I’ll admit it is hard to look at: distended bellies, ribs pushing through brittle skin, flies landing on the faces of children too weak to brush them off. The painful starvation of another human being is not the sort of thing you plan to watch on TV—I mean, who would?—but there it is, unexpectedly delivered to your family room. Your hand fails to deliver the next load of popcorn to your mouth, because it seems inappropriate to eat something while the commercial is playing. But give it 30 seconds and the images will be gone; life can return to normal—if there’s any such thing as normal in a world in which millions starve to death. In mere seconds you will forget what you saw.
There’s a very good chance, ironically, that the next commercial will try to sell you food that will shorten your life because it has too many calories or too much fat.
It would be an exaggeration to say that our media consumption habits in the west have made us into sociopaths—people who utterly lack a conscience. The recent show of support for Karen Huff Klein, a 68-year-old bus monitor who was cruelly bullied by middle schoolers, reassures me that not all hope is lost. Feral children flung unprintable insults at her for a full 10 minutes, bringing her to tears. Having recorded their feeding frenzy, they posted the incident on YouTube, believing it to qualify as entertainment. The public was outraged, and one kindhearted man from Toronto started a fund to buy Karen a vacation. He intended to raise $5,000: at the time of writing, the fund had reached nearly $700,000. Perhaps there is some civility left in our culture.
But there is still cause for concern. The way we digest information in the twenty-first century has done something to our collective sense of conscience. We know the starving kids are going away in 30 seconds. We can condition ourselves to wait it out and do nothing about it. It’s not so easy when faced with the real thing.
Back in the 1980s Neil Postman did a masterful job of describing the effects of new forms of media on the way human beings think. The invention of the printing press, for example, meant that we didn’t have to remember as much. The introduction of television, with its short clips and carefully contained imagery, he argued, had a much more profound—and negative—impact on us than the press. It actually trained us to become less responsive to need and suffering:
“ ‘Now . . . this’ is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now . . . this.’ The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately 45 seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for 90 seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.”1
We have made ourselves capable of absorbing—or perhaps incapable of absorbing—huge quantities of horrific information. Postman was talking about television; the Internet certainly hasn’t made things better. When you’ve finished watching Saddam Hussein’s hanging, or Daniel Pearl’s beheading, or a gruesome crime or accident captured by a security camera, you will immediately be offered 10 or 20 other videos—quick escapes for a mind that doesn’t want to process the horror of what was just seen. With the click of a mouse, you can make suffering seem irrelevant.
Our quick dismissal, our conditioned mental shrug, may be a defense mechanism against the impossible onslaught of information twenty-first-century human beings have to face. According to Richard Alleyne, science correspondent for The Telegraph, we now receive five times as much information daily as we did in the mid-1980s, when Postman published his book. And not only do we receive an incredible amount of information—Alleyne points out that “every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago—nearly a 200-fold increase.” The total number of information bits floating about on Planet Earth? Approximately 315 times the number of grains of sand on said planet.2
We have more information than we know what to do with, and so we have to teach ourselves to ignore most of it. With a little bit of training, the human mind can become remarkably adept. You can even teach yourself to keep eating while you watch those kids with the distended bellies.
With a little practice you can desensitize yourself to just about anything. Some years ago I read a description of one of Charles Spurgeon’s evangelistic audiences reacting to his descriptions of the Crucifixion. People began to weep openly: some literally cried out in protest at the cruelty. Some even came back the next day with bags under their eyes: they’d lost an entire night’s sleep because they couldn’t get the images of Calvary out of their mind.
It made me wonder: why don’t we see the same kinds of reactions with Western audiences today? Could it be, after being entertained by thousands upon thousands of cruel murders in movies and TV shows, that we have made ourselves incapable of an appropriate response to the cruelty of the cross? I used to wonder if the devil’s plan in spoon-feeding us so much violence in our entertainment choices was simply to influence our moral sensibilities downward. Now I wonder if there’s not another motive. When you’re accustomed to sadism and violence, when you’re raised on a diet of blood, you can be conditioned to miss the impact of what the devil had us do to Christ at the cross. Another man died an unfair and cruel death? I’ve seen that before. In fact, I’ve seen worse.
And what of the cries of the lost? Can we be conditioned to tune those out, too?
A well-known entertainer once called my office while I was still working at It Is Written. To be honest, when I saw a message on my desk with his phone number, indicating that he’d like me to call him, I thought that maybe someone was playing a joke, and I almost didn’t call. But one of my team members assured me that it was real—she had taken the call—so I dialed the number.3 It was him.
We spent an hour and a half together on the phone, talking about everything from the state of Christianity in America to personal prayer requests. But at one point in the conversation he mentioned something that has stuck with me. “Listen to the lyrics of hard rock musicians sometime,” he said. “A lot of those songs are the cries of lost people.”
Before my conversion I had fed myself a pretty steady diet of that kind of music, but I had never really given it much thought after my baptism. After we hung up, I looked up some of the songs I had listened to as a kid, and he was right: a lot of them were the cries of lost people. Buried not so deep beneath the hedonism and the promiscuity were the cries of people who felt helpless—people who didn’t have Christ. There was genuine anguish in their music. There were hard questions about human suffering and injustice. There was a sense of despair and hopelessness.
Why had that never occurred to me?
I certainly don’t recommend rushing over to iTunes to load up on music that doesn’t belong on a Christian’s hard drive, not even for the sake of research: that wouldn’t be a spiritually productive exercise. We’ve been counseled quite clearly not to set wicked things before our senses.4 What bothered me was the fact that I had previously been exposed to the music—I knew the lyrics well—but now that I was a Christian it never occurred to me to look back and see that I had been listening to lost people who were looking for answers.
I suppose, on the one hand, I had utterly rejected the lifestyle and moved on, which is a good thing. I haven’t beaten myself up over it, because it was necessary to purge those things out of my life as I made a stand for Christ. But at the same time, it makes me wonder how often we don’t notice lost people. Are we conditioned to miss them? to tune them out? to simply forget about them?
Paul writes that in the last days “perilous times will come,” and he goes on to describe a world that has become utterly desensitized to sin. “Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection” (2 Tim. 3:1-3, KJV). What does it mean to be without “natural affection”? The English Standard Version puts it more bluntly: it says that we are “heartless.” 5
That’s a pretty good description of the world we live in. We’re experts at tuning out misery—pain—suffering. We can, after decades of practice, push it into the background with ease.
In 2006 Michael Steinberg was waiting for a subway train in New York City when he was suddenly attacked by a mentally disturbed man wielding a couple of reciprocating saws. The man had found the tools lying on the ground where construction crews had set them down. Michael yelled for help, and the construction crew did nothing. As he tells the story:
“The . . . people [construction workers] heard me. They just looked. They never stopped to help me, and that disturbed me more than anything else. I begged for somebody to call an ambulance and to get this guy off me. . . . No transit employee ever came over to me to see how I was doing. They just kept doing their job.”6
Did they not hear him crying for help? Or did they choose not to?
Here’s a searching question: how often do the lost—those going to Christless graves—occupy our thoughts? Do we notice them? How often, in the performance of church duty, do we actually talk about them? If someone were to present us with a transcript from our last church board (or other church committee) meeting, would we find them mentioned at all? If we did, what proportion of the discussion would have been dedicated to finding them? What would our budgets say about our burden to find them?
I sometimes wonder: if we could pull transcripts from meetings that take place in heaven and then compare them to our own, would we notice a difference? I somehow doubt that angels quietly check their Facebook accounts under the table during a meeting, or daydream about what needs to get done at work tomorrow, because everything they discuss is urgent and of eternal consequence. It’s the business of the Master. I doubt there’s a boring moment, or a trivial agenda item, or a lot of pontificating or grandstanding. Imagine being invited to sit in, just for one evening. It would be breathtaking.
And then imagine an angel attending one of our meetings. If you could see him sitting there, how would that shape our discussion? How would it change the priorities on our agenda? Would we be uncomfortable with what we discussed—or didn’t bother to discuss—in his presence? How much time would we spend discussing demographic studies, or who’s entitled to what, or complaining that we don’t get anything out of the church service? Would we appear to care more about ideas or people?
It’s a sobering thought.
Do we comprehend what will become of those who are not found? Do we understand why the shepherd dropped everything—absolutely everything—to go and find a single missing sheep (see Luke 15:4)? As we watch Christ crushed beneath our sins in Gethsemane—Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me—do we understand that those who do not have Christ will still have to pass through that experience? And that they will not survive it?
“God save us from living in comfort,” Spurgeon once said, “while sinners are sinking into hell!”
I know: we don’t believe that sinners will be tormented eternally. The Bible reveals that God has something infinitely more humane in store for those who finally reject Him, and it is comforting to know that He is loving and compassionate. But do not think for a moment that being lost will be easy. “Be not determined to be lost,” Ellen White reminds us. “You cannot comprehend what a terrible thing it is to be lost.”7 Watch Jesus in Gethsemane. Stand at the foot of the cross and observe. Watch Christ being “made . . . sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21), and you cannot make light of what will become of those who die without Him, or the loss God will feel when some of His children are lost to Him forever.
Lost sinners are not people who are mostly on the right path but a little bit misguided. They aren’t just a few degrees off course. They’re not just a little misinformed. If that were the case, God could have merely sent a teacher, but He didn’t. He sent a Savior. Knowing what sin was going to cost, He was anxious to save us from being lost.
There’s a passage in the writings of Ellen White that people like to quote, often to support the idea that before Christ can come, we must perfect ourselves. But the context makes it clear that she was talking about a passion for winning lost people:
“Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim
them as His own.
“It is the privilege of every Christian not only to look for but to hasten the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
(2 Peter 3:12, margin). Were all who profess His name bearing fruit to His glory, how quickly the whole world would be sown with the seed of the gospel. Quickly the last great harvest would be ripened, and Christ would come to gather the precious grain.” 8
What, exactly, does it mean to have the character of Christ reproduced in the church? You’d think it would have to include the idea that our priorities would look similar to His, that our passions would match. That we too would anxiously “seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10, KJV). That we, like Him, would never become desensitized.
The Bible tells us that Jesus, on His way from Judea to Galilee, “had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). Far be it from me to disagree with an inspired writer of the Bible, but I happen to know that Jesus didn’t have to take the road through Samaria. There was another road—the long way around—that many Jews took just so they wouldn’t have to pass through unclean Samaritan territory. And yet the Bible says quite clearly that Jesus had to go that way. Why?
It wasn’t because of geographical necessity. It was because of His heart. There was no way He could ever become immune to the cries of lost people. There was a woman in Samaria who came to the well in the blazing heat of the day so that she could avoid the other women from the village. She was the talk of the town; perhaps she’d actually stolen a husband or two from those other women. She had never found real love; she was desperately looking for something. But she wasn’t going to find her own way to Christ, because she was hopelessly lost. Jesus was compelled to go through Samaria, because she needed finding. He couldn’t help Himself.
And it’s when we can no longer help ourselves—when we can no longer choose to not see—that we’ll be on our way home.
1 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 99.
2 Richard Alleyne, “Welcome to the Information Age—174 Newspapers a Day,” The Telegraph, Feb. 11, 2011. (Italics supplied.) www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8316534/Welcome-to-the-information-age-174-newspapers-a-day.html.
3 Isn’t it strange that we still say “dialed”? When’s the last time you actually “dialed” a number?
4 “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me” (Ps. 101:3, NKJV). Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5 Scripture quotation from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
6 http://gothamist.com/2012/06/18/subway_chain saw_victim_forgives_att.php.
7 Letter 1d, 1890 (see also Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce [Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1989], p. 145).
8 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1900), p. 69.
Shawn Boonstra is an associate director of the Ministerial Association for the North American Division. He has been an evangelist for more than 20 years; including speaker-director of the television ministry It Is Written Canada from 1998 to 2003, and of It Is Written International from 2004 to 2010. He now hosts Disclosure, a weekly program about Bible prophecy, on the Hope Channel. This article was published on August 9, 2012.