Moral Exhaustion and the Promise of Rest

            Amsterdam, The Netherlands, has the reputation of being the most profligate city in the most immoral nation in the world.  I say “immoral’ because over the years, the Dutch government has, by law, pursued an ongoing experiment in socially liberal, “anything-goes” public policy.  They have worked very hard to remove all moral boundaries from Dutch society. 

             It’s not just a hole in the dike that a chubby-fingered boy can stop; there’s no dike left. Prostitution is legal and plied openly throughout the country-not just on dimly lit corners. Brothels operate next to neighborhoods and even schools.  Euthanasia, abortion and same-sex marriage are also legal.  And coffee shops in the Netherlands are probably not Starbucks; they are shops where marijuana is legally sold, rolled and smoked.  Farmer’s markets are likely to sell hallucinogenic “magic mushrooms.” And since most of these things are illegal in other places, people from all over the world come to the Netherlands to get them. 

            For years, some minority voices have called for reform; but the result was only a hollow echo of their own conversation.  But in recent years,  a Washington Post article notes, “a newly empowered Christian Union party” as well as “politicians from the center-left Labor Party” are voicing a different viewpoint that reflects a “shifting mainstream of Dutch public opinion.”  According to one commentator, “People in high political circles are saying it can’t be good to have a society so liberal that everything is allowed.  People are saying we should have values; people are asking for more and more rules in society.”  Some town councils are closing shops and brothels.  A bill has been introduced in Parliament that would “allow civil officials with moral objections to refuse to perform gay marriages.”

               I find that fascinating, in light of the continuing pressure in the United States for less socio-political constraints on issues involving sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, drug use and other high-profile moral issues. While we are certainly not as open as the Dutch, we have been consistently inching closer to the laws and  public policies of Western Europe. That has been touted as the proper evolution of tolerant, progressive, and enlightened people.

             So, why are the Dutch moving to put things in reverse?  James Kennedy, a history professor at Free University of Amsterdam, notes two things.  First, it is an attempt to slow the rapid change in the Dutch “social complexion” brought on by globalization and to temper the nation’s image as “an international destination for drugs and sexual debauchery.” The second reason is even more compelling. Kennedy says there is a ‘national weariness with moral squalor-the Dutch have grown tired of it and unwilling to put up with it.” (emphasis mine)

              Now that is an intriguing concept: moral weariness or exhaustion.  The sense that when human beings run through life pursuing every whim of self-pleasure, they get tired.  In this case, the Dutch are clearly tired of the impact of unrestrained hedonism on their lifestyle and atmosphere of their communities. But there is also a hint that they are just plain tired-physically, emotionally, psychologically – and even though it is unnamed-spiritually.

             That God designed people to live within certain moral boundaries is a part of the human story from its beginnings in Eden. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Gen.1:16) That same principle is at work with Noah, Moses and the Law, the message of the prophets and more. Follow Israel through the Older Testament and you see that when moral boundaries are consistently crossed, the dying begins.  Just call the roll:  Achan and materialism (Josh.7), Samson and lust (Judg.13-16), David and adultery (2 Sam.11-12).  And it’s not just individuals.  The pattern of disobedience, pain (dying), judgment and restoration is repeated in Israel’s national history.  No diagnosis may be more enduring than this: “and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judg.21:25)  Solomon noted that “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint” (Prov.29:18) and “there is a way that seems right to a man, but the end is the way to death.  Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (Prov.14:12-13) Does the fact that our world wants to laugh a lot-even at unfunny things-tell us anything about the state of their soul?  I think so. The laughter is masking aching souls.

               So, moral boundary-crossing leeches life from the soul. It’s happening in the Netherlands and it is happening here in the United States, though it is harder to detect among so many people. It happens in tiny ways every day, so that, like those with anemia, people get tired. People are tired of life, tired of soul. They don’t even know how to describe it because they have abandoned any shared moral vocabulary. So, almost like preschoolers who whine and rub their eyes, but refuse to take a nap, they act out their moral weariness in addictions, anger, family tensions, banal entertainment choices, sexualized fantasy, materialism, overwork, political wrangling and a hundred other ways.

              For Christians, these soul-weary people are our people-the ones we have been sent to love, touch and reach with the gospel of Jesus. What are they hearing from us, seeing in our faces?  Primarily, it is the Christian diagnosis of their sorry condition-which they already know by experience. I fear it sounds to their ears like blame and shame, which merely adds more weight to their stooped shoulders. One lady in trouble was told she needed to go to church, to which she responded, “Church? Why would I go there? I feel bad enough already.”  

              Is it possible that all our campaigns, petitions, slogans, programs, boycotts, lobbying, and ever-changing strategies to “take the culture for Christ” are merely a religious acting-out of our own moral weariness?  That we’re tired of it all, too? Sure. Then how can tired people ever reach tired people? 

                   Maybe we start by admitting we’re tired because we have been trying to do what was never ours to do in the first place.  It really is “not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6) Programs and ministries that reach people best in this world are those that are most desperately dependent on God for wisdom, help, direction, and strength.

                 And then maybe we should just sit still for awhile and hear Jesus say: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt.11:28-30)  This is the sure promise of rest-and it is pure gospel.

                     Then, once that gospel reality has sunk deep into our minds, seeped through our hearts and runs in our veins, we can go to communities of morally exhausted people-and simply invite them to the rest we have found. For the rest they long for is not found in public policy or more stringent laws; not in shutting something down in the city or starting something up at the church; not in more words at press conferences or in crafted resolutions. 

The rest morally exhausted people long for is found in Jesus.

No-the rest morally exhausted people long for is Jesus.

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2 responses

  1. For time hungry people, rest is an elusive dream and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the comments. If believers can model rest in the Lord, I’m convinced non-believers would be (and are) drawn to it in powerful ways. When we rest in God and let Him bring us the people who need His touch, life works so much better. When we will get it?

  2. Galatians 5:1 says, “For it is for freedome that Christ has set us free.” Freedom to me feels a great deal like rest. Who wants to hear how much we are doing or how busy we are. Those away from God don’t want that for sure. Thanks for the words of encouragement for me to rest more in God.

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