Have I Sinned Against Unbelief?

Why Christians should take suffering that inflames unbelief far more seriously

While reading a remarkable book titled Christianity: The True Humanism, I was bowled over by this passage by J.I. Packer and Thomas Howard:

It is clear that many humanists in the West are stirred by a sense of outrage at what professed Christians, past and present, have done; and this makes them see their humanism as a kind of crusade, with the killing of Christianity as its prime goal. We cannot endorse their attitude, but we can understand it and respect it…

We, too, have experienced in our own persons damage done by bad Christianity—Christianity that lacks honesty, or intelligence, or regard for truth, or biblical depth, or courtesy, or all of these together. No doubt we have sometimes inflicted this kind of damage, as well as suffered it. (Lord, have mercy!) We cannot, however, think it wrong for anyone to expect much of Christians and then to feel hurt when they treat others in a way that discredits their Christian commitment. Since Christianity is about God transforming us through Jesus Christ, high expectations really are in order, and the credibility of the faith really is undermined by every uncaring and uncompassionate stand that Christians take. Loss of faith caused by bad experiences with Christians is thus often more a case of being sinned against than of sinning and merits compassion more than it does censure.

I instantly realized this was close to the opposite attitude I have had for many years. Instead, I’ve often been so occupied with undermining unbelief, with critiquing the spirit of the age and tearing down the intellectual and existential reasons people give for not following the Christ of the Bible, that I have utterly failed to take seriously the connection between being sinned against and unbelief. If Packer and Howard are right—and I believe they are—this is a major failure.

Why have I been failing here? I can think of two reasons.

First, there is a palpable cultural mood that reduces everything about life to the sum total of one’s experiences. This is the “my story” epistemology that I’ve written about before. Because there are no agreed upon central, transcendent truth claims in a secularized public square, the most truth that anyone can arrive at is their truth, and their truth is often deeply subjective interpretations of relational and social events. This mentality is powerful, and it is destructive; it blinds people to the absolute nature of our most important questions. It empowers confirmation bias. It can make people unteachable and difficult to reason with. It’s bad news.

So I think I’ve been caught up in refuting this mood so much that I’ve lost sight of the legitimate relationship between experience and objective belief. I’ve tried to swing from the one extreme of “experiences are all that matter” to the other extreme of “You should be able to think and live wholly independent of what people do to you.” Both extremes are logically impossible, though one feels more Christian than the other at this cultural moment. But Packer and Howard get to the heart of the matter when they say that unbelievers are right to have high expectations of people who claim to be actually reborn by the Spirit of Jesus. They have those expectations not because of Christians but because of Jesus! Thus, to ignore the failures of people who say they are born again to image the One in whose name they are supposedly reborn is to ignore the moral glory of Christ himself.

The second reason I think I’ve failed here is that I have consistently underestimated the power of suffering. It’s an underestimation that comes straight from my not having suffered very much. But it also, I suspect, comes from my not having listened very closely to the testimonies of people who have suffered much. This is inexcusable, and I’m sure it’s damaged in some way my connection with others.

I’ve said before that virtues like modesty and chastity have attending practices that can help us grow in them. This how I feel about stuff like the Billy Graham Rule, for example. But I think I’ve neglected the fact that empathy is also a virtue, and that like other virtues, it too has practices that must be picked up if the virtue is going to flourish in my life. What if one of those practices is not arguing all the time? What if another one is listening carefully to people who may not validate my assumptions?

Now here’s an important point. I don’t think the main reason to cultivate empathy is to become less decisive or more “open-minded.” The problem with open-mindedness is that it’s not a virtue. Its desirability depends entirely on what is trying to get into the mind. But empathy is a virtue that cuts across whether people are right or wrong, whether people believe or disbelieve. Rejecting the claims of Christ is wrong. Yet it is possible to compound a wrong by sinning in response to it. It is possible to drive a thorn deeper. Neglecting or minimizing the power of suffering, or lowering bar of expectations for believers, are both sins against unbelief. To the degree that I have done so, I’m sorry, and by God’s grace, I will grow in this.

One final thought. All of this applies very much to the way we Christians talk to people about the suffering of others. If we minimize trauma or excuse a lackadaisical response to it, for the sake of making some tribal theological or political point about someone not in the room, we are broadcasting a false view of God to the world. We are propping up a graven image in people’s minds. We are, in other words, acting in the same unbelief as those we are trying to convert.

Advertisements

The Sea in Which You’re Drowning Is Not All That’s Real

On (not) writing about sin.

Recently I’ve had multiple offers, all from friends representing publications and ministries I greatly respect, to write articles about pornography. I’ve declined all of them. After I wrote a piece on this for Desiring God in July, I made a resolution with myself that I wouldn’t write about pornography for the foreseeable future. For the past several years I have written thousands of words about it, encompassing everything from my personal testimony to American culture. It’s time for me to leave that topic alone for a while.

Because I’ve said all there is to be said on it? No, of course not. There is much more to be said. Because my views are changing? Definitely not.  Because it’s not as important as some people think? Hardly. If anything, it’s more important than most people think. Why then am I putting myself on a moratorium on this issue?

Because the sea in which you’re drowning is not all that’s real, and realizing this is crucial for those struggling in the fight against lust.

When you’re in the throes of addiction, nothing seems real except your addiction. Incremental victories over your addiction don’t necessarily change this. In fact, such victories can actually make this perception worse. Every heartfelt prayer becomes a prayer for God to deliver you. Every sermon is “really” about your struggle. You see all of life through the lens of this one sin that you are, by grace, making war against. It becomes the main metaphor of your life, the fact that stands like a ghost between you and every relationship, between you and every ministry opportunity.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Christian culture, at least evangelical culture, offers much to fight against this. There’s a profound streak in evangelical discipleship of reducing the Christian life to the number of days you can go without sinning. This kind of mentality inflames the sense that beating porn is all that matters. The tragedy is that this mentality blocks many of the very strongest graces that Christ offers in the war against lust, graces like fellowship with other believers (not just “accountability”!), the beauty of nature, losing oneself in an honest pleasure, etc. These are graces that are hard to see for the person who feels like their entire Christian existence is about defeating pornography. A one-note emphasis mutes the other sounds of the symphony of redemption.

The reality is that one of the most effective things a person who is struggling with pornography can do is get their mind out of the perspective of them and their computer (or phone). Look at the broader picture. Look out the window, up into the clouds. Realize how much God has created and how much God is doing in this massive, amazing universe.

So I don’t feel pressed to talk more about the sin of pornography right now. Rather, I’m pressed to take a larger view and infatuate my heart with Christ and all that he is and does for me.

I am convinced that the only people who see lasting, significant healing from the bondage of pornography are people who feel in their bones the grandness and the glory of God, a feeling that transcends (but does not exclude) the tug-of-war. The tug-of-war is important, and failing to tug has eternal consequences. But the water in which you’re drowning is not all there is, and the first thing you must do to stop drowning is to swim upward, towards the air, towards the light, where you know there’s a shore.

The Spiritual Grace of Fandom

What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness.

You can learn something important in front of a TV on a balmy Sunday afternoon in late October. You can learn about the value of leadership as a veteran quarterback calmly and surgically leads his team to overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter. If you see a silly penalty completely change a game, you might learn what Rudyard Kipling knew, that victory usually begins with “keeping your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” You may reflect on the dangers of arrogance as a haughty celebration gives way minutes later to a devastating injury, or on the beauty of the perseverance of an undrafted, un-heralded player who dazzles. Football, often scorned by its cosmopolitan cultured despisers, has much to say if we will listen.

“Lessons,” though, are not the primary reason to be a fan of sports. Viewing a football game as a microcosm of cooperation and personal virtue is helpful, but it’s a bit like opening the Bible and never reading anything but Proverbs. The truth is that fandom has a spiritual value all its own. Watching sports for the pleasure of the contest, and even more, investing oneself emotionally in the triumphs and defeats of a particular team, is a valuable moral discipline.

Sports fandom is rarely talked about positively, and for reason. Like we do so many other things, Americans often worship sports. Sport is a seductive idol, not least because its competitive nature offers an intoxicating short hand for measuring one’s self-worth. We tend to accept radical and unhealthy commitment to sports in a way we don’t accept for hobbies, relationships, even work; a man who ignores his family so he can broker more stocks and buy a bigger house is a deadbeat, but an athlete who ignores his family to train for the Olympics simply knows what it takes. (Why athletic victory in this context is purer than money is not clear.)

Granting that we ought not worship sports, can’t we admit that, given the choice between cheering on a team and spending 3 hours thumbing through Instagram, measuring ourselves against immaculate “influencers,” the former is a better option? What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness, the opportunity to let our own personalities be swallowed up, just for a moment, in the drama of something objective, outside, and bigger.

For a social media generation, one worries that we are losing the simple practice of actually being a fan. Ours is a curated, algorithmic, selfie age, where our inner lives are constantly being farmed out by technologies that encourage us to think about ourselves more, to look at ourselves more, to compare our ourselves more. We say that digital distraction is a serious epidemic. Have we asked what it is we are so distracted by? Answer: We’re distracted by ourselves—our Likes, our Retweets, our FOMO, our image to others.

If we think in terms of cultural liturgies, we must conclude that the dominant liturgy of our Western life is one of constant attention to ourselves. Everything around us encourages us, either explicitly or implicitly, to bend inwardly on ourselves a little more, to be a little more attuned to our own emotional or psychological state. The discipline of letting ourselves get lost in something, of losing track of ourselves so that we forget to log-in and make sure that what we’re doing compares favorably to others, is a discipline that directly assaults the advertising-soaked liturgies of late capitalism. Some have suggested that in the social media era our attention spans are shortening. This may be somewhat true. Yet perhaps it’s also true that our attention spans are actually shortening when they’re directed toward offline life, but flourishing when we’re logged in. In other words, maybe we’re not losing the ability to focus on analog realities, but the desire.

There’s a spiritual cost to all of this. Screwtape understood how valuable keeping people wrapped up in a suffocating liturgy of “Look at me” can be. Self-forgetfulness fosters authentic desire, and authentic desires are vulnerable to being turned toward God.

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Fandom, for all its potential to be absurd and obsessive, is a “still stronger taste” that can help discipline the soul against the temptation to shape our hearts in the image of the fads and opinions of the world. A fan is a fan first and foremost because he’s having fun. He’s a fan whether he’s surrounded by fellow fans or whether he’s alone (though of course it’s more fun to be with other fans). Sports fandom can look awfully silly, but fans don’t care. Foam fingers and body paint are the artifacts of an authentic enjoyment that resists, often without even conscious awareness, the need to see if such an activity will play well with my “followers.” In this way, fandom is humble: a confession that what I’m loving is lovable on its own terms and not because it may win me approval from the internet’s marketplace of the Self.

As a fan, a little sliver of my joy is outsourced to someone and something outside myself. My favorite sports team can thrill me by playing well, winning games and exciting me throughout the season with their skill. My fandom unites me to my favorite team through the emotional investment I make in their well-being, so that my team’s wins feel like my wins. This is why you often hear sports fans say words like “we,” “us,” and “our,” under the apparent delusion that they are part of the team.

It’s this outsourcing of joy that contains spiritual grace. It’s the same grace we need in worship, to acknowledge that God doesn’t need us but we need him. It’s the same grace we need in fellowship, to (really, authentically) rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It’s the same grace we need in acts of mercy and love, especially when we know those acts will go unnoticed and un-thanked. And it’s the same grace we need to hold fast in a world that doesn’t think highly of this grace. Enjoying sports probably won’t curry favor with the fashionable people we admire or win us more clout, and that’s precisely why it’s so valuable.

Of course, it’s not just sports fandom that offers the spiritual grace of self-forgetfulness. Other things do too. When our attention is toward little pleasures that don’t get us noticed but do help us love, we find that these little pleasures refresh us infinitely more than comparison, or outrage, or constant connectivity. And we get a valuable, increasingly rare reminder that life is bigger than our pocket, and that God’s world needs to be lived in, not just talked about.