“Look at this ear I cut off, Lord! Isn’t it so bloody and ragged?”
“Did you cut that off of… Philip’s head?”
“Well, yeah, but did you hear what he said about…”
I’m trying to stop sneering. My own tendencies towards perfectionism and idealism have provided me with a perfect perch to sneer from: sneering at vapid worship music and the artifice of the megachurches it’s played in, sneering at conservatives too engrossed in their theology to realize that their heads are stuck up their own butts, sneering at suburbia and its denizens, sneering at the Trumpists, sneering at the anti-Trumpists, sneering at the people who just don’t get it, man. The problem is that sneering is spiritually poisonous to me and I’m not always in the right. Getting fixated and subsequently burned out on something true and good (but incomplete) at least sometimes accomplishes something good every now and then, but fearing, jeering, and sneering at the wrong kind of Christian can only breed spiritual toxicity without any real positive side effects.
I’ve been through a few periods of excessive zeal, cage stages you might call them. When I was a young teenager it was Calvinism. I need not describe it; I think most of us know how someone can get so excited about the doctrines of grace that they forget about the value of graciousness. Even now, two decades later, those doctrines are such medicine for my soul: I can still hardly read “No one can snatch them out of my hand” out loud without tears coming to my eyes. You know what I mean if you’ve ever wondered if you might be damned and whether it might be better to get on with your eternal damnation now rather than later. But now I can get all the benefits of loving and teaching those doctrines without having to be a jerk on the internet about it to anyone.
When I was in my late teens, it was all about poverty and missions, especially missions to unreached peoples. I don’t think I ever said it out loud, but I thought in my heart that missionaries who went to easy places just weren’t sold out for God enough. Well, now I’m in an easy place, relatively speaking, where I can buy real butter and put it in my fridge, and I’m happy that anything I said about the subject 15-20 years ago is like yesterday’s sandcastle on the internet.
One time on my blog I used that Tony Campolo quote about people getting more upset about using the word “shit” than about 30,000 children dying of starvation last night. A very wise mentor said to me that whenever I’m tempted to do something like that, I should think of a certain member of our church and say to myself, “Mr. _____ doesn’t give a shit about children dying of starvation.” That was really sound advice, because it turns out that most Christians do, in fact, give a shit about children dying of starvation and when you give them an opportunity to help deal with the problem, they will. Campolo’s quote is less accurate now (it’s more like 10,000 children every day now, still not great) in no small part because of Christian generosity towards aid organizations. There’s still a need to call Christians to care for the poor around the world, but you don’t need to be a jerk about it.
As with most things, when it comes to poverty or missions you’re just trying to get people to shift a little bit: you’re trying to get people who would normally never give any money to help others to give something, you’re trying to get people who would usually give a little to change their giving so that they’re actually sacrificing something they might otherwise spend money on to give, and you’re trying to get people who are afraid of going and doing something themselves to be willing to go. I’m not convinced that Campolo-style shock tactics helped Christians to give more, although maybe a few people were swayed. I got high on my own supply quoting Campolo and I’m glad that I went through that experience when I was a 19-year-old sophomore, but I also moved past it. If I was still talking like that now that I’m nearly twice as old, I would be an embarrassment to myself.
I don’t want to name any names, but grown adults who are two or three times 19 years old are still… well, a little too sophomoric for their own good. It’s cute (and understandable) when a 19-year-old in his cage stage does it, but it gets less cute the older one gets. These people who are embarrassing themselves may have a chance to grow up and realize that they are just standing there blowing raspberries into the wind, but only if they are ignored. Give them the silence they need to think about why their face is so wet and sticky all the time.
There are also folks out there with big platforms running their mouths in ways that no doubt lead people astray and bring shame to our Lord. Let them have their likes and retweets, they’ve received their reward in full. Getting bent out of shape about them all the time is giving yourself over to demons. It also usually means that you’re bent out of shape all the time, which is to say that your mind and heart are always deformed. And the more deformed you are, the less likely you will be able to hear or understand the truth.
Worst of all, there are folks who share the same basic commitments to the faith as you do, but they are wrong about something. It wouldn’t be a big deal if they were wrong about something inconsequential, but of course it’s always something important. Most of them genuinely love Jesus, are misguided on a crucial point of doctrine or ethics, and probably need to stop talking so much. You are allowed to ignore these people, too, if they are unwilling to learn from others. Getting wrapped around the axle with their personalities won’t help you cultivate the “sabbath of the soul” you need.
Yes, I’ve heard the arguments about being a Jerk For Jesus. I’ve made them myself from time to time and none of them work. We are to do as Jesus and Paul commanded us to do, not to imitate what they said. The next time you’re tempted to fool yourself with that move, ask yourself out loud: “Are my tweets subject to the same level of inspiration from the Holy Spirit as Paul’s epistles?” Say it out loud twice if you’re unsure. No matter how close to the truth you may be, there’s someone else out there who sounds just like you do, except they disagree with you, and a truly discerning ear won’t be able to tell the difference. Nobody needs to be an Asshole For Jesus; He has more than enough on His hands already to deal with.
This is not an argument for winsomeness, being nice, or not talking about things that offend people. (That was another phase that I got through before I turned 20, thank God.) I do think you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and I think that just because everyone around you likes to chug vinegar doesn’t mean that your arguments are actually gaining any purchase among the people that you need to convince. Everyone needs to take a good hard look at what they’ve been saying over the past few years and ask themselves whether it’s been good for their soul and whether it’s been good for the souls of the people listening.
Perhaps when I am three times 19 years old I will look back at my current affection for the Kichijiro Option and wince the way I do now about my Campolo phase. I have, over the years, had the opportunity to see the Holy Spirit working in all the people and places I sneered at. I have, correspondingly, seen the best ways go awry. If you’re not against us, you’re for us. And even if you are against us, man, I’ve got bigger things to worry about. There’s always a radical group of powerful elites trying to exploit others and cow the Church into silence and complicity, but if that’s all you can think about, you’re just playing someone else’s game. There’s a fatal flaw in every theological project or program, and if you don’t know what yours is, you are to be pitied.
Just because there’s a fatal flaw in everything doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. (We’re into The Long Defeat and all that.) I still think it’s good to ask people to care about important issues, to ask people to sacrifice their comfort and safety for the sake of those in need, to denounce what is false and evil for what it is, and to tell people the truth about how Jesus saves us from sin and restores us to ecstatic communion with God. Jesus does call us to take up our cross and follow Him, but everyone is going to interpret that command in different ways and it’s fruitless to get mad at someone else (or many other people) because the cross they chose to pick up happens to be made of balsa wood.
You should choose something good that you’re going to build up with other people, a program of resistance to the spirit of this age. You do have to choose to love some people, and it’s best if a few of them don’t necessarily love you back. It’s good to fight for what’s right, but the unfortunate condition of the world we’re in and the lives we inhabit is that fighting for the right thing too much or in the wrong way will kill your soul. Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org