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The Ordinary is not Comfortable: Richard Stearns' "Radical" Misreading

July 23rd, 2013 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Sometimes misreadings are simply unhelpful and uninteresting, but sometimes they help us understand and clarify.  Richard Stearns' misreading of my Christianity Today piece thankfully falls into the latter category.

In a Christianity Today cover story, the author wrote that the Good Samaritan didn’t do any of the things we call radical today. Instead it was “as he traveled” that he did something ordinary. He helped a person out. We just need to be faithful, the author says, “in our corporate jobs, in our middle-class neighborhoods … reaching out in quiet, practical, and loving ways.” True. But that represents just the start of the all-in commitment that Christ calls us to.

I think the critics of radical Christianity have got it wrong—they are encouraging Christians to play it safe, keep it comfortable.

The problem isn’t that we are asking too much of Christians who seem content with ordinary Christian lives. The problem—or should I say “opportunity”—is that the Gospel places much higher demands on Christians. We aren’t being radical enough!*

By way of a refresher, here's what I did say in that concluding paragraph:

For us in the pews, testing ourselves must include deliberating about our vocations and whether we are called to missions, or to a life of dedicated service to the poor, or to creating reminders with art and culture of the gospel's transcendent, everlasting hope. Discovering a radical faith may mean revisiting the ways in which faith can take shape in the mundane, sans intensifiers. It almost certainly means embracing the providence of God in our witness to the world. The Good Samaritan wasn't a good neighbor because he moved to a poor part of town or put a pile of trash in his living room. He came across the helpless victim "as he traveled." We begin to fulfill the command not when we do something radical, extreme, over the top, not when we're really spiritual or really committed or really faithful, but when in the daily ebb and flow of life, in our corporate jobs, in our middle-class neighborhoods, on our trips to Yellowstone and Disney World—and yes, even short-term mission trips—we stop to help those whom we meet in everyday life, reaching out in quiet, practical, and loving ways.

It's simply not the case that, as Stearnes put it, I "wrote that the Good Samaritan didn’t do any of the things we call radical today."  The good Samaritan clothed and cared for someone in distress, and under that description it fits with the "radical" ethos pretty well.  My main point was not so much about the particular actions per se, but the context where those actions arise, namely within the structure of an ordinary, mundane life where we attend to the opportunities already before us and entrust ourselves to the providence of God to bring more such opportunities in our paths as He deems fit.

But that's a minor point.  My real disagreement is when Stearnes suggests that I was "encouraging Christians to play it safe, keep it comfortable."

It is wholly possible that the good Samaritan was rather uncomfortable through the whole thing.  The reasons for treating the moment as a paradigmatic act of charity need no rehearsing here, but suffice to say that when I raised the point I was not suggesting that the Samaritan found the work before him easy.

And this is a crucial point, for to conflate "ordinary" with "comfortable" means that discipleship will constantly be tending to take us out of the ordinary, moving us away from the mundane structures of our lives and world.  That's maybe the right emphasis in a context where everyone has a high regard for living faithfully within such institutions to begin with.  But, well, we don't.  And for many of us, the normal, mundane affairs of daily life are the places where we would least like our Christianity to be present.  One good friend recently confided in me that he was uncomfortable with his church relocating to his neighborhood because it meant his religious life and social life would inevitably collide.  He knew it wasn't an admirable fear, but I also know he's not alone.

Faithfulness is often uncomfortable, especially when we first start out.  And these days, faithfulness on some mundane issues--like marriage--is itself a quick ticket to discomfort.  Good luck at your next office party when divorce comes up and you think that, yeah, in most cases it's just wrong.  And let's not even talk about gay marriage, which Stearnes has helpfully noted has not killed anyone.

Only most of us are just starting out on this road to faithfulness, even if we've grown up in the church.  The language of "radical" and the examples that get used of saints and heroes presuppose that we have not been faithful even with what we have.  Yet their solution is to amplify the stakes, to call us to be faithful with much.  You can see it in Stearnes' piece:  "Jesus was a martyr, and so were the early Christians!  Why aren't we being martyred, too?"  One moment Christians are struggling to explain to their neighbor why, no, staying married isn't the end of happiness--only that's not enough, we have to go figure out how to be crucified, too.  The reasons for the absence of martyrdom in the West are complex, and its disappearance might be tied to our own mediocrity.  Yet such martyrdom may have moved into secret, into the hidden details of life that seem too insignificant to care about.  Forget dying for our faith:  many of us would do well to not fudge our taxes.

But therein lies my point:  the ordinary moments are moments which intersect with eternity, where the meaning of our lives hangs. We'll be judged for every errant word, yet many of us pray and write as though there is nothing more cheap than a few syllables to throw away. Focusing on the mundane isn't a call to comfort: it's a terrifying call to remember the judgment which we stand beneath, a judgment that exists when we drive past our neighbor whose car is stranded in the night.  "You have never met a mere mortal," Lewis wrote.  Nor have we had an ordinary day.

But there's nothing intrinsically worthwhile about "comfort," either, as a spiritual category.  Discomfort may indicate a desire to conform to certain sinful patterns, but it isn't intrinsically worthwhile.  I suspect Jesus was rarely "uncomfortable" in his doing good, yet that does not diminish the worth of his deeds.  Is that permissible to say?  Sometimes I suspect we'd prefer a Jesus who was "uncomfortable" with doing good to justify our own lack of virtue, and that we would dress up such struggles under the guise of "being human."  But Jesus's humanity is not ours:  it is more full, more complete, more perfect.  And it seems to me, such a person would see the good before him and do it, without the trappings of determining whether that good was sufficiently "uncomfortable" or not.

Besides, faithfulness has a way of building on itself.  The more we live within the life of Christ, the more comfortable the whole thing can become, even when we are encountering the severe kindness of God which leads us to repentance. If we predetermine that the shape of the Christian life is one of a necessary discomfort, then we call people to a stunted, immature faith that will not produce the confidence of martyrs.

*It's a strange disagreement when both people come around to the same place--namely, that the advocates of "radical Christianity" aren't being "radical enough."

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.