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All our problems

A couple months ago I wrote a meditation on how the gospel of Jesus Christ solves all our problems. I have continued thinking about this and trying to live it out, and along the way it seemed worthwhile to try to define "all our problems."

I was driven to this by something both good and bad I found in the writings of some of those who talk about the gospel as the solution to all of our problems. Here and there I found lists of various human problems, the sinful thinking in the human heart that creates those problems or else makes them worse, the sort of solutions that fall short, and how believing the gospel deeply in the heart solves them.

These were very good lists in many respects. I found things that spoke to my life, cut me to the heart, and kicked my butt—in a good way! But at the same time it seemed to me that some pieces were missing.

For one, the problems listed all seemed to be problems of the mind or of the emotions. But what about problems of the body? These were either not mentioned or else the gospel-application seemed to me to fall short. (I addressed this in my earlier post.)

My other issue, related to the first, was that the problems listed tended to be the sort of psychological and relationship problems that consume fairly well-off middle-class people—or at least the image they project. They had to do with things like status, approval, possessions, achievement, and so on.

Now these are issues that all people, not just the affluent, deal with, but I wondered about problems beyond these. How does the gospel solve the problems of domestic violence (which absolutely happens behind the closed doors of well-off middle-class people!)? How does the gospel solve the problems of losing one's job due to downsizing late in one's career? How does the gospel solve the problems experienced by refugees of a war-torn country? Surely the gospel of Jesus is the answer for the many people suffering these problems too.

Two ways to define problems

As I thought about all the problems of humanity, I came to categorize them in two intersecting ways.

The first is by "hurts" and "cravings." Hurts are problems for humans in and of themselves. We are constructed in such a way that, regardless of our positive attitude or thinking or disposition, if these things happen, they're going to hurt us. It is not our fault that hurts hurt.

Each hurt, however, is paired with its opposite, which I call a craving. A craving is a desire, and while we are built to have these desires—just as we are built to feel pain when hurts come our way—our cravings tend to cause painful problems for us that go beyond the hurts we are suffering, have suffered, or fear suffering in the future.

See, we humans are prone to make our cravings into objects of devotion—that is, idols. When a person makes a craving into an idol, they need almost no provocation to feel its corresponding hurt, which manifests itself in sadness, anxiety, anger, and the like. Also, in the ravenous pursuit of their craving, they are prone to cause hurt in the world around them, and that hurt frequently recoils back on themselves. Finally, no matter how much they get of what they crave, they are never satisfied by it. This is our fault—this is at the heart of what sin is—and it is compulsive.

The other way I categorize human problems is by the aspect of human life that they pertain to—problems of the body, problems of relationships, problems of the self, and problems of work.

When we talk about a problem we have—for example, losing a job—it is usually a bundle of diverse basic problems, both hurts and cravings, from multiple categories. So when we talk about how the gospel solves our problems, we have to look at how the gospel addresses each basic problem individually.

Below is what I came up with: ninety basic human problems—forty-five pairs of hurts and their corresponding cravings:

Problems of the Body
Problems of Relationships
Problems of the Self
Problems of Work

Taming the cravings

If we don't take all ninety of these problems seriously, we can't seriously assert that the gospel is the solution to all human problems.

Figuring out how exactly to apply the gospel to each of these takes a good deal of mining the Scriptures and reflection. Many believers need to spend time together wrapping their heads around them. But I can suggest some patterns that the answers are likely to follow—one here and some others in a later post.

I want to refer back to my earlier post on how the gospel solves all our problems, in which I distinguished between the "statement" of the gospel and the "substance" of the gospel.

Because cravings are the stuff of our inner life—our wishes and longings and beliefs—they are tamed and ameliorated by deeply and increasingly believing the statement of the gospel at the core of one's being.

Remember, cravings are problems because we idolize them; we implicitly believe, "If I only have this, then I will be whole." In doing this, we remove God from his rightful place, because the truth is that only by having him will we be whole. What we believe will make us whole (or save us) is what we believe to be the best. Believing something to be the best is worshiping that thing.

We may take a religious turn with it by praying, "God, give me x." But the thing we're hoping for isn't God; it's x. God loves us and knows what we need and does want us to ask him for it. But the reason we so often fail to get what we ask for is that our asking comes from idolatry, and if God gave it to us he would be complicit in our sin, which is contrary to his nature to do and would be the worst thing for us if he did. Here's how the early Christian leader James put it:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your [body]? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God [Jas. 4:1-4 NASB].

The gospel is that God took all the burden on himself to dissolve the hostility with him that is our fault. God the Father sent the Son to become human as Jesus Christ and to die an undeserved death, by which God ate the full, bitter cost of the redemption we needed.

Really believing this makes us sorrowful for our idolatrous cravings that resulted in the death of someone who loved us so much. It makes us want release from those cravings not only because of the pain they cause us but because of the pain they caused him. We cry out to God and tell him we're sorry. (See the rest of what James says.)

Then, because of what Christ did, God forgives us! Now other emotions arise within us—gratitude and wonder and love for him—that begin to crowd out the cravings.

But the gospel also states that, as God, Christ is the life we need, the actual satisfaction to our cravings. If we had that life deep down then our natural human cravings, which aren't bad of themselves, would assume their proper place. We might still have them, and they might still ache, but they would be cut down to size. They would be cravings for finite things rather than an attempt to use finite things to fill an infinite emptiness in our soul.

So we cry out to Jesus to be our life, to fill the empty caverns of our souls with himself. He gives us his Spirit to fill up what is lacking in our selves. Then we start becoming sane and whole and balanced again.

Healing the hurts

So deeply believing the statement of the gospel is critical to tame the cravings that mercilessly drive us. But cravings are the opposite of hurts, and when we really hurt—when our craving is in proper bounds and is entirely legitimate—then we still have problems.

Here the substance of the gospel is our friend. Once our heart-orientation is correct, then it is the Father's delight to heal our wounds and give us all the things we truly need and more, because doing so won't make us worse.

This is because the gospel is also that his perfect kingdom is coming in which there will be no more hurts and there will be complete satisfaction. If we believe that deeply and ask with faith in Jesus' name, God often gives us tastes of that future here and now, intervening to rescue and deliver in tangible ways.

God doesn't give us all we want at present—he allows some hunger to linger to strengthen our faith and compassion and to remind us of the greater future he has planned. But that day is coming, and believing it deeply helps us to wait with hope rather than fall into despair.

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