This is a follow-up to my previous post, People Are More Than What We Find Disagreeable.
There are many vices that run rampant throughout our society, but comparison may just be one of the most insidious.
We constantly find a new way to one-up the next person, only to discover the fruitlessness of that pursuit and jump to find yet another scale on which we can measure our worth against theirs. We accumulate possessions, develop skills, and build up stores of knowledge that we can point to whenever someone else seems to have more of something. It’s all quite sad, but it’s that last part that I wanted to focus on today, mainly because it’s so subtle in its intangibility and often goes unnoticed. And to be frank, it’s the one I’ve struggled with the most.
Have you noticed how much our culture has developed a fixation with being right? We may call it “being educated,” “having the truth,” “being on the right side of history,” or whatever other term suits our fancy, but at the end of the day, the methodology is very similar. We just don’t like the idea of being wrong. We want to avoid being caught off-guard. We’ll develop a compendium of responses to every conceivable question so we can stay on top and avoid embarrassment or the notion that we may still have learning or growth to do. After all, we live in the age of Google, where we can find answers to just about any question with a few clicks. I think we all struggle with this, but as a Christian, I wanted to address the state of modern Christianity as it relates to this issue. Because guys. It’s really killing us.
For anyone who may be wondering, yes, I do believe in truth. I believe in absolute truth. I believe there are truths on a metaphysical level that will always apply to everyone by virtue of the way the universe works. I believe there are truths on an individual level that apply to specific people by virtue of the way they are made. What I don’t believe in is focusing on the truth at the expense of everything else – including how it’s delivered, the perceptions of others, and the relationships we develop with them.
Growing up in IBLP provided an opportunity to see just how damaging the obsession with being right can be. The entire program was grounded in the warped notion that if families were to develop the tastes, preferences, and lifestyle choices of Bill Gothard (basically), God would bless them in a very visible way. If families could emphasize the production and appearance of morality, they could be a “beacon on a hill” toward which the rest of the world could look and wonder, “I want that too!” – the comparison mindset at work. Some even believed that if families produced enough children and grandchildren skilled enough in the defense of their faith, they might stand a fighting chance against the rest of the world who would inevitably attack them. Ultimately, if enough morally upright children and families permeated the culture, Christians would ignite another Great Awakening or widespread revival. An admirable goal, but one that ultimately pales in comparison to sharing the Good News – and one that has helped cement the pursuit of respect and comfort as idols of the church.
Of course, the tunnel vision instilled in such a culture doesn’t help either. When you surround yourself with materials that repeatedly reinforce the same biases and denounce outside voices as tainted and untrustworthy, the issue prioritization of the organization gradually becomes your own. Whatever cultural deficiencies in the “outside world” are given the most attention are naturally perceived as being the most important, the most critical, the most epic. Soon, you cultivate an unhealthy dependency on the organization when everything on the outside seems to be in shambles. I recently had an exchange online with a fervent IBLP supporter who, even in the wake of the Gothard sexual molestation reports, just couldn’t bring himself to believe that the man he idolized was capable of such behavior. He even admitted that he felt safer with IBLP than without it because the stringent rules and restrictions gave him some measure of comfort that he was “getting it right” and that he would be rewarded in heaven one day. Sadly, he just couldn’t bring himself to let go.
Looking at the heart of the Gospel and at the life of Jesus Christ paints a much different picture. He not only embodied truth, but also grace (John 1:17). He didn’t complete our salvation by giving us a laundry list outlining what to believe or what prayer to pray, though He certainly provided us with a framework. If that’s what it all boiled down to, then Christianity would be no different than any other world religion where we would have to focus on what box to check off to get to heaven. He completed our salvation by becoming us, by sharing life with us, by becoming human and having relationships with humans, and by sacrificing Himself for us and rising from the dead. I’m not trying to say that truth isn’t real, but rather that truth is not the main thing. The truest truth isn’t intellectual but Christ Himself. If objective truth exists and is important but is not the most important thing according to how Jesus acted, and if objective truth is not totally accessible to me, so that I am, even with Scripture in hand, wrong about many things no matter how hard I try to be right just by virtue of being human, then logically, it stands to reason that being wrong about truth, on some level, while nothing to be happy about, is also not the end of the world most of the time.
This is a foreign concept in our mainstream evangelical culture, where the emphasis is often placed on defending the truth at all costs and treating it like a set of dominoes that would topple over if one were to get just one tenet or belief wrong. Not only does this discount our own human capacity to make errors, but whether we realize it or not, it also implicitly paints God as a horribly unjust, mercurial deity who creates a reality so complex within which we humans inevitably find it impossible to have all the dominoes standing with our inherent intellectual limits. By subscribing to this paradigm, we’re ultimately setting ourselves up for an infinite loop where we pressure ourselves to “get it right” and end up stressing ourselves – and others – out by wanting to make sure everyone is where we are. If that’s the most important thing in our lives, it’s “loving” in our eyes to insist that everyone agrees with us. But in the end, such insistence leads only to broken relationships and sidesteps the time necessary for true growth to take place.
Being obsessed with being right leaves no room for grace, that we are works in progress. It invites the monster of comparison to live rent-free in our minds as we evaluate ourselves based on how mature we are with respect to how much we believe we’ve “gotten right” – and how much others have done so as well. Soon, we start constructing platforms and elevating ourselves over those around us. It also leaves no room for the possibility that others are works in progress as well – and their perceptions can’t simply be tossed aside, even if they may not entirely be based on the truth. I remember when I was in college, I got into a conflict with a friend over a simple misunderstanding, and it took us months to sort everything out and be comfortable around each other again. We both could’ve handled the situation more maturely, but one of my biggest issues was that I was very quick to justify my own faults by claiming that her misunderstanding me wasn’t entirely based on “fact.” The thing is, that really didn’t matter. She felt hurt and needed space, and I needed to respect that. Her perceptions defined her feelings, and those feelings needed to be validated, even if that meant holding back from shoving the truth in her face.
On top of that, when an obsession with the truth is coupled with an unhealthy us-vs.-them mentality, it can be all too easy to perceive those who disagree only as truth-stampers who want to crush us, then find some way to glory in the situation. It may come as no surprise that the IBLP culture romanticized the idea of persecution. Even one of the booklets that comprised the program’s homeschooling materials assured its readers that an extra jewel would be added to the heavenly crowns of those who had been reviled for their faith. For those with such a mindset, the defense of the truth transforms into a quest for marginalization in pursuit of that jewel. In a very twisted way, those in these situations who crave for and feed off of approval from others often end up seeking out disapproval as their approval. Any form of criticism is ultimately fruitless, as it reinforces the idea that they are in the right.
Even though I’ve focused on these issues of pride and comparison in the context of IBLP and the larger mainstream Christian culture in the West, I hope it’s not too difficult to see how these problems plague almost all of us in this part of the world, regardless of our worldview or political bent. If I could summarize the main points I’ve tried to make in the past few posts on here, it’d look something like this:
- Our society is very appearance-obsessed, competitive, comparison- and results-oriented, and loves pitting entire groups of people against each other.
- We live in an awareness-saturated world, in which there is a lot of noise that we have to filter out. Our preferred method of filtering out noise is by listening only to people / news sources / etc. that reinforce the biases we carry.
- Therefore, the perception of a cultural deficiency by any given group of people can easily be magnified through constant reinforcement by those who seem agreeable or make us feel comfortable, fueling conflict even further.
- Whatever issues are highlighted within the group are often awarded priority at the expense of other issues that are often just as, if not more, important.
- Compatible points of view are amalgamated into easily digestible packages such that epistemological issues are discussed in terms of these packages, not the merits of individual components. As a result, people are often discouraged from deviating from their set of comfortable talking points out of fear of compromising or “going soft.”
At the end of the day, the pursuit of the truth is most certainly a worthy and critical one. But the way we seek and share the truth is also important. It can often be conflated with the truth itself to the point where any attack on our methodology is perceived as an attack on the truth. Our insistence on dogmatically defending the truth or being right as the end-all-be-all goal can often drive us to break relationships before we even begin creating the space necessary to discuss the truth. Jesus certainly knew how to create that space with the people who needed to hear His message the most by meeting their needs or demonstrating that He truly cared for them as whole people before talking about the difficult stuff.
Some of the wisest and most mature people I’ve been blessed to know all share one characteristic: they are lifelong learners. They don’t stop searching. They don’t take for granted that they are fallible human beings. They take a stand, but they do so in humility, not at the expense of others. They understand that their perceptions of the world, the Bible, history, or culture need to be evaluated and re-evaluated as they continue to grow. And as part of that, they seek out relationships with wiser people who can provide input and advice, even people with whom they may disagree about some issues.
One such person in my life once stopped me dead in my tracks. He often shares differing perspectives on various cultural issues on Facebook, not because because he agrees with every one completely, but because he enjoys viewing life through a variety of “lenses” to help compensate for the shortcomings of each. I was rather blindsided when I first started to know him in college, because he wasn’t afraid to think outside of the binary terms within which our society often confines conversations. He is grounded in his faith, but he understands that the fallible, human, cultural manifestation of that faith is insufficient to help him grow completely. So he ventures out in an attempt to understand others who may believe differently, and as a result, his worldview is strengthened as he continues to learn. Obviously, he is not you or me. What works for him may not work for us. But I think there’s at least something to be said for listening to others, even in our disagreements. For holding lightly to our perception that we may have it all together and “got it right.” For treating others the way we want to be treated and being willing to grow.
Who knows – maybe a few years from now, I’ll look back on this blog post with a few adjusted insights and new thoughts to share after some additional growth and life experience. At least I can hope, right?