No fear in love

The powers that be want to control you through fear. This includes perpetuating the fear that everyone else is trying to control you through fear.

Their security comes from the perception that they are needed to keep the apocalypse at bay. They don’t hesitate to contort concerns into full-blown panic if there aren’t enough valid fears to keep you unquestioningly faithful.

In return for your unthinking support they offer you certainty that what their opponents say is utter nonsense with less than zero value. In an ideally convenient twist, they characterize concerns offered by anyone appearing to support the opposition as baseless fear mongering to be rejected out of hand, which you gladly do because of the fear they have subtly instilled in you for anyone but their regime. The preferable because least obvious way of communicating this is to use their surrogates in the media and their dyed in the wool followers on social media.

When you realize that I’m not talking to your opponents but to you – yes, you – you’ll want to keep scrolling without giving it a second thought other than that I’m brainwashed by your archenemies. This is because you’ve been trained to believe your political ideology is so righteous that it has earned the right to steal Jesus’ claim, “he who is not for me is against me,” for itself. This is blasphemy. We cannot fear one another and adequately love at the same time, because perfect love casts out fear, so we must resist anyone who conditions us otherwise. What was Jesus’ new commandment? Do your words display your obedience to it?

Besides, I am not against you at all; I am for you. I am for you all. Dismantle the echo chambers. Resist malicious talk. Sure, Jesus got riled up when he saw oppression, but anger is not prescribed: if you abide in what actually is prescribed – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – you’ll be able to trust yourself to be angry about the right things without doing wrong.

Pilate and the modern Christian (Mondays with MacDonald)

“Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?'” — John 18:38a

Pilate thereupon—as would most Christians nowadays, instead of setting about being true—requests a definition of truth, a presentation to his intellect in set terms of what the word ‘truth’ means; but instantly, whether confident of the uselessness of the inquiry, or intending to resume it when he has set the Lord at liberty, goes out to the people to tell them he finds no fault in him. Whatever interpretation we put on his action here, he must be far less worthy of blame than those ‘Christians’ who, instead of setting themselves to be pure ‘even as he is pure,’ to be their brother and sister’s keeper, and to serve God by being honourable in shop and counting-house and labour-market, proceed to ‘serve’ him, some by going to church or chapel, some by condemning the opinions of their neighbours, some by teaching others what they do not themselves heed.

George MacDonald (from his sermon “Kingship”, published in Unspoken Sermons, Series 3, 1889)

How golden is that rule after all?

In a recent post I mentioned Jesus’ formulation of the Golden Rule. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that even this principle has come under attack.

For one thing, it’s common to hear someone point out that the reciprocity principle behind the Golden Rule did not begin with Jesus as though this in some way impugns Jesus’ wisdom or authority for not having been the first to teach something like this. There is an understandable tendency among Christians to expect Jesus as the Word of God incarnate to have taught things that were entirely new and unique, before his time; no doubt that is true, but of course, laying aside that the version attributed to Jesus seems to have been his own special take on the concept (positive rather than negative), surely no one would expect everything he taught to have never occurred to anyone before him. And then there are those who doubt Jesus said it because, characteristic and distinctive as it is, we only have record of Jesus teaching it in one of the Gospels (Matthew). Who knows–but as you’ll see below, it’s obvious why it got attributed to him, and why he almost certainly wouldn’t mind it being attributed to him.

Another criticism regards the ethical implications of the Golden Rule itself. The idea is is that acting on this rule requires us to presume a compatible set of moral preferences between ourselves and the “others” involved, even where that presumption is not valid. Most us can probably remember scenarios in which someone has attempted to do something for our benefit that we wish they hadn’t: maybe someone in an unfamiliar environment tries very hard to engage you because they don’t want you to feel awkward, but it’s being paid all the attention that makes you feel awkward in the first place. And so on. The practical outworkings of the reciprocity principle are based on the supposition that what you would “have them do to you” is actually something they would have you do unto them, and we know that is by no means universally true.

Sometimes this sort of invalid projection of our preferences onto others really does happen, but it’s hardly through a conscientious effort to enact the Golden Rule per se; indeed, the rule of reciprocity when followed completely would actually prohibit such impositions on the grounds that we ourselves generally dislike being imposed upon. If those we can remember inconveniencing or bothering us by projecting their own desires on us out of the best of motives had actually put enough effort into empathizing (the more fundamental Christian ethical principle behind the rule), they would have avoided doing that thing that bothered us.

Moreover, the scope of this behavioral guideline was probably not intended to extend beyond the most basic and universal of preferences, such as pain avoidance, fairness, etc., and the people we typically interact with share those basic preferences.

The purpose of the Golden Rule is therefore not to serve as a fundamental law of ethics but to inform our ethics with the principle of empathy. This principle of empathy as modeled by Jesus is the hallmark of the Christian faith.

How fallen are our wills?

Is God’s morality so foreign to us that it can be expected to get mistaken for immorality by even devout followers of Jesus?

In my last post I began discussing this thorny question by ruling out the claim that the tension between the Old and New Testament conceptions of God’s nature is only apparent; while it is certainly not nearly so decisive that Marcion’s two rival gods solution begins to seem tenable, it is very real.

I then launched into a demonstration of at least one case where Scripture shows God expecting us to use our moral intuitions to inform our ethics, namely the Golden Rule, the basis of which is using our own sense of ethics to demonstrate our love for neighbor (which of course is tied to showing our love for God). If Jesus instructs us to consult our will, preferences, and our sense of right and wrong when dealing with one another, I can’t imagine a good reason we should expect that our sinfulness and creaturely estate are prone to thoroughly obscuring and distorting our understanding of good and evil.

But how can we even trust our moral intuitions, you ask, considering how corrupt and sinful we are?

First off – and this is necessary to consider – if you are asking that question, please realize that you have taken for granted some things that you probably feel are essential to Christianity that actually warrant further scrutiny. Those assumptions are not a clear, straight-forward reading of biblical testimony; they are not even an unrefracted reading of the important church father, St. Augustine, whose teaching is usually given credit for formulating the concepts. Rather, the assumptions behind the question, known as the doctrine of total depravity or total inability, are almost wholly dependent on the Reformers’ unique reading of Augustine.

According to that teaching, we are so broken by the Fall that we can’t see straight; in fact, more often than not (according to this view), we see things completely backwards.

“No matter how I word this next part, someone will inevitably be depraved enough to misuse it.”

It must be recognized here that the Reformers did not take up St. Augustine’s actual views without significant modifications, as Catholics in particular have been keen to point out. This uniquely Protestant articulation of total depravity contrasts with the other fathers of the Church who insist that the image of God imbued to us at creation remains intact, obscured but viable, functional albeit invariably dulled by the ailments of our fallen state. Both branches of the tree from which Protestants shoot, the Church of Rome and the Eastern Church, have roundly rejected Calvin’s conviction that the image of God in which we were created is now so twisted that we “cannot conceive, desire, or design anything but what is weak, distorted, foul, impure, or iniquitous…” The Church of Rome’s Council of Trent was not inventing a new teaching when it placed an anathema on those who taught that “the free will of man is lost and extinguished”; on the contrary, it was continuing the teaching that the imago dei, which includes free will, remains as part of what makes us human.

To be sure, living in this world and lacking wisdom, even when we try we will certainly not always be able to discern the best choice in particular circumstances, and we may indeed have exceptional difficulty living up to what we know is right, but the problem is not with an essential inability to recognize goodness and evil when we see it. We pursue our own ideals instead of God’s, but not because we don’t recognize what God’s ideals are; rather, we are culpable specifically because we know what is right and put it away from us. To put it another way, our wills remain essentially free to choose, but are prone to choose poorly because they are led astray by our selfish minds.

To say that humanity is not totally depraved is not to deny that everyone is fallen and in a state of sin from which we need God to save us. It just means that our sin doesn’t so compromise our make-up as humans that we’re stuck never being able to trust our judgment about what is wrong and right. In fact, in my previous post I already showed such a claim to be problematic just by considering our Lord’s own instruction. If we become overconfident in making judgments about good and evil – and I know this does happen – it is not from total inability but from prideful lack of caution. Contrariwise, we can become overconfident in our understanding of Scripture in any direction.

Even if you lay aside the issue of the imago dei and make an argument that unbelievers are likely to misapprehend and misrepresent true, big-g Goodness, the beauty of the author of Hebrews’ description of the New Covenant is that the law of God is engraved upon the hearts of believers: we are empowered to be moral agents acting on principles we do have indelible access to, deep within us. That itself would suggest that it should be quite the norm for us to make judgments about what constitutes moral behavior, and following from that is how important it is for the sincere believer to evaluate others’ claims about God’s character and actions, and to do so with reasonable accuracy. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” At that point, it’s axiomatic that if God is described as performing acts that even some of those people we deem to be the closest to God’s likeness are troubled to explain, we should at very least not make acceptance of that description a tenet of faith.

Those with whom I’m conversing here would probably at this point insist that when weighing the questionable judgment of unbelievers who see God’s depiction in the Old Testament as monstrous against the judgment of the believers who are confident that God can still be good while doing evidently monstrous things, those believers who agree with the unbelievers over against Scriptural depictions are clearly likelier to be wrong. Many will make the appeal to total depravity or other shows of humility in saying that we should avoid reading Scripture apart from certain dogmatic rubrics, chief of which is the presumption that the biblical authors were never mistaken in any theological teaching they intended to convey.

But the sticking point for those of us who disagree with inerrantists on this subject cannot be dismissed as merely the hubris of humanity in rebellion. For those of us who have pledged ourselves to be taught primarily by Christ as the image of the invisible God, we find such uneasiness with other biblical descriptions of God to be the only response that is truly faithful to our teacher. Indeed, as St. Augustine wrote, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” Could it be that a reading more faithful to the heart God engraved within us is one that doesn’t uncritically accept each biblical author’s own spin on theology wholesale?

Perhaps the reason God did not edit our Holy Scriptures to exclude misunderstandings of Himself and His ways is that their imperfection demonstrates just how “depraved” our minds can be.

When seeking to understand God’s nature, as always when reading Scripture, we have no default revelation that we can just put definitive quote marks around as so commonly wished for. We have no choice but to interpret, and to do so faithfully we must use all of the tools He built within us, limited and imperfect as they may be. But thankfully, we don’t have to shake off all of our bedrock assumptions about such fundamental concepts as right and wrong when we look at God. We would not recognize that we were looking at Him – could not be judged for missing Him – if we were not fitted to recognize Him. We must not sear our consciences and drag God’s good name through the mud in the interest of upholding our demands for inerrant revelation, especially under the veil of a false humility.

Does God play by the same rules?

Are you one of those who finds it difficult to reconcile many of the acts attributed to God within the Hebrew scriptures with the dominant picture of God painted by the life and teachings of Jesus?

I’ve talked about this problem extensively in the past, but I return to it again because, as we’ve seen time and again, flimsy walls of apologetics constructed to hide the issue tend to result in an exit door being blasted through people’s faith. That’s why I’m devoting this post and the next to the topic.

When we talk of tension between pre-Christ and post-Christ depictions of God, defenders of inerrancy will frequently counter with observations about God’s goodness in the Old Testament and Jesus’ wrathful warnings of judgment in the New Testament. Gladly granted, there is not a sharp, uniform discontinuity between the Old and New Testament’s portrayal of all aspects of God’s nature, so we should expect to see God’s lovingkindness extolled in the Old Testament just as in the New we find assurances of a divine reckoning on oppressors. It is because of His lovingkindess that God will take drastic measures to wrest the downtrodden from the grasp of those who use His name to excuse the neglect and exploitation of His people. But we cannot contentedly ignore the obvious: the divinely enacted, sanctioned, or commanded decimation of entire people groups in the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canaanite conquest, etc., and the hopeful anticipation of such divine violence crystallized in the frequent imprecations in the Hebrew psalter–all of these stand in dramatic contrast to Jesus’ insistence that his followers love their enemies, pray for their persecutors, avoid calling down fire from heaven on those who reject God, etc.

The other standard response to this has been that we as fallen humans, warped by the Fall, just don’t have the equipment necessary to judge right and wrong. We must leave it up to God to tell us what’s good and bad, and even when everything that’s within us and in our scope of understanding screams that God is being described as committing evil acts, we must say, “No, it must be good, because God is doing it.” Because the Bible says it and the Bible is inerrant, of course.

This popular understanding was well articulated a few years back in the promo video for Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell. Critiquing the idea that humans would deny that God has done something on the grounds that we deem it to be immoral, Chan responds:

I’m like a piece of clay trying to explain to other pieces of clay what the potter is like. Think about that for a second! It shows the silliness for any of us to think we are an expert on Him. Our only hope is that He would reveal to us what He is like, and then we can just repeat those things.

And of course folks like Chan believe that such a revelation from God is exactly what we have in the Bible. I have offered several critiques against this view of the Bible in earlier blog posts, often calling to attention the impossibility of magically knowing exactly “what it says” without having to account for the myriad assumptions we bring to the table. But for people who believe as Chan does, we must not only consciously and resolutely affirm everything attributed to God within Scripture, no matter how abhorrent to our consciences, but we had better not fail to call it “good”!

In my next post I will address the question of whether we as fallen humans actually have the equipment to make valid moral judgments. But whether or not we can make good judgments, it appears we are exhorted by the authors of Scripture to make those judgments anyway.

Consider the Golden Rule:

Continue reading “Does God play by the same rules?”

DBH and the necessity of universalism

As happens with many of us who begin to see the rationale behind universalism, David Bentley Hart has lately been introducing apokatastatis into more big picture discussions of Christian doctrine. For instance, yesterday at the Creation Out of Nothing: Origins and Contemporary Significance conference at Notre Dame, Hart gave a talk that began with creation ex nihilo particularly in regard to the problem of evil, a topic for which he has become somewhat renowned since at least his book, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? But from there, he could not help closing the loop by bringing in a full discussion of eschatology.

Hart maintains that because creation is not theogany – not necessary to God’s nature or essence – it is theophany – a divine disclosure. Every act of history, no matter how cruel, can only be in some sense “an arraignment of God’s goodness”, for which no full answer is given “until the end of all things”. This leads to his characterization of the final judgment as a more full disclosure of Himself (starting at 9:25).

It would be impious, I think, to suggest that in his final divine judgment of creatures God also judges Himself, but one must hold that by that judgment God truly will disclose Himself, which of course is to say the same thing in a more hushed and reverential voice.

Even Paul in the tortured conditional voice of Romans 9 dares to ask whether there might be vessels of wrath stored up solely for destruction only because he trusts that there are not; that instead all are bound in disobedience and only so that God might prove Himself just by showing mercy on all. The argumentum ad baculum is a terrifying specter but it’s only momentarily conjured up so it can be immediately chased away by a more decisive and radiant argumentum ad veritatem.

The above quote only scratches the surface of his discussion on the topic, but I’ll leave the rest for you to find. He also covers a breadth of related topics, including his problems with original sin and a couple of other Reformed sacred cows (charitably, by the way). Be sure to keep an ear peeled to hear him glowingly mention this blog’s patron “saint” (let the reader understand).

Universalism is not merely a fond wish or an inconsequential theological conviction: the ultimate homecoming of all creation is nothing short of the terminus ad quem for all existence – not even merely the linchpin of the divine logic, but the goal toward which God’s mind is ever turning and toward which every act of divine will is directed. Universal reconciliation is required for the fulfillment of God’s very nature.

Playing 40 questions

Despite Kevin DeYoung’s claim that his 40 questions for rainbow flag-waving Christians were sincere and not rhetorical or “snarky”, I’m seeing so many linking to his post as if it were a definitive rebuttal of sorts. DeYoung surely knows that his post will be used this way–as a list from the other side would no doubt be.

Gay photoHow many of those with whom DeYoung’s questions resonated will seek out a post with 40 answers (several are already available)? And of those, how many will read past the first few responses they find dissatisfactory and avoid dismissing the whole swath of answerers with a knowing smirk? And of those, how many will seek out answers from other people who are desperately wanting to be heard out for once? How many will read the answers without trying to refute every single one, stepping out of their shoes and into those of the accused?

This doesn’t just go with this debate over the legitimacy of homosexual Christianity, much less with just the conservative side of this debate. When it comes to any hobby horse subjects, none of us really want answers to our objections; we want acquiescence. We want our difficulties with things we reject to be aired, not addressed. We know good and well what we believe already and harbor the firm conviction that anyone who knew what we knew would agree with us if only they wanted to. If they won’t agree with us, they jolly well will at least listen to our objections. They owe us that much.

This is the bone-headedness schisms are made of. Schisms are the stuff our feelings of purity are made of. Empathy, by contrast, demolishes barriers, and the resulting unification and solidarity are what produces true purity. People, not doctrinal convictions, are those Christ redeems.

John’s Gospel shows Jesus praying for the oneness of those who follow him. We in our hubris have the temerity to restrict the subject of this prayer to those we agree with, implying or stating that if they can’t at least agree on firm_conviction_x, they’re not God’s people, and don’t qualify for Jesus’ prayer. How presumptuous! How insolent! “Who are you to judge another man’s servant?”

This isn’t a call to ignore our convictions or even to stop discussing them. I’m pleading yet again with all sides of this and other theological debates to exercise humility by subjugating our convictions to our concern for one another. I’m talking about a real determination to not misrepresent our interlocutors and to demand their voices be heard, seriously considered, and engaged. God resists those who won’t show this humility and gives grace to those who will. Those who truly recognize their own need to overcome their own nearsighted, self-serving shibboleths are the ones who will be ready to receive this grace from God.

There is humility in laying out our areas of ignorance to be addressed for all to see, but questions can also be used as interrogation, to demonstrate how very satisfied we are with not questioning our own position. I suppose Ihis whole post could be boiled down to a simple plea: If you have sincere questions, pose only the ones you require to help you love the person better. After all, the key to the kingdom of God isn’t knowing the right answers. It’s true empathy.

What the forgiveness in Charleston requires of us

It is a wonderful and important turn of events that relatives and friends of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal are showing forgiveness toward the shooter.

Relatives of the nine people shot down during a Bible study session inside their historic black church confronted the 21-year-old suspect Friday during his initial hearing. They described their pain and anger, but also spoke of love.

“I forgive you, my family forgives you,” said Anthony Thompson, whose relative Myra Thompson was killed. “We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. … Do that and you’ll be better off than you are right now.”

This news is being proclaimed as a victory for our faith, a hallmark of the efficacy of the gospel, and evidence of the exciting viability of our Lord’s teachings. Where is thy sting, O godless spirit of the age?

Please, friends, not so fast.

The forgiveness granted by these bereaved loved ones does not mean that the story has ended happily ever after; it does not mean that the battle is over and that the Church has won. Specifically, it does not grant absolution for our racism, violence, gun rights grandstanding, the Confederate flag, or anything else.

And it definitely doesn’t suggest, as is being construed in some predictable quarters, that we can dismiss as politically opportunistic “race-baiters” all those those who insist that this story is evidence that we still have a race problem. Pretending that the targets’ race was more or less incidental is willful blindness. Emanuel AME’s choice to forgive Dylann’s blatant racism is no sanction for our hidden and often institutional prejudices.

As a Southerner* and the descendant of many different slave owners, I need to say this: the white South has far too long clung to its paltry defenses of its ancestors’ “states’ rights” principles, covering the shame of being exposed to the globe as villains with the darkness of obfuscation and the rags of denial. Localized, decentralized government may well be more ideal than the “northern aggression” of Washington in most matters of state, but can these beliefs not be proclaimed and argued without propping up and whitewashing the Confederacy? The facelift that conservative states’ rights apologists attempt to give the institution of slavery (caring paternalism in many slave owners and frequently reciprocated affection from slaves are the usual defenses) are void; no doubt there are all kinds of vile acts whose list of motivations are neither wholly evil nor, by virtue of that fact alone, somehow worth defending. We can’t and shouldn’t deny the past, and we should learn to dispassionately confront and analyze root causes accurately without caricaturing (the reasons for the Civil War did reach beyond racism), but neither can we glory in such things as the South’s sociopolitical structure as though it were some imperfect but nearly appropriate instantiation of our political principles. Build your platform from scratch rather than on the top of so rotten a foundation.

In my experience, most Southerners no longer really think of blacks (among others) as an inferior race. My impression is that “racism” per se among my generation in the South has much more to do with how the minorities experience life among the majority – how whites shut them out, how the worst is expected and assumed of them – than any real animosity or feelings of supremacy based on the color of skin on the part of whites. In my experience, whites do not as commonly feel that they are inherently superior in any way; on the contrary (though quite as bad), as in so many other areas, we just have so much more sympathy for those like us and suspicion of those unlike us. It’s more about classism or cultural supremacy, and poor, uneducated blacks tend to occupy the lowest caste in our society. We are quite content with things being this way and (surprise, surprise) we’ve resisted the gubment telling us to abolish our castes.

As usual, I’m going to steer clear of prescribing any particular political action. But if we really want the Church to earn the victory, we’ve got to prepare our hearts to begin yearning for change, something very different from reaching for our guns and rezoning to keep our kids away from them. If we desire God’s reign to be brought to bear on our world for all to see, we desperately need our pastors and religious leaders encouraging us to bring radical changes to the status quo. We can’t just continue acting nicely, treading lightly, hoping the media won’t out another abuse of blacks by white police officers, voting down the people who shout about lingering inequality, and expecting that time will heal all wounds. That expectation of healing would be tantamount to hoping that skin would grow to cover the bullet entry point: we will have to remove all trace of the projectile before healing really happens, and a craving for that difficult surgery needs to begin in our churches. It was our double-minded contentment with the status quo that fueled the deranged desire of the shooter to expose the still festering wound and claim it as health.

These believers who were left grieving after last week’s tragedy have admirably taken the essential first step, no mistake about it. But their refusal to scapegoat Dylann Roof for all the discrimination their race has suffered is not really comforting news: it’s also a serious challenge to all of the rest of us. Accepting that challenge will entail avoiding the urge to hunker down with our like-minded comrades, reaching out to restore relationships even prior to an offending party’s repentance, and resisting the knee-jerk identification of opponents in any of these ideological squabbles without first picking through the wreckage to recover the wounded. It must include rethinking many longstanding boundaries and other aspects of “the way we do things down here”–whatever it takes to fully repudiate our contentment with the world we inherited from our oppressive past.

That’s a start, anyway. The humility of Emanuel AME’s response means that we must humbly look everyone in our community in the eye and sacrifice ourselves and all of our pride for the welfare of all within it.

Only then, after that self-sacrificial work is becoming our way of life in every respect, will the Church have grounds to claim any sort of victory.


* I focus on my own region in this post, but of course this does not just apply to the South or even all communities within the South. Please look at your own region or community and apply what I say as necessary.

Love is a verb with feelings

A friend of mine shared a recent post on the blog, “A Holy Experience”. The blogger, author/speaker Ann Voskamp, was so moved by the plight of poor Iranians that she visited Iran in a relief effort. She’s written a bit of other stuff regarding the humanitarian crisis there, but this was the first I ran across. There are details in this post that I could hardly bring myself to read. They are too painful to just imagine, not to mention witness, not to mention experience.

Nine-year-old Yezidi and Christian girls can show up in headlines: Impregnated. Held, taken, violated and discarded. Sides round and swollen. Sent back to shame their communities. Pregnant little girls with dolls still in their hands. While we are having out wheaties and reading the day’s news.

ISIS sells nine year old girls in slave bazaars.

Voskamp’s site is rather popular among many Evangelical women I know, but I’m not particularly familiar with it other than the fact it seems to be a devotional/encouragement type of Christian blog.

I tell you what, though: its existence is probably justified by this one post alone.

We aren’t where we are to just peripherally care about the people on the margins as some superfluous gesture or token nicety. The exact reason why you are where you are — is to risk everything for those being oppressed out there.

You are where you are — to help others where they are. The reason your hands are where they are in this world — is to give other people in this world a hand.

Finally! All those middle-class church ladies who read her blog are being exposed to the real world! Score for social justice!

I am indeed thankful that her platform reaches this demographic. But her commentary is precisely the kind of thing that Christians – heck, humans in general – of all stripes should allow themselves to be challenged by. Not just those who cling to guns and conservative politics to protect themselves from radical Islam (or from anyone who isn’t a conservative Evangelical for that matter)–but even to those who think they know better and look down their noses at such benighted Christians. Because although she was talking above about the marginalized, the principal is equally true of everyone we share our planet with.

Caring isn’t a Christian’s sideline hobby. Caring is a Christian’s complete career. We don’t just care about people — caring about people is our job — the job every single one of us get up to do every single day. That’s it. Caring is our job, our point, our purpose.

Do you get up in the morning with the goal of giving yourself to everyone around you? Do you consciously empty yourself of your vain desires to the benefit of those you might not even like? I honestly don’t think I know anyone who could be said to approach that standard, perhaps least of all those of us who get so much pleasure out of jabbing the foibles of our ideological opposites in Christendom. We certainly must stand up against injustice, even defying our comrades in order to do so, but can’t we manage to do so without being so angry or disgusted with those comrades that we forget they are victims of their own crimes? Caring can – sometimes must – take the form of “tough love”, and no doubt exposing the vacuous and preposterous nature of a mindset is occasionally effective as a means of caring. It’s what I earnestly believe this post of mine is intended for.

But here’s what caring most definitely isn’t. Middle-school mockery. Reproachful discussion that’s just loud enough to be heard by the losers you’re talking about. Showy quarantines in front of those you want to like you, demonstrating your relative health and conscientious isolation from the unpopular, unclean people they might otherwise lump you in with. Memes and other in-jokes that have no chance of actually reforming the objects of your ridicule and stand only to separate you from them. Unbridled cheers, jeers, and crowing when those people fall or are exposed as hypocrites. Look back over your social media activity for the last couple of weeks and see how you score.

And here’s a hint: if you got upset with Voskamp’s audience for her even needing to say that kind of stuff, if your first thoughts went to accusing a group of people who just don’t “get it” rather than examining your own response to the crisis, it ought to hit you hard as well. We need to be, at our core, without limits or shibboleths, people who don’t just “love”, but care. We cannot continue to be people whose most obvious traits are being loudly more compassionate, being exceptionally good at differentiating ourselves from that other kind of Christian, and gaining pleasure by exposing others’ faults.

Maybe you’re wondering, Why is he going on and on about this? Even if Christians are sometimes tweeting excessively sarcastic comments about other Christians, it’s not as though we’re selling each other’s children as sex slaves. #firstworldproblems

I really do not want to suggest that this issue is anywhere near as urgent as the ones causing the substantial suffering of “people on the margins” as described above. And of course we can’t wait until we “feel” loving before we act lovingly. But I do believe that until we really become people who are characterized by caring at our core and who exhibit a deep-seated sensitivity in dealing with others, our outreach projects will be “sideline hobbies”. We prize our cynicism and sarcasm so highly; irreverence sometimes seems like the highest modern virtue, such that we’re so afraid of sounding pious and out-of-touch that we will laugh at things we should be upset about so long as everyone else is laughing. The snark of this generation may not stop us from lighting candles here or there, but more than that we need to actually be the lights in the darkness. The post-Evangelical crowd is now disabused of the Fundamentalist notion that being different from “the world” in every conceivable way is somehow admirable, but I fear it’s gone lopsided the other way now; it’s probably worth asking, is the fact that you may (or may not) go to church or call yourself a believer the biggest difference between you and your unbelieving friends?

Most of us have learned well the lesson that love is more than just a feeling–that it’s something you act upon. But that’s really just “the rest of the story” and not the whole story. If you go about trying to fulfill our calling of love through some mechanical sense of right without ever feeling the intrinsic motivation of emotion, you may be doing the work of the Kingdom, but only as a hired hand. The children of God must love as He loves, feel concern as He does, and out of the overflow of their heart will their actions come spilling. It’s easy enough to conjure up feelings of concern for those poor folks on the other side of the globe, but it’s harder by far to 1) act on that concern in a measurable way and 2) feel concern for those much nearer to us who deserve a good, swift kick in the pants for their boneheaded actions and attitudes.

Until we cultivate a fervent, consuming heart of compassion for all, a fundamental rewrite of our hearts’ inclinations that will put us out of lockstep with our culture, we will continue to be merely placating our consciences by sending off our monthly checks, proclaiming the righteousness of our convictions, criticizing those who don’t share them to the extent that we’d like, and then going about our self-aggrandizing business. Caring has to become a lifestyle; love has to be our hallmark as human beings, in all of our actions and interactions.

I guess it’s obvious that Voskamp’s challenging words hit me really hard. In case you’re wondering, I’m not interested in discussing the specific outreach organization she suggests at the bottom of her post. Honestly, if you’re not particularly impressed with it, the onus is literally on you to come up with a better option and not simply to criticize that one. But I do plead with you to find some way of meaningfully contributing. Maybe that will mean sending money–or maybe it will mean going. However it manifests, our caring needs to start much deeper down than our wallets.

I got published on Theologues!

Theologues is a site I have really enjoyed for several months now, dedicated to bridging “ancient and apostolic Christian wisdom with the modern Christian experience” (source: About page). They strive to bring the deep tradition of our faith to bear on our modern experience. I have really appreciated several of their podcast episodes as well. So when I was approached by another contributor about submitting something to the site, I was eager to try.

The result: Why No Explanation of Suffering is Sufficient.

We often try to take comfort in the old saw, “Things happen for a reason.” But when enduring the harshest of hardships, even entertaining the possibility that our sufferings were inflicted on us intentionally – good reason or no – seems not only to be overstepping the boundary of undisputed knowledge and experience, but opens up deeper and more painful questions regarding God’s insensitivity to our plight.

Hope you enjoy the site!