I recently overheard a conversation between two friends. Usually, I’m not a good eavesdropper; listening in voyeuristically on someone else’s conversation really doesn’t appeal to me very much. This time, however, I was eating lunch and the aforementioned conversation was happening just behind me. I could listen without straining to hear, and the topic piqued my interest.
The conversation to which I became a (silent, creepy) third party was about the Bible. Specifically, these two friends had very different ways of seeing and understanding the Bible, and I could relate to both ways. One saw the Bible the way I used to, as a divinely dictated text that is literal and infallible and unquestionable. The other held a perspective that seems good to me today, that the Bible is full of meaning and inspiration and, essentially, a record of our ancestor’s experience of and journey with God (and as such an important guide for our experience and journey as well).
The problem was, the guy I agreed with was doing an absolutely horrible job of articulating his thoughts. He just couldn’t explain his views well. And there I sat, as little as twenty feet away, and I so wanted to tag in and help this poor guy explain his (superior) position.
Why was I so antsy to be involved in a conversation that wasn’t mine? Why did I feel the need to interrupt two complete strangers who were having a kind and generous dialogue?
The answer isn’t something that I like to admit, but it is true nonetheless. Sometimes, I am so convinced that the way I see life/theology/the Bible/God is better, and I want to go around correcting those who happen to hold a different view. This isn’t a flattering trait, I know, but still the impulse is there. There’s something about going back and forth, point and counterpoint, that is a bit exhilarating. And the whole reason I want to engage in such an activity is to help people, right? To help them see the more generous, liberating truth that I’ve been introduced to.
But the impulse behind the impulse isn’t really noble.
The impulse behind the impulse is to be right. To win. To have someone who holds a different position be so compelled by the logic and presentation of my argument that they concede it to be the only reasonable conclusion. See, not so noble.
When did theology become about winning? When did the point of faith become argument and debate and convincing people of my correctness? In some ways, I still have these tendencies that are grounded in the approach of my fundamentalist past. Be right, just with a better story behind it.
What does all this have to do with the way we believe what we believe?
Listen to these words of Jesus from The Sermon on the Mount:
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. (Matthew 7v1-5, CEB)
Judgment here has to do with manipulation. When we judge we are manipulating others, trying to get them to do/act/believe the way we want, the way we do. The problem is that this sort of manipulation actually subverts the journey of the person. Instead of letting them grow to hold whatever perspective they end up with based on their own experience, we seek to create a one-size-fits-all spirituality.
And that just doesn’t work.
Do I believe that the perspective I now hold on my faith is better, more just and generous, than the ones I previously held? Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t hold it. But the best way to share that is not in winning arguments or manipulating others into our way of seeing the world. The best way is to simply embody the goodness of this way of seeing faith. After all, if in sharing our good news, we have to act in ways that are diametrically opposed to this good news, what’s the point? It that case it’s just another attempt to hijack someone else’s experience with our “rightness.”
The greatest gift we can offer is not sound argument, convincing rhetoric, or airtight propositions. The greatest gift we offer is to incarnate, to live out the just and generous faith.
You can argue propositions, but fruit is hard to ignore.
I believe it begins with me, not them. My calling in life is not to change anyone’s mind or beliefs. My calling is to live in the just and generous way of Jesus, and as I live in this way, I’ll be transformed. And if others see and experience that, perhaps they will be encouraged into their own journey of transformation.
The way I believe is just as important as what I believe. How I hold these things that matter to me, how I share them with the world around me, is just as central as the content of my beliefs.
The question with which we must continually wrestle is this:
How can we be both passionate about our convictions, and yet humble and generous in the way we hold them and share them?