Tucked inside one of those numerical lists that readers tend to skip (in a biblical book that readers almost always skip) is a short verse that has gained a bit of attention in recent years: “From Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do—200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command” (1 Chron. 12:32).
These words describe some of the men who came to David’s aid with a whole heart to establish his kingdom in Israel (1 Chron. 12:38). Day to day the Lord added to their number “until there was a great army, like an army of God” (1 Chron. 12:22). Multitudes from every tribe appeared, “seasoned troops, equipped for battle with all the weapons of war” (1 Chron. 12:33). Even the priestly tribe of Levi went to battle, recalling a time when men of the cloth were not afraid to take up arms when the situation called for it (1 Chron. 12:26).1
All this makes the turnout from Issachar stand out: only two hundred men (and their relatives) next to so many thousands. Yet what they may have lacked in strength of numbers, the men of Issachar made up for with depth of wisdom. And that is why they have suddenly come to the forefront. Many Christians sense that a new generation of Issacharites is needed. To be sure, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” (2 Cor. 10:4). Nevertheless, the church in the West desperately needs pastors who understand the times and know what God’s people ought to do.
The Enduring Need to Understand the Times
Recognizing the need for wisdom is by no means a novel idea (Eph. 5:15–16). Indeed, libraries are littered with books by pastors, evangelists, and missiologists who insist on the importance of understanding the culture(s) around us. For how else can Christians be a city set on a hill which shines its light in the darkness (Matt. 15:14–16) unless we first recognize where the darkness lies (Eph. 5:11)?
This is why Karl Barth once said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”2 Whatever else we might want to say about Barth—and there is much that we could say about him—his words rightly highlight not only the necessity of understanding the times but also the priority of the Scriptures in showing us know what we ought to do in the times in which we find ourselves.
Doubtless, some will say to me, “This is unnecessary! Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). That is quite true: Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but the contextual challenges in the specific times and places where we serve are not. This is why the apostle Paul says in Colossians 1:28, “Him we proclaim,” speaking about the Christ who never changes, “by warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom” in a world that is constantly changing.3
I argue that to do this Christians, and especially pastors, must become men of Issachar—people who understand the times and know what God’s people ought to do—not in general, not in the abstract, but with a specific and concrete vision of what faithfulness to Christ looks like in the particular situation where the providence of God has placed us (Acts 17:26). As a small contribution toward that end, what follows is the first installment of a two-part essay, beginning with the need to understand the times.
Werewolves Aren’t Real, and Silver Bullets Aren’t Either
Perhaps the first thing we need to understand about the times is that the various problems we see around us were not caused by a single factor. This should be obvious; however, there is an irritating tendency for certain people to blame everything on just One Thing. (This is normally done to sell you something: “I have identified the single cause of all things . . . so buy my book.”) In reality there is almost never one sinful root that can take the blame for every rotting fruit, and Christians leaders should take care to become more resistant to silver-bullet thinking along these lines.
In view of the above, it is better not to go hunting for some monocausal explanation for all that ails the West today. Instead, let us survey the whole sweep of deteriorating conditions, describing their true nature by looking at them through the lens of Scripture. Only then can we put words to what many see but do not comprehend, to what many feel but do not stop to consider.
Our Antiauthoritarian Times
In many ways, antiauthoritarianism is but an extension of pride. And while it is true that pride is a problem common to every man in every era, our age is unique in that the antiauthoritarian spirit has been extended beyond a rejection of individuals in authority; it now includes the rejection of the very concept of truth itself. This is because of what truth is: the objectivity of truth means that, if truth is real, it is a kind of authority—a standard that must not only be acknowledged but even submitted to. And this is something our age will not endure, for that would mean that some external authority has control over us.
This is why people have adopted the language of “your truth” and “my truth.” The insinuation, of course, is that there is no capital-T Truth—no way things actually are. Instead, there is only perspective and the quasi-deified “lived experience.” The downstream effect of all this is that conversations about truth have given way to conversations about power. For if there is only perspective and “lived experience,” then there can be no right and wrong, no way things actually are for everybody. And if there is no way the world actually is, then any attempt to persuade someone to think differently will be perceived as a thinly veiled power grab. In other words, if you were to say one thing is really right or really wrong for all people, our antiauthoritarian age hears this as little more than “you hate me and want to control me.”
Our Sentimental Times
Closely related to the previous point, we live in a sentimental time that prioritizes subjectivities over objectivity, emotions over reason, feelings over facts.4 The rise of sentimentality has been evident for many decades now, but things seem to be reaching a fever pitch,5 which is why one Jewish political commentator is forced to remind us incessantly that “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”6 When we lose sight of this obvious truth, when we become more concerned with how someone feels about what God has said instead of the facts of what God has said, we will face tremendous temptation to blur the clear lines of God’s commands and soften the hard edges of his truth.
To give but one example, Christ says, “I came not to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). You will never see that verse in a flowery frame or featured in a coffee shop selfie on Instagram. A sentimental age cannot endure such truths. It wants only that which makes us feel good, instead of that which makes us actually good. A sentimental age wants pleasantness, not discipline that feels painful for a time but which yields a harvest of peace for those who are trained by it (Heb. 12:11). It wants only hugs but never rebukes, even those given gently with great love (Eph. 4:15; Gal. 6:1). It wants only winsomeness, but never strongly-worded denunciation (1 Kings 18:25–27; Ps. 2:4; Prov. 3:34; Matt. 12:34; 23:33; Gal. 5:12). It wants to heal sick souls without hurting feelings, to redirect the wayward without correcting, to grow the immature without pruning, to excise sin without cutting. But this will never work, for you cannot crucify the old man without calling him to a cross.7 To be sure, Christ does heal and soothe. There is a balm in Gilead! But Christ kills before he heals (Mark 8:35; Luke 9:23; Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20)—that’s the only path to resurrected life.
Our Therapeutic Times
We also live in therapeutic times in which everyone is a victim but never a sinner. This outlook naturally follows the rapid decline of belief in God, truth, and objective morality. In the absence of these facets of reality, the fundamental problem of humanity must be completely recast. For if God and morality do not exist, then our basic problem cannot be moral or religious; it must be psychological instead. In this framework, the solution for what ails us never includes the faith and repentance that Christ made fundamental (Mark 1:15), only sympathetic counseling and psychotropic drugs.8
Philip Rieff put the difference this way, “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when ‘I believe’ lost precedence to ‘I feel,’ the caveat of the therapeutic. And if the therapeutic is to win out, then surely the psycho-therapist will be his secular spiritual guide.”9 This is precisely what we find in our therapeutic times, where counselors now outnumber pastors nearly two to one (and the gap is increasing).10
And this situation is more dire than Christians seem to realize. For, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly observed,
The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.11
Our Secular Times
Much ink has been spilled on describing our secular age. To put it briefly: we now live in a time when a man naturally (by default) conceives of his life without any reference to God whatsoever. It is not simply that the existence of God is no longer assumed, but that belief in the existence of God is seen as largely irrelevant or even harmful to living a fulfilling life. In secular times, the individual is the chief frame of reference, and the individual’s own happiness is the highest possible good, with self-discovery and self-expression being the key means to achieving this end.
“Waking up from our slumber to perceive the particular evils of our day is the first step toward becoming a man of Issachar—one who understands the times so that he can know what God’s people ought to do.”—Doug Ponder
This outlook invariably comes to view God and neighbor as potential personal enhancements that someone can take—or leave—whenever either becomes burdensome in any fashion. Even when this does not lead to the outright rejection of Christianity, as it does for so many, it still leads to a secularizing of Christianity. Thus, God is not welcomed for who he is but only for who we would like him to be, in accordance with whatever seems best to promote our personal happiness. This radically self-centered, godless view of life has tremendous implications for how people now view things like obligations and commitments. Indeed, any demands placed on a person—even the easy yoke that Christ places on our shoulders (Matt. 11:29–30)—are seen as hindrances to our self-determined identity and personal quest for self-defined happiness.
Our Progressive Times
By “progressive,” I do not simply mean that the world is more politically liberal than it used to be. That is undoubtedly true. Bill Clinton in the mid-90s—with his balanced budget, his Defense of Marriage Act, his prohibition of openly gay members in the military, and his tough stances on crime, welfare, and illegal immigration—was relatively more conservative than Donald Trump in 2016. Similarly, both Joe Biden in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2012 were against gay marriage, while even Trump was not. This rapid liberalization of American politics is so obvious that it does not need proving, and those who cannot see it are simply those who do not want to see it (Jer. 5:21).
The more sinister element of our progressive times is that we live in an age that despises virtually all the wisdom of the past, because we have an acute case of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”12 Chronological snobbery is that form of pride which thinks everyone before us was intellectually dumber and/or morally inferior to all of us enlightened saints walking around the earth today.13 You see this in the way that people—even many Christians—talk about the past: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” we say—a not-so-subtle way of saying that the only value of the past is negative examples of what not to do. How profoundly arrogant and out of step with the Bible we are! Indeed, the Scriptures are a good deal more positive about the past than we moderns tend to be (see Heb. 11), repeatedly showing us good things from the past so that we will treasure them and repeat them in our own lives. Yet a progressive age like ours despises everything that smacks of tradition, even natural things like religion, marriage, and children, which were once regarded by everyone—including non-Christians—as essential goods for any society.
Our Licentious Times
In the 1930s, an Oxford social anthropologist named J.D. Unwin studied eighty-six of the world’s greatest civilizations and the shared causes of their demise. He found two factors that were increasingly common right before the collapse of a civilization became imminent: the loss of pre-nuptial chastity and absolute monogamy.14 That is to say, the more a society discouraged sex before marriage and faithfulness to one spouse within marriage, the more a society thrived. But once a culture was “liberated” from these mores, they all—within one century or less—abandoned rational thinking, regressed to nature worship, and either imploded from within or were conquered from without by some other civilization who had not yet descended into sexual licentiousness.
For those of you keeping track at home, the 1960s was—by all accounts, both from those in favor and those opposed—a time of tremendous sexual licentiousness in the name of liberation. And, if J.D. Unwin’s data holds true for the West, as it did for the eighty-six other civilizations he studied, then we are likely within a generation or two of some form of societal collapse.15 Yet, instead of speaking up about the dire consequences of our licentious times, high-profile Christians seem more concerned with the threat of speaking too harshly about sexual sin. They are tone-policing while Rome burns, and the souls of many millions will be destroyed because of it.
Our Anti-Christian Times
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to speak of our technological times, which Lewis famously noted have traded the need to conform the soul to reality (via virtue) for the insatiable desire to subdue the world to the wishes of man (via technique),16 our ruinously lonely times, our epidemically drug-addicted times, and our hypocritical, lying, overreaching-government times.
There are, as I said at the start, many ailments afflicting the West today. Yet the elements I have identified above—our antiauthoritarian spirit, our sentimentalism, our therapeutic view of man, our secular starting point, our progressive disdain of traditional wisdom and natural goods, and our radical sexual licentiousness—these particularly have coalesced to make our cultural moment an increasingly anti-Christian age. Peter Leithart alerted us to this trajectory in the hoary days of the early 90s, penning a book that turned out to be rather prophetic in this regard. These anti-Christian times are what urban sociologist and policy researcher Aaron Renn has termed “a negative world.”17
Many people have greatly misunderstood Renn’s point, arguing that the world has always been hostile to Jesus and his followers (John 15:18–21).
That is quite true, but it misses the point. Rather, Renn means that there was a time—not that long ago—when even a non-Christian would begrudgingly acknowledge that churches are good for society, even if they personally felt no need to become part of one. Due to the emergence of several cultural trends we have discussed, however, things gradually shifted to a world less positive toward Christianity, viewing it as neither especially beneficial nor especially harmful, but simply one option among many for those who are into that sort of thing (a “neutral world”). But recently, within the last ten years or so, the West has become “a negative world” in which people increasingly think Christians are the problem and therefore must be opposed with extreme prejudice.
Anticipating the Objections
I know that some people think things aren’t nearly as bad as I (and Renn and Leithart) have been saying. I would suggest that those who think this way are either deceived, or else they are willfully not paying attention. As the old saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see. In modern parlance, they have a mortal case of normalcy bias, which is to say, their desire for things not to be bad leads them to downplay or disbelieve every warning light on the cultural dashboard.
Others admit that the times are very bad indeed, but they wonder whether the world has always been this way. In brief, it hasn’t. While we could look to various statistics to make our case, perhaps it is simply enough to recall that ancient Rome was guilty of many atrocities and gross immoralities, but even they knew a man cannot become a woman. Tragically, we live in especially irrational and harmfully immoral times.
Finally, some may not disagree with any of the above, but the whole discussion leaves them feeling helpless or hopeless. Brothers, this ought not be so! Indeed, waking up from our slumber to perceive the particular evils of our day is the first step toward becoming a man of Issachar—one who understands the times so that he can know what God’s people ought to do. (And that is precisely where I intend to venture in the second part of this essay.)
- Indeed, too few people remember that the sons of Levi were ordained as priests precisely because they took up the sword to kill idolaters in the midst of the Lord’s assembly (Ex. 25:25–29). ↩
- Karl Barth, Time Magazine, May 1, 1966. ↩
- Besides this prooftext, common sense commends us to a similar course of action. For how could a physician of souls know which of divine remedies are needed, unless he rightly understands his patient’s ailments? ↩
- Subjectivities, plural, for there are as many sentiments as there are subjects, whereas there is only one reality. ↩
- A man in my church recently told me that his Fortune 500 company has adopted a new policy for employee feedback. The compliment sandwich, in which critical feedback was hidden between two soft commendations, has been replaced. Now, the company’s managers are told to give feedback in the form of “two likes and a wish.” As in, “I like how you confidently walk through the day every day (never mind that he’s an hour late). And I like how you create a sense of community in the workplace (never mind that no work is getting done). But I wish that you would hit at least 50% of the quota of the job that we hired you for.” ↩
- To be sure, the Lord cares about our feelings. As the apostle Peter exhorts, “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:8). Nevertheless, the apostle certainly did not mean that our feelings about some matter alter the nature of reality or the nature of what is required of us. ↩
- I’ve adapted this from Joshua Gibbs’s excellent article, “The Horror of Discipline in a Sentimental Age.” Circe Institute. February 15, 2023. https://circeinstitute.org/blog/the-horror-of-discipline-in-a-sentimental-age/. ↩
- For more on this, see Joe Rigney, “The Enticing Sin of Empathy,” Desiring God. May 31, 2019. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-enticing-sin-of-empathy ↩
- Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1966), 25. ↩
- See here for the latest vocational data: https://datausa.io/profile/soc/counselors?compare=clergy. ↩
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, vol. 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 115. ↩
- See C. S. Lewis, “Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word.” https://www.bhmc.org.uk/uploads/9/1/7/7/91773502/lewis-incarnation-intro.pdf ↩
- The opposite of chronological snobbery is a grateful and prudent posture toward the past, one that does not look to return to some mythical golden age, but which seeks to conserve golden things. As Roger Scruton once noted, “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. his is especially true of good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of life which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.” Scruton, How to Be Conservative (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014), ix. Similarly, G. K. Chesterton famously said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” See Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy (1908). https://www.ccel.org/ccel/chesterton/orthodoxy.vii.html. ↩
- J.D. Unwin, Sex and Culture (London: Oxford University Press), 1934. For a summary of Unwin’s insights, see Kirk Durston, “J.D. Unwin and Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought.” Quest. https://www.kirkdurston.com/blog/unwin. ↩
- Indeed, we are already witnessing the abandonment of rational thinking and regression to nature worship. See Wesley J. Smith, “The Return of Nature Worship,” Acton. August 6, 2018, https://www.acton.org/religion-liberty/volume-28-number-3/return-nature-worship. See also Clay Routledge, “From Astrology to Cult Politics—the Ways We Try (and Fail) to Replace Religion,” Quillette, December 27, 2018. https://quillette.com/2018/12/27/from-astrology-to-cult-politics-the-many-ways-we-try-and-fail-to-replace-religion/. ↩
- Peter Kreeft calls these statements (from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man) “the single most illuminating sentences I have ever read about our civilization.” See Justin Taylor, “The Single Most Illuminating Three Sentences I Have Ever Read about Our Civilization,” TGC, January 27, 2017. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/these-three-sentences-by-c-s-lewis-are-worth-at-least-an-hour-of-meditation/. ↩
- Aaron Renn, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” First Things. February 2022. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/02/the-three-worlds-of-evangelicalism. ↩