So… I’ve been nominated for the ‘7 days of thankfulness’. Today I’m thankful to God, and to everyone he has put in my path to bring about the following:
1) Today I was thankful for godly company at the Christian radio station where I volunteer. Watching the love pass between three followers of Christ who are many years my senior in the faith, seeing them help and support each other in their work, and experiencing that love being passed on to me in encouragements, opportunities to exercise gifts, and assurances of prayer, was really lovely. I was inspired to watch them, and learned much about my shortcomings, and my aspirations for growing in holiness in the Lord as I mature.
2) Fretting over my parsley and basil seedlings today as I repotted them I was thankful, as a mid-twenties, single, childless woman, that I could appreciate what it is to be a cultivator of life. Time and time again, God speaks through the prophets about his children through the metaphor of a gardener delighting or lamenting over his prized plants. As I dropped everything to dive after my poor sun-scorched babies with a watering jug, there was a moment where I realised what a charade of the bigger picture I was playing out, and it was a moment of joy.
3) I was listening to a song by a French evangelical music artist today, and for reasons I’ll underline below, I was very thankful to know that this kind of song existed. French evangelical Christianity – of the native kind, not the imported kind – bears some marked differences from the Anglo-American sort. Their perceptions of what will be well-received evangelistically and what won’t, are different, and I think that this is because the fabric of French thought is different. France is the land of the Revolution, the land of the guillotine, the land of protests, the land of the enlightenment, the land of existentialism, the land of human rights. France served as a battlefield for two World Wars that rocked the world in two consecutive generations, and if they hadn’t seen enough violence, anger and death in preceding ages, they saw them then. Following the wars, many lost faith in God, humanity and the meaning of life itself, and a lot of the proponents of the Postmodern philosophy that grew out of this sentiment owe their geographical and intellectual roots to France. France has the highest rate of depression in the world. The French are not shy about death as the British are: you only need to read a translation of the lyrics of the Marseillaise, or still, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from Les Misérables. Nor are the French squeamish about judgement – including, evidently, judgement that is retributive.
But there is a silver lining to this cloud, and I saw (or rather, heard) it as I was listening to my French evangelical song today. It was a song about hell. Yes, a funny thing to encounter, an evangelical song about hell, and an even funnier thing to be thankful for, but I was genuinely relieved to hear it. Of all the aspects of our beliefs that we English-speaking, British Christians like to preach and represent in our songs, hell is one we tend to push under the carpet because it is unpalatable in our culture, a culture of a nation that sapped its monarchs’ power and placed it into the people’s hands far less violently, a nation that was last successfully invaded many, many centuries ago, and subsists on a strained peace between political factions that are boiling with anger inside but dare not grumble too loudly in public lest they lose their social and/or political credibility. The British erasure of hell, with its custom of genteel silence over discontent and everything else that isn’t deemed worthy of expression in polite society – pains me. I’m tired of the justice aspect of the gospel being suppressed. I just want to hear the truth. Hell is a place where God’s righteous anger is expressed against people who perpetuate evil. As his anger is righteous, it is good, and wholly appropriate to be expressed. When we suppress hell, we shut away not only our feelings about evil and suffering – but also, I feel, we try to repress God’s anger too. What’s more, without allowing myself to feel anger and be satisfied that God will bring evildoers to justice, I find it hard to then take pity on them for the price that they would have to pay for their crimes, or to weigh my own sins up and realise the debt that I myself have been spared, and pray instead that they turn to follow Jesus and ask him to pay their debts as he paid mine. When we acknowledge God’s expressions of righteous anger and judgement, the teaching that we will be measured with the measures we use takes on new significance, and we realise the imperative of forgiving as we have been forgiven. In this way, in hiding hell, we hide a part of the gospel that is crucial as the counterpart to Christ’s atoning death: we hide the awful but merited wrath of God from which Christ’s atonement saves us. Nobody enjoys the thought of people perishing, but as long as evil is given its just desert, either on the Cross or in the other place, there is justice, and when that justice is upheld, we know that all is right with the world, and that good triumphs over evil. The song was a song that validates God’s righteous anger and champions God’s just treatment of sin, allowing it a space to be expressed, and a platform for God to be declared right in this part of his plan, that one day, those evildoers who do not turn back from their evil ways will receive the fruit of their deeds. To hear this is a consolation to those who have been wronged.
With all this, the song also carries a sobering and possibly life-saving warning: we must be mindful of where we will eventually stand when the books are cracked open, and we must act accordingly. It forces us to turn our eyes on ourselves. Listening to this truth expressed plainly and Biblically through a song was a breath of fresh air to me. I feel it would be very unwise to sing a song like this for a congregation from an Anglo-Saxon culture: there would be outcry. But hearing it, I was thankful to God that for all the brokenness from which the French nation suffers, the doctrinal blind spots of its church are different from ours, and that their cultural lens allows them to see what we often cannot. Through this song sinners can hear about what they need to be saved from, and respond to it, and I was given the space and catharsis that I needed to help me express my feelings about evil and injustice authentically and anticipate the wages of that evil, so that I could be moved to pray that God have mercy on the other evildoers as he had mercy on me. It provided relief from the straitjacket of wishful thinking – which is to me as insipid, weak and tepid as some English teas with milk and sugar can be – that tends to view with suspicion any emotion that doesn’t fall within a bland spectrum of ‘pleasant’. It is a window onto God’s rightly and justly appointed reality for those who do not belong to the covenant of forgiveness for sins in Christ’s blood. As truth, though it was hard and unpalatable, it was not dissimulated. Moreover, in its non-dissimulated form, it was a spur to action. I was very thankful that at last, the truth about God’s justice had prevailed in at least one worship culture.