I came across this today, on one of those automated Facebook “memory” posts. These comments were made one year ago. Until I re-visited this post today, I had not seen the follow-up comments to my own.
I’m the kind of person who is driven internally to figure out the “right” way to do things. I’m also conflict-averse and try to keep the peace as much as I can, rightly or otherwise. So I have a “punched in the gut” reaction any time I receive strong feedback that runs contrary to something I’ve posited. (More on my journey in learning about what “church” means here.) When that happens, my challenge is to decide whether the feedback is helpful and constructive, and, if so, how I will modify my understanding in light of it.
With issues that fall under the heading of “Bible teaching”, it can be really hard to figure out what is right. On nearly every issue imaginable, there is a lot of different contradicting interpretation over the last two thousand years, much of it from “orthodox” sources (the very definition of which is also subject to considerable debate).
I’ve struggled for many years with this dilemma. My mind is not up to the task of weighing all the competing input and coming up with the “right” one. Maybe no one’s is. As soon as I think that I have some solid ground under my feet, something like this comes up and I feel like I am once again far out at sea with no land in sight.
This can take me to one of three not very good places:
- I’m not sure what to do, so I just stay sort of “stuck”. I tread water and don’t make any forward progress toward my goal of becoming like Christ and maturing in Him. I’m not always angry at whoever poked holes in me, but sometimes I am. And I’m definitely not confident in what I believe. Not a lot of fun.
- Not wanting to stay stuck, I decide what is right on my own. This inevitably results in the “form of godliness without power” that Paul warns Timothy about. I believe this is the source of about 99% of conflict between disciples over matters of doctrine. I tell myself that I have the truth, and that you do not have the truth (and you don’t even know it!), so it is up to me to show you the error of your ways, and if you hate me for pointing out the truth, that’s your problem. That way lies self-righteousness, pride, and a whole lot of nastiness. (Some people go to hockey games hoping to see a fight break out; I just go to Baptist business meetings. It’s way easier to find parking.)
- I can despair, throw my hands up in frustration, proclaim with real conviction “this doesn’t work”, and abandon my faith.
I’ve done #1 a lot. Most of the first 25 years of my life as a disciple was lived treading water. I’ve probably done #2 more often than I realize. Every so often I’ll say something reflexively or see something I wrote a few years ago and realize, “Wait a second, that’s not right!” Sometimes it’s not the content of what I say or believe that is wrong, but it is the way I present it or hold it that is not Christ-like. I’ve never quite gone all the way with option #3, but there are times and events that have been really trying. If I didn’t believe right at my very core that there just has to be something better out there for all of us hurting, hurtful humans, and if I hadn’t found rest from anxiety and an end to suffering in Jesus Himself, I probably would have chucked it all and become a Taoist or something. (You know, for the robes.)
A few years ago, I finally laid down some stuff I’d been hanging on to for a lot of years, surrendering at last to Jesus’ much better way in every last nook and cranny of my life. Up until then, I’d sort of been a “disciple at a distance”, following the Guy who was obviously in charge, but from far enough away that I didn’t have to fully commit. I thought I was getting away with something, having my cake and eating it too, but He knew better! (I’ll have to write the whole thing up in more detail at some point. It’s one of those things that’s such a big deal to me that it’s hard to put in words and not end up sounding maudlin or preachy, which are the two poles I seem to vacillate between.)
At any rate, some stuff happened, I got serious about getting a lot closer to the source of Life, really met Him, and lots of things changed. Ever since that critical time, I can’t read through John’s gospel (and his letters, too!) and not get some sense that unity among believers is what our Master very much wants for us, that this is beyond our ability to achieve ourselves, and that the way this unity will be accomplished is in and through the Spirit of Christ. Either there is one God with one Spirit who is available to us all through His Son to unite us together in love into one nation of priests, or there is not. If I believe there is (and I do), then it is meaningless to say I believe it if I don’t actually act like I do. Failure to act on a belief is equivalent to disbelief, right?
One way I can act on this belief (i.e., “live out my faith”) is by letting God’s Spirit teach me, rather than leaning on my own understanding or turning first and solely to the collected wisdom of men. Recently, I have been learning to submit every thought to the Spirit of Christ for His illumination. It takes a little practice to get started on this, but it’s not really too difficult once you train the habit. Not that I’m perfect at it yet, but I’m moving in a good direction. And this doesn’t mean that I don’t check out what I’m hearing with other disciples, because there is definitely safety from error in consulting with many wise and godly counselors. But it has to start with God Himself, and the only way I can get that is by going to Him directly for myself. Only He can change my heart.
So when I read the words in those comments that pierced me like a knife, when I felt the supposedly solid ground under my feet start to slide and shift, I had some options in front of me. I could allow my solid footing to be disturbed and start coasting again, getting tossed and blown about, uncertain of how to move forward and of little real usefulness to my Friend and Master or to anyone else. Not much fun. Or I could fan that initial spark of craving for vindication into a roaring fire of invective and “power up” (in my own strength) so I could do my duty to let those folks know just where their error lies, and maybe even dress it up in holy-sounding language for bonus “righteousness” points. Ugh. That doesn’t sound very productive or fun at all. Or maybe this is the last straw for me, and I am so fed up with the doctrinal logic-chopping fetish of Christians that I feel I’d be better off without Christ, too.
All of that played through my head, and none of it gave me any peace. But then, on the heels of all that, one of my first thoughts was, “What do I do with this, Lord? What is right and true here?” And I really meant it, and I stopped to listen to what He might say.
I’m not going to take the time right now to share what the Spirit showed me in answer to my question. That’s not my intention in writing this up. And I certainly don’t want you to come away from this focusing on my keen spiritual insight or shaking your head over my continued muddle-headedness. What I do want to convey is that my sense of peace was restored, my confidence in the solid foundation of Christ and His Life and Love emerged intact, and any hard feelings I might have had toward these brothers and sisters were replaced with compassion and a desire for reconciliation in our relationship (whatever the “relationship” that asynchronous commenters on a year-old blog post may be!). I can move forward in my day without being tripped up in any of these various “snares of the devil”. In contrast with my total and complete inability to do this in the past, this is nothing short of a minor miracle!
I laugh ruefully whenever I see that picture up at the top of this post. It is so sad and so true. We disciples strike each other in the head with our Bibles, and no one wins. The world watches us while we’re at it and rightly decides they want no part of it. There is plenty of that sort of thing available outside the Kingdom of God, so why enter it in order to receive more of the same? If we bloody one another’s noses, we are under a curse, and when we deter others from entering into relationship with God by our poor example, we are under an even worse one!
There is a better way. Our fight is not with one another. It starts with committing to laying down our Bibles as weapons against one another, and instead focusing on the real enemy. We captive every thought, treating each one as a potential cruise missile from our adversary or our own sin-bent minds, and we run each one by the Spirit for His input. After learning the truth from Him directly, we can then confidently move forward as He directs, certain that His commands will never run counter to the fruit of His own character, i.e., love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Now that, to me, sounds like a whole lot better way to go about things.