Zebras, Not Horses

A patient comes in presenting with nausea, a dull headache, and generalized muscle weakness. After taking a temperature reading of 101, you give your diagnosis: They’ve inhaled anthrax. It’s clear, right? The symptoms correspond. Except that anthrax poisoning is extremely uncommon, and the most obvious—and reasonable—diagnosis is a viral infection presenting as fever symptoms. 

“When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras”: A common saying in medicine, indicating that we should seek the most obvious diagnosis and solution. The same is applicable to us in the church today, but cultures of silence and Laodicean indifference often skew the accuracy of these diagnoses. 

Part of the problem the Adventist Church faces today is that we hear the symptomatic hoofbeats that indict half-hearted efforts and often-unsatisfying outcomes and assume that we are hearing zebras. Why are we rapidly losing members, or devoid of the power promised to the church scripturally? Perhaps our church budgets aren’t large enough, or we’re not running enough Women’s Ministry brunches. Perhaps newly-baptized members are leaving because of our choice of worship music, or lack of variety in Sabbath School classes. We waste valuable resources—time and money—seeking to diagnose and treat these tangential problems. 

Instead, we should be hearing horses—the far more obvious and reasonable diagnosis that we are simply not fulfilling our missional purpose to declare the Third Angel’s Message imbued with the love and power of Christ. The lack of power and impact we seem to manifest, particularly in the West, should therefore come as little surprise. 

Many second- and third-generation Adventist kids leave church the moment they’re given the freedom to do so, and most without a meaningful knowledge of God or even personal experiences with Him. How is this possible? Clearly, something is missing. Extensive evidence indicates internal antagonists: That we suffer fatal misunderstandings of doctrine, that we face glaring deficits in personal devotional lives, and that we hold prayer in light regard. But we pump church budgets into youth days, and coffee and donuts, in the hopes that we will somehow maintain a generation who have never seen the Cross. And so, instead of trying to fix the engine, we keep upgrading the car with new features in the hopes that it will just keep going. Then comes the inevitable breakdown—not seen as the fault of the malfunctioning engine, but rather the lack of fuzzy seat warmers. 

Full disclosure: I’m not a mechanic nor am I a doctor. I am, however, one of those third-generation Adventist kids that somehow managed to drift away from church at the age of 19, with a head knowledge of God but no personal encounter with Christ. Public university did my spiritual life little favors, and coming back to Christ years later has required months of God carefully—and at times, painfully— reeducating me. 

It appears to me, and many others, that we’re in a direr situation here than we thought. This third issue, Investigation, presents us with this very question for our institutions: Where exactly is ‘here’? In mammoth institutions that, as a result of their size, are struggling to produce self-sustaining and creatively-thinking graduates; with our self-supporting institutions often stifled by our own strengths, and fighting our sometime enemy, prosperity; battling alone with addictions that are trying to smother us to death using our cultures of silence as the fatal pillow. Being born and raised Adventist can give the veneer of a comfortable safety, which is exactly why the core question ‘What are we doing here?’ is one so close to my heart. 

We are seeing the symptoms of a lack of conversion and attempting to medicate them away. We are trying to treat a traumatic head injury with Advil, and all the while, internal bleeding remains unchecked, and the brain suffers from swelling and pressure—finally contracting bacterial meningitis until eventually the Body of Christ is threatened with sepsis. 

The reality is this: If we don’t acknowledge the seriousness of the impending threat, the Body will not die, but we will. 

Though a solemn recognition, it is not a final one. We are reassured that the church of Christ will triumph at last, and it should be our great hope to play a part in the movement which brings about Christ’s Second Coming. We prisoners of hope are promised that God will come and rain righteousness on us. But first, we must sow this for ourselves, and reap in mercy. First, we must extend ourselves to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted souls, those hungering and thirsting both physically and spiritually. First, we must allow God to break up the hard soil and replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. 

It is time for us to seek the Lord.

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