A Note on Euphemisms for Sin: You’re Not Just “Broken”

sinChristians have become pretty good at thinking of euphemisms for sin (our acts and our condition). It’s fairly common to hear from pulpits and in worship tunes about Jesus dealing with our brokenness, weakness, failures, mistakes, and so on, often in a therapeutic and medical mode. And I think, so far as it goes, that’s not all that bad.

People lament it, but terms like those can be helpful in a number of ways. For one thing, they speak an initially non-threatening or relatable language to people for whom the term “sin” has lost its sense. As Francis Spufford points out, for many, the word ‘sin’ connotes nothing more than chocolates you shouldn’t eat and lingerie.

Second, they can help broaden our conception of sin as both acts that we do and a condition that we’re in. Many have no idea what it is to be a sinner, but surveying their lives, their choices, the chaos without and within, they do know something is radically broken.

Also, I think they can help us understand that element of sin that makes us pitiable and “miserable.” Not all sin is experienced as this conscious, active rebellion. It feels like something we fall into, no matter how hard we run away or would like to avoid it. There’s something about the human condition in sin which makes it sorry and deserving of compassion. Sin is misery and wretchedness (Rom. 7:24). There is something broken about us.

What’s more, much that falls in this overall category of “sinful” behavior, thoughts, etc. which we speak of in euphemism, does have a non-culpable, psychological and medical component which should be dealt with as such. This should impact the way we pastor, counsel, and evaluate others in the Church. Some do struggle against heavier burdens. Telling someone to repent themselves out of a behavior linked to a chemical imbalance or childhood trauma is a recipe for pastoral malpractice. These things do need treatment, healing (human and divine).

But these euphemisms have their limits and so cannot replace or dominate our vocabulary for sin. This is so for at least a couple of reasons.

First, in Scripture, sin is defined theologically. Sin is sin because it is committed ultimately against and before God. This is the point of David’s bit of hyperbole when he says, “against you and you only have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). Taken flatly, it’s false. He stole Uriah’s wife and then had him killed; he sinned against him. Jesus himself speaks of us sinning against our neighbors (Matt. 18:15; Luke 17:4). All the same, David has cut to heart of it: primarily and ultimately, sin involves acts and a mindset hostile to God’s loving rule and his good law (1 John 3:4).

Recent euphemisms don’t quite capture this active sense of opposition, pride, hostility, and violation against God, his creatures, and his world.

Which leads to the second problem: most of these euphemisms (if used exclusively) downplay the agency and responsibility of persons. In general, they tend to move everything into the categories of the therapeutic and the medical, instead of the moral. But our condition cannot be reduced to these categories.

No, Scripture gives us a wide variety of terms like “transgression”, “iniquity”, “rebellion”, “idolatry”, “wickedness”, and, yes, “sin” straight-out. And there is something necessary about using these words to describe the myriad forms of human viciousness: hate, racism, adultery, slander, gossip, theft, cheating the poor, fornication, dishonoring our parents, lack of charity, insult, and so on.

We have collectively, and individually, ruined ourselves in setting ourselves in opposition to God’s goodness in these ways. In Adam, the moral break and rebellion preceded any other kind of brokenness which followed as a result.

What’s more, we actively make choices to set ourselves first before God and our neighbors daily. We choose what is easy or profitable or beneficial over what is right. And we rationalize it with just about any sort of defense that’s at hand–including the therapeutic.

And so we need to be able to name that and own it.

Indeed, there’s something healthy and morally empowering in hearing your sin named as sin. If you exclusively think of yourself in the realm of the therapeutic and medical, it’s hard for many to imagine repentance. You can’t repent of “brokenness” in the same way as you can of wickedness.

It can be bracing to hear someone say, “That is sin. You must turn to Christ and repent of it.” Of course, even to repent, we need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, but the way we relate to these things changes. I am an active, moral agent, making real choices one way or the other. And that matters.

This is not even close to a comprehensive statement on these things. If I had time and space, it would be good to discuss differences between acts and conditions, corruption, etc. It would be also fruitful to explore the dimension of sin that Scripture names as bondage and enslavement. God has an enemy who tempts, enslaves, and binds people to sin. And I think that forms something of a third category between the therapeutic and the moral dimensions.

At the end of the day, though, I’m simply saying we should not be reductionists about sin. It is a multi-faceted reality and we should speak as diversely and complexly about it as Scripture does.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Cornelius Plantinga’s discussion in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a good place to start thinking about this stuff.

A Note on Biography, Theology, and Ad Hominem

Nietzsche187a

Nietzsche was the master of the ad hominem.

I’ve been thinking about arguments again, but this time with respect to the turn to first-person narratives in the broader internet landscape, and within the online, Evangelical world. One of the persistent features of these sorts of essays is the move from “personal story to general point.” You tell your harrowing, or odd, or funny story, etc. and then move to what you learned from it (and maybe what we can all learn). In church circles, we often make theological points this way, especially if we can tie it to a major change of mind on some issue.

It’s an engaging way of making a point and so it has come to dominate much Internet publication culture. But more than any other style, it also tends to tie people to their positions in a way other modes of writing (a persuasive essay, inductive argument, etc.) do not. That’s true in the broader cultural phenomenon as well as theological writing in Church circles.

Now, I don’t have space for a full-on analysis of this style, its benefits, its grounding, or how much it actually connects to Biblical narrative, or even Evangelical testimonials. I just want to make two or three points about what it seems to do to our ability to talk to one another in a dispute.

Reactive Reading. If you have been trained, either by reading or writing this way, to sort of insert yourself into the argument all the time, this tends to make people reactive readers. In other words, you may be prone towards assuming you’re the intended audience, or target of a piece, when you couldn’t be further from the author’s mind.

This matters because it may cause you to misread the piece. For instance, you may fill in bits of the argument from your own (assumed) analogous experience, and thereby change the shape of what an author is saying. I have seen this happen and have had it happen to my own arguments more than once. (This is actually why I am prone to excessive caveating.)

In any case, this bogs down communication and understanding horribly.

Argument confused with Ad HominemConnected to this is the tendency to confuse arguments with ad hominems. If your story is your argument for X (Calvinism, Gay Marriage, a Trump Vote, vaccines, etc.), then if I argue against X, it’s very easy for you to feel hurt, be offended by the “tone”, or to take it as a personal assault or insult to you. And this could be the case even if I very studiously avoid commenting on your story at all.

And this hinders discussion in at least two ways: it injects an extra note of personal hostility where none may exist. Second. it confuses the nature of the argument immediately. So instead of dealing with the various premises put forward by one person, we’re now focused on managing the feelings of the second, and none of the issues are actually clarified.

Argument replaced with Ad Hominem as Conversation-stopper. Finally, this tendency encourages us to actually replace arguments with ad hominems. The more theology is reduced to biography without remainder, the quicker we are to reach for ad hominems in the middle of an argument. “Well, you would say that since you’re X…”

There is, of course, a point to noting nobody is an identity-less thinker. I’m a married, 30-year-old, bilingual, tri-cultural, Arab, Hispanic male who lives in the States, grew up in SoCal, and is in grad school for theology. There’s a story there and it impacts my perspective on the world and even my theological development and positions. Perspective does matter. Hear me say that.

But simply noting these facts about perspective logically cannot (and morally should not) stop an argument dead in its tracks. Especially when it is used to leap-frog over arguments entirely.

This move has the effect, first, of reducing persons to key identity-markers and not recognizing them as individual, Image-bearers in any conversation. Second, it is unsatisfying and likely to backfire in the long-run, because the quicker you shut down the conversation this way, the more likely it is that you have left the argument (and the arguer) unanswered. And so they (and onlookers) may be cowed into silence for now, but the issue is still there festering.

Or, again, it encourages us to rely heavily on the argument from inconsistency or hypocrisy, “How can you say Y, when you have done X?” Now, there may indeed be an inconsistency in a person’s position or life, but that doesn’t immediately invalidate an argument. It just means the person is a hypocrite, or a sinner (ie. human), or maybe you’re just being massively unfair.

In any case, this happens all the time in online debates, and I suspect it is connected to this tendency to first-personalize every issue. Arguments about issues are not arguments about truth, but power-grabs and defensive moves. We tend towards the “what this really means” defense.

(And let me note from the examples I mentioned above, this tendency isn’t just about theological conversations in Evangelicalism. It is everywhere. Watch how quickly someone on the political Right spits out the word “elitist” at someone when the argument isn’t going their way.)

Golden Rule Reading (and Arguing)

I have passed over too many details and nuances too quickly. Still, I think these brief considerations ought to give us pause. I’m not saying we ought to ban first-person narratives, nor think about the relation to biography to theology, nor am I even rejecting the appropriateness of an ad hominem from time to time. I am simply encouraging us to take notice of these tendencies and be careful of them.

Do I tend to insert myself into articles or arguments too quickly? Am I prone towards narcissistic reading?

Do I tend to feel insulted by arguments all the time? Are people constantly needing to explain their meaning to me all the time to clarify their lack of ill-intent?

Do I tend to reach for biographical or ad hominem arguments quickly? Do I tend to do so before I actually engage the argument under consideration?

Again, it comes down to an application of the Golden Rule in our reading and our arguing: Read as you’d like to be read.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Beware Quote-Tweeting Before the Mob

simpsons mob.png

The Quote-Tweet is possibly the best, and easily the worst part about Twitter. On the positive side, the humor possibilities are endless. You get to set yourself up for all sorts of ironic one-liners, dumb jokes with friends, and so forth. Also, there is the ease of RTing a story you want to share and offering a quick comment. Or adding your voice of support to amplify the wisdom of others. So, that’s pretty nifty. I really enjoy those things.

But it’s also fairly awful in its ability to accelerate and metastasize any minor spat, news event, or social faux pas into a full-blown meltdown. Alan Jacobs noticed the awful, outrage-stoking potential of the basic retweet the other day. Sonny Bunch followed that up by pointing out the even more damaging potential of the quote-tweet:

The quote tweet is less effective as a tool for virality than the retweet but in some ways more vicious, as it turns Twitter into a constant battle for one-liner supremacy. Making the snarkiest, smarmiest joke in the quickest time ensures that your own tweet is retweeted. The dings, the pings, the bells, the buzzers: it all sets us to salivating, Pavlov vindicated. It’s why Twitter is so damn addictive—and nothing addictive is good for you.

I have complained about the quote-tweet for a while, so I was glad to see this.

But I think the thing I distrust and despise most is the potential quote-tweets have for stoking and recruiting angry mobs; for erecting digital pillories for our neighbors. There are various forms of this.

Sometimes you see it when people start quote-tweeting a major figure who says something you decide to comment on. Now, that’s mostly fair game, I suppose. And especially when the person is such a big figure you might as well be quoting a news source since it’s likely they won’t see it.

But then there’s the sort of person who is always looking find big fish on the other side, catch ’em, grill ’em, and serve ’em up to their public for the sake of notoriety-through-conflict and applause. This doesn’t necessarily harm the quote-tweeted figure, but it seems like the kind of practice that isn’t good for your soul, nor that of your neighbor.

At other times, you’ll see quote-tweet debates emerge. These are interesting to watch in a slow-motion car crash sort of way. First you have people just @-ing each other directly, like a conversation, or even a Facebook thread. People can still follow it if they follow both of you, but they’re looking in at a conversation of sorts.

But then someone turns. They are provoked, get mad enough, and they decide to quote-tweet their sparring partner in order to “argue” with them in front of all their followers. I saw this the other day. It was remarkable. Two people were going back and forth, one finally decides he’s annoyed enough, so he switch from conversation to quote-and-burn, putting the other person on the spot in front of thousands of his followers.

I get this picture of two people discussing on the street. Then, upon noticing a group walking by, suddenly one guy turns, grabs the other, points him towards the group, and stands behind him to yell answers in his ear in their direction. As a conversational dynamic, it’s bizarre. As a mob-stoking tactic, it makes some sense.

I’m reminded of the scene in Beauty and the Beast where Belle is trying to convince everyone that the Beast isn’t dangerous. Gaston just sort of keeps turning to the mob after every phrase she utters in order to use it to stir them up.

Of course, in that moment, it’s very clear the conversation is over. The other person is no longer a dialogue partner. It’s no longer even a simple, public debate. They are now an opportunity to display your prowess, prove your point, and vindicate yourself.

Quote-tweeting in the middle of a discussion immediately turns it into a performative battle, a spectacle in the agon. It’s your way of recruiting a sympathetic audience who will hopefully join forces with you against the hordes of fools opposing you.

I don’t have a real prescriptive point, here except to call more attention to its potential for awfulness. I’m not issuing a total ban on the quote-tweet. Again, it has its place and its uses. I kind of endorse shutting anonymous trolls that way because I think anonymous troll accounts are cowardly and their own sort of evil. I’m just saying, guard your hearts on this. If you’re at all worried about the way internet discourse is contributing to the fracture and polarization of the culture, and especially within the Church, have a care.

Especially if you’re tempted by and feed off of the “positive” response that this sort of public take-down artistry garners us. Remember, your most RTed self ends up becoming your real self.

I also suppose it’s good to point this out for people with high profiles and follower counts on Twitter. Be aware of the relative, potentially-major power advantage you have against that random tweeter who happens to annoy you that day. Quote-tweeting someone, putting them on blast (even if they “deserve” it), can lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences once your potential mob of sympathetic followers gets a hold of a fresh target to scapegoat. And if they can do it in defense of a righteous cause? Even better.

A friend of mine ended up getting quote-tweeted (and misread) by a couple dozen people “on the other team” with high follower accounts. She ended up handing it over to a friend for a couple of days to avoid the volume and kind of scummy responses in her mentions. None of the major accounts said anything vile, but they have enough followers who will when they’re set up for it.

I guess I’ll end with two points. We probably need to spend more time the book of Proverbs. There is a lot of wisdom in their for the cultivation of godly, online, speech habits, which is not something Christians can ignore in a social media age.

Second, to paraphrase our Lord, “Tweet your neighbor as you yourself would like to be tweeted. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2).

Soli Deo Gloria

Tweeting Yourself Into An Identity

I was struck by an unoriginal thought about Twitter today. It holds for most other forms of social media as well, I suppose. It’s simply this: Twitter is not simply a medium for the self-expression of our given or chosen identity, but for the formative construction of our identity. And not always in a conscious way.

Some of us consciously go onto social media looking to project a particular version of ourselves which is more idealized than real. But Twitter easily turns into this subconscious feedback loop.

First you start tweeting things. Various things. Links, thoughts, jokes, aphorisms, political opinions, insults, or whatever occurs to you. But then, some of those get more responses than others. They get the most favorites or retweets.

Most of us like getting favorites or retweets. So we notice what type of content gets that. Is it the funny jokes? The angry political thoughts? The prophetic word about the Church? The earnest Jesus-aphorisms? The encouraging nuggets of wisdom?

Whatever it is, you begin to think more and more along that groove, posting more in that vein, and getting more positive feedback. So you start adopting that role more and more: inane humorist, earnest preacher-man, prophet, purveyor of wisdom, screen-shot guy, emotive relater, political pundit.

Pretty soon, your “most retweeted self” becomes a stronger feature of your real-world self as you inhabit that identity more and more. It might have always been part of your personality make-up, or skill-set, but it increases in dominance as it is positively reinforced online.

In any case, for some, the positive retweets/likes become a confirmation of my need to be “who I really am”, which is this most-retweeted self. And so you begin living into this more consciously and it’s now a reinforcing cycle.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes people find their voice online. Others develop a skill-set that plays out positively in their practical career. For myself, I actually got a bit pithier and punchier in my preaching for a while, when I was thinking about how to make my points more tweetable, like proverbs. It’s not all negative.

That said, a friend pointed out online that Twitter tends to reward either generic, positivity or anger. Maybe you have had different experiences, but there’s something to that.

This isn’t awful, but it can have all sorts of negative effects unless we’re careful. Some of us may be influenced to timidity and quietude when we ought to speak up (Eph. 6:19). Others of us maybe tempted to speak in anger, when Proverbs might urge a soft answer (Prov. 15:1). And in either case, it’s forming our hearts.

I bring this up for those of us who dwell online simply to consider the way our tweeting and updating may be forming us for good or ill. In that vein, here are a few questions to consider.

Is this who I really want to be?” I mean, honestly, do I want to be a spouter of inanities? A purveyor of proverbs? An encourager? A prophet? A counselor? A political pundit? A cultural observer? Or even more, “Is this all I want to be?” Am I reducing myself to this role?  Or, “Is who I am becoming online impinging on who I am becoming in real life in positive or negative ways?”

Pastors probably need to think about this more than they do. Some are too scared to speak when then ought. But others should really consider the way their online activity is feeding back into their congregational care.

“Who is giving me this affirmation?” The internet is such that you can find all sorts of people to affirm your thoughts if you’re sufficiently skilled at packaging them, or adopting popular modes of speech. Popularity does not ensure health.

Is your speech receiving affirmation from the people whose judgment you trusted before you went online? Am I becoming someone my loved ones recognize? Am I becoming someone who the wisest people who love me most and want the best for me would encourage me to be?

I suppose I’ll just close with a Jesus-juke and say, “Remember, the only RT that matters most, is the RT we get in our identity in Christ.”  Or, more Biblically, take care not to love “the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43).

Soli Deo Gloria

Assorted Thoughts on #TGC17

no other gospelThis last week I had the privilege of attending TGC’s National Conference for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There was a focus on Galatians and remembering the legacy of the Reformers for the sake of the Church of today.  I have to say, overall it was a very encouraging time. I would commend the audio to all the breakout sessions to you when it becomes available at TGC’s website. For now, the main plenaries are up and worth your time.

I have no grand thesis or synthesis about it, but a few assorted thoughts now that I’m home and am somewhat recovered.

The Gospel is Really Good News. First, I just enjoyed hearing as much preaching out of Galatians as I did. I know that you can preach the gospel from any book, but you basically trip over it in every verse in Paul’s power-packed epistle. Hearing careful Scriptural preaching regarding justification, the history of redemption, Christian liberty, and the cross is one of the better ways of remembering and carrying on the legacy of the Reformation. Beyond that, it just ministered to my soul.

Older Preachers. Second, I was struck when listening to Sandy Wilson’s talk on Galatians 2 what a blessing it is to hear older preachers. When I was a younger man (say 20), I loved hearing the dynamic 30-year-olds preaching. I podcasted some of the hip, young voices whose references and humor sensibilities were closer to mine and really wanted to imitate them. Now that I’m 30, I love listening to preachers in their sixties.

Obviously, they’ve had years of practice and experience. But that’s not the whole of it. Plenty of young preachers are fine expositors and skilled orators. Beyond technical skill, though, there is a qualitative difference that comes with years of wisdom, maturity, heart-ache, and being closer to the end rather than the beginning of the ministry race. It’s like there’s a different energy. I’ve heard Tim Keller comment that with younger preachers, you’re more likely to pick up the subtext under the exposition that says, “Do you like me? Am I smart? Good? Funny?” or whatever, that is more likely to have evaporated in the years of the crucible of ministry.

I’m not sure there’s an obvious set of tips to get there besides prayer, living life, and growing up. Also, as a note to young preachers, if you listen to other preachers, mix it up. Don’t ignore the great preachers of our parents’ generation. Even if you don’t resonate immediately with the style, there’s gold to be gleaned, not just in content, but I think in spiritual presence and wisdom.

Marriage and Real Life. When you write and do the sort of work that leads to friendship through correspondence and social media, one of the great things about conferences is being able to hang out in the flesh. Email and Twitter are fine, but face to face solidifies things.

This time I was able to bring my wife along, though, and it’s interesting what a difference that makes. For one thing, I didn’t have to miss her, which is huge.

But beyond that, I was reminded of Matthew Lee Anderson’s theory that you can’t really call someone your friend until they have met your spouse. Matt is absurd to the extent to which he takes it, of course. Still, every time she met another one of my “writing friends”, it felt like they were finally meeting another part of me–or rather, a fuller version of me. It’s like two halves of your life no longer feel quite so bifurcated.

I suppose it’s a testimony to the way marriage really is a matter of joining lives, uniting the two into one flesh. There’s a real sense in which don’t really know me until you know McKenna.

Millennials and Their Parents. Beyond attending, I did give a talk on Millennials at one of the breakout sessions. That was a blessing and an honor. For those who were praying, thank you. One thing I’ll say is that I was very encouraged by the conversations I had after the session. I got the chance to talk to a few different kinds of people who came. Some were young types looking to minister to their friends in their churches. Others were older pastors who were genuinely striving to understand this generation. I already knew this, but there is good work being done in the church despite some of the stats we read.

Maybe my favorite, though, were the parents who were there. One lady in particular, Kathy, was a joy. She was one of the volunteers helping out at the event. I asked her why she was here volunteering and she replied laughing, “Millennials.” Kathy and her husband had something like 4 or 5 children in the age bracket and had just made the decision move to after 30 years at their old church to a new one that had maybe two other people their age, with the rest being Millennials. Smiling the whole time, she just said she couldn’t understand these kids or how to serve them, but she was trying.

That heart to sacrifice comfort to move, and seek to love a group she didn’t understand well, but wanted to love gave me so much hope. I told her that just being there, walking up to them, inviting them over for dinner, and being married in front of them is probably the best thing her and her husband can do to love them well. The more Kathys we have the in Church, the more hope I have for the Millennials within it.

Well, that’s it for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

On Signalling Versus Displaying Virtue in a Trumpian Age

trumpI had a few thoughts on the notion of virtue-signalling after watching this first week of the Trump Presidency, the Women’s March, and the March for Life unfold online.

Virtue is a good thing, which is why thinking yourself or being thought to possess virtue is an attractive prospect.

This basic reality funds the critique of what’s recently been termed “virtue-signalling” (though, arguably the concept is as old as Plato’s Republic Bk. 2). In a nutshell, the idea is that in an online age, much of our public talk about justice (tweets, likes, shares, Facebook rants) is just that: public talk. We share the right links, yes, maybe because we care about an issue, but more importantly because we need to be seen to care about it. Indeed, we need to see it in order to assure ourselves.

This is one of the many factors contributing to the regular cycles of social media frenzy about everything from the silly (an insensitive tweet by a celebrity at 3 am) to the serious (President Trump’s executive order). Indeed, social media exacerbates the problem since it’s basically geared towards the practice. There’s now a digital trail of what you have or haven’t said across various formats, which can easily be compared to our peers. Having been online for a while, this seems to be at least part of the problem and a helpful tool for cultural analysis.

I know that in many instances, especially after a tragedy or an outrage, there’s a pressure to tweet or post about it to make sure everybody knows that I too care. I too am saddened, or grieved. I fear that at times when I remain silent, or have found out about something late, I’ll be thought callous for having not said anything.

Of course, with any fancy new word or concept, it can be used cynically. In which case, for those with a more jaded eye, or on the other side of a particular issue, all of the protests, tweets, and so forth are basically just virtue-signalling. This critique tends especially to be leveled by conservatives against progressives whose tribal identification seems to encourage that.

And since Newton’s Third Law generally applies to these sorts of things, I have now seen various progressives complain about the very notion of critiquing public displays of virtue. Why would virtue be anything to critique? Seems worth emulating and encouraging. Indeed, we ought to be cynical about the cynicism and see nothing but self-protection in this.

Jesus on Signalling Virtue

As Christians, it seems wise to look to Jesus at this point. Did he have anything to say about virtue-signalling? Possibly. Let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

 Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:1-6)

Note that Jesus does not condemn prayer, or giving to the needy, or even giving to the needy in public (which is probably where you have to do it). He condemns “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” It is the hypocrisy, the play-acting at virtue which aims at human praise for the self. It is seeking the reward of being thought virtuous instead of  the reward of having pleased the Father.

So, it seems that being wary of virtue-signalling isn’t simply a 21st Century worry, but a 1st Century one.

But, of course, that’s not the whole of the story. Take this famous image at the beginning of the Sermon:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)

It seems that at one level, then, Christians ought to be concerned for others to see their virtue. When we obey, when we display the attitudes and practice the justice that Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon, the hope is that we will be shown to be daughters and sons of the good Father. Peter echoes a very similar thought in his first letter to Christian “exiles” living among their pagan neighbors (1 Peter. 2:9-12).

We have, then, these two streams of teaching to set in tension. Christians, at some level, ought to be concerned to display the virtue of God to our neighbors because it is right, and so that God can be glorified. But we should also be quite unconcerned with whether they think we are particularly virtuous. Their approval, their estimation of us as virtuous people should not be what we seek.

I would also add for those who pride themselves on not caring what others think, that our self-conception can fall under this ban as well. Many of us are deeply invested in the project of proving to ourselves that we are quite virtuous. Which is why it’s so exceptional when Paul says he doesn’t even pass judgment on himself, but leaves judgment to the Lord (1 Cor. 4).

As my language has already indicated, we might describe it as the difference between displaying virtue and signalling virtue.

Reflections for the Current Time

I bring this up now because it’s something I think many of us will be wrestling with in days, weeks, and years to come. Knowing how, when, and why to speak will be increasingly difficult in an online context that seems to accelerate every day. The breakneck speed at which we come to find things out, are expected to have researched, processed and rendered a thoughtful judgment, and then subsequently either acted or spoken on it seems unsustainable and unhealthy.

[As a side-note, I find it impossible that any, let alone most, of us are competent enough to have informed opinions on all the issues that matter in our world today (excepting rare insomniac journalists). It’s beyond ludicrous that we should all need to make them public.]

Returning to the issue of virtue-signalling, one thing we’ll have to wrestle with is how much we allow shame to be a motivator for our action. I can’t tell you how often I have see others putting public pressure on people to speak to an issue, to “use their voice”, etc. Now, in some cases, it may be warranted. Some may be refraining from speech out of fear, cowardice, or self-protective vanity. This is not good. God’s children are told to risk prophetic speech at the proper times.

And yet others do so out of care, a circumspect nature, a desire to not add another ill-informed voice to a conversation about which they know very little, or a wariness about getting sucked into the reactivity of the internet. Some are just busy working a job, caring for children, and the regular cares of everyday life.  In these cases, shaming someone into action can end up provoking guilty silence, cynicism, or the sort of breathless exhaustion which causes people to give up speech altogether.

Another point we ought to be wary of is the way tribal identification can play into this. We don’t just signal virtue broadly to the world, but virtues connected to shared identities within particular tribes and sub-cultures. I had one progressive friend share support for the March for Life this week, only to quickly caveat that she couldn’t be that excited since so many involved were also vocal supporters of torture. (To which my initial thought was, “Well, I’m pretty sure the dead infants didn’t support it.”) The point is that you can’t simply work for a good cause tout court, but you have carefully signal that you’re doing it in ways that align with the virtues your tribe shares.

Of course, similar examples can be dredged up the on the right.

Indeed, here I think tribal loyalties can stop us from speaking out when our conscience tells us we should. Precisely because we don’t want to be seen as the sort of person who virtue-signals about popular issues like race and sex, or participates in the “media freakout” over Trump, we curb our tongues. Ironically enough, one can signal the right sort of critical distance from the fray by refusing to signal. But this is not wise taming of the tongue that pleases the Father (Jas. 3:1-12), but posturing for a crowd.

I suppose the point I’m circling back around to is one I made recently about our work for justice in racial reconciliation. When we work for justice, we do so not for the approval of the most vocal advocates, but because we are children of God. In the current moment, we ought to speak, then, not to signal our virtue, but to display the goodness of God at work in transforming us. If this is our fundamental posture, I think that ought to change things for some of us.

Some of us will be relieved of the pressure to speak about anything and everything. Others of us will be freed from needing to make sure all of our speech conforms to the trends of our favored social group. And still others may be energized and given voice to speak freely at all.

As Christians, it should also change not only whether we speak, but how we speak. Signalling our virtue to our particular tribe doesn’t typically help us cultivate wise voices, but sharp, toxic tongues attuned to the art of the soundbite and the take-down. Of course, the take-down is appropriate from time to time (see Matthew 23). My point is that when our identities aren’t at stake every post on every issue, grace can more easily pervade our speech, even in disagreement.

Finally, some of us might be moved to do more than just speak. If we’re less concerned about displaying than signalling virtue, we’ll allows ourselves to step away from a screen long enough to do something tangible about those issues that trouble our world.

Purified Speech and Prayer

For all of this, I think Christians will need to be particularly attentive to their prayer lives. In reading Sarah Coakley’s stimulating work, God, Sexuality, and the Self, I’ve become convicted that I haven’t payed enough attention to the disciplines of contemplation and prayer in my theological studies. These disciplines shape and form us, make us attentive to the Spirit, and pliable to hear the voice of the Lord in the Word.

How much more do I need that for my online engagement, where I am bombarding with manifestly unholy voices?

It seems now more than ever, for those of us who live much of our lives online, we need to take a disciplined step back and engage in practices that will purify our souls. To curb the influence of the toxic, frenetic voices, as well as protect us from becoming cynical and jaded.

We come around again to Jesus’ injunction, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” It is he who is our reward, and it is only by spending time with him that we will learn to become sons and daughters who display virtue, without merely signalling it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Work Unto the Lord, Not Unto the Advocate

elijah-in-the-desertAdvocating for justice is a difficult business at the best of times. This is not only because we are fallen sinners, but because we are finite and the world is a complex place. Moral discernment takes hard-won wisdom, passion, and a great deal of humility. Acting on it takes even greater courage and care. Few places seem require this more than the painful struggles around racial reconciliation and justice, both in the broader culture as well as within the walls of the Church.

Unfortunately, it seems particularly easy for discouragement to set in at just this point.

I do not consider myself an expert in these matters, though I have written on them occasionally. Still, I wanted to briefly speak to one particular sort discouragement: that of the frustrated ally. I have noticed among some of my white friends (especially Evangelicals) who care and speak out on issues of racial injustice and bias (often in the face of opposition), a disappointment and weariness that sets in when it seems that their efforts go unrecognized.

This discouragement sets in especially when some POC (people of color) advocates speak as if there are no white allies trying to stand alongside them. Or as if the efforts of certain allies still aren’t good enough—or indeed shouldn’t be seen as true efforts at all.

At that point, for some the question can become, “Why even bother?” And I get that. I’m not white (Arab and Hispanic), so I don’t typically struggle with white-guilt about these sorts of things. But I can imagine a bit of the frustration, especially if you felt you’d sacrificed and were doing your level-best from the heart.

To that frustration I would speak a few quick points and one major encouragement that might be summed up as, “Work unto the Lord, not unto the advocate.”

First, if you’re aiming your efforts in part to please the loudest voices for justice out on social media you’re setting yourself up for frustration. Prophetic voices are not often looking to hand out praises to those who are doing work that is the basic responsibility of Christians anyways. Also, the prophetic mindset is often more keenly attuned to what is wrong, what is still broken and needs to be alleviated, than applauding what is going right with some. Third, they are humans as well, who cannot see all and speak to all things. Finally, you should consider that they might not even be talking about you.

Second, I’ll be very Calvinistic and say that, as sinners, we often tend to evaluate our efforts more highly than we ought to anyways. I know I do that myself. In which case, there is likely more to forgive in our best works for reconciliation than we’d like to admit in the first place. We need to not rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn from these voices and to grow in our work unto the Lord, by letting our first instinct be that of self-vindication. They are not perfect, and they may be missing some of the good in your work, but the Lord can use them to sharpen us nonetheless.

Third, following this, we need to remember that all of our work is done unto the Lord anyways.  As Jesus puts it in his brief parable, at the end of all of his hard work, all any faithful servant can really say is, “‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10). God does not owe us for our hard work for justice. We are to work, sweat, struggle, cry, pray, and go to bed only to wake up and go through the same cycle over again, simply because it is the proper obedience due to our Lord who wills justice.

Fourth, and this is probably the most important point, it is to the Lord that we work. And this is the forgiving, saving Lord who is our Righteousness. It is unto the gracious One whose eyes behold heaven and earth, who judges the living and the dead that we turn our efforts. In which case, we know that even if others do not see our efforts for what they are, he does. And on the right day, he will vindicate them and reward them.

What’s more, even our most impure efforts he will forgive and accept, for (as Lewis says) he is a gracious Father who is never satisfied, but quite easily pleased by the stumbling first steps of his children. Indeed, Jesus says there is a special blessing from the Father for those good works done without any public recognition (Matt. 6:4). This is a special encouragement to work from a pure heart unto the Lord alone.

That said, we should recall we have already been vindicated in Christ. In which case, our efforts for justice in the world are no longer part of our project of self-justification. They are carried out in the power of the Spirit because we have been united by faith to the Just One, Jesus Christ. And he is the one who is at work in us, giving us the energy to do what is right whether or not the voices whose approval we seek give it or not. We love them and we serve them, but we serve them because we work unto the Lord.

Take heart, then. “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

Soli Deo Gloria