If you’ve spent much time in the church, you’ve had the Sunday School lesson before.
The teacher starts talking about the last days with a terrifying story he or she saw on the news. A member of the class tops it with their own story, usually something they just read on Facebook that happened to the friend of a friend of a friend.
Hands pop up like prairie dog heads as the lesson quickly devolves into a game of “Who Has The Best Humans-Are-Horrible Story?” Forty-five minutes later, good brothers and sisters slog out of the room convinced the world is horrible beyond hope and there’s nothing to do but wait for Jesus to come back and fix everything.
In my 40 years in the church, I’ve had this type of lesson more times than I’ve had funeral potatoes.
Yes, things are very, very bad in the world.
But here’s the thing—they’re also very, very GOOD.
And we need to talk about the good more because our preoccupation with the bad is hurting us. In fact, I would argue that one of the adversary’s biggest strategies right now is to make us think the world is worse than it actually is.
And it’s working.
According to the American Psychology Association (APA), more than 40 million Americans, or 18% of the population, suffer from anxiety disorders. Over 51% of all Americans report being more anxious than in the previous year. Depression has risen steadily over every age group. Adolescent cases alone increased by 36% over a ten year period, and the National Institute of Mental Health reports that over 17 million adults suffered severe depression in 2017.
Now, clearly, there are several factors that lead to anxiety and depression. However, worldview is a major contributor, and there’s a massive con-job going on here.
You see, in all our lessons and hallway conversations and online discussions, we’ve been missing one of the most important teachings about the fullness of times—the fact that God is pouring out an equal measure of good to combat the vast amount of bad in the world.
And there is a lot of good out there. Case in point:
- According to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide since 1990 has been cut in half. This means that billions of our brothers and sisters have been suffering less from want of basic needs like food, water, shelter, and medical care—actual suffering that most of us in the developed world can scarcely comprehend.
- In that same timeframe, the number of children worldwide dying before age 5 has also been cut in half. Access to education, literacy, and medical care has also surged upwards.
- Crime in the United States across many metrics is at its lowest point since the 1960s.
- Kids are safer than they’ve been in decades.
- We’re doing more to eliminate the destructive effects of bullying, sexual assault, and domestic abuse than ever before.
- From a religious standpoint, temples dot the land, the world is more connected than it’s ever been, and we are witnessing firsthand the church transforming into a global force for good.
And there’s more. However, as Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker neatly sums it up: “life has gotten longer, healthier, richer, safer, happier, freer, smarter, deeper, and more interesting.”
We seldom talk about all this good stuff. Many of us don’t even know about it. Again, one of Satan’s biggest strategies right now is to make us think the world is worse than it is. He’s using our media diet to do it.
Two key concepts will show us how this is happening: the motivation of media and the Availability Heuristic.
The first thing we need to realize is that many media companies, especially news organizations, aren’t interested in providing a realistic view of the world. They are interested in getting us to tune in, click, skim and share their product in whatever way they can. And tales of the grotesque—murder, disaster, scandal—sell far better than decreasing poverty levels or kittens becoming friends with hamsters (though we are making some headway here).
As the old journalistic adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
For instance, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, in the 90’s the murder rate went down by 42%, yet television news coverage of murders skyrocketed an astounding 700%. Actual murders down; our awareness of murders WAY up.
The era of the 24-hour cable news networks has seen this dynamic worsen considerably. Concerned with ratings, producers are desperate to fill time with the most shocking stories possible. And those stories are often embellished, twisted, and even manufactured.
Add social media, which has shown the same proficiency for spreading misleading information that a kindergarten class shows for spreading germs, and we get to where we are today.
In other words, bad things aren’t happening more than they used to; we’re just more aware of them than we’ve ever been.
Which leads us to the second thing we need to understand: the Availability Heuristic.
This is the name psychologists give to a mental phenomenon we experience every day. The Availability Heuristic basically says that the more easily us silly humans can think of an example of a thing happening, the more likely we are to believe it will happen to us (regardless of pesky things like facts and evidence).
Read a story about some guy in Wisconsin winning $600 million in the Powerball? You’re far more likely to fork out $20 for lottery tickets on the way home from work.
Watch Jaws before that trip to the lake? Your brain is going to be on high alert for dorsal fins.
Forget the fact that sharks only live in saltwater, or that you’re more likely to actually see one in a freshwater lake than you are to win the lottery—your brain saw an example of it, so it thinks it will happen.
And if our brains are constantly bombarded with the worst deeds of humanity? Well, it suddenly makes sense why we’re so on edge all the time. The adversary is using our media diets to make us believe things are worse than they are.
Why is he so intent on this? The benefits from his point of view are obvious.
There’s the rise in anxiety and depression mentioned earlier. Add to that the pessimism, loss of faith, and general human misery he finds so delicious and it’s reason enough.
But I think there may be a deeper, more diabolical plan at play here. If good people think there’s no hope in the world, they’ll stop doing good things.
There are millions of people out there of other faiths—and even of no faith—who are actively trying to make the world a better place. If he can snuff that enthusiasm out one at a time, things will become as bad as he wants us to think they are. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As members of the church, we’re especially susceptible to this folly. Knowing the love of God, it’s distressing to us when we see His words trampled as brazenly as they are now. It hurts. I’ve seen a general tendency among us to just throw our hands up in an attitude of “Well, this is hopeless. Better just wait until Jesus comes and fixes everything.”
Seeing the storm clouds of evil, we hunker down in our little homes, battening the hatches and nailing the windows shut, intending to sit it out. And in doing so we forget that WE are His hands, and He expects his disciples to be out there making things better.
“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things…
“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.”
If Satan can convince us the world is hopelessly terrible, not only will we suffer fear and anxiety—we abandon our influence for good.
So, yes, there are a lot of terrible things happening right now, but let’s not dwell on those without giving the good equal billing. The next time you’re in Sunday School and someone throws out a depressing last days anecdote, let the class know about poverty levels or reduced crime. Because that famous line from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities fits us better than perhaps any other era in history: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
As disciples of Christ, we need to balance our worldview by focusing on the former as much as we do the latter. This simple adjustment in our thinking will improve our mental health, give us more hope, and open up hidden opportunities both individually and as a church. And let’s never forget that all this evil is a precursor to the greatest era of all time: the Millennium.
Yes, things are very, very bad. But they are also very, very good.
And we can make them even better.
Clay Bedinger is an English instructor at Weber State University, where he teaches courses on composition, technical writing, and superheroes. He has three brilliant daughters, a strapping one-year-old son, and enjoys eating breakfast cereal for dinner. You can see his graphic essays at AsMuchGood.com.