Why Are You Upset with Me?

A week ago a friend dumped me on Facebook because I was “too abrasive and divisive.”  He didn’t unfriend me, just dropped me from his newsfeed, assuring me of his love as he waved goodbye.  He blocked me after I wrote a post admitting my own ungracious thoughts and encouraging us all to be careful with our words.  Why would that be the final straw?  Wasn’t I promoting his point?  I searched my last month of entries for sharp edges, but was left clueless since he refused to discuss it further.

I know I can be hurtful, so I felt only sadness about his accusation, but his refusal to discuss it felt like rejection, and it made me defensive and a bit angry at first.  Perhaps his withdrawal was best, however, because it pushed me into deeper reflection than just sorting it out inter-personally.

I have mulled often over this issue of how to reconcile prophetic challenge with grace and gentleness in my words.  For instance, how does one express outrage over injustice while showing understanding towards the unjust (and those who support them)? Or how does one sound the alarm to wake the sleeping without frightening the timid?  I marvel when I see it done, but can’t pull it off myself—I still have a learner’s permit. Preferring frankness, I lack both the inclination and the insight to speak as the gentle do, though I strive for it.

I’m always open to suggestions and insights, but my friend was himself unclear: “A healthy or unhealthy debate is like pornography,” he said.  “Hard to describe the elements in a clear way… but I know it when I see it.”  That doesn’t really help me. In my straightforward perspective, I have always seen harshness in speech as easily identifiable: belittling, name-calling, pigeon-holing, shaming, distorting, being dismissive or arrogant or skewed. When I ask for more grace in a discussion, I can point out specific faults: “When you say, ‘that is stupid!’ or ‘grow up!’ you belittle the other person’s perspective or person.” If we can’t name it, I’m not sure how we can fix it… or even discern if there is something to fix.

Just as I see clear guidelines for speaking graciously, I see clear guidelines for listening graciously: don’t assume or jump to conclusions; disagree with a viewpoint rather than condemn a person; stick to the actual words instead of projecting motive, reasoning, or conclusions; don’t affix guilt by association. The responsibilities of speaker and listener seem clear and distinct to me, and boundaries between the two seem especially important, so that if you break the rules of respect (say, by jumping to conclusions) it is on you, not on me (and vice versa). What I state plainly should be taken plainly, and if you’re in doubt, ask for clarification.

All neat and tidy, clear and fair. This would work if everyone followed the rules of engagement, but add emotion to the mix and everyone’s perspective goes screwy. In practice I’ve tried to show and invite mutual respect by focusing on the rules, but that doesn’t work anymore because the whole atmosphere is negatively charged. The last few times they heard that position it was conveyed with words that were arrogant, antagonistic, and spiteful, so that tone will be overlaid onto everything I say. The default reading voice in our heads is now Oscar the Grouch.

This is a fresh insight for me. Until now I have divided writers into those who are clearly rude and those who are not, and carefully kept myself in the last group. When I failed, I would apologize and try to do better. With all this effort to follow gentlemen’s rules, to be thoughtful and careful, I was offended when others attributed to me attitudes that were not mine, lumping me in with the snarky. When I respectfully disagreed, I was called mean; when I asked for clarification, I was accused of making false assumptions. Wait! This is not fair! I didn’t belittle your ideas or judge your intelligence. Why am I the bad one?

I asked Kimberly to read over my posts and look for what might offend.  She pointed out a post where I linked to a first-person account of gun violence in school.  My only comment was, “Wow, just wow!”   Aren’t we all shocked and troubled by gun violence in school?  Is that somehow controversial?  But these three words could apparently be read in all sorts of negative ways.  I am truly flummoxed.

I see now that I have to come up with new rules that take into account our social fracturing and assumed antagonism—perhaps start out each statement with an assurance of good faith or denial of bad faith. I now realize that simple frankness is the new rude, that I must deliberately set a tone or it will be set for me. In other words, being gracious—which was already a struggle for me—just got harder still.


When Sins Stop Being Sinful

I misspoke in my last post with too much meaning in too few words.  I said, “Let me begin by saying that if the Bible condemns something even once, that is sufficient for me to call it a sin.”  That simplifies the matter so grossly as to be obviously false on its face and suggests that mapping the Bible’s morals is easy and straightforward.  There are many, many actions the Bible condemns–eating pork, marrying a foreigner, refusing to give a loan–that I don’t consider a sin for me today, and an even greater number which are unclear.  Let me offer a list of reasons to hesitate condemning what the Bible condemns, especially in others.

1) The Bible’s condemnation (or affirmation) may not be directed at me, but someone else.  The Bible speaks to many different individuals and groups, and I may not be its intended audience.  A great deal of confusion and even harm comes from ignoring this dynamic–claiming promises that are not rightfully ours: “I will give you this land”; or assuming commands that are not directed at us: “sell all that you have and give to the poor”; or condemning actions not concerning us: “do no work on the Sabbath” (which, by the way, is Saturday).  The Bible directly addresses individuals (Moses, Peter), nations (Moab, Israel), groups of people (Gentiles, Pharisees) categories of people (priests, women).  Most of it is not directed at humankind generically, and it is not always clear who the intended audience is and whether that particular word applies wholly or in part to the rest of humanity.  I don’t quit and throw up my hands any more than I stop listening to my wife when I have trouble understanding her, but it does call us to humility, latitude, and a lessening of our dogmatism and certainty.

2) Deriving principles not directly stated in a Bible passage may be problematic.  Assuming why my wife Kimberly is upset with me is a dangerous game to play, especially when I go beyond what she specifically said.  I can pick up on a look or tone of voice or memory of similar events–those can raise questions, but should not answer questions.  For answers, I ask.  I need specific statements to validate my hunches because I can even misinterpret my own wife whom I know very well.  “Whoever is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus says.  Does that mean no one ever has the right to punish law-breakers?  Or no one has the right to judge or hold others to account?  I must not “cast the first stone,” but what does that mean?  Let me suggest that I am much more responsible to decide what is wrong for me than to decide what is wrong for you in a given situation.

3) Applying truths from Scripture to specific situations can be very complex.  Even when the general truth is clear, deciding that it applies to this situation and these people at this time in this way is uncertain.  “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth.”  Okay, but who decides what is wholesome or unwholesome?  Surely it is wrong if my words damage others… but who is to decide that the fault lies with my words–maybe she took it the wrong way?  And what constitutes “damage”–sometimes pain is the necessary precursor to healing.  And what if my words are true… are all true words automatically wholesome?  What if my motive was good even if the outcome was bad?  Life is a journey and many of our moral choices are not black and white, simple and straightforward.

4) “Proof texting” or finding one or two verses to back my position is problematic.  The less Scripture says about any one moral command or prohibition, the less confident I can be about my moral stance because the fewer the words, the more easily misunderstood.  It seems that those truths God considered most important he repeated often in many contexts with different illustrations and ideas to be sure we did not miss his point.  So many considerations can affect a message and lead to its misinterpretation.  A passage can be taken out of context so that its original meaning is distorted.  We can take it out of literal context (divorced from the wider text) or out of cultural or historical context (because their culture and history are different from ours).  We can wrongly translate words or their nuances–think about the slight but very significant moral differences in our English synonyms “brag” vs. “praise” and “praise” vs. “worship.”  Whenever there is widespread disagreement between folks who are equally committed to God and his Word, humility is the better part of wisdom.

5) Offsetting truths in the Bible make for difficult conclusions.  Sometimes Scriptures place competing ideas right next to each other.  Proverbs 26:4 & 5 say “Do not answer a fool according to his folly,” and then “Answer a fool according to his folly.”  Jesus says, “Judge not” and “Judge with righteous judgment.”  When we take the whole sweep of Scripture into consideration, it adds so much color and contrast and complexity that we would do well not to insist on our view as being the right view in condemnation of those who fight for an alternative perspective.  Among those of us who love God and want to know and follow his ways, we must be especially cautious about condemning those with whom we disagree.

6) Theology is Progressive in Scripture and Christologically Centered, so certain morals have become obsolete.  There are many Old Testament laws that have been set aside by Christ and the New Testament.  This is quite natural since the context has so dramatically changed.  The Old Testament was written in the context of a political theocracy, so that there was no distinction between religious, moral, and civil laws. Clearly, when Israel is no longer a nation and the whole world is invited into a covenant relationship with God, everything drastically changes.  This is especially true regarding Jesus who not only became the supreme interpreter of the Old Testament, but its successor, setting much of it aside by his teaching (such as the food laws) and much of it by his sacrifice (the ceremonial aspects of the law).  It is hotly debated among conservative scholars as to how much of the Old Testament “laws” are directly relevant to us after Christ has come, but all agree that the New Testament overrules the Old Testament.  Christ is now the glasses of truth through which we understand the whole.  Any moral teaching which appears only in the Old Testament carries less weight, after all, it is the Christ of the New Testament that separates Christianity from Judaism.

I have personally discovered that starting with the fundamentals of the faith–Christ and the gospel–and working out from there gives me the grounding I need to flow more naturally into living the life of the Spirit.  To be honest, I often still assume that I am right and the other person is wrong, so I still have a long way to go on this road to humility, gentleness, and respect.  None of us has arrived, so we will all need to be patient with one another.

5 Questions About Loving Gays

I see that discussions about homosexuality continue loudly across the public stage, so I have decided to write a series about it after all.

We humans are remarkably skilled in interpreting Scripture to conform to our personal and cultural viewpoint.  “Faith” is reworked to mean optimism.  The Biblical word “modesty” is redefined from “don’t show off” to the American “don’t show skin.”  The virtue of meakness has almost become a vice in our thinking.

Our understanding of love has suffered a similar fate.  In my generation, good parents disciplined naughty children with paddles and belts while explaining, “I’m doing this because I love you!”  Sometimes they said this with gritted teeth, and their barely suppressed anger signaled that something more than love was at work here.  A particularly insightful boy might have thought, “You’re spanking me because you love the vase I broke, not because you love me.  You want to make sure I don’t break anything else you love.”  But few kids have that kind of insight, and so they grow up associating “love” with… anger (and/or with permissiveness or fear or smothering or control depending on their family, but you get the picture).


Given our confusing social and personal history with the idea of love as well as our knack for self-justification, maybe we should stop and consider if what we say about gays is truly loving.  Let me propose some questions to ask yourself before you launch your words into the public sphere.

1) Do I assume love because I am promoting truth?

I think it is a common belief that telling someone the truth to pull them back onto the right path is by definition a loving act.  Aside from the dangerous habit of assuming our own virtue, I see two problems inherent to this view.  The first is a question of motivation.  Love is not the only or even the most common reason to correct others.  I can correct them for pride, for control, for fear, for anger, etc., but without love it has the positive affect of banging cymbals (I Cor. 13:1).  The second is a question of manner.  The way I communicate can also be unloving, even unconsciously.  Truths spoken unsympathetically can drive others from the light more quickly than lies.  “Speaking the truth” is not at all the same as “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

2) Am I receptive rather than defensive and dismissive toward those who say my words are unloving?

When faced with someone who disagrees with us, we are tempted to fault them: they are stupid, uninformed, or biased.  Patience and humility call us to listen carefully to those who disagree with us, but this is so much more important when we are judging someone’s character rather than their argument.  When I discuss a moral defect in you that I don’t have, it places you in a vulnerable position and me in a position of power.  It is incumbent on me to be sensitive, gentle, humble, and empathetic, even if you react defensively (Gal. 6:1).  If you tell me my words are hurtful and unloving, then I need to hear that, exam my heart and my words, and redouble my efforts to communicate compassion.  I need to try hard to understand why you feel as you do.  It is only in the context of unconditional love that others can feel safe enough to consider their own deep-seated issues.

3) If I substitute the synonym “affectionate” for “loving” does it still ring true as a descriptor of my words?

Do I want to avoid someone who is gay or want to be with them?  Do I feel warm towards them or wary?  Would I welcome them as a friend, find pleasure in celebrating their birthday, enjoy their input in my life?  Although love does not always give us positive feelings, if it never or seldom warms our hearts, I wonder if it is really love.  We might assume we love others if we “want what is best for them,” but wanting the best for others can come from other motivations than love: you may want your child to get good grades in school for unconsciously selfish reasons (for bragging rights, fear of failure as a parent, etc.).  Some synonyms for loving in Scripture are “tender hearted, compassionate, and sympathetic.”

4) Do I publicly distance myself from the views of those whose words are harsh and judgmental?

If it is common for some from my “camp” to publicly promote my position with unkindness, and I do not publicly disagree with their attitude, all their hurtful baggage is loaded onto my words.  The statements of group members, when left uncorrected, reflect on the group as a whole and color all subsequent words from members.  It sets a precedent, and if I do not distance myself from those ungracious words, then I am likely to be seen in the same light.  We might feel that “at least they spoke the truth,” but are they not undermining an even greater truth by the spirit of their words: namely the very character of the God they claim to represent.  Often how we say something has greater impact than what we say (Prov.15:1).

5) Would I speak the same way if I were talking personally to a gay friend?

On the internet (where most of us small fry have our only public interaction), our conversations may seem objective and impersonal, but we don’t really know who is reading our links, likes, posts, and comments and how very intensely personal they may be receiving our words.  Do they hear in our words sympathy and understanding for their struggles and acceptance for them as people passionately loved by God?  How would you address someone across the dinner table who was sharing vulnerably about their journey with you?  Even when faced with anger and aggression, we are called not to double down on condemnation, but to speak always with grace (Col. 4:6).  Defensiveness does not indicate the strength of one’s position, but its vulnerability.

There is so much heat generated by this subject, and heat detracts from the light.  May we always be known more for what we support (love of others) than what we are against (Jn. 13:35).