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The Jonah Syndrome
Reflections on Modern Attitudes in the Church

Dennis Bratcher

A concern among many in evangelical and holiness traditions is a what appears to be a growing tendency to accept as fact almost anything negative we hear about other people, groups, or churches. If rumors or reports about other people, pastors, church leaders, other church traditions, or even political figures fits our own agenda, our areas of concern, or touches on issues that we have declared to be important we seem ready to accept them at face value without doing much fact checking. We seem to have developed certain litmus tests of orthodoxy or ethical correctness or righteousness, and then draw conclusions about other people or groups based on how they rate against our test-list of concerns. So when we hear something negative reported about others, whether through the media or by conversation, we tend to react on the basis of our test. And that is often done blindly, without taking the time to find out if we are being manipulated, whether we have the facts straight, whether there is even any basis to what we have heard, or whether we are only doing a knee jerk reaction because it is what we want and expect to hear.

How and why have we come to the point that we are driven more by fear and negativity than we are by hope and the possibility of renewal and transformation? I think many in contemporary Christianity have moved a long ways away from the optimism of grace that characterized not only John Wesley, but much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century renewal movements.

I have heard a lot lately about the role of the media in affecting how people think and react. For example, in light of growing school disorder many have argued that a steady diet of violence via the media promotes a tendency to act violently. If that is at all true, then what does a steady diet of negative reporting and talk about the world and the church do to us as Christians? And that is compounded many fold if what is being repeated as negative is nowhere close to the facts or the actual situation. That not only becomes a problem with how we see the world, it becomes a problem of rumor and gossip, of self-centeredness, and finally sin. I have a great deal of personal experience with this very scenario working out in the context of church educational institutions, as well as in local churches and on district and denominational levels. It is extremely destructive in the church.

It seems to me that too many Christians cruise the media looking for bad news to confirm their worst views of the world. They seem to want to find the worst that goes on, the most outrageous acts of sin or stupidity, and then present them to the rest of us as reflective of what is happening in the world. At best I think that is imbalanced and imprudent; at worst it is a sinful addiction. Such people tend to ignore all the positive things going on around them and, I suspect due to a certain view of the world or theology or reading of Scripture, think that it is their task to paint a totally negative picture of the world as if it were on a downhill slide. In fact, I suspect that some people actually enjoy picking out the negative, because it makes their own lives look so much more righteous. Yet, I think a steady diet of such negative views of the world will begin to erode our sense of who we are as Christians, just as a steady diet of violence will erode a sense of well-being and purpose in life.

I simply think that the message of the Gospel, and therefore the message that we as Christians are called to proclaim to the world is Good News. I think that to the degree that we take so much delight in finding all the bad news, we have diminished our capacity to see, and hear, and speak the Good News. Perhaps it is time that we began training ourselves to see the world in terms of the Gospel and not just in terms of sin, that we learn to view people and society in terms of what can be instead of what our greatest fears think already is. Maybe it is time we began to focus on the transforming power of God’s love and grace, on the reality of the present and coming Kingdom of God at work in the world, rather than allowing the evil in the world to confirm that we are really failing rather badly in doing what we have been called to do as God’s people. Maybe it is time we let more light shine rather than searching for the darkness so that we can share it with each other (see Christmas and Possibility).

Should we ignore the sin and evil in the world? Of course not. It is not a matter of either/or. But that is the point. I hear very little of the good that God is doing in the world beyond our own personal experience of God that makes us feel good. I believe that the evil and sin and ignorance in the world should not be a cause for rejoicing at sinners’ folly because we are "not like other men." Yet, I fear we have been infected with the "Jonah syndrome." We sit aloof on the hillside waiting for God to rain down fire and destruction on all the evil, whether real or imagined, so that we can be vindicated as righteous. We seem to forget that as followers of Jesus who is the Christ we are called to roll up our sleeves and wade into the darkness around us so that by all means we might save some!  That was a lesson that Jonah learned the hard way.  Rather than reveling in the darkness in the world in contrast to our own righteousness, perhaps we ought to heed the words of a contemporary song,

So carry your candle, run to the Darkness,
Seek out the helpless, confused and torn.
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, go light your world.*

The sin and evil, the injustice and oppression in the world, real or imagined, should be an occasion for calling us again to the task of proclaiming the Good News as a way to reach out to the world that we so easily despise. Unless we train ourselves to react to sin and evil in the world first by weeping along with Jeremiah, and Jesus, and Paul, I think we have misunderstood the Christian Gospel. But we cannot end in weeping. Finally, the Gospel is Good News. As the writer of John's Gospel tells us, it is light in the darkness.  It is hope and possibility. It is the positive expression of the very nature of God who calls us to love one another because he has loved us.

We can choose to view the world and the church in negative terms, and thereby choose to live negatively. But that would be to remake the Gospel into something that it never was. It would be a failure to understand the nature of God's grace and the power of love, both God's love to us and our love for others. I think it's time for Christians not only to stop living negatively, but to choose to live the Gospel in positive ways, on purpose, every day.

*Lyrics by Chris Rice, Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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