When I was a graduate student, a preacher used to come to the main quad daily, dragging a large cross. He set up his soapbox, and would immediately launch into an animated denunciation of student immorality (focusing on sexual sin). He was insulting and abusive, increasing his invective in volume until he was satisfied that the responding catcalls and jeers, and insults attested to the effectiveness of his preaching. Then he packed up and left, returning again to repeat the ritual the next day. I assume he felt satisfied that he had done his job as a Christian witness. He proclaimed Christ, denounced sin, and suffered persecution. I believe I am also safe in assuming his yield of new Christians was none to zero. The question the experience left me with was this: what is the impact for good that my witness of Christ is having? Can I shape my words in such a way that they invite to Christ, rather than dissuade or distance? Of all the truths I can testify of, which are most efficacious at this moment and with this audience?
Core truths are unchanging—but the most effective language inspiring transformation changes with circumstance and most pressing needs. We live in a world—and in a church—that is beyond any dispute, wounded and afflicted to an unprecedented degree. Depression is stratospheric. Anxiety disorders are magnitudes beyond past numbers. More than 25% of American adults will be suffering from a mental disorder this year—the most common being anxiety disorder. And only one in three of that latter group receive professional help. Increasingly, the syndrome afflicts teens and children (8% according to the above study). Several studies indicate one in three women will experience sexual violence in their life (see, for instance, this regional study consistent with larger studies). Twenty-five percent will experience domestic abuse. In the last two years, 25% of young girls contemplated suicide. 44% of teens in America feel persistent “hopelessness”—an all-time high. Tragically, some varieties of mental illness are aggravated by misapprehension or misapplication of religious truth: the obsessive-compulsive disorder called scrupulosity is defined as a sense of shame or guilt that becomes pathological. In sum, “Almost every measure of mental health is getting worse, for every teenage demographic, and it’s happening all across the country.” These numbers are almost incomprehensible, and I can’t read them without tremendous sadness. What is the impact for good that my witness of Christ is having?
What is the impact for good that my witness of Christ is having?
I do not claim, and the scriptures do not claim, that sin is not a feature of the contemporary world or individual conduct. I do believe, and scripture suggests, that in our modern era something else has been introduced into the human predicament in addition to or alongside sin. That “something else” (woundedness in all its varieties) has its own etiologies, manifestations, and needed remedies. At times, both ancient and modern scripture treat sin as itself one variety of woundedness. In Luke 7, Christ forgives the woman who “sinned much” and then told her: “hē pistis sou sesōken se.” This identical phrase appears verbatim in Mark 5:34; Mark 10:52; Matthew 9:22; and Luke 17:19. It is translated every time as “thy faith hath made thee whole.” Clearly, these four employments of the term sesōken tell us that Christ’s healing encompasses the plague, blindness, hemorrhaging, and paralysis. And here in Luke 7, we learn with the troubled woman, Christ heals our sins as well. In 3 Nephi 9:13, the point is made explicitly by Jesus Himself. “Repent of your sins,” He pleads, “that I may heal you.” Christ portrays Himself as a healer of sin as well as of every other kind of affliction.
Church leadership has responded to the particular conditions of our modern moment with an enormously increased attention to the varieties of woundedness about us. A simple General Conference word search, for instance, reveals that the word “heal” is occurring with almost 500% greater frequency than in any previous decade in the nineteenth or twentieth century. “Wounded” has also been occurring with greater frequency since 2010 than at any previous period in history. After this past April conference, that statistic will need to be revised upward even more dramatically, because the conference witnessed an unprecedented, explicit recognition of the extent of human woundedness and the scope of Christ’s healing concerns.
- Sister Reyna Aburto referenced Christ’s capacity to “make us whole” from “emotional strife,” invoking “the healing power of the savior.”
- Elder Patrick Kearon’s talk, “He is risen with healing in his wings,” referenced Christ’s capacity to remedy “abuse, violence or oppression” and heal those who feel “beyond repair,” to “heal the unhealable.”
- Elder Jeffrey Holland addressed suicide, “depression, despair” and “self-harm” as afflictions Christ can heal.
- Elder Dale Renlund (who in April 2017 gave a landmark address likening us all to Christ’s “diseased sheep progress[ing] toward healing”), spoke of those who have been “marginalized, oppressed or subjugated.”
- Sister Amy Wright offered her testimony that “Christ Heals that which is Broken.”
- Elder Ulisses Soares said, “Christ’s atoning sacrifice can heal our emotional and spiritual wounds.”
- Elder Gerrit Gong said in his talk “Christ heals the broken-hearted.”
- Pres. Russel Nelson also testified of Christ’s “healing … power.”
It is impossible to miss these sweeping currents that recognize a new landscape needing new emphases alongside the old ones. I do not read this as a new doctrine dismissing the reality of sin, or claims that we have no need for repentance. I see it as a new emphasis for a new series of challenges unique to this era.
I have reflected on the spectacle of the campus preacher in the many years since, and found in it a powerful reminder to ask, how do we witness most effectively? What is the end we seek, and how do differing stewardships configure the kind of witnessing and ministering we are called to do?
Some forms of woundedness need therapy and perhaps medication. Most of us are not therapists or physicians. Some types need repentance and forgiveness. Most of us do not have keys to exhort. Some kinds of woundedness—the kind that scripture associates with the loss of plain and precious truths—might be addressed by a more vibrant encounter with the healing truths of the restoration. Presumably, this is a ministry in which all can and should participate who have themselves experienced and come to appreciate the unique strengths and virtues of Restoration principles, and Christ’s healing power—of which I can bear personal witness.
Our American culture also suffers under a number of ideological afflictions. Rampant, atomistic individualism—which distorts the principle of agency and communal responsibility into an ethic of self-expression and “authenticity.” The prosperity gospel—which makes gospel living just a more enlightened form of self-interest and acquisitiveness. And moral therapeutic deism—which alarms some members concerned about too much emphasis on healing and sin as woundedness. In that morally lax school, you are perfect as you are. God loves you (just not enough to want you to improve). Guilt is in this view inherently destructive, because you only need to be true to yourself, and not to any outside Person or ideal. And offenses you commit against a moral order are never your fault because genes or environment or emotional damage is always the culprit.
Emphasis on any principle—torn from context, intent, and audience—can lead to danger. In the seventeenth century, an emphasis on election as a theological principle, trust in Christ as personal savior and one’s assured salvation through faith, led to an extreme orientation called “antinomianism.” In this school of thought, one was no longer responsible to human interpretations of law, because God’s promises exempted one from social or legal accountability. In this case, reasonable doctrines led to outrageous interpretations. Much earlier, Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, realized that the gift of Atonement itself could be taken to shocking extremes. If I am saved by grace, and grace is a response to sin, then should I not “sin the more, that grace may abound?” “God forbid,” he replied. It is hard to imagine any true teaching that cannot be perversely interpreted by taking it to extremes.
God’s love is never absolution for our own accountability. Our agency may never be whole and unimpeded (by genes, training, environment), but neither is it ever completely extinct. That God loves us in our sin and weakness does not mean He does not want to lead us out and upward. I hope that those who deplore the tendencies in our contemporary moment to rationalize rather than eliminate human evil in all its forms will continue to explicate those moments of subterfuge and self-deception that are their legitimate concerns. Some kinds of woundedness might be addressed by a more vibrant encounter with the healing truths of the restoration.
Some kinds of woundedness might be addressed by a more vibrant encounter with the healing truths of the restoration.
We are all at different places in the covenant path. Some members need to up their game. Some need to be more gentle with themselves. I am happy I don’t have to discern which is which and that the Spirit can minister to each as needed. Meanwhile, I believe we cannot go wrong in seeking everywhere and always “to comfort those who stand in need of comfort.”