Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Why bad news is good for us

AS PEOPLE WHOSE foundational reading is full of accounts of brutality, barbarity, and depravity, some Christians can be very squeamish when it comes to the news.

On Sundays they listen to sermons that dissect the ugliness in the Bible. However, for the rest of the week they turn away from contemporary reports of darkness—almost with a sense of moral superiority, murmuring about the distastefulness.

“Let’s concentrate on all the good things that are happening in the world, rather than the bad,” they suggest with a whiff of saintly condescension. But that’s not being dove-like, it’s being an ostrich (at least, according to myth).

Ignoring the bad stuff doesn’t make it go away. It’s like turning up the radio to drown out the sound of the car’s engine knocking. I tried that once (truly), and it’s not an effective maintenance strategy. You end up with bigger problems.

We need to rethink what we mean by good news and bad news. (And, by the way, much so-called “fake news” is actually just something someone doesn’t like others knowing about, not actual falsehood).

I’d suggest that following “bad news” doesn’t necessarily mean you are ghoulish, or cynical (“dog bites man isn’t news, man bites dog is news”), but actually might be biblical.

Consider that, according to Matthew’s gospel, the first word Jesus offered when he started to preach the “good news of the kingdom” was: “Repent!” Hmm, that suggests a focus on the negative.

He didn’t say everything was peachy, and wasn’t it great how we all got along so well, and let’s all have a big group hug. He said the world’s broken—but He can fix it. He said we’re broken—but He can fix us. He said we’re sick—but He can heal us.

Sometimes the only way to get to the good news is to face the bad news first, not to turn away from it. Remember the old adage popular with counselors: that the truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

Of course, facing the fallenness of the world can be risky. As I’ve observed before, we need to guard our hearts when we engage with the headlines, because of the news media’s powerful influence. But we should still go there, cautiously, rather than turning our backs.

That will involve being discerning about those we entrust with bringing the news to us. What is their motive? Ratings or righteousness? Traffic or truth? 1 Corinthians 13 is quoted at most weddings, but it would also make a great mission statement for the average newsroom, reminding us that love “does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth.” 

Yes, some our news media merely delights in the evil: “Shocking details! More at 6!” But some goes further, rejoicing in the truth that can be found—that light overcomes darkness, that the worst in some people brings out the best in others. For example, think of the many selfless people who came to the rescue after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, or maybe another tragedy that inspired great care.

Mr. Rogers got it right. The bad news—the “scary news,” as he called it—gives us a chance to “look for the helpers” that are always there.
By facing the bad news, we know:

• How to pray
• What needs to change
• Where and who to help

 Rather than putting our hands over our eyes to shield ourselves from the bad news, let’s hold them up in front of our faces in a prayerful filter that allows us to see through the bad (“repent!”) to the good, where and how “the kingdom of heaven has”—or may—“come near” (Matt. 4:17).

By the way, ostriches actually don’t hide their heads in the sand when they are frightened. That it remains a common figure of speech underscores how easily false narratives can stick—and reinforces why we need to be active, not passive, consumers of the news.

Revised from The dove and the ostrich: bad news is biblical, published April 22, 2013.

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