Review by Jordan J. Ballor of Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (IVP, 2012)
Writing as a lifelong activist against nuclear weapons, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is uniquely placed to criticize a brand of evangelical social activism that emphasizes energy and enthusiasm over patience and perseverance. Christian obedience requires all these at various times and in various manifestations, but Wigg-Stephenson detects an imbalance at the heart of contemporary Christian cultural engagement that threatens to wither the roots of the entire enterprise. He is greatly concerned about the “cause fatigue” that he commonly, and increasingly, sees among younger Christians.
“It is important to shine a light on the ways in which world-fixing impulses are often at play in our activist behavior,” contends Wigg-Stevenson, because such pretensions breed the inevitable failures that lead to burnout, depression, and despair. The world isn’t ours to save, fix, or transform, he says. In a post-Fall reality, the world is a bit like Humpty-Dumpty: all the efforts of the King’s own people, his Church, simply cannot put it together again.
The reason for this is at its core twofold. In the first place, Christian activism cannot “save” the world because in the most significant and meaningful way the world already has been saved by the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Christians in their work don’t do what Christ did in his life, death and resurrection; and so there is a qualitative difference here between accomplishing cosmic redemption in an objective sense and realizing the reign of Christ’s kingdom in our own lives subjectively. “Our job is not to win the victory,” writes Wigg-Stevenson, “but to expose through our lives the victory that has been won on our behalf.”
But we also are unable to “save” the world in another sense: the problems are just too comprehensive and total. The biggest problem facing Christian attempts to change the world for the better is the unchanging reality of human sin in this life. No program, agenda, campaign, project or institution can eliminate this sinfulness. In a noteworthy section in which Wigg-Stevenson compares the image of the bronze snake from Numbers 21 with Christ lifted up on the cross, he writes, “If the bronze snake shared the image of the poisonous snake problem that it solved, then Jesus’ humanity tells us that the problem he cures is humanity. Us. We are our own worst problem.” Or as the apostle Paul put it, we “invent ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:30).
Our inability to get at the root of our own sinfulness, to save ourselves and our world, often leads us to inconsistent, haphazard, or poorly conceived fixes, a kind of “ADHD activism.” Thinking that we have the calling to save the world, we spread ourselves out widely but superficially to embrace all kinds of otherwise worthy causes. We sign petitions, “like” and share calls to action on Facebook and Twitter, invite others to write letters to their congressional representatives, and give of our time and treasure to a variety of causes. All of this work is undertaken with noble, but all-too-often misguided, intentions, says Wigg-Stevenson.
What, then, is the better way? Certainly not to withdraw from attempts to improve the lot of the world through the levers of influence that we have. We are indeed called to be faithful, says Wigg-Stevenson, and this faithfulness must come to external expression, not only in word but also in deed. We must recognize the finitude of our own efforts, though, even those efforts empowered and inspired by the work of the Holy Spirit. We are called to faithful obedience, not necessarily to success by any measurable worldly standard.
What this leaves us with is a kind of pensive hopefulness, a grounded faith that takes concrete responsibilities in this world seriously and yet has no illusions about ushering in a utopia through our own efforts. Do your own thing, says Wigg-Stevenson, recognizing that each one of us has been called to follow Christ in a particular and unique way. “The breadth of Christian callings is as diverse as the number of believers who have been called, so no one-size-fits all answer exists,” he writes.
This calls for a different kind of social action, one that sees our obedience as important, even indispensable for authentic discipleship, but not all-important. As the book’s subtitle indicates, this kind of perspective frees us from the tyranny of world-saving expectations in favor of the more realistic and ultimately more responsible approach that emphasizes the life of Christian discipleship as a long journey rather than an instantaneous transformation, requiring a commitment to authentic relationship and personal engagement.
In many ways this book can be seen as an expression of Wigg-Stevenson’s convictions as worked out in his own decades-long activism against nuclear weapons. The book is replete with personal anecdotes and experiences that illustrate the concreteness of our individual Christian callings. Wigg-Stevenson uses these illustrations to craft a narrative that brings his message home: The world may not be ours to save, but we do have a significant stewardship responsibility to be agents of God’s grace in our own unique circumstances, whatever and wherever those might be.
This is a message that many evangelicals need desperately to hear. Throughout the book Wigg-Stevenson evinces a perspective that smashes problematic distinctions between the sacred and the secular, recognizing instead that “For Christians, there is no socioeconomic status or occupation that is too great or too menial to be offered as service: the calling of the Lord Jesus himself.” In important ways this perspective resonates with the legacy of the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), whose vision of the sovereignty of Christ is well-captured in the famous claim, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
Although Wigg-Stevenson doesn’t mention Kuyper, and even though Kuyper does not have a monopoly on this insight within the Christian tradition, it is helpful to juxtapose Kuyper’s claim with one that Wigg-Stevenson does make, since this comparison highlights the central dynamic of The World Is Not Ours to Save. Thus the following from Wigg-Stevenson gains new salience: “There is no square inch of earth that we may claim permanently for the kingdom of God. . . . The only territory that has been irrevocably determined for the coming kingdom is the body of the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is Christ who makes the ultimate claim of sovereignty, not us. It is Christ who saves the world, not us.
What we as Christians do instead is act as faithful stewards: “we don’t have to be the hero of the story, just the steward of our calling.” As the apostle Peter puts it, the Christian is obliged to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10). This diversity of gifts, dispositions, and convictions means that there will not be agreement about what the most important stewardship goals are, or what kinds of activities and activism are best suited to achieve these goals. It is at this level of prudential wisdom that most of my own concerns with Wigg-Stevenson are located, such as with his conviction that diversity on the one hand is to be celebrated but that inequality on the other is to be rejected, or that certain kinds of political action are demands of justice. More conceptual clarity about some of these claims would be helpful.
And yet at the same time these disagreements underscore in a deeper way a more fundamental truth that Wigg-Stevenson does a great service in communicating: We “must remember diversity within unity. When we try to do everything ourselves, we risk disrespecting the diversity of gifts that Christ has given to his body.”
So do your own thing, says Wigg-Stevenson, and do it faithfully and responsibly. But don’t confuse it for the things God alone does. This is an important message for the Christian church in the world today.