The Laziness of Againstness

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Some time back I wrote this article for WorldMag.com about defining yourself or your organization by what you are for rather than what you are against.  After considering being against (or “againstness” as I’ll call it) here are some further thoughts.

Againstness is lazy. It’s the easiest way to give a label to yourself or to your organization.  It’s the easiest way to position yourself. Except that it isn’t truly positioning yourself at all. It’s just floating off the shore of whatever you are against.  It doesn’t land anywhere it just avoids certain people/causes/attitudes/etc.  It is a pretend label that reveals very little and gives no direction as to what you are trying to be.

It is lazy because it doesn’t require work, just a little observation. All you need to do to be against something is keep an eye out for it and separate yourself from it while declaiming it as loudly as you please. This is true unless, of course, you are the more militant type of againster, in which case you follow the object of your ire around and attack whenever possible. This is no less lazy because you aren’t deciding what to do or where to go, you’re just being an unwitting follower of something or someone you reject.

It is much harder to pursue something, to set a goal and go after it. It requires serious thought to define the goal. It requires constant vigilance and judgment to determine if you are on the right course in the pursuit. It requires regular status checks to see what kind of progress is being made. It is constant motion, constant consideration, constant vigilance to be sure that nothing which you are against is deflecting you off course.

In my own life this is a constant effort. I find it so easy to just try not to be something – not be a legalist, not be a blowhard, not to be too conservative, not to be too liberal, not to be sectarian, and so on. But what am I after all that not being stuff? I need an aim to figure that out, a standard to which I can hold myself. Am I honoring Jesus? Do I love others? Am I doing good and not harm? Am I producing quality work that benefits others?

Pursuing a goal necessitates being against certain things, or at least having no part in them. But being against something does not need to be antagonistic or combative unless these things they threaten your pursuit of your goal. Even then to stand against doesn’t have to mean to tear down as much as it does to stand firm. And we must always remember that  these things which we are against are not what primarily defines us.

Lastly, againstness is equally as lazy and unhelpful in a work place as it is in a home or a relationship or a church or a school.  If I define my parenting by what I do not want to be I will be so much less of a father than if I aim at raising my children to be something great. It is easy to think “I will not make the same mistakes my parents did”, but if we don’t aim at something we will simply drift as parents. If I seek out a church primarily because of what it’s not I have settled lazily into the same parasitic pattern of againstness. Instead of being part of building God’s kingdom up we will be party to tearing it down.

Againstness is an easy place to land, and an easy thing to rationalize because there is much in this fallen world to be against. But it aims at nothing, takes us nowhere, and gains us little.  So aim at what is good, and don’t fall into the trap of just being against againstness

When In Conflict, Realize That There’s Another Side to That Coin

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It seems most people function under the assumption that everything in life is a zero sum game. Basically (extremely basically) that means that everything equals out to zero in the end. Imagine having 10 dollars. If I took ten you would have zero, if two people took 5 you would have zero, and so on. The sum would always end up so that the gains by some leave others with nothing. In areas of life that aren’t quite so numbers oriented it looks more like “I am right and you are wrong” or “If this is true then that is not.”

Whether or not we realize it, it is this sort of black and white mindset that causes all sorts of conflict. For example, my wife and I were recently going out on a date. She walked into the room ready to go and I complimented her hair. Her immediate response? “Oh, you don’t like my outfit?” I had not realized that the total number of compliments allowed was one and I had brought sum to zero by using it on her hair. Such a light-hearted example still shows the mentality to think in stark terms about subtle or complex issues. I actually loved her outfit, but by emphasizing my appreciation for her hair I had left the door open for her to misunderstand me.

Many of the instances when this happens aren’t nearly so trivial. They lead to arguments, even animosity. Think of the divisions in the church over theology. God is loving and gentle vs. God is just and firm. God is sovereign vs. man having free will. God desires action vs. God desires study. And so on. All zero sum arguments; if one is right the other is wrong

Such thinking is a logical failure and faulty reasoning. It stems from a lack of thoughtfulness and willingness to listen and consider all sides of an issue. Just recently I saw somebody tweet something to the effect of “The gospel is about how we live this life not where we go in the next.” Really? The gospel is not about where we go when we die? Nonsense. The gospel is about both! The argument is about which side of a coin is the “true” side without ever realizing it’s the same blasted coin.

Such argumentation leads to side-taking and false conflicts. It fabricates opposition out of what is really a discussion of emphasis and priority. (Of course, if the conversation is about what is best or of utmost importance, it is different; that is a zero sum game because there is only one “best.”) The vast majority of issues are not right vs. wrong or true vs. false. Most issues are questions of how things fit together and what is the point of emphasis. If you love a good argument you’ll still find plenty there, but you won’t win by painting another person as an idiot or a liar.

Life is complex. Truth is complex. God is complex. It’s almost never as simple as a zero sum game. To treat it that way is to undermine what is true and hurt those who are trying to represent it. We must put in the work to understand, to consider, and to turn the coin over to see the other side.

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6 Questions To Ask Ourselves In Conflict

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In this fallen world, conflict is inevitable. Husbands and wives, parents and children/teens/adult kids, roommates, co-workers, brothers and sisters in Christ, believers and non-believers – we all sin against each other at times – at times intentionally but many times unintentionally. We have misunderstandings, fail to keep promises, do things that annoy or even hurt others. Sometimes we can overlook others’ sins. At other times we must address them. Sometimes we are the ones who are confronted.

Here are 6 questions I have found helpful to ask myself when I find myself in conflict:

1.  Am I trying to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry? (James 1:19)

Am I really trying to hear what the other person has to say? Really trying to see their viewpoint?  Or am I defending myself or thinking of my next answer before they are finished speaking? Am I feeling angry? Is there anything that I really need to see here, even if we’re talking about something the other person did?

2.  Have I considered that I may have a log in my eye? (MT 7:3)

We all have blind spots – things about ourselves we can’t see. Could I be perceiving things wrongly? Am I being humble? None of us has God’s perfect wisdom and insight into every situation.

3.  Am I doing this for the glory of God? (1 CO 10:31)

Do I want this person to change so they will bring God glory? Or because I’m bugged, or to prove I’m right, or get my way?

4.  Am I trying to speak the truth in love? (EPH 4:15)

Do I genuinely love this person and care about their well-being? Do I want the best for them? Do I hope God blesses them?

5.  Am I trusting God to convince this person?

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 2 Ti 2:24-25

Only God can change someone’s heart. We can’t, no matter how convincing or forceful we try to be. Have I asked God to help them see what he would have them see?

6.  Is there any middle ground or alternative solution we haven’t considered?

We can get locked into thinking that our way is the only way.  In the heat of conflict it’s hard to consider other possible options.  Sometimes if we take a step back or give it a little time God can show us a solution we haven’t yet considered.

Remember, it’s not about winning or being right; it’s about God’s glory.  Hope these are helpful.

Can You See Behind the Mask?

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If you’ve ever seen any of the Mission Impossible movies starring Tom Cruise, you’re familiar with the Mission Impossible mask scenes. At key points in the plots, a character you thought was one person turns out to be someone else, disguised underneath an incredibly life-like mask. Tom Cruise impersonates the villain. The villain impersonates Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise impersonates a Starbucks barista. (Yes, I made that one up.) After a while, a viewer familiar with the MI mask motif gets a bit cynical: that guy looks like Tom Cruise, but is he really?  Who’s the real Tom Cruise?

I doubt if perfectly life-like MI masks actually exist. But you do know what it’s like to wonder who’s masked and who’s real. This is the question you ask in marriage after that first explosive conflict: You’re not the person I married – who are you? It’s the thoughts you have in the friendship when suddenly you can no longer agree on even the simplest of things: I don’t think I even know you anymore. After all these years, I can’t believe you could do this to me. Are you really like that?

The problem is especially acute when the other person is a fellow believer. You’re supposed to be on the same team. You believe the same things, you go to the same church, you serve in the same ministry – and yet his behavior or her actions make you wonder if the person you thought you knew was just a mask.

And then it gets even worse when the situation endures over time. Gradually, with every interaction, your opinion is settled and confirmed. They really are like that: nitpicking, petty, deceitful, proud, defensive. It’s not just once – it’s over time, a pattern repeated and long ingrained. You no longer ask, Who are you? You know, and you intensely dislike, the answer.

How do you live in those kinds of relationships, when you don’t know what’s the mask and what’s the real person? Or, even worse, when you come to believe the person you fell in love with, or built a friendship with, was just a masked imposter?

The right question here will completely alter our perspective. The right question to ask is this: who does God see when he sees this person? When we observe a fellow believer and draw conclusions, we are defining that person, and the question we need to ask is whether our definition matches up with God’s.

In God’s sight, the truest identity of any believer is not who they are now, but who they will become. The defining reality of their life is the presence of the Holy Spirit, uniting them with Christ and filling them with the life of God. And because the God who began a good work in them will surely complete it, God alone has the right to define who someone is.

If this is true, then every temporal observation that we make of another believer – even if it’s backed up by years of evidence – is only a half-truth. And a half-truth expressed as a whole truth is an untruth. The full story must include the presence of the Holy Spirit, the outworking of the character of Christ in the believer’s heart, the resurrection power of God applied to making each believer a fit temple of the Holy Spirit (see, for instance, Ephesians 1:15-19 and 3:14-21). If you don’t take this into account, you’re not considering the true person. You’ve been fooled by a temporary – though real – mask.

That person you’re thinking of even now, if they’re a believer in Christ, is not who they will one day be. The weaknesses will be gone. The sins will disappear. He will be radiant with Christ’s glory. She will stand spotless in the presence of God. That future identity trumps all present realities. Those are masks, temporarily hiding what is true and what is real. And so we must learn to see behind the mask.

3 Questions to Ask Before Responding to a Controversy

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If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it still make a sound? Yes, but the better question is if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, who cares? If you found out a tree fell would you go tell others? Would you blog or tweet about it? Probably not.

And that’s precisely how we ought to treat many “controversies”. A controversy is only controversial if people talk about it. If we let it lie there like the tree in the forest it’s just something dumb that was said or done and then it goes away. And far fewer people get hurt in the process too.

So many mistakes get blown into controversies by people’s responses to them. Before we decide to write, post, or speak a public rejoinder here are three questions to consider.

1.    Am I really the one to respond to this?

What gives me reason to think that I should be the one raking Miley Cyrus over the coals or blasting a bunch of old white guys for hating rap? Should someone? Maybe, but why me? Just having a strong opinion on the issue isn’t enough. There better be a doggone good reason to enter into the fray.

2.    Do I have something to say that others are not already saying?

Most public responses are restatements of something that’s already been said. If you have nothing fresh to offer, please don’t offer it. All you’re doing is piling on and brining in new readers or hearers who otherwise could innocently go about their business. Pay attentions to who is saying what so that you aren’t just another loud mouth pushing a controversy to new lows.

3.    Is my response going to help solve or help escalate?

Don’t fool yourself into thinking your contribution will be the last nail in the coffin. Seriously consider whether you will be stirring up or settling down, hurting or healing. Will you be leading people further into the dispute or leading them to freedom from it?

Ego makes these questions nearly impossible to answer for ourselves, so we must have honest (and blunt) sounding boards. We need people to save us from our own delusions. Find these people and listen to them.

So often, more damage is done through spreading controversy than through ignoring it. I can already see hackles rising on many of you. “But we must respond with CONVICTION! We can’t let so-and-so- get away with whatever!” And to a point you’re right. Some actions must not be ignored. Ask yourself this before responding: Was it malicious, unjust, prominent, authoritative, or personally connected to me? If it is some combination of these it might deserve your ire. But even then, it’s often better to let the tree fall, let the echoes die away, and let it decay where it lies.

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Come On, Be Reasonable And Do It My Way!

“Let your reasonableness be known to all.” That command is in the Bible, though you wouldn’t know it if you were surveying the American church today. We have forgotten it completely, and I don’t mean “forgotten” as in “rationalized away.” I mean legitimately wiped from church memory.

If you were to choose labels for what you see in Christianity today “reasonableness” would be nowhere near the top of the list. Outrage, bombast, extremism, polarity, partisan, sectarian, reactive, over-reactive, accusatory, judgmental, defensive, insulting, ignorant, fearful, hypocritical and others would likely come to mind first. If you wanted to find a more positive description you might go with well-intentioned, determined, or industrious. Of course no one of those terms, negative or positive, accurately sums up the church, but they would be higher on the list than “reasonable.”

Somewhere along the line — you can blame the Enlightenment if you’d like — we decided reasons equaled reasonableness. If we could defend an idea or an action then it was reasonable (even if the reasons were poor). Our hope, and much of our identity, rests in argumentation. And ironically this is often at the expense of being reasonable. Our arguments are loud, long, and aggressive. We “win” them with shows of force and pointed slogans. And we do make them known to everyone.

Real reasonableness is a blend of conviction and patience blended with some empathy and a willingness to engage multiple perspectives. “Engaging” doesn’t mean fighting; it means interacting with graciously. To be reasonable one must be able to stand firm and be gentle at the same time, to know what you believe but communicate it without any of the ad hominem or straw man foolishness so prevalent today. A reasonable person observes much, listens much, then processes and responds. He doesn’t react.

Underpinning all true reasonableness is a constant acknowledgment that God is God. Nobody who is trying to play God in any part of life can be reasonable. Instead we ought to have a confidence in God, in his sovereignty. Sometimes this looks like gritted teeth and a bitten tongue and other times it’s as smooth as butter and as sweet as honey. But no matter what, only by remembering that God is God can we love the unlovable, even our enemies (another forgotten command). If we rest in the reality that God is sovereign we are able to set aside our reasons and actually become reasonable.

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Why. Can’t. You. See. What. I’m. Saying?!?

Hey, remember that one time when your child/spouse/friend/coworker sinned against you, and you went to them to speak about the sin, and you spoke all the right, eloquent, exact, pointed, correcting words, and they immediately saw the error of their ways, dropped to their knees, and repented with tears? Hold on just a second! That didn’t happen to you? Me neither! I have to correct my children for the same thing over and over and over. Why don’t they get what I’m saying? Maybe I need to say it differently, with more force, with more gentleness, with more scripture, with less scripture. I just need to figure out the right combination of words, then they’ll get it!

Jen often has to correct me for sins we’ve already talked about many times. What is my problem? What is her problem? Is she not saying the right words? If I’m not getting it, she must be doing something wrong, right? Maybe she needs to raise her voice, lower her voice, scream, whisper, choose different words, simpler words.

What these situations reveal is that ultimately, we cannot change a person. As Zack Eswine says in his book Sensing Jesus:

Somewhere along the way, those of us gifted with words will receive a painful reminder that it is Jesus and not our explanations that can change a heart. Words aren’t strings. People aren’t puppets. Eloquent speech isn’t magic.

Zack is speaking to pastors, but the truth applies across the board. Only Jesus can change a person’s heart. We may have all the appropriate biblical ammunition, we may have carefully crafted arguments, we may have righteous anger, but none of these things can change a person. I can raise my voice, or slow down my words, as if I’m speaking to a foreigner, but none of these things will change my children. My words don’t have the power to change their hearts. Only Jesus can do that. Jen may have numerous real-life examples of my sin, and she may speak to me in the most gentle, humble way (which she often does). But those things can’t change me. Only Jesus can do that.

When tension arises in a relationship, we are immediately confronted with the fact that we are not Jesus. We can’t cause people to be convicted of their sins, no matter how eloquently or forcefully we speak. Only Jesus can convict a person of their sins. Only Jesus can change a person’s heart. When we run into a relational brick wall, we need to immediately run to Jesus and ask him to do the work that we can’t. He must change our children. He must work in our spouse. He must soften our coworkers.

Trying to do the work of Jesus is exhausting and frustrating. Trust me, I’ve tried many times and failed many times. We need to let Jesus do his work in his time.

+photo by Demi Brooke

How To NOT Win Someone To Your Side

Apparently, Rush Limbaugh isn’t trying to win Sandra Fluke to his side.

After she testified in support of mandatory employer health coverage of contraception before a nonofficial congressional committee Mr. Limbaugh called Ms. Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.”  Can you imagine her saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry I testified. I can see now I was wrong.  Thanks for setting me straight with those tactful words.”  Ain’t gonna happen.

You can’t win someone to your side when you are in an adversarial relationship with them.

I once heard someone say you can’t win someone to your side when you’re in an adversarial relationship with them.  You won’t win someone who is pro-abortion to your side by getting in their face and yelling, “Murderer!  Baby killer!”  God tells us how to address those who oppose us:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

First of all we should not be quarrelsome.  We shouldn’t love to fight.  We shouldn’t love to get in there and argue.  Some people thrive on conflict.  Some people think they’re always right and smarter than everyone else.  It’s not enough to have the truth. God cares about how we present the truth.  He cares about our attitude when we present the truth.

Next we should be “kind to everyone.”  Everyone.  Even our enemies.  For we were once God’s enemies and he was kind to us.

We must patiently endure evil ourselves, and when we correct our opponents we must do it “with gentleness.”  Not sarcasm, insults, or inflammatory slurs.

Proverbs says a harsh word stirs up anger but a gentle answer turns away wrath (Pr 15.21).  We won’t win anyone to our side with harsh words – we’ll only make them angry and entrench them more deeply against us.  But when we correct them with gentleness, we will turn away their wrath, and that can prepare the way for God to work.

Which is where we must put our trust.  Not in our persuasiveness or superior reasoning or arguing skills but in God.  That’s why Paul tells Timothy, correct with gentleness in the hope that “God may perhaps grant them repentance…”

Christians must certainly stand for truth and speak out.  But let us address our opponents with kindness and gentleness, then trust God to do what only he can do – change their hearts.