In the previous post, “Insensibly …”, we were considering the dangers posed by “drift”—this all-too-easy business of inattention and indifference which can take us, oh so insensibly, into decline and fall before we know what’s happened. And we exhorted ourselves then to come to our senses, or as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, to “pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (Heb 2:1). Then we ended by asking, “How?” How do we come to our senses? How do we avoid the danger of insensibly drifting away into decline and ruin? How do we really fight “the good fight,” especially in such strange days as these?
Well, God’s Word speaks to the matter quite directly, in 2 Timothy 3. Paul says at 3:1 that “in the last days difficult times” will come. He uses an adjective here (χαλεποί) that carries the idea not only of hard, difficult, troublesome, but in some real sense ferocious, dangerous. And when Paul says “the last days,” he has in mind, quite broadly, this whole period from the completion of Christ’s work until the end, not just some short little period just before the Second Coming. We are now in “the last days” and these days, now, are just such peculiarly “perilous” times.
Look around! People are, as Paul says they will be, “lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . .” (2 Tim 3:2-4). And what is particularly unsettling is that these are also religious folks—“holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (3:5). They have an outward form of religion, but know nothing of, in fact live in contradiction to, the power and reality of true Christianity. That truth explains why polls indicate that America is a “very religious” country, and at the same time the most corrupt and violent of any developed nation on the face of the planet.
So what are we to do? How do we stay on mission—avoid drift, fight the good fight—in the middle of such a mess as this? In the whole chapter of 2 Timothy 3, there are only three imperative verbs, three commands, that give us desperately needed direction.
- Realize that such times will come (v. 1)
“Realize, understand, know”1 that there will come violent, fierce, terrible times. “Take note of this and be assured of it,”2 Paul says. And such an understanding starts with a biblical worldview. If we ignore the Fall and its consequences, we set ourselves up for disastrous disappointment and unexpected distress. When it comes to our view of life and the world, we must have something better in place than an idealistic, pie-in-the-sky, Enlightenment notion of humanity that thinks all people are basically good. Without the biblical take on humanity’s situation, when things turn out so much more badly than a wrongheaded kind of worldview ever thought it would, we’ll despair, and get depressed, and worry, and become utterly useless in the good fight and its mission to the world! So, first thing: “Realize such times will come.” Understand that we’re in for a fight if we mean to be faithful. Then …
- Separate ourselves from such influence (v. 5)
That is, don’t get caught up in the spirit of the age. “Turn away from, or shun”3 such people—not personally, of course, because we’re on mission to them, but shun their influence, their pressure, their pull. And do this as a matter of habit. The idea here is not a one-time, break-off of all relations thing, but a constant, moment-by-moment rejection of the assimilating power of the world, moment-by-moment resistance to the acculturating magnetism of the age. And the only hope we have of accomplishing these two objectives—knowing what to expect and successfully resisting it—is to …
- Give ourselves to the Word (v. 14ff)
“Continue4 in the things you have learned and become convinced of …” (3:14). There’s no quick fix, no handy gimmick, no switch to flip. Paul says simply, “Abide in these things, remain faithful to what you have learned, go on steadily, stand on the Truth, keep to the teaching! Continue in what you have learned and become convinced of!” And by that he means continue in the Word of God! See, because of what it is, the “God-breathed” Word of God, it alone is useful in this warfare, because it alone can benefit us by teaching us, convicting us, correcting us, and training us in righteousness. There’s no other way for us to be profitably equipped for every good work (vv. 16-17).
Nothing fancy here, really. Just expect hard times and know that means a fight; resist getting pulled to the dark side; and do both those things by continuing in the Word of God, abiding there, living there, taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:5), being transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2).
“Too quickly,” James White notes, “and often without a struggle, we trade making history for making money, substitute building a life with building a career and sacrifice living for God” to “living for the weekend. We forgo permanent significance for the sake of petty success and pursue the superficialities of title and degree, house and car, rank and portfolio over a life lived large and well.”5 That’s the way and the end of insensible drift!
May it not be so with us!
Everything is at stake here: heaven or hell, paradise or suffering, forgiveness or judgment. In the fullness of time, everything gets put to the final test. Everything! This is no time for toy soldiers.
So, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim 6:11-12).
- Grk., γίνωσκε, present active imperative. ↩
- Respectively, the renderings of The Emphasized New Testament: A New Translation by J. B. Rotherham and The New Testament in Modern Speech by Richard Francis Weymouth. ↩
- Grk., ἀποτρέπου, present middle imperative. ↩
- Grk., μένε. ↩
- James Emery White, Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 12. ↩
The past few weeks I’ve been reading a bit on reading! James Sire’s little treatise entitled How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension1 is a tasty treat, as is Gene Veith’s Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature2. The book I’m reading now is Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction3 which I’m finding both charming and challenging!
At one point in his larger case, speaking to the trouble of trying to “read noninstrumental texts in an instrumental way,”4 Jacobs points out how the best features of artful writing—i.e. language that’s “unusually vivid or lovely, or if its presentation of ideas or images is subtle and surprising”—can just be missed by our reading too quickly with the wrong goals in view. And as an example he points to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Is it just a verbal quirk? I think not: rather, it embodies a key theme of the whole history, which is that major transformations in the life of the Roman empire happened slowly, gradually, and without anyone noticing them: people were insensible to the changes, and by the time anyone figured out what had happened, it was too late for a reversal of course.7
Wow! Besides recognizing that here is something “vital” and not “trivial” in the story of Rome’s decline and fall, I was soberly reminded that this is something Scripture itself warns us of in every age, and it’s a truth we’re more likely now, in Our Time, to miss than not because of the “hurry” we’re in all the time. We miss the lessons of Scripture and of history in our mad rush from one big thing to another, in our frantic pursuit of the next excitement, in our agitated aversion to slowness, in our restless inability to sit quietly and listen to learn, in our paralyzing addiction to endless distraction. And in the process, we all but consign ourselves, oh so insensibly, to decline and fall at last!
And while I think this is certainly at work in Western civilization at large, it’s also particularly a danger now affecting the church itself in the West.
- Insensibly, the church as a whole in our culture has largely lost the very concept of Truth (with a capital T).
- Insensibly, the church has forfeited much of its sense of God’s weightiness in its life.
- Insensibly, the church has failed to grasp much of the nature of the local church and what it means to be a member in it.
- Insensibly, the church has lost its ground in the authoritative revelation of Scripture.
- Insensibly, the church has surrendered its prophetic/moral voice in Our Time.
- Insensibly, the church has been largely assimilated by the spirit of the age.
- Insensibly, the church has too often too easily minimized its missional/evangelistic work in the world.
And the consequences for this are dire! Oh, God’s purposes of redemption in the history of the world will go on, yes! “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” says the Lord. “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:10-11). But we are profoundly mistaken if we think that cannot happen without us, however insensibly we live!We must come to our senses!
The same thing—this insensible decline and fall— can also happen in our individual lives. Right? The Bible vividly captures the trickery and treachery of this numb condition in its sharp warning against drift. “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Heb 2:1). The way he puts it all there is so very strong, something like “It’s necessary to, we must (δεῖ), in a greater degree, all the more earnestly, more exceedingly (περισσοτέρως) attend to, give heed to (προσέχειν) holding the course on and securing our anchor in what we’ve heard, i.e. in everything God’s telling us in his word.”
Why? Because there really is this terrible danger at hand of drifting away! Drifting is one of the great sins of Our Time! And it happens insensibly! No resistance to speak of, no notice of departure and movement, no sense of any shift in direction, too busy with the deck chairs to take a reading, the moorings slip and the rudder pivots just so slightly, and—unsuspectingly caught in the strong undertow of this present evil age—off you go … away!
No one actively has to betray Jesus, or openly reject the faith. All that’s needed is inattention—put your Bible down; stop gathering with other believers, pray less and less, read all kinds of other stuff (novels, magazines, articles, Facebook, etc.) uncritically; just watch TV (sitcoms, movies, all these “reality” shows, these ruthless competitions, etc.) mindlessly; just drink in the unspoken assumptions of your workplace; become preoccupied with the sights and sounds, the offers and applause, the values and priorities of this present age—in other words, just live insensibly and you will drift, off and out, until you are swept away!
Oh, we must come to our senses!
But How? Look for the next post, The Good Fight!
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
- Shaw Books, 2nd ed., 2000, 192 pp. ↩
- Crossway, redesign ed., 2013, 256 pp. ↩
- Oxford University Press, 2011, 176 pp. ↩
- That is, for example, trying “to read fiction or poetry or history or theology or even what the bookstores call ‘current events’ as quickly as possible and with the goal of accurate transference of data.” Pp. 73-74. ↩
- The annotated edition is just shy of 5,000 pages long in six volumes. ↩
- This piqued my curiosity. So I downloaded the full text of Gibbon’s work and searched for the word. He uses “insensibly” 419 times along with the adjective “insensible” another 116 times. This is clearly thematic! ↩
- P. 75. ↩