Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash
My surgeon father used to scare the invincibility out of me. I’d go to him with an ache or pain only to be diagnosed in Latin. It left me questioning my life expectancy. Some authors and pundits operate in a similar fashion, naming problems without offering a way out. They create a stir, leaving their audience in a state of fear. I have a hunch about an emotional need defining this part of our cultural moment.
This emotional need drives a lot of opinion sharing. Usually it just sounds like conviction or sometimes even compassion. Examples abound on the left and right. Maybe an example about the environment won’t lose too many of you. Why is it owned by the left? Surely all the conservatives crowding our national parks this summer appreciate conserving them. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to find common ground? Maybe it’s not always about what it’s about.
Some would rather use a problem than solve it. Any issue can be proxy for this deeper craving I’m alluding to— it presents like an urgent need to be right.
It’s like Randy Newman’s old misunderstood song, “Short People.” It’s satire. He picks a random physical difference to expose the perennial need in human nature to be better than. Newman suggests short people are not just wrong but morally inferior.
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They’re gonna get you— every time. Well I, don’t want no short people round here. – Randy Newman
It’s not just about being right. It’s about being better. Better than you. Why would I need someone to stand over? What’s the need under the need?
The Dark Night of the Soul
Consider the all-too-common scenario these days of family members entrenched on opposite sides of an issue. They defend themselves as if their lives depended on it. Because on some level, it feels like it does. Surely you have noticed this pattern. What is the deeper hunger under these conflicts that escalate so quickly? What’s it really about?
You can spot the urgent need within a sad statement by the famed English writer, Marghanita Laski. She was no fan of Christianity, but before she died in 1988 she said, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness. I have nobody to forgive me.”
The word in scripture for this need is atonement. Break the word up to get its literal meaning. At-one-ment is about peace with God. Without peace the stakes go up on being right. Every debate becomes a potential distraction from one’s accusing inner monologue.
Like the “good riddance” post I saw after a Christian celebrity died recently. It’s a modern hit of dopamine but an age-old practice: if I do not have the means to feel at peace about me, then at least I can be better than you. Haven’t you noticed this sucking sound on social media? How how else should we expect people carrying deep regrets about their past and worries about their future to engage in public discourse?
The real need under the felt need
In contrast, Paul called himself “the chief of sinners.” He didn’t have a self-esteem problem. His regrets ran deep but his peace ran deeper. He shows the way to do better than “better than.”
Christians know the dividing line between good and evil runs through every human heart. So the core of their passion over an issue is an invitation, not a competition. At a deeper level, their life–their identity and security– is not riding on winning arguments.
When Christians operate from grace rather than moralism, they tend to invite people up rather than put them down. In the right spirit, even the sharpest truth can become a plowshare of grace.
Why be winsome when the world is being nasty?
Pascal said, “People despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it might be true. — Make it attractive, make them wish it were true, and then show that it is.” In other words, the melody of truth and not just the lyrics is easier to hear. Make it more about influence than power. Find the beauty of what you want to say and something different may happen.
A deeper cry of the heart can hide under the heat of the moment. It may not be about what it’s about. The one who receives that cry may find an opening to disagree without sounding as disagreeable. Not always. But without a better-than agenda, even the sharpest truth can land as a grace.
Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say, “I am strong!” – Joel 3:10