All Commentary
Thursday, August 1, 1963

The Lure of a Lost Cause

From a sermon by Edmund A. Opitz, a senior staff member of the Foundation for Economic Education, delivered at the First Congrega­tional Church of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, March 31, 1963.

The things with which our lives are most intimately involved are lost causes, every one of them. They are sometimes hard to rec­ognize for what they really are precisely for this reason; it is our nature to want to back winners. The repeated advice of my college coach was: “Let the other fellow be the good loser.” When I refer to lost causes, I have in mind such things as the Christian faith we profess, the Church we belong to, the ministry we look to for spirit­ual guidance… and our very life itself. I call these things lost causes, not as a prelude to offering you a counsel of despair, but quite the contrary. When a cause is vic­torious, the game is over and we are no longer needed. Lost causes need us, and we need to be needed. The challenge of advancing a lost cause a notch or two, and the effort this requires, gives individ­ual life its savor and meaning.

Christians ought to be on famil­iar terms with lost causes. After all, it was not Jesus who said: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” It was Caesar. Jesus lived a blameless life, brought healing to sick minds and bodies, gave the world a vision of God and man the world has never been able to forget—or ever quite remember—and so they cru­cified him. This does not read like the formula for a contemporary success story. As the world meas­ures victory, this was a colossal defeat. But out of this defeat came the Church.

The Church, basically, is a com­pany of seekers, a band of men and women who seek to become fitter instruments for the accom­plishment of God’s purposes. This is perhaps the ideal Church; and if the actual Church were this and nothing else, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. The actual Church in every age has come un­der the spell of secular movements and enthusiasms, to the detriment of spiritual religion. Churchmen, in every age, have dreamed of a large, wealthy, and powerful ec­clesiastical organization, both for the sake of organization itself and for the sake of the political power such an organization might wield. Temptations of this latter sort have always beset the Church, and they are peculiarly strong in our time when, for the first time in history, governments have been able to trick a lot of people into believing that popular welfare is now the goal of politics. It was difficult enough to keep Church and state separate when the state’s image was that of a warlord or a policeman; but now that the state has succeeded in projecting theimage of a guardian angel the churches are more than ever tempted to politicalize their faith in order to get on the side of that angel! This we must resist, for the Church’s sake and also for the sake of the state.

“The Good News of Damnation”

A New England Puritan of the seventeenth century left a journal. In it he wrote: “My heart leaps for joy every time I hear the good news of damnation.” Even if we were inclined to accept the Puri­tan’s grim theology, which we are not, we’d want to challenge his idea that the news of damnation is good. Why speak of future pun­ishment as a cause of rejoicing? It was along these lines that I used to poke fun at the Puritan mentality, even while acknowledg­ing that it did produce some sturdy and admirable characters. This old Puritan is no longer around to tell us what he had in mind; thus we are free to specu­late. Keeping in mind that his map of the universe is not the same as ours, what was he trying to say about man and man’s relation to God? Let us start with his conclu­sion and unravel it till we reach the premises on which it is founded.

This old doctrine says, first of all, that Something or Somebody in the universe cares for us individually, one by one. This is the basic implication of any system of rewards and punishments based on merit or demerit. The convic­tion that this is a universe where, in the long run, we do get our just desserts implies that we have a re­sponsibility for our lives; that no­body really gets away with any­thing.

No one is properly held respon­sible for an outcome which his ac­tions did not affect one way or the other. Responsibility implies free­dom. To say that man is a respon­sible being is to say that his freely made choices do cause things to happen this way rather than that. Life’s alternate possibilities of re­ward and punishment imply that men must choose. And because the universe does not jest, it has not given man the freedom to make a choice as to how he will commit his life without at the same time equipping that choice with power to affect the ultimate outcome. This is the core of the doctrine of Election, which a hillbilly preacher explained to his flock in this fash­ion: “The Lord votes for you; the Devil votes against you. It’s the way you vote that decides the elec­tion.” Even if you do nothing, your very inaction becomes a form of action, affecting the eventual outcome.

In other words, our lives do count for one thing or another, and we can make them count on the side of the right and the good. The individual soul is a battle­ground where real issues are fought out and decided. The Power behind the universe has so much confidence in man that it has made him a free and responsible being. These are the basic premises of the Puritan faith. This is part of our heritage, but each generation has to earn its heritage anew before we can make it our own.

Obstacles Can Be Stepping-Stones to Progress

It is obvious that a creature of such vast potential as man is not designed to float with the current; he is designed to go against the stream and he enhances his powers by so doing. We didn’t volunteer for this business of living; we were—you might say—drafted into life, and for life. We’re here to learn, and to grow. The moment we rest on our oars and begin to think we’ve got it made, at that moment we start to come unglued. Biologically speaking, we are em­barked upon a lost cause. But when we truly participate in life, we discover other dimensions than the merely biological. Life be­comes a cosmic adventure, an ad­venture in destiny; a new kind and quality of life begins to evolve in us, and we come face to face with the eternal mysteries.

The rest of creation is complete; we alone are unfinished. The Cre­ator has given the animal world all the answers it needs; the an­swers are locked up in instinctual responses as old as time. But man has not been given the answers; before our eyes the Creator has posed a gigantic question mark. We are handed a question, and the answers are ours to give. We have the responsibility, the freedom, and the power to respond.

The Church is a means for ends beyond itself; and our lives con­tain potentialities which can never be fully realized on the biological plane. Both are lost causes, in St. Paul‘s sense, where he speaks of foolish things confounding the wise and weak things confounding the mighty. Paradoxically, there is a kind of strength in weakness, and there is a kind of wisdom in foolishness. And there are victo­ries in lost causes, because God may choose them to work out his purposes.

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.