May 30, 2013
The Spiritual Formation of Things Not Going Our Way
Maybe it’s ok to not be a cultural “winner.”
For the past few weeks, I’ve watched the news and surfed social media with a growing sense of anxiety.
Whether you’re on the right or the left, conservative or progressive, our daily feeds stoke our sense that we’re not going in the right direction, that “the other guys” are winning, or that there’s no way to do what needs to be done to meet our challenges.
The news itself isn’t why I’ve been feeling that anxiety, though. It’s our reaction to the news that has me worried. For example, how we are reacting to the culture war surrounding same-sex marriage. Or the gun issue. Or recent presidential scandals. Or a whole host of other issues.
My Facebook feed is less populated by baby pictures and shots of other people’s food (yay!) and more a place to argue over the issues (sigh).
I’m guilty of posting the occasional breathless “Oh no! Look what they are doing now!” piece. But if we buy into the prevailing political script underlying that behavior—that there are cultural winners and losers, and Christians need to be winners—we've already lost.
Convincing others to vote our way (left, right, or in between) is a false victory, and it will disappoint us every time. Let’s face it: people in general aren’t as smart (or as biblically-grounded, as compassionate, or fair-minded, or commonsensical) as you and I. They just don’t see the world (or Scripture, or culture, or the cliff we are rushing towards) as clearly as we do.
Se we’re faced with a choice: we can post yet another opinion piece on why we can’t let “them” do “that,” or we could exchange the script of politics for the script of spiritual formation. We could stop trying to win for a moment and consider what God is doing in us beyond the turmoil and cultural struggle.
When it doesn't go your way
The fight over same sex marriage is a good example. I think both sides are losing. Progressives lose connection with much of the church that still rejects it. Conservatives have to deal with being a part of a culture that has moved beyond their point of view.
With the tightly held winners and losers script, the answer is to try to legislate and argue the cultural/church majority into our corner. But when we do this, an already fractured church fragments even more. That should give followers of the Christ who prayed for church unity serious pause.
The question is not how we should solve political hot potatoes, but how we should orient our hearts. How can we posture ourselves to cooperate with God’s work of faithful healing and unity? How can we look full-on at a culture or a church that isn’t going my way and become less angry, less embittered, less outraged, and more like Christ?
I understand the disappointment of when an issue I’m passionate about is decided against my position. But I also understand that it’s in my disappointment that God often does his best work in my heart. In moments of disappointment, my heart is turned towards my true hope.
Anger, bitterness, and an “us versus them” mentality are signs that we are not allowing the Spirit to have his way in our hearts. They are signs that the gospel is not penetrating us. The Good News breaks down dividing walls.
Is it possible to respond with love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness even when we’re “losing?” I think so. I think St. Paul would say it is imperative.
Here's what I think would revolutionize our current struggle:
1. A renewed desire in each of us to understand where the other is coming from.
In all of our current hot button issues there’s something we can affirm on both sides. It’s our task to look for it, and to affirm it. To praise it and to see it grow. If you can’t look at the other side and describe what they are trying to do, not in caricatures and pejoratives, but in an honest and generous way, a way in which they would actually agree with your description, you are missing an opportunity for growth, an opportunity to show people that the gospel makes us into kind, loving, and generous people, not into near-sighted jerks.
2. Truly passing the peace.
I love the liturgical practice of “passing the peace.” It recognizes that the peace of Christ is something we offer to others regardless. Irrespective of whatever else separates us, Christ is our peace, and that peace is something we have a stewardship over. It is our duty to offer this peace to all we meet, not least of all, to those within the church, even to those with whom we have profound disagreements.
3. Practicing gracious “victories” and “losses.”
My kids are entering the team sports stage. I have plenty of opportunities for teachable moments on how to win and lose well. That experience prompts me to consider my own reaction to the things that go for or against my preferences.
I have to be honest—there are times when my kids do it better than I do. Sometimes, I think they have a better understanding that the game isn’t so much about winning and losing but about the formation of their character and building friendships. I know that the games we play as adults have much higher stakes—that these are real issues with real consequences. But how we react in our winning and our losing says much more about us than it does about the issue itself.
In every issue we face, we have an opportunity to show the world who Jesus is by showing them what the gospel does in us—even when we disagree. If we find ourselves arguing with friends, or leaving a church because they are too liberal or too conservative, or find ourselves becoming angry, bitter, or sullen because things aren’t going our way, we're doing it wrong.
But if we find our hope in God instead of cultural victory, if love can flourish even between winners and losers, then the gospel can take root in our hearts.
But the question will never go away: Will we let it?