With each new catastrophe or political crisis, Christians take to social media to challenge one another towards righteousness, towards action, towards … something. Despite a nauseating amount of practice in the last few years, we are no closer to respectful discourse in our polarized age.
We’d like to think that there’s a way forward, but we keep failing to find it. We want to do something, but we can’t even agree about the problem. Like quicksand, the more we struggle to get out of the mess of this age, the more we end up ensnared in this bog of our own making.
One reason we fail in this is that we forget two key components of the Christian worldview: our finiteness and our fallenness. We cannot imagine that our understanding of the world is in any way limited by our created finite nature, and we refuse to accept that our views of the world are contaminated by our sinful fallen nature.
We fail because we lack humility. We fail to realize that just because we have a good cause to champion this does not mean that ours is the only cause or our means of championing is the only way forward. We fail because we do not see that our task is given to us by The Champion who gives meaning to whatever cause He chooses for us. We fail because we see our task as the entire work rather than as one string of a greater tapestry.
Think of it like this. Between racism, gun control, child abuse, slavery, the fate of the lost, abortion, poverty, war, pornography, doctrinal compromise, substance abuse, and so on, what matters most? Pick any of a host of others, but you get the picture. There are a lot of problems to face in this world.
Which of these is the MOST important? Which of these MOST deserves “speaking out”? If you had to rank them, which would come out on top? Which is the one which demands the church’s voice NOW more than ever?
Maybe you think a quiet approach is better than confrontation for a given problem, but then you find that your friend thinks that a strong public statement is in order. Maybe you dedicate your Twitter/Facebook feed to “raising awareness” about one thing, but your friend chooses something else. You may find it incomprehensible that anyone could remain silent about something, while your friend finds your silence on another one just as morally baffling.
Now, we may tell ourselves that each of these issues is valuable and deserves equal attention, but think about it for a minute. As much as we might want to, we can never be as engaged with any one of them as we’d like, let alone all of them! With only twenty-four hours in the day, and the daily grind of providing for our families taking up most of those, we cannot be fully “on” for any of these all the time.
Various members of Christ’s body are going to disagree about what to do about these issues. Sometimes it’s a matter of simple disagreement, but sometimes it’s a matter of discerning what’s needed at this moment. We even see this in the Bible. James, at his time and place, found it necessary to warn the church against abandoning works in the quest for faith. Paul, at his time and place, found it necessary to warn the church against abandoning faith in the quest for works.
How did you come to care about the causes in your life? Perhaps a pain in your life led you to focus on one thing over another. Perhaps you’ve zeroed in on something because you saw pain in others. Perhaps, seemingly out of nowhere, God led you to care about one of these more than you do another. This is not a failing but the way God has led you to spread his kingdom in this particular and unique way.
Think back to the earlier question about which issue mattered most. For you, in the place where God has called you, one of these very real problems may be the thing which dominates your thinking. This may be for just a season or perhaps even your entire life. For your friends, in the places God has called them, it may be another one of these very real problems which will define their moral quest.
As we seek to encourage Christ’s kingdom in this world, let’s keep humility first in our minds.
We must always make sure that it is Christ and his glory that we seek. Let’s not be like Martha, whose tasks serving the Lord distracted her from waiting on the Lord. We can, like the proverbial cart and horse, all too easily shift our focus from following Christ in a given path to where we are following the path whether Christ has led us there or not. Our passion for a righteous cause can be twisted into an idol all too easily, and all the good that we wanted to do for God becomes nothing more than a testimony to our own ability and our own agendas.
We must always make sure that we remember that just as we have been wrong before, as a church or as individuals, we may be wrong now. We look at the past and we say that they believed the wrong things or did the wrong things. If we are able to look back fifty years, a hundred years, a thousand years, and say that they were wrong, then what are the chances that our little brothers and sisters in the Lord will not do the same? Will they not look back fifty years, a hundred years, a thousand years, into our time and say that we were wrong, that we had the wrong emphasis, that we were silent when we should have spoken or spoke when we should have been silent?
Finally, we must always be gracious with one another. Maybe your friend is wrong, but maybe, just maybe, you are. If you think that your brothers or sisters in Christ are wrong by their emphasis or inattention, by their actions or inactions, by their statements or silence, then by all means plead with them, argue with them, challenge them, try to get them to see it another way, but we must do it in a way that grants to them the grace that they might be right and the humility that we might be wrong. They might well be in the wrong. They might be failing to see how their choice is harmful, or they may even be guilty of supporting an evil in the world. This in no way releases us from the call to love one another.
Remember, love doesn’t mean coddling. There is a time for vigorous debate and a time to challenge one another. The Bible is full of prophets and apostles using strong language to condemn evil, but it also full of those same prophets and apostles speaking grace to those same sinners. Love can mean, and at times demands, confrontation. Love doesn’t mean accommodation of evil, but love does mean love. If, in our disagreements with one another, we cannot see ourselves in the words of I Corinthians 13, then what are we doing? If our passion for the work of Christ leads us to speak derisively of the Bride of Christ, if our passion doesn’t begin with humility and lead to love, then perhaps we need to reevaluate our priorities.
Timothy D Padgett, PhD, is the author of the forthcoming book, Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973, and is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint.org