I have read many methods for assessing one’s progress towards Christ-likeness, but the one that works best for me is Paul’s fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control). On those occasions when I stop and assess my current state through the lens of those nine attributes, I generally get a quick and accurate picture of how I am doing. Even more importantly, the exercise identifies those areas most in need of my attention.
Recently, I was once again ruminating on the concept that each individual is perpetually moving along a continuum wherein base animal instincts anchor one end and pure divinity anchors the other. In this context, I acknowledge while we are individually responsible for our movement along the continuum, our individual movement also affects society communally. The challenge I took on today was to assess the current culture in the United States measured by the nine characteristics of the fruit of the spirit. I willingly confess my perspective is largely influenced by what I see and experience here in the Greater Houston area and as a result of my socio-economic circumstances. Your experience will likely differ.
With those filters in mind, I made a quick assessment of the state of our society in the context of Paul’s fruit of the spirit. Before I offer my assessments, I need to make clear my objective here. I am not out to criticize our culture, rather I am issuing a call to action. We are not to live in resignation to the current state of affairs. We are called to celebrate society’s achievements and to address its shortcomings. It is in that context I offer my assessments.
NOTE: This Musing is a bit longer than a typical Musing, so if you should find the individual assessments tedious or repetitive, please skip to the Conclusion section and reflect on it.
The cynic in me immediately cries out that our society is moving farther and farther away from exhibiting love. While we are far from lovely, I’m convinced we remain love-based. (For this assessment, I define love as the God-instilled love which calls me to put the needs of others before my own, as opposed to romantic, emotional, sentimental love.)
Yes, man’s inhumanity to man reaches new heights daily, or so it seems. But what I see and experience is increasing compassion for those who are suffering. Yes, I sense more division and disunity in our country than at any time in my life, but when I take a hard look, I conclude most of the animosity is in service of heart-felt passion on the topics of the day, most of which concern the welfare of others. We disagree vehemently, often in ugly ways, but the underlying driver is a quest for social justice.
I must, must, start with a delineation. There is a vast difference in happiness and joy. Our society is largely driven by the pursuit of happiness, and not in the ways our Founding Fathers envisioned. Joy, in contrast, is all about exuberance, sheer delight. It is a state of being, not a passing fancy.
My father’s generation was obsessed with the prospect of progress. My generation was consumed with achievement, which tends to confound joy. Somewhere along the way, joy got lost. I deem our culture is happiness-obsessed at the expense of joy.
Here again, I offer a contrast of definitions. Peace in the day-to-day vernacular refers to the absence of conflict. This is not the peace Paul was referencing. Paul was addressing the Hebrew concept of shalom, which encompasses much more than the absence of conflict. It’s about wholeness; finding one’s purpose and fulfilling it. This is a peace that reaches well beyond absence of conflict. It is the peace which allows one to proclaim, “It is well with my soul,” (in the words of the Christian hymn).
Our society is currently experiencing a period of peace. In terms of absence of conflict, we are in an unprecedented period of peace. On the other hand, our political discord has spilled over into most other areas of our culture. I find it impossible to say it is well with our societal soul.
I once heard a comedian observe, “New York is full of people standing in front of the microwave shouting, ‘Hurry up!’ ” It’s not just New Yorkers any more. This is a pervasive attitude across America – especially in urban areas. But before I criticize, this is not altogether a bad thing. We have so much information available to us coupled with a focus on addressing the world’s ills. This sense of urgency drives many of the achievements in our society.
This is the attribute that most troubles me. Just a few short decades ago, President George H. W. Bush called Americans to strive for a kinder gentler nation. Some progress was made (or so I think), but it was all washed away during the 2016 election cycle. Rancor and invective became the order of the day. The presidential race set new lows for insult and discord, which in turn legitimized such behavior not only in other political arenas, but also in public discourse as a whole. Civility has taken a blow from which I am unsure we can recover.
At the same time I aver that we have lost our sense of kindness, I argue we have not lost our sense of goodness. People in general are motivated by goodness. We want the best for our children; we seek more effective means of education; and research yields progress towards eliminating a myriad of diseases and disorders. At times, it may appear that we take two steps forward and one step back with regard to advancing goodness, but even, so two forward and one back yields one step forward at each iteration.
I’m going to cop out on this one. Many recent polls indicate the fastest growing denomination is Nones – those who profess no religious affiliation. Church attendance is reportedly down. Yet at the same time, the U. S. is experiencing an explosion of “megachurches” drawing thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands, of people each weekend. Faith-based outreach initiatives abound that serve the least, the last and the lost. As a result of these conflicting trends, I can’t assess whether we are gaining or losing with regard to faith at the societal level.
I open this assessment by referring you back to my assessment of Kindness above. Gentleness, though, is a little different. In light of the combination of the loss of kindness and the urgency which breeds impatience, gentleness seems to be a thing of the past. Gentleness seems to be regarded as a liability rather than an asset. Meek has taken on the patina of weakness, an intonation of gullibility.
I admit to extreme bias when evaluating this one. Self-control is not an attribute of mine. The acrimonious tone of discourse which seems to be not only tolerated, but exalted evidences our march away from valuing self-control.
So, a quick tally of my assessments yields 3 positive assessments, 5 negative assessments and one which I could not evaluate. But please remember the purpose of this Musing as stated at the beginning – we are each responsible for moving society in positive directions with each of these attributes. I challenge you to personally commit to being more loving towards everyone you meet. In pursuit thereof, you will automatically become kinder and gentler. It will require greater self-control. You must surrender your hurry sickness. The by-products will be more joy and peace in your life. Faith and goodness will thrive.
Devoted to the God who redeems,