The Necessity of Bad News

In 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to a congregation in Enfield, Connecticut. He had preached this sermon previously to his own congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts, where the message was received with little response. But when he preached in Enfield, where men of faith had been praying steadfastly, God moved in the building in almost tangible ways. People learned to fear the Lord, and lives were forever changed. But before the good news of the Gospel could take hold, the people had to be broken by the bad news. And the bad news was very bad.

I started reading Micah the other day, and, almost immediately, I was challenged by the prophet’s message. Micah spoke during a time of prosperity among God’s people. However, though the people were materially wealthy, they were spiritually bankrupt, sinning simply because they could and growing greedy in the process (Micah 2:1-2). As Micah shared God’s message of judgment against such a rebellious people, he noted that the people opposed such preaching as his own. He recorded their response to such preaching, writing,

“Do not preach” – thus they preach – “one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us.”
Micah 2:8

The people saw their prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing, and they could not fathom the idea that a God of grace could devise so harsh a judgment as the kind that Micah was describing (ESV Study Bible). In his description of their waywardness, Micah wrote,

If a man should go about and utter wind and lies, saying, “I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,” he would be the preacher for this people!
Micah 2:11

In other words, the people were avoiding any preaching that might convict them, choosing instead to give ear to those who propagated “wind and lies.” They didn’t like the bad news, so they simply ignored it, seeking those who would justify their behavior.

The parallels between this culture and ours are many. We love to have our temptations and vices endorsed, and if God is the one endorsing, then who is there to stop us? “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31b); so we do what it takes to get God on our side, then we live with no further regard for him. We choose to follow preachers that tell us what we want to hear. We gladly approve of those who speak of the earthly blessings we can receive through our sincere faith (in much the same way as Israel). We seek to justify our actions to our spiritual leaders, thinking that if they will sign off on our shortcomings, then we won’t have to worry about growing past our problems (and we can ignore that still, small voice that keeps us from finding peace in our sins). And, if one should be so bold as to tell us that we’re guilty of treason against a holy Lord, that we stand condemned before him, and that we face eternity in hell separated from him unless we repent and turn to Jesus, then we cry “Offended!” and seek to silence the narrow-minded rabble-rouser. And, while there are extreme cases of this in the “Prosperity Gospel” tradition, we who would consider ourselves “solid” are not immune from this trend of slipping and falling. We don’t like to hear bad news, even when accepting the bad news is our only hope for survival.

Sin is like a cancer that infects every part of the body. All who sin stand condemned (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23). Through Christ, sin can be beaten. But before you can beat the sin, you have to accept that you’re a sinner. To use the analogy, we must accept the painfully accurate diagnosis if we would make the necessary move toward healing. To avoid the truth of God’s Word, then, would be to avoid the doctor’s diagnosis. We would call a man a fool if he avoided listening to the doctor’s diagnosis due to a fear of hearing bad news, yet we do the same thing when we actively avoid anything the Holy Spirit might use to convict us of our own sinfulness. To avoid the bad news in the context of a doctor’s office may merely lead to physical death; to avoid the bad news in this context leads to eternal damnation. We cannot afford to miss this message. No temporary peace of mind is worth an eternity of God’s wrath.

There is, of course, another side to this story. While we ought not avoid convicting preaching and teaching, neither should we avoid preaching and teaching the painful truth. This particularly is a challenge for me. I really don’t like to tell people what they don’t want to hear. I’ll look for different ways of wording bad news to try to soften a blow. But, as I was thinking about the implications of this passage, the words of James came to mind:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
James 3:1

The reality is that teachers and preachers of God’s Word are held to a higher standard. So, when God calls us to “make disciples of all nations,” we have to understand that such a mission entails sharing the bad news of sin along with the good news of the Gospel. And that means that people will hate us like they hated Jesus before us (John 15). But Jesus is worth any suffering, any persecution, and any awkwardness we may face for his name’s sake. To avoid telling the whole story would be like a doctor deciding not to tell the cancer-ridden patient of his or her condition in order to uphold the doctor’s good standing. Our pride may play a part in the death of the sinner.

Jonathan Edwards is often decried for his sermon about the sinful state of men before a holy, angry God, yet the message must be shared. And Edwards shared the message not out of hatred, but out of love, calling all men to make God their Father rather than leaving him to be the executioner. May we be so bold in our witness. May we die to ourselves that we may live for our Lord. May we follow the example of Jesus and humble ourselves to serve, pouring our lives out for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And may we learn to accept the necessity of the bad news in order to unashamedly proclaim the beauty of the good news.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his gace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…
Romans 3:23-24

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