In 1905 an amateur physicist in Bern, Switzerland, wrote four papers that stunned the world and changed how we view the universe.
The patent office clerk with basset-hound eyes and unruly hair explained how molecules move and why light appears as a wave of energy or a beam of tiny particles. His paper on the theory of special relativity outlined a world in motion, positing that when we approach the speed of light, time slows and aging stops. Later he theorized that gravity is a curving of space, like a bowling ball on a soft mattress, that affects nearby objects.
Albert Einstein was describing universal truths. So it is with us. As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, our high calling is to describe universal realities that exist beyond what anybody believes.
We describe these realities best with our lives. How we choose salad dressings and soul mates, our responses toward people who are disagreeable, whether we float on the surface of confirmation bias or swim against the current, our decisions and actions matter. Yet it seems our world is changing so fast that we can’t keep up.
How can Adventists move into the future with a credible influence in today’s society? Here are three paths.
Today’s atmosphere in Adventism is too frequently one of unveiled distrust. We hear sinister motives projected onto presidents and pastors, elders, and earliteens. They have agendas; we have standards. Guardians and seekers both fervently warn about the mounting influence of “those others.”
In reality, the world divides us much as Jesus’ garments were at the cross. What plays best on CNN/FOX/MSNBC is conflict. Black versus White. Rich versus poor. Jews versus Muslims. Conservatives versus liberals. U.S. versus the world. We are being played.
Unless we battle against it, conflict language forms a corrosive worldview. For example, our lesbian and gay friends are not “problems” or “issues”—they are family, children of God with faces and names. People who believe differently about women’s ordination are actually not the spawn of Satan; they are friends with varying viewpoints.
Whenever we condemn others, we step onto the dark accuser’s turf. With that step our joy drains and our witness to the world evaporates, for no witness is attractive without joy. We support the accuser by demonizing and complaining. Whenever we defend others, we steer to the side of the Great Defender.
My friend Becky, age 32, raised her eyebrows. “I can count on one hand the people in my class who are devoted to the church,” she said. “It’s the spirit of criticism that drives the others away. They love God; they are spiritual; they do agree with Adventist values, just not with the politics and criticism they find in the church.”
Sadly, the scarred walls of memory imprison many of Becky’s peers. To experience freedom and hope, they turn to virtual communities in coffee shops and on glowing screens far from the madding congregation.
“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” the apostle Paul points out, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Our enemies are not Iranians or Russians or Muslims. We wrestle not against the mythical theys of “conservatives” or “liberals.” Our enemies are the principalities of darkness. Period.
The rotten fruit of evil’s seed are fear, pride, and a critical spirit. Tendrils spread through churches in lurid animosities and petty tyrants. Universal truths twist from “God is a sovereign of infinite, infinitesimal order” to “God frowns when you wear faded blue jeans to church.” We lose track of priorities. One gorilla is deeply mourned while thousands of desperate refugees are abandoned.
The angels weep.
But the best way to eliminate a bad habit is to develop good ones. To eradicate weeds, grow a robust lawn. To keep children out of trouble, engage them happily in healthful activities. To minimize destructive behaviors in a church, involve all members in risky, joyful, productive ministries. Evil is best squeezed out, not tweezed out.
Philippians 4:8 expresses this proactive approach: Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, praiseworthy, think about these things. Amidst a broken and toxic world, focus on the positives. Wherever we are, whomever we’re with—think about these things. That’s what Jesus did and does continually. His isn’t a sanitary attitude of avoidance; it’s a liberating emphasis on preemptive healing.
This outlook is as sweet as a crisp watermelon heart. Some time ago, I saw a statement in a Hallmark store: “Home is where we laugh the most and are loved the best.” Can we say that truly about our home church? The mass of churches lead lives of quiet desperation.
What matters in the end, and in the beginning, is love. Love is the only legacy that lasts. The world’s greatest lover proclaims, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Christianity is more experiential than propositional. Though we hold universal realities to be self-evident, they evidently need to be written out.1
But God is infinitely more than 28 beliefs, as Jupiter is more than the written formulas that enabled the probe Juno to reach it. God and the world are more interested in our honesty than in our immaculate perceptions. In a land drowning in lies, the ninth commandment is equally important today as the fourth.
When I hear claims that some have attained character perfection, I consider how we drive. Have you ever halted even one inch over a crosswalk? turned into the far lane? accelerated one click above the speed limit? arrived at a stop sign without making a complete stop? Honestly? Some drivers have yet to be introduced to their own turn signal.
Our son Geoffrey failed his first driving test. He told me he flunked the test five seconds after starting the car.
Humans tend to be as inconsistent as a string trimmer: To stay productive we have to be bumped.
“Wow. How did you manage that?” I asked.
He said, “I pulled through an empty parking space in front of me.”
Ah, no, I recalled with shame. I know where he saw that maneuver modeled.
So, flawless perfection? I am chief of imperfect sinners, and that’s just driving a car. Don’t get me started on the big four temptations of sloth, lust, egoism, and deception that leer at us in the mirror. I fight the good fight of faith, I trust my Savior to save me from my sins, and I also confess my infinite need of His grace.
Frankly, we need articles and books and blogs by Adventists about our messes. The Bible is full of human frailties, bravely transparent, on display through history, epistles, and poetry. God and the world know we make mistakes—and also willful, destructive sins—you and I. When I hear people sunnily observe, “I wouldn’t change a thing about my life,” I think, I’d change 10,000 things I’ve done and haven’t done.2
Humans tend to be as inconsistent as a string trimmer: To stay productive we have to be bumped. The most profound lessons are learned after we have messed up and resolve, Never again. World-weary watchers hunger for honest, raw, resilient stories of hope.
When, not if, the world’s currency collapses (see Rev. 18), God’s realities will remain. Our resilience will also be tested, especially at the end of time: “Because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of most will grow
cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:12, 13).
After last summer’s tragic headlines of “lawlessness,” we witnessed love calcify and die in streets, posted comments, and convention halls. When Jesus says “stand firm to the end” His meaning is clear: Do not let your love grow cold. Fight against diminishing others. In the face of wickedness, keep your resilient love warm and nourishing, for you will need it forever and now.
Ellen White observed, “When we seek to gain heaven on the merits of Christ, the soul makes progress.”3 We do not fear the future or worry about our salvation; we embrace the Lifegiver.
Jesus maintained, “Let your light so shine before people that they will see your good works and give glory to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”4
Well, no. He didn’t say that, because it’s not about us. Church is not God, never was and never will be. The Advent movement of the 1830s and ‘40s began with a misunderstanding—a mistake of biblical interpretation, which the Spirit graciously later corrected. That bit of history ought to make us especially humble.
Humility does not sacrifice principles; it does change its mind if evidence warrants. The answers we were comfortable with 10 or 20 years ago may no longer be satisfactory. We carry many names for this process. Education. Present truth. Adaptability. Wisdom. Staying credible in a changing world requires all of these.
Jesus describes the reality of His self-forgetful lovers. “When did we see You in need and we helped You?” they exclaim. “When did we see You excluded on the margins and we gladly welcomed You? We were merely living our lives by doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly” (see Matt. 25:34-40; Micah 6:8).
Jesus smiles. “I know,” He says. “That’s what I loved.”
For the Master it was always about us. For us it is always about the Master. Focusing on the positives, we stay honest and resilient, all the time pointing to our Savior.
Humble assurance enables us to be both teachable and tough. Jesus poured Himself into our world, and we drink the Living Water with deep gulps. We realize that freedom is found only in following Him closely. We risk our comfort to stand up for those on the margins, the ones Jesus stood up for and stood up for until He stood up on the cross. We know grace—forgiving, accepting, and sharing—is as much a universal law as is gravity.
With full-throated lives we discover the God who invented strawberries, sex, thunderclouds, joeys in pouches, music, and pelicans gliding along curling waves.
Is that a reality worth experiencing? Will it play in the future?
We don’t have to be an Einstein to know the answer.
Chris Blake is associate professor of English and communication at Union College. He has won numerous national awards for writing and editing, and is the author of many books.