Symptoms and root causes

In his 1990 book Toward What Bright Glory?, Allen Drury parabolizes the drama of the World War II generation on the eve of the titanic conflict that would change history forever. The story focuses on a group of young men at a fraternity house on the campus of Stanford University in California—their trials, triumphs, tribulations, and tragedies.

At one point in the narrative, the frat boys find themselves in yet another argument over the growing crisis in Europe in the wake of the Munich Pact between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain in September 1938. One in the group, insisting Germany has the right to her day in the sun because of the unfairness of the Versailles Treaty, declares of all parties concerned:

The blame is equal—everybody shares it—nobody can take a high moral ground because there isn’t any—nobody’s to blame for anything because everybody’s to blame for everything—everybody’s morally equal because everybody’s immorally equal—nobody can judge anybody else because we’re all bad.

Others in the discussion maintain that moral distinctions in the present conflict are very real, that Hitler and his ideology are genuinely evil and must be stopped at any cost. One of the young men with this conviction responds that if the reasoning of his fraternity brother is accepted, “nobody can take a firm stand on anything because . . . we’re all alike. How do you get a hold on things? How can you attack or defend anything? It puts us all on quicksand."

The bottom line in the above conversation becomes clearer as it proceeds—that if mutual responsibility for the present crisis means neither side is better than the other, then nothing should be done to halt the present danger, leaving the future and all else effectively at the aggressor’s mercy.


In the human experience, recognition of the interplay between symptoms and root causes—be they spiritual, physical, social, or political—can prove as much an invitation to inertia as to insight, to fecklessness as much as to fascination. This was certainly true in many Western countries during the prelude to the Second World War. William Manchester, in his breathtaking biography of Winston Churchill, speaks of how England’s “decent, civilized Establishment” saw Hitler and his movement as “the product of complex social and historical forces,” but that the one destined to lead England and the West to victory would have to be someone “who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was therefore wicked” (The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Gory: 1874-1932).

Few today would argue that the punitive measures imposed by the victors on the vanquished after World War I, and the hardship they inflicted on Germany, was significantly if not largely responsible for Hitler’s rise to power. Indeed, the Allies in World War II acknowledged the egregiousness of this error, and thus refrained from similar exactions in their treatment of the defeated Axis countries in 1945 and thereafter (Barbara W. Tuchmann, The March of Folly From Troy to Vietnam). But irrespective of the wrongs done to Germany in the years between the wars, the global conquest envisioned and pursued by the Nazi warlord was still a mortal threat to freedom and civilization everywhere. The symptom had to be treated first, while the cause needed to be recognized and not repeated. To refuse to make treatment of the symptom a priority would have meant catastrophe for the world.


The desire to make the treatment of root causes a priority over the treatment of symptoms is a popular mindset in some circles of contemporary Adventism. This mentality is particularly widespread among those who presume the legalism and spiritual rigidity of the church’s past—real or imagined—to be the primary cause of the worldliness, liberalism, and cheap-grace theology found in certain segments of the church today.
It would lead too far afield in the present context to examine this assumption in depth, though to address it carefully one must raise such questions as the following: (1) What in fact is legalism, as defined by Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy writings? (2) To what extent has the spiritual rebellion of so many modern Adventists, particularly during the decades of upheaval, confused popular conservative culture with Adventist doctrinal and moral distinctives as set forth by inspired counsel? and (3) To what extent has old-fashioned resistance to the self-denial required by Biblical religion been confused with resistance to “works-righteousness”? Each question opens fascinating avenues of discussion, but for our present purposes lead off the trail.

The central issue of this essay is whether Christians, in particular Seventh-day Adventists on the cusp of the final events, should desist from confronting spiritual symptoms until what we hold to be their root causes are addressed to our satisfaction. I recall an incident some years ago, while I was pastoring in the northeastern United States, which brought to the fore the divisive issues of worship and music. In the wake of this event, pastors and laity throughout the territory offered protest and urged the pursuit of corrective measures. One pastor who corresponded with me, however, wrote that because corporate reformations in Old Testament times were always followed by deeper apostasy, that until we find a gospel “that converts all of us” (his words), reformatory initiatives will not succeed. (I couldn’t help finding his logic rather strange, as even Christ Himself wasn’t able to convert all twelve of His original disciples. That pesky thing called free will keeps getting in the way!)


When someone is rushed into the emergency room with a heart attack, it is neither the time nor the place to offer counsel about diet and exercise. That will have to come once the patient is sufficiently restored to another chance at life and health. When a marriage is threatened by extramarital infidelity and the couple seeks counseling, most would agree the infidelity must first cease before the deeper problems—which in most cases invite such straying—can be identified and healed.

The same holds true for larger spiritual dilemmas. The root causes are indeed of fundamental importance, and unless they are addressed along with the symptoms the latter will simply appear again—in the same form perhaps, or in some other. But in most cases it is the symptoms which must first be addressed, or the chance to address the root causes—at least for many—may never come.