Assumptions of the Heart

I was reading Adam S. McHugh’s book Introverts in the Church and ran across this paragraph:

“An introverted college student I worked with, Trevor, encountered several reactions when he chose to step outside of his community after two years of consistent participation. Extroverted leaders chided him for his lack of commitment and were convinced his pulling back was indicative of a larger spiritual problem infecting his heart. The pastor of the community arranged meetings with him to understand what was happening and what was the source of his dissatisfaction with the group. These efforts, as well intentioned as the were, only pushed him further away instead of drawing him back into his previous level of commitment.”

This paragraph struck me because of how often people would rather make assumptions about others rather than actually asking what the issue was. It is so easy to do this. After all, getting to know people and know the issues that underlie the decisions people make takes time and effort. It doesn’t take much time to make an assumption and roll with it.

While it may not take much time to make these assumptions, it can be rather damaging. As the example from above points out. The people who assumed the stepping back was a spiritual problem infecting his heart or dissatisfaction with the group were actually doing more damage than good. It could even be that this reaction to these assumptions just served to fuel the idea that these assumptions were true.

It’s not enjoyable being in a situation where people make assumptions about your spiritual life or your emotional life without any idea of who you are. There may have been other times this has happened to me, but the experience I remember most clearly happened while I was trying to get accredited with the denomination I had been affiliated with since becoming a Christian.

I was hoping to a be a pastor in this particular denomination, I had finished seminary and now needed to be accredited. To do this I needed to go through an interview, and from what I had heard it wasn’t going to be a particularly difficult experience. It wound up going rather terribly. Mainly due to views on end times and alcohol.

We spent about half of the interview talking about views on the end times. My view is that I don’t really have a horse in the race. I’m not big on the idea of a rapture, but beyond that I’m not really one hundred percent sold on amillennialism, pre-millennialism, or whatever other millennialism you want to adhere to.

In my many years in the denomination it had never been a big point in sermons or in terms of membership, and I talked with pastors who weren’t entirely sure how it was all going to turn out in that regards. However, there seemed to be some agitation that I wasn’t fully committed to pre-millennialism. I was okay with that view, but wasn’t okay with trying to make it as the one true way.

The other issue was alcohol. The denomination I was trying to get into doesn’t allow their pastors to drink alcohol. While I was okay with doing this, and even somewhat understood their position, I also wanted to note that I didn’t really agree with it entirely. I would follow it, but I didn’t think it had a whole lot of support from the Bible itself. A view like this that wouldn’t allow Jesus to be a pastor of that denomination appeared a bit problematic to me. This view didn’t go over that well either.

Now as you can expect, I didn’t get accredited from that interview. Now if they came back and simply said that your views just don’t really line up with the denomination’s views that would have stung, but I think I would have understood. It would have been honest and wouldn’t have had to resort to any kind of assumptions about me.

No, instead the three men came into the room and made up some idea that they think I’ve been hurt by authority or have some kind of issue with authority in general. It wasn’t entirely clear to me which it was, maybe it was even both. The only thing was, this wasn’t really true, at least until this incident.

I tend to be a rule follower, almost to a detriment. I was always liked by teachers and other parents because I was a good or nice or whatever. I don’t really remember being hurt by authority, even by authority figures that I didn’t particularly like or respect. I wasn’t exactly one who would have been considered a rebel or anti-authority figure, at least by anyone who knew me.

I didn’t like questioning things, and it took a lot out of me to just be honest with these men and talk to them about issues that I didn’t necessarily agree with. To be honest I didn’t really expect the disagreement over the end times to be so significant, but the alcohol issue didn’t surprise me. Even with that though I was still willing to abstain from alcohol, which wouldn’t really be too much different than what I normally do anyhow. I just wanted to be honest with where I was coming from.

Yet what came back was this assumption that didn’t have much of a foothold on reality. To be honest it was this exchange with authority that has hurt and scarred me the most in all of my years. The incorrect assumption hurt more than a simple admitting that our views didn’t line up ever would have.

Incorrect assumptions can push people away, hurt people, and even scar them for some time. I know that we’ll all make assumptions. I’ve probably made assumptions about others around me and hurt them. However, be willing to be wrong in those assumptions, particularly if we have little to base them off of. Be willing to change your mind and not just double down ignoring any signs that our assumptions are incorrect. I don’t know the motivations and intricacies of my own heart most of the time, why should I or anyone else assume that we can understand the motives in the heart of another?

I Don’t Know If I Agree With Anyone Completely

Animals have all kinds of defense mechanisms. The skunk sprays its lovely scent, the porcupine is covered in sharp quills, the opossum plays dead and one of the defense mechanisms of the Christian is a phrase. This phrase is one I’ve seen many people utter. It is a phrase I’ve heard from the pulpit, read in Facebook statuses, and have said and written myself.

The phrase is “I don’t agree with everything [insert person] says or does…” and it usually proceeds a quote or a accompanies a sharing of a blog or a blog post. Now you may say that this isn’t a defense mechanism, but I’m not sure I buy it. At least I know that’s the reason I’ve used it.

I want to share something from a person who is a bit controversial to some groups, so I qualify it in order to create distance and yet still be able to share what I thought was good. You don’t go into specifics and you leave those who may hear or see the quote you share to guess what views you share and what views you don’t. This all seems clever enough, but I’ve grown uncomfortable with the usage of this phrase.

The main reason is this, I’m not sure that I agree with anyone completely. If I were to be completely transparent and honest I’d have to give that disclaimer to anyone I quote or any post I share. I can’t really think of anyone off the top of my head that I agree with on every aspect of every topic. The funny thing is that would probably include myself. As I look back on things I’ve written or views I’ve held in the past there are places that I have changed. So it seems like it would be redundant to say this phrase since it would probably apply to most everyone, and not just a few who may be a bit controversial in some sections of Christianity.

Another reason is that often people can make controversy out of things that aren’t really all that controversial. I felt like this was the case when Rob Bell released the book Love Wins. I understood some of the discomfort people had, but felt that people blew the book way out of proportion. I also recently read A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans and found that the controversy this book produced was even more unwarranted (I’ll speak to that more when I give my thoughts on the book). The controversy that these books created are a problem in my mind. Let me explain why.

Imagine this scenario. A Christian fires up a website or opens a magazine to read a review of a new book written by a particular author. The review winds up being very critical of the work and decreeing it to be very controversial, dangerous or maybe even “heretical”. This very negative review causes people to avoid the book and think poorly about it without even reading it. A pastor or blogger then quotes that author and winds up getting complaints or push back, even though said people may have never even read the book in question or maybe anything at all by the author.

This whole cycle is caused by that initial review. Now it is always possible the critiques are accurate and well done, but it is also possible that the critiques are over done and sometimes the main point of the work is missed in the greater scheme of things. The bottom line though, is that the disagreement is based on critical reviews, not on reading the book ourselves and trying to read what the author actually wrote. We disagree simply because someone else told us it was wrong. The sad thing about this scenario is that I think it works like this more often than not.

If we actually tried to read it we may agree that it is wrong. We might think that certain parts were wrong and others were quite enjoyable or that there were a number of good points made. Maybe we even find ourselves agreeing with a large portion of the book, or at least finding it rather tame and not worthy of such hubbub. Regardless, I think that in reading the authors we are actually able to disagree, and agree, with them more beneficially than simply parroting the responses of someone else.

I guess the combination of not agreeing with anyone completely and that sometimes the disagreement can be so trumped up and exaggerated makes me dislike the environment that produces the need for such a phase. That we have to qualify ourselves to death like this doesn’t seem very healthy, at least if we’re simply using it as a defense mechanism.

It is always possible that there are other reasons for using it, but as I’ve said that’s the main reason I’ve used it and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Of course you can feel free to disagree with me. What do you think about using “I don’t agree with everything [insert person] says or does…” to qualify things? Is it a phrase you simply use to deflect the naysayers or do you think it can serve another purpose?

Perfect Balance? Part 2 of 4

This is part 2 of a little series I’m doing on the word balance. I said I don’t have a very good short definition of balance, but that there are three components that are a big part of balance. I want to look at the first of these today. This component is understanding our strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to the idea of balance, I think it is easy to assume that balance means that we all look pretty much the same at the end. This could be part of what gives rise to the balance as perfection idea. If balance is this fixed goal that doesn’t vary between people, then we run into some issues. It’s no wonder people want to toss the idea of balance to the curb. I mean think about these questions: What does this perfect balance that we’re all supposed to attain look like? Who decides? Does one person’s idea of perfect balance equal another person’s idea? With people as varied and diverse as there are in the world do we really think it is even possible to have one final picture of balance for everyone?

I know that there are those out there who think that their way is the only way. They may even try to claim that it is God’s way. I’m not convinced, while I do think that if you associate with following Christ there will be overlap and commonalities in our balance, we’re never going to look exactly alike in our thoughts, passions, pursuits, strengths, and weaknesses. I think taking this into consideration is a large part of thinking about balance. We have to find a way to be balanced even while recognizing that we may come into the picture with certain ways of looking at life, certain strengths, and certain weaknesses.

Part of the difficulty in laying this out though, is that I think balance looks a little bit different depending on what we’re trying to accomplish. Some of these aspects are easier to view as perfection than others. Like so many things it’s a bit more complicated if you really start peeling back layers.

Take something like personality traits. Perfectly balancing something like those would be more difficult, unless your personality lends itself to being balanced in the first place. Let’s use the example of extrovert and introvert. In the Myers-brigs tests that I’ve taken recently I tend to be rather balanced on this area with a very very slight lean towards introversion like 1% was given on the most recent test I took a few weeks ago. My wife on the other hand is extremely introverted. Just not having time to herself even from the kids or me can lead her to be very drained. I think these aspects are very hard to change, and that balance isn’t so much changing yourself, but understanding your limits and maybe trying to push them every so often.

For the introvert it may mean being willing to put yourself in social situations more than you would be inclined to. For the extrovert it may be to take time for self-reflection and spending time alone. For one who tends to be in the middle perhaps it means to include both and not neglect one side in favor of the other. The struggle here though is that each person is going to look a bit different even if they are trying to seek their own balance. The extreme introvert and extrovert will have different sets of challenges and may never be very comfortable doing what goes against their personality. I think as you go to more moderate and negligible degrees of introversion and extroversion the challenges again shift depending, but that at the end nobody will look quite the same but can still achieve a personal balance.

This may be true of a number of strengths and weaknesses that may be connected to our personality. We may tend to be organized or disorganized; logical or emotional; analytical or creative. All of these have their strengths and weaknesses, and we may be able to take steps to balance ourselves out. Even though one side might come a little more naturally, I think that if we understand strengths and weaknesses of these positions at least for us it can help us develop, at least a little bit of, the trait that we may be lacking.

There is an aspect to this understanding of our personal strengths and weaknesses that is helpful internally, but also externally. If we’re able to identify our own strengths and weaknesses, we may be able to adjust ourselves even a little to minimizing those weaknesses, or if not that, at least acknowledge where we are weak at. However, it also helps us externally, because if we understand our traits as having strengths and weaknesses we may just be able to view other people as having traits that are both positive and negative in nature. As such being an introvert isn’t a bad thing, it just has it’s own set of strengths and weaknesses. Being an extrovert isn’t wrong either, but again just has it’s own array of challenges and rewards.

If we’re able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of who we are and who those around us are, we can take balance beyond just a personal ethic, to a community ethic of a group that is able to overcome weaknesses because they are full of people who have different personalities, gifting, and interests. This can allow for a group to function in ways that one individual cannot. I believe it is this kind of idea that is presented in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

It is this picture of the body of Christ that comes to mind as I think about this external balance. A balance that understands our own place in a bigger picture, that appreciates those who are different than us, and also understands the limitations of our own abilities. We can’t all be eyes, hands, or feet, but that we are needed, and that just because someone isn’t the same as us doesn’t mean they are less needed either.

So this is a just a sketch of how knowing our strengths and weaknesses relates to balance for me. I’ll admit this post was hard for me to get out and took a bit longer than I anticipated. This is by no means an exhaustive post, but I hope it gives enough that you get what I’m trying to get at. The next component that I’ll be looking at is how tension is involved with my view of balance.

So what do you think? Does what I said makes sense? Do you have any push back? Feel free to leave comments below.

I Am Error

A few months ago, I posted a blog about inerrancy. In that post I said that I don’t typically think too much about inerrancy. This is still true, but since I’ve started reading more blogs, the topic of inerrancy seems to come up pretty often. This leads me to thinking about the topic more than I ever have. I still don’t always know what people mean when they throw the word around, at least in the specifics and the questions I put forward in my previous post. That said I’m probably closer to someone who believes in inerrancy than one who doesn’t, but I’m not necessarily just here to rehash that post. So if you want to go read that and come back, if you don’t, well press on.

You see in all of our talk about the inerrancy of the Bible, some people assume that if the Bible is inerrant than we can just pick up the Bible, read it, and present its thoughts inerrently. This is a bit of a troublesome idea to me. How do we know that our interpretation of a particular passage is really what the Bible is trying to say?

That’s the funny thing about inerrancy, there are a lot of people that believe in it, but who aren’t in agreement on every aspect of theology. I’m okay with that reality, but the reality also hits on a bigger issue. Believing in inerrancy doesn’t mean that people won’t disagree about how to interpret the Bible.

We spend a lot of time and effort defending or deconstructing inerrancy that we miss the error we bring to the text every time we open the Bible. What if I’m the error? What if when I open the Bible there is a very real chance that I won’t take the passage as it was meant to be taken? What if you’ll do the same? How should this affect our attitudes about and understanding of the Bible?

Are We The Error?

To put it simply, I’d say yes. We’re a little less than two-thousand years removed from the time of the most recent book of the Bible. Two thousand years is a lot of years and the way we view the world is more than a little different. Throw in the fact that we’re reading a work that was originally in different languages and we’re left with some distance between the original listeners and readers and us. Insurmountable distance? I don’t think so, but few of us are going to be able to open up to the Book of Leviticus and fully understand everything that is in that book right, because there is a lot of difference between life then and life now.

Even if we study life back then, and can form intelligent thoughts about the content of such a book, there is still a chance that we’re missing things or that we’re incorrect in our conclusions. Let me give an example. The clean/unclean food lists. To us today, this looks completely foreign and even silly. The concept of being unclean is foreign, and why certain foods make you unclean is uncertain at best. That doesn’t stop people from trying to guess why certain animals were considered unclean. One of the popular ones I’ve heard is that it was for health reasons. It seems that this is a bit spotty though, plus you have to ask if medical treatment during the time of Jesus and the Apostles was that much better for these animals to suddenly be declared clean.

Another reason I’ve heard is that it was because these animals were associated with pagan rituals, but again this doesn’t seem to explain everything, because the bull was considered clean but was the animal closely associated with Baal worship. That would seem to undermine this theory a bit. Others say that these restrictions are completely arbitrary and are basically just to make Israel unique and see if they would be willing to follow God on these restrictions. Another theory was developed by Mary Douglas who believed that animals were designated unclean when they didn’t fit into a symbolic category. For example animals that had a cloven hoof and chewed their cud were clean, but animals who only did one of these, like pigs, were considered unclean because they didn’t fit into this category.

Can we see the problem when we tackle verses like this? Here we have four different ideas of what they mean, but what is the truth? It could be one of these theories, maybe it isn’t any of them, or it could be some combination of reasons. Now for the idea of unclean animals this isn’t all too relevant to us, since the New Testament abolishes the concept of unclean animals, but it does serve as an example of difficult interpretation.

Now, I realize that not knowing the reason behind why this is in the Bible may not be construed as an error on our part. We know that there were unclean animals and what most of them were, shouldn’t that be enough? To this,  I’d say that I’ve heard presentations that pick a reason for these animals being unclean and proceed to use that reason to prove the inerrancy of the Bible. So if that interpretation is wrong does that make the Bible not true? I don’t necessarily think so, but if you put all your eggs in that basket you may think differently.

This distance from issues like this can make us read the Bible from our point of reference, which isn’t necessarily the point of reference held by those who it was originally intended for. Not to say that it doesn’t speak to us, wasn’t intended for us,  or that it isn’t relevant to us, but there can be some legwork involved. Trying to understand things like creation, wars of the Bible, rituals, slavery, sexuality, and gender issues can be a difficult thing to do looking backwards. We have a lot of assumptions both of what should be according to 21st century standards and simplistic understandings of what it was like back then that get in the way.

Humbly Doing the Best We Can

What does this mean though? Do we just throw up our hands and say that we can’t ultimately know anything about God and the Bible? Do we just toss out portions of Scripture that we don’t like or understand easily? Do we tightly hold onto our interpretation and believe that our interpretation is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

None of these ideas are very appealing to me. It isn’t necessarily hard to find people who have chosen one of these options, but I don’t really find that any of them are for me. I do believe that we can know about God and the Bible, even if that knowledge will never be 100% complete. I’m not a huge fan of tossing out portions of Scripture because it doesn’t match my construction of God, mainly because I’m aware that my construction may be faulty. Tightly holding onto a particular interpretation no matter what doesn’t seem helpful either, because again it could largely be a construction that I’m, at least partially, incorrect about.

I want to move forward with eyes wide open. To know that my interpretation of the Bible and my thoughts about God will never be perfect. To move forward with humility and acknowledging, hopefully every step of the way, that I may be wrong. This doesn’t mean that I won’t form opinions or ideas, but I hope to hold them humbly. It also doesn’t mean that I’ll be easily persuaded by every thought that is different than mine, but I hope to listen. I want to understand that I am full of error and that you are full of error no matter if we think the Bible is or not.

I know I want to be right, particularly about matters regarding God and my faith, but the truth is I’m probably not right on everything. I may not even be right about most things. I have a feeling that’s the way a lot of people feel. We want to be right on these matters. Even though we want to be right, we need a humility that says, we may not be right. Grace to embrace those who don’t agree with us, and love that allows us to listen and fellowship with them anyhow.

I want to try to understand the Bible and the God who is revealed through it as best as I can. Even though I want to do my best, I want to be able to keep humility in view. I need to know that I won’t fully understand Him, but I hope to know Him better and understand Him better, like the friend that you learn more about and understand better with time.

Really this fact that we will never be without error is my biggest concern when the trump card of inerrancy gets put into play. By using it, we’re more often saying that our interpretation is inerrant than anything else. Although, honestly, I think that there are some who argue against inerrancy with that same logic. It is the belief that my understanding is superior and if that doesn’t jive very well with what the Bible says, the Bible must be misguided, outdated, or just plain wrong. However, if we recognize the propensity for error in ourselves shouldn’t that lead us to a place of humility and maybe even unity despite our disagreements. I know that’s probably naive, but I also know that we’re on this journey together and that nobody has everything figured out. It may be a naive thought, but who is to say that naive thoughts are always the incorrect thoughts?

So what do you think about this? Have you ever thought about this dynamic in relation to inerrancy/truthfulness of Scripture? Did you catch the video game reference in the title? Did you ever think that a video game reference could be the title of a theological reflection?

Remembering That We Are All People

I remember studying my Bible one day and coming to a realization that I hadn’t really had before. It was one of those realizations that is profoundly simple, yet can change the way you approach the events that take place in the Bible. This realization was that the stories and events of the Bible contained real people.  You might be staring at your monitor saying, “Wait, that was your big realization? How dense are you?” I realize that this is a pretty simple idea, but let me explain why I think this is significant.

I’ve found personally that it is so easy to look at the events in the Bible from a distance, trying to ascertain whether the actions of a particular person are good or bad. I’m not saying that this is fully a bad thing, but it felt like I was losing something. It felt like I was reducing the story to some equivalent to Aesop’s Fables instead of getting glimpses of the lives people led while trying to follow God, successfully or not. I felt like I was simply trying to stamp their behaviors as an example to follow or an example to avoid. This process often led me to look down on those who didn’t do the right thing, or to idealize those who made good decisions, at least most of the time.

I think that this can lead us to bad places. We can forget that people who are often put into positive light (like Moses, Abraham, David, Isaiah, or Paul) were human and sinful even though they took following God very seriously. On the same token we can look down at some of the less exemplary individuals (like Jacob, Samson, Gideon, or Peter) and forget that God still used these flawed individuals to accomplish significant things. We can easily be tempted to idealize certain people in the Bible and dismiss or cast a negative gaze upon certain other characters without thinking of the fact they are human, and that sometimes God still used them despite or because of their flaws. Does this justify their flaws and sins or reduce the impact of their faith and actions? No, but we can easily resort to shallow characterizations rather than looking at them as full human beings seeking to follow God or rejecting God.

This use of shallow characterizations can leak into our interactions with the people around us. We can idolize those who put on masks and appear to be flawless, and ostracize those who aren’t able to put on masks and appear with all their roughness, sin, and flaws out for the world to see. In both cases we reduce these people to caricatures. We forget that those who put on masks have flaws, and become surprised and maybe even aghast when we learn how serious they may be. We also become surprised as we learn that those who may appear more flawed have good qualities and maybe even look a little more like us than we thought possible at first.

I’ve had this as a post I wanted to do for a long time, but with current events this seems to be something that is relevant. We’re coming off of the week where George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Treyvon Martin. Everyone and their brother has been giving their thoughts and opinions about the verdict, but I wonder if this kind of attitude isn’t part of the problem in the whole situation. It’s a problem when Zimmerman profiled Martin as “suspicious.” Was it race, age, build, clothing, being out while raining? We may never know, but something caused Zimmerman to make a shallow characterization of Martin. As we all know this led to the death of Martin and the nation has been divided on what happened and whether justice has truly been done ever since.

However, the media has done a good amount of shallow characterizations too. It seemed that Martin was portrayed early as this innocent kid (including use of an earlier photo of Martin). The narrative became more conflicted as another narrative was Martin the thug. In both these cases it seemed that the point was trying to get some sort of idealized (either good or bad) portrayal of Martin. It seemed neglected that he was a person both with flaws and positives. Zimmerman got this same treatment, and he was presented as a racist. Could this be true? Sure, it could be and as I said something must have made Zimmerman be suspicious of and follow Martin. But it doesn’t seem like people really cared about the truth of this claim. It was more about shallow characterization. It was almost like we had to have a label to give Zimmerman in order to distance his actions from the actions that any one of us could do.

Now I’d like to say that this kind of shallow characterization only happens in divisive court cases, but sadly I see it all over the place. You can see it when people attack others for their views, like those who hold them aren’t people, but simply something to be argued against. Labels are tossed around and summarily dismissed. These labels take different forms depending on who is using them. Maybe they’ll look like “fundamentalist”, “feminist”, “evangelical”, “heretic”, “atheist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “bigot”, or any other label that may be tossed around these days (these labels can be used positively too, but it just depends on who is using them). We don’t look at each person as a person, rather we want to label them, characterize them, and then classify them as friend or enemy with as little interaction as possible.

This is tough not to do. I know I do this at times, and I’m pretty sure we all will. It’s just too easy sometimes to look at people as labels or caricatures. We want to get to what we disagree with or what we think they did wrong. The reality is that we’re all people, we can’t forget that. As I said it doesn’t negate our responsibility when we do thing wrong, but it should give us a deeper insight as we look at others as a complex individual instead of just the label of the day. I think that remembering that people are people will help us when we open our Bibles and look at the stories of men and women who lived long ago, and will help us look at those around us today with eyes that are ready to see a person there, in all the mess and beauty that brings.