hillside, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He restoreth my soul.”
I was the pastor of a church one time where they had a mid-week prayer service. I’ll never forget the man who prayed: “Lord, forgive us our sin, if any”. If any? Sin is more than breaking one or all of the ten commandments. A sin is anything that hurts you or someone else, and separates you from God. Our sins can talk back to us if we have any conscience at all. Our sins can tell us that we are responsible for our own actions. They can say, “You’ve made your bed, now sleep in it.” By the way, I’m almost certain my mother originated that old saying. We have to live with the results of our own actions. If we keep making the same choice over and over, expecting different results, we are headed towards insanity.
It’s tempting to blame others for our choices and blunders. I heard about a minister whose temptation was food. He would eat anything in sight, especially if it was the wrong thing. One morning, he came to church with a dozen donuts. He said it was the Lord’s fault. “How do you figure that?” he was asked. “Well, I pass a donut shop on the way to work every day, and this morning, I prayed, ‘Lord, if you want me to stay on a diet, don’t let there be a parking space in front of that shop. I drove around the block three times before I found a parking place.”
Blaming someone else is the most common way to avoid taking personal responsibility for wrong-doing. We can blame heredity, the environment, stress, parents, hormones, genes, childhood, etc. But, in the final analysis, I still believe in “original blessings” rather than “original sins”. I believe we are born with the capacity for greatness, goodness and grace. It all boils down to the choices we make. It will always be a struggle, but this battle, you can win.
“A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing.
Our helper he, amid the flood,
Or mortal ills prevailing.
And though this world with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us.
We will not fear, for God has willed,
His truth to triumph through us.”
(Selected verses from Hymn 110 in the United Methodist Hymnal)