In a handbasket?

Original photos by Luis Tapia and Laura PirskanenMaybe you heard it recently in a conversation.  Maybe you even said it yourself: “The world is going to hell in a handbasket.”  Nobody really seems to know where the expression came from, and it may be the mere repetition of the “h” sound that keeps it going (I humbly offer “on a Harley” as a more contemporary substitute).  Whatever the origin, it’s a common way of voicing the pessimistic view that the world is getting worse and worse.

Is it?  And what difference would it make to Christians who claim that God is sovereign and at work in the world?

There is biblical precedent for the claim that things have to get worse before they get better.  When the disciples asked Jesus to tell them what events would signal the end times, he described an apocalyptic scenario of war, famine, earthquake, persecution, and false prophecy (Matt 24:3-14).  And that’s to say nothing of the graphic end-of-the-world imagery in the book of Revelation.

But I don’t think that’s what people mean when they make their pessimistic proclamations.  Let’s sort out some of the factors that might push us to think that way.

First is what I call the “bad driver effect.”  Have you ever thought of yourself as a better-than-average driver, especially as compared to all those other people out there who really seem to be selfish, clueless road hogs?  It may be true that you’re a better driver than most, but how would you know?  The problem is that our vague estimation of what’s “average” is influenced by a form of selective attention.  We remember and pay attention to bad drivers, but nobody notices good drivers.  Why?  Because, generally, if they’re driving well you shouldn’t notice them.

The fact is that we tend to notice and remember the bad more than the good; we are affected more lastingly by negative emotions than positive ones.  Thus, we don’t have to deny the presence of sin and evil in the world, but neither should we let our bias toward the negative blind us to what’s going right.  We may need to actively cultivate the ability to notice and rejoice over the real ways in which God’s grace lightens even the darkest corners.

Second: in our estimation of the state of the world, we often think in terms of what demographers would call “social indicators”–statistical measures such as marriage and divorce rates, unemployment and the like.  And frankly, it’s not all bad news.  Take crime as an example.  True, as reported recently by the New York Times, FBI statistics show an increase in violent crime in the U.S. in 2012.  But that’s against the background of many years of decline.  Put simply, the crime rate is still better than it was 20 years ago–though you might not think that by watching the evening news.

The more important question, though, is whether such social indicators really tell us much about the sovereign work of God.  Which is a truer measure of the presence of God’s Spirit and kingdom: a decrease in the divorce rate, or the turning of two estranged spouses toward each other in renewed love and compassion, because of their commitment to Christ?  A decrease in the unemployment rate, or an increase in the number of people who want their careers to somehow serve God?  A decrease in violent crime, or an act of mercy whereby the parents of a murdered child extend forgiveness in the name of Jesus?

There are some things for which we have no statistical reports.

That’s not to say that social indicators aren’t important.  But they reflect more the values of our culture than of God’s kingdom.  We know that God is at work when people choose to live as those who have been freed from slavery to sin.  That is the basis our hope.

May we learn to notice what God is doing in the world, in us, and through us.