Positivity Gospel and COVID-19
Over the course of the last 200 years, spurred by advancement in the sciences, globalization, modern healthcare infrastructure, and the numbing onslaught of entertainment and leisure, American Christianity has entered a unique new season in which the development of civilization has insulated us against suffering in a way that isn’t actually realistic. Theologically speaking, we’ve been hidden to the reality of the Fall by ignoring or delaying its effects.
Life-expectancy has drastically increased, our military strength drowns out any substantial concerns about war, and necessities like food and shelter are taken for granted. All of this means that our collective focus has shifted from “survival-at-all-costs” and “our basic needs” to “living better” and “obtaining things we want.” We find ourselves in the endless pursuit of the good life through the accumulation of little comforts and achievements devoid of any eternal meaning. At no other moment in history have the things of earth seemed as secure and as good as they do in the twenty-first century.
But suddenly - and globally - a tiny virus has brought us all face to face with the unavoidable reality of the Fall. In one form or another, the symptoms of the fall invade our borders regardless of military strength. The virus threatens the very healthcare infrastructures that protect us, and our heart’s demand for control is exposed as we run on grocery stores to provide for our families, debate masking requirements and personal liberties, etc. From shopping to sports, we’ve suddenly lost all access to the little pieces of “the good life” that we’ve stockpiled and counted on for joy. We’ve suddenly been reminded that civilized modern societies still can’t offer us completion or ultimate safety in the fallen world. The lesser things that we’ve put our trust in are being revealed.
So, as worship leaders within the American church, how can we point toward the true hope that is available in Jesus?
First, I think it’s necessary for us to acknowledge that we’ve contributed to the drift away from the one unshakeable foundation. Our American worship culture has allowed us to subtly but significantly look to lesser things for fulfillment. This is scary. Our language as song leaders has been BIBLICAL, but it hasn’t been direct enough to adequately defend against a shift in focus.
This hasn’t taken place through conscious statements, or bad intentions. We are opposed to the prosperity gospel. But we’ve let a subtle “positivity gospel” seep into our language. In the pursuit of powerful, epic songs and moments, we’ve often replaced direct language with slightly more vague alternatives which are directly biblical, but devoid of context and therefore subject to the sinful priorities and bents of our individual hearts. In simple references to promise, freedom, comfort, and victory, without expanding on the true and specific biblical context for those ideas, our unavoidable, internal tendencies toward individualism and consumerism do the work of interpretation and application for us. Victory becomes about career advancement, promises becomes about things getting a little bit better in the near future, comfort becomes about the removal of things that are difficult in life.
While these things are not beyond the realm of possibility, and may even be good gifts from God, the covenants of God with His people are direct; the promises of God are specific. The really comforting covenants have to do with the forgiveness of our sins and the future restoration of the earth where there will be no pain or suffering. But we are also promised that life will be difficult on earth because it’s fallen. We are promised that riches and wealth are rarely beneficial in a spiritual sense. We are promised that faithfulness will often result in persecution and suffering, but that it is worth it. The vague, oversimplified positivity in our language and in our songs allows us to falsely appropriate God’s legitimate and infinite goodness for whatever cultural priorities have snuck into our hearts, and whatever timeline for receiving His promises we find most appealing.
In Matthew 15 Jesus confronts the Pharisees - the people who know and recite God’s word more than anyone else – and, quoting the prophet Isaiah, He says, “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Evidently it’s possible to speak (and sing) about God’s goodness and providence while at the same time aiming those wrongly defined terms toward the expansion of our own idols... and the language of our songs is rarely specific enough to combat it.
So, brothers and sisters, this season forces us, by God’s grace, to fight the vague positivity that leans toward, “God is going to give me what I want”, and replace it with the immovable truth that “God has given me what I need in Christ.” In reminding ourselves of how good that is, in cultivating thankfulness for His grace and His provision for our needs, He becomes the thing that we love most... and here the paradigm shifts. As we love God more and more for His holiness and his mercy, He then becomes what we truly want - He has satisfied the deepest longing of our hearts by becoming that longing, not by filling it with the cheap goods of the world.
This is complicated and requires nuance and preparation for the way that we lead. So, in our sets, we acknowledge that any trust in the things of the world will be shaken, but that we “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” By all means, don’t let that be a downer. He will not be shaken, and neither will our eternal future, grounded in Him. So, name the real and specific promises of God. These are the specific and appropriate hopes that have been handed to us.
What has God given us:
Strong hope through Christ.
A Helper. Not a Spirit of fear.
Immediate forgiveness that should outweigh and overcome guilt and shame.
Future glory as co-heirs alongside Christ for an eternity of unbelievable good.
Christ will come again, and all that is broken will be made new.
"16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word."
- 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17