Recent surveys have confirmed what we already know: Americans are not happy. Anger, anxiety, and depression are on the rise in our country. An NBC News survey revealed that half of Americans are more angry than they were last year, and a significant percentage of Americans become angry at least once a day because of something they saw on the news. And the anger is bipartisan: both Republicans and Democrats both feel this way.
Other surveys reveal that Americans are also depressed, as indicated by a rise in suicides and in prescriptions for depression medications, and anxious because of stagnant wages, deteriorating 401(k) retirement plans, lost wars, racial unrest, terror acts, an increasingly polarized society, and the toxic nature of our public discourse.
In the midst of our anger, depression, and anxiety, Jesus offers the Beatitudes. “Beatitude” is the blessedness, the deep happiness, of being in right relationship with him and allowing him to work in and through us, even in the midst of the worst of circumstances.
Christian Joy in the Midst of a Declining Roman Empire
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautioned his disciples of the imminence of persecution. There was no need at that time for him to elaborate on a social or cultural mandate. Instead, their primary influence would come through preserving the church’s identity and growing in Christian virtue. However, the early church did positively influence Roman society, precisely by the practice of those seemingly passive virtues.
But how, we ask, could virtues such as meekness and mercy possibly have any effect on the world’s most powerful empire? Because their virtuous lives forced the Romans to reflect on the striking contrast between appearance and reality.
Each of the Beatitudes is deeply counterintuitive. Those who the world would consider winners, God considers losers, and vice-versa. N. T. Wright writes, “[Jesus] was describing, and inviting his follows to enter, an upside-down world, an inside-out world, a world where all the things people normally assume about human flourishing, including human virtue, are set aside and a new order is established.” And it is precisely the strikingly counterintuitive nature of these virtues that stopped many Romans dead in their tracks, causing them to reconsider the claims of Christ.
Christian Joy in the Midst of a Slouching American Empire
The Beatitudes likewise offer Americans an opportunity to reflect on the striking contrast between appearance and reality. The kingdom of Christ is a direct affront to the kingdom of this world, and the whole of Scripture teaches that allegiance to the kingdom of this world will end up in misery rather than joy. So, as evangelicals, we have the privilege and responsibility to offer our society joy rather than misery.
Just as the Beatitudes summarize the deep joy that is gained by allowing God to work in and through us, so the seven deadly sins summarize the abject misery of refusing God’s work in us. These seven sins—pride, greed, envy, wrath, sloth, lust, gluttony—are not cataloged in Scripture as “the seven deadly sins,” but Scripture does in fact oppose each of them. Human experience and history likewise reveal their ugliness and corrosive power on society and culture. These seven sins have afflicted every civilization, including our own.
As Peter Kreeft wrote in his helpful little book, Back to Virtue, the vitality of the Beatitudes can be seen vividly in the backdrop of the mortality of the seven deadly sins. While the seven are deadly for individuals and for societies, the Beatitudes are a sign of life and health. In line with Kreeft’s argument, here is a brief exploration of how the Beatitudes can breathe new life into our decaying American society:
- Poverty of Spirit v. Pride
As the greatest sin, pride is the deepest rebellion and root of all other sins. It is a violation of the first commandment, an exaltation of oneself onto the throne of one’s heart. Pride was operative in the first couple’s grasp for autonomy and in their resulting fall that affects us still today.
Augustine showed that Rome’s “love for justice” was really a mask for its love for raw power; similarly we can reveal how America’s love for democratic freedom is devolving into a brazen attempt to put make ourselves free from God and his moral law. As a remedy for pride, the gospel engenders humility, the root of all virtue (Matt 5:3; Phil 2:5-11). In humility, we empty ourselves before God and for the sake of others.
- Mercy vs. Greed
Greed is the vice that values God’s gifts above God himself. A greedy person is one who thinks that happiness comes from possessing things lesser than God and, as Kreeft notes, lesser even than ourselves. A greedy society is one that derives its core values from consumption rather than vice-versa. It views consumption as redemption, as a therapeutic activity that help us deal with disappointments and sadness of our broken world.
Greed promises happiness, but cannot deliver; because the deepest happiness comes from desiring God and his kingdom. The laborers of this kingdom sow seeds of mercy, and upon harvest, the laborers are shocked to discover fruits of mercy hanging from the stalks (Matt 5:7; Lk 10:25-37).
- Mourning vs. Envy
Envy is sorrow occasioned by another person’s happiness. Envy wishes to push the other person off the path of success or happiness. It is lethal to joy because it refuses to be grateful and gratitude is the root of joy. An envious society is one whose social imaginary allows for and even encourages its citizens to resent those who are more successful than they. It is a society whose members imagine themselves entitled to every success and every good thing.
As a remedy, Scripture offers us the opportunity to mourn (Matt 5:4). It shows us the goodness of rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. Instead of envying those who are happy, we rejoice with them. Instead of ignoring those who weep, we weep with them. In God’s economy, those who mourn are happier than those who celebrate, because they have witnessed the world’s suffering as well as the depth of their own sin; and most importantly, they have met the Jesus who “binds up the broken-hearted” (Is 61:1).
- Meekness vs. Wrath
Wrath is ill-motivated and misdirected anger. Not all anger is bad. God exhibits a righteous anger, and so can his people. But unrighteous anger leads to hatred. It is self-righteous and judgmental, focusing on the other person’s sin to the exclusion of one’s own. A society characterized by wrath is one that, for example, wages wars of vengeance without recourse to principles of justice; it wages war out of glee and hatred rather than doing so with regret and restraint.
Similarly, a wrathful society is one whose public discourse is pervasively uncivil, whose citizens treat one another with disdain and disrespect. One antidote to wrath is meekness, which is submission to God (Matt 5:5). Another antidote is peacemaking, which seeks the reconciliation of the other person to God and to oneself (Matt 5:9).
- Hunger for Righteousness vs. Sloth
Sloth is spiritual apathy or, as Thomas Aquinas put it, “sorrow about spiritual good.” It undercuts our desire for God and our interest in him. Ironically, sloth often motivates us to frenzied activity, what Pascal calls diversion, that distracts us from God.
A slothful society does not create space for silence and solitude, for it would be terrified to realize that the hole in its heart is so gaping that God alone could fill it. In opposition to sloth, Jesus instructs us to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6). Only though such a wholehearted desire for God is blessedness experienced.
- Purity of Heart vs. Lust
Lust is the desire to exercise one’s sexual passion with a person other than one’s spouse. It commandeers the heart and the mind, driving our blind eyes down the path of death (Prov 7:22-27). The members of a lustful society expect the government to accommodate their personal desires, and to accommodate them in a religiously and morally neutral manner. More specifically, they expect the government to never cast moral judgments on their desires. Thus when their poor judgment or immoral choices cause negative consequences, the liberal populace expects the government to ameliorate those consequences (e.g. “Have you had five babies out of wedlock? The government will be happy to marry you in order to take care of those babies. Or even happier to kill them in the womb beforehand”).
A lustful society makes sexual pleasure its ultimate freedom and its functional savior. Its citizens not only sin brazenly, but applaud others when they do the same. As a remedy for lust, Jesus offers purity of heart. The pure of heart love God above all, and allow him to shape our earthly desires.
- Courage vs. Gluttony
Gluttony is the inordinate and indiscreet enjoyment of bodily things. Medieval theologians noted that gluttony is revealed when we enjoy bodily things hastily, sumptuously (demanding the richest foods), excessively, greedily (I want the food I want when I want it), and daintily (my meal must be perfectly prepared). Gluttony prowls at the fringes of our appetites.
A gluttonous society consumes far too much while leaving table scraps for its neighbor; additionally, such a society belittles its goods and ultimately, depreciates the Giver of those goods. In response to gluttony, Jesus offers hunger for righteousness. If we are gluttonous of anything, then may we gorge on Christ. He also offers courage amidst persecution. May we find deep happiness in him who made our hearts (Phil 4:19), even in the circumstances of persecution (Matt 5:10; Heb 11:32-40).
Christians Must Seek to Be “Eldila”
If evangelicals take seriously the Beatitudes, we will strike our fellow citizens as being rather strange. But strange is good. Christian virtue might seem off-kilter, but it is sin that is truly off-kilter. C. S. Lewis depicts this phenomenon in his space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength). The main character in these works of fiction, Ransom, encounters the “eldila,” creatures similar to angels. Whenever the eldila appear—as beams of light—they are slightly tilted, not quite at a right angle to the ground. Yet Ransom senses that it is not the eldila who are askew. It is rather the earth itself. The eldila are upright; he is crooked.
As Christians, we should be similar to the eldila in this respect; although our “uprightness” will strike our society as a bit strange, at the same time it offers to our society a taste of the path toward social and cultural renewal.