Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013. 220 pp. $16.00.
Caught in a tale of two culture war stories, evangelicals seem to be searching for a new narrative. The Moral Majority’s courageous stand with the status quo falls flat. The counter-culture promises freedom cloaked in compassion but delivers slavery to self. We need a mission that will grip the disenchanted but hopeful, the revolutionary but peaceable. Alienated from America, we need a vision of the sure and coming kingdom.
We find a prophet for these times in Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, founder and director of the Two Futures Project, a movement of Christians for nuclear threat reduction and the global abolition of nuclear weapons. Author of the widely acclaimed new book The World Is Not Ours to Save, Wigg-Stevenson seeks to save us activist evangelicals from our best intentions.
“Christians heaven-bent on saving the world make me fear for the church of ten, twenty, or thirty years from now—when, barring the Lord’s return, the world is profoundly different than it is now but still irretrievably broken, violent, and wicked,” writes Wigg-Stevenson, who has also served as study assistant to the late Rev. Dr. John Stott, to whom he dedicated this book. “I wonder what will happen to us in the process.”
Based on experience, Wigg-Stevenson knows what will happen if we take matters into our own hands. He is a born-and-bred activist, an especially gifted representative of a generation that wants to change the world one Tweet at a time. He knows that if we grasp for the power to save or damn, we’ll lose our hold on the only One who can. And when, disillusioned, we curse the God who isn’t impressed when we change our Facebook profile pictures, we’ll turn against the very neighbors we once hoped to save.
“You’ll find leaders who love a concept—peace, community, flourishing, and so on—but don’t seem to like people very much,” observes Wigg-Stevenson, echoing the great doctor of the human condition, Fyodor Dostoevsky. He might have added that some Christians who love theology and the Bible don’t seem to like people very much, either. Why? Adopting a cause and joining a movement beats the hard, slow work of growth in grace. Jesus warns us, asking, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). You can wear the right team colors but never amount to anything more than a whitewashed tomb.
“There is nothing God needs us to do so badly that it warrants neglecting some aspect of Christlikeness in our lives,” Wigg-Stevenson writes. “It is in and through Jesus Christ, and him alone, that God has saved and is saving the world.”
Care Is Cheap
So why doesn’t God do more to stop injustice? Readers can relate with Wigg-Stevenson as he laments the challenge of loving our neighbors in the internet age.
“[E]very time I browse online news, I feel like I’m walking down a fiber-optic Jericho road, and the ditches on each side are filled with billions of people in various forms of distress, all crying out,” he writes. “How can I be a neighbor to all of them?”
You won’t hear any simple answers from this activist. Recycling won’t save the world. Neither will door-to-door evangelism. But that doesn’t mean we can shake the dust off our feet and dump our trash on the neighbor’s doorstep. Mindful that our best efforts cannot usher in the kingdom of God, we are still compelled by love to think strategically about how to make a difference.
Wigg-Stevenson gets to the heart of the problem when he chides activists for thinking if we just cared more about their pet projects, we could save the world. Care is cheap, especially when judged by the standards of social media. Real change comes with a cost, and cost requires persuasion and negotiation. Some change, in fact, will never happen. So what will compel us to persevere when we can’t convince the people ruining the world to stop?
We need to look inside ourselves. But not in the way you might think. You and I are the world’s most intractable problem, Wigg-Stevenson warns. If we try to save the world by eliminating evil and evildoers, we’ll eliminate ourselves. So we seek the kingdom from above, the kingdom consummated by the Savior who defeated sin in his death and resurrection.
“This new city will not emerge from any of our human projects,” Wigg-Stevenson writes. “It is not the culmination of an ideology or program or ideal. It is a pure gift of God, taking what we have broken and bloodied, and transforming it into wholeness, where Christ himself will be our unity.”
Despite his cautions, Wigg-Stevenson truly desires to see this world change even before Jesus returns. And he tells several real-life stories that prove we can enjoy a better world by God’s grace. He credits International Justice Mission for seeking justice for victims of violence, sexual exploitation, slavery, and oppression. And he inspires readers with scenes from DEMDACO, a gift manufacturer in Leawood, Kansas. Founder Dave Kiersznowski recently participated in two panels at The Gospel Coalition National Conference on redefining and rethinking work.
Additional stories of peace, prosperity, and justice come from the author’s personal life, from businesses and nonprofits, from America, Africa, and even the Middle East. You won’t find any once-size-fits-all solution from this nonprofit founder. In fact, he demonstrates evidence of deep, balanced thinking throughout the book, including his reflections on the primacy of economic growth, rather than activism and foreign aid, to fight global poverty.
Though an ordained Baptist minister and graduate of Yale Divinity School, Wigg-Stevenson left me wanting more counsel on how a local church could collectively apply his insight. And I hoped for more depth in his chapter on “Peace Among the Nations” as he argued that World War II was not prosecuted as a just war. Would any conflict meet his criteria? I don’t necessarily disagree with his skepticism. But I’m looking for principles to help Christians decide how to engage a government that relies on politically popular drone strikes that keep “our boys” out of harm’s way but occasionally kill innocent parties. Or to help us think about wars that remove murderous governments to replace them with other corrupt ones that can’t find any room for free exercise of religion. Or to consider the limits of American global policing as in the current examples of Egypt and Syria.
But I’m getting ahead of myself with these complex problems none of us can reasonably solve. Following Wigg-Stevenson’s lead, we can start small by cultivating peace among our family, friends, and church. Energized by his gospel-rooted agenda, we can trust God by forfeiting our instincts of self-protection. We must not fight according to the world’s methods, “for we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against he authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
So we take up the armor of God and stand firm in his strength, because he has already saved the world. Jesus defeated death in weakness. And our hero will return in glory when his gospel of peace, this good news of the kingdom, has been “proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14). We’re free to follow Jesus’ command in Jesus’ way with the confidence that one day he will put a final end to sin and injustice.
“[E]very blow we land on the jaw of this or that evil is actually a hammer stroke forging the shackles around our theological imagination, binding us to the idea that the kingdom is won through human power. It is not,” Wigg-Stevenson writes. “Our job is not to win the victory but to expose through our lives that the victory has been won on our behalf. And as a result, we will see shoots of God’s kingdom erupt in our midst.”
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter.