How to Wreck Christian Love

Caring about love and unity is not a “liberal” concern. It’s a gospel concern.

My devotional reading this morning was in Romans 14. I admit this passage is a tangle for me. On the one hand, Paul adjures Christians to refrain from judging each other. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (v 4) On the other hand, isn’t “Judge not” one of the most misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misapplied passages in all of Scripture? How can I make sense of verse 13, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer,” and the final verse of Romans 13: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”? Aren’t those in tension?

Yes and no. Here’s what I’m thinking.

It is possible to wreck Christian love and unity by preaching the truth (like Rom. 13:14 above) in a way that assumes that my struggle is the same struggle that everyone else is having.  When Paul says in verse 23 that “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats [meat, presumably produced in pagan marketplaces and likely offered to false gods], because the eating is not from faith,” he’s revealing the heart of the matter. The issue is conscience. Christians whose consciences do not condemn them are free to eat the meat, because they are eating “in honor of the Lord” (v 6). Their consciences are not haunted by the false gods. By contrast, the Christians whose consciences do condemn them should refrain, because a willingness to eat when your conscience is pricked is a sinful species of unbelief, and “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v 23).

The fault line of disunity within this community is right here. Christians who are eating assume that the problem with the Christians who don’t eat is ignorance, or failure to realize their freedom. So they eat in front of the weak-conscience Christians in order to shame their conscientiousness. Paul rebukes this as making “your brother to stumble” (v 21). On the other hand, the weak-conscience Christians may pass judgment on the Christians who eat, reasoning that their problem is that they simply don’t care about the worship of idols or about purity in holiness.

Interestingly, Paul does not affirm either camp’s view of the other. He does say that “nothing is unclean in itself,” but immediately adds that “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (v 14). Each camp is right AND wrong. They’re right to follow their conscience, but they’re wrong to assume they know what’s going on in the hearts of the other believers. This is what it means to “judge” one another in the way that Jesus forbids. There is indeed purity and holiness which we must exhort each other to, but we cannot exhort each other to it if we are convinced we can see inside everyone’s motivations.

This passage rebuked me. It brought to mind things I’ve written in the past, like this piece. I still agree with everything I wrote there, but I don’t believe the way I’ve applied it has always—or even often—been good. For example, I can think very clearly of examples where I saw someone on social media say they were seeing a certain movie, or I noticed a particular DVD in a friend’s house, and I drew conclusions in my heart about where they must “struggle.” It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the struggles I envisioned for them were identical to my own struggles. Inferring from their entertainment to their spiritual life was tempting for me because it let me validate my own experiences and not think of myself as “weak.”

This wrecks Christian love. It wrecks Christian love by empowering self-righteousness. It also wrecks Christian love by keeping believers away from each other in meaningful community. That’s the tragic irony of self-righteousness; it thwarts actual righteousness by making sure that people don’t really enter into the joys, sorrows, temptations, and triumphs of others.

It wrecks Christian love too by undermining our watchcare over each other. “Do not cause your brother to stumble” assumes you that you have a stake in your brother’s spiritual life. But if you think of believers whose lives don’t look exactly like yours as spiritual lepers or pariahs, how can you think you have a stake in their spiritual health? Isn’t it more important in that case to play the prophet, and use social media and blogs to passive aggressively shame them? And all the while, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” goes ignored.

There’s an old cliche that says that “Speak the truth with love” is the dividing line between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives stop at “Speak the truth,”  liberals skip over it and say “Speak with love,” while the gospel says “Speak the truth with love.” It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one. Caring about Christian love and unity is not a “liberal” concern. Reformed Christians especially need to hear this, because we often feel satisfied merely if we’re calling others to repentance. That’s not how Paul thinks. Let’s never pit Christian love and Christian purity against each other. And let’s not assume that what God is doing in our own hearts is exactly what he’s doing in everyone else.

The Glory of Permanent Words

Why I love the Bible

Picture everyday life, but without anything permanent.

You wake up in a different bed on Thursday than you did on Tuesday. Your house, in one zip code last weekend, is a few miles elsewhere today. Your morning commute changes every other workday: interstates some days, unfamiliar back roads other days. The people at your job constantly shuffle in and out of your life. One week your cubicle mate is somebody, then the next week it changes. Relationships in general shift around you. Things may stabilize for a little bit but they are sure to change soon. Life has no discernible rhythm, just endless novelty and transition.

Most people would not be able to live like this. There are lots of films and books about the anxieties of boring life, but this is true only because human nature by default looks for repetition and permanence. Nobody wants all new friends every two weeks. Nobody could function if their daily experiences of life were always shifting. There’s something life-giving about the same bed each morning, the same faces to wake up to in the same house. Permanence is an anchor, and while anchors are heavy and can be hard to get away from, they keep us from being lost at sea forever. Life without permanence is hardly life.

This is true for daily life, and it’s true for intellectual life.

My days are filled with words. Between my job in publishing, my writing, my editing, and my intake of newspapers, blogs, magazines, and social media feeds, I face an onslaught of words every day. These words change every day. Particularly online, there’s something new to think/worry/get angry about every hour. New voices every week, new issues every day, and new phrases every minute. This world of words is endlessly transient.

We are still learning how this kind of intellectual ecosystem affects our minds. The best indications so far are that the consequences aren’t good. Attention is not a limitless resource, and thoughtfulness is subject to a law of diminishing return. The internet’s tyranny of the Now can hijack our emotional and spiritual life and overload us with information. Even worse, this overloading can become addictive, and we can develop an impulsive need for more and newer words to keep up the neurological rewards we get for discovering new stuff. In this phenomenon, meaning is destroyed. What matters is keeping up the frantic but satisfying pace of new things to know.

But what I crave, at least when the chemical highs of internet life abate for a minute, are permanent words. Just like I want a permanent bed to come home to after a day of new people or new challenges, and just like I need the same rhythms of morning and evening to cope with life that shifts all around me, I need words that don’t change. I need to hear phrases and sentences that aren’t whimsical or subject to the tyranny of Now. I need permanent words that stand on the page and on my heart like the walls of our home. Permanent words are words that don’t get rebooted like a comic book franchise. They don’t get subjected to the whirlwind of public debate like a Twitter thread. Permanent words aren’t the outrage of the day or the fad of the week. Permanent words are here when everything else is scattered; they’re stone pillars in intellectual sand dunes.

This is why I love the Bible. In Scripture I find words with real permanence. They’re corporeal and fixed, not ephemeral and guesswork. I’m not pretending that the Bible needs no interpretation, or that one can never grow or shift in understanding of Scripture. My point is that there’s a restful eternality in the words of Scripture that heal the relentlessly temporal state of my mind.

I read many good things online, but even the best of them tend to be weightless. Timeless books are better than articles and blogs. But even then, many of the books disagree, or age poorly, or are simply wrong. I try to read widely and, as Alan Jacobs advises, at whim. This is rewarding and enlightening for me, and there’s delight in it. But the billions of pages I could live in for a few moments do not add up to even a fraction of the sheer cosmic density of the words of Scripture. The Bible does not blend into the crowd, and that’s what makes it permanent. That’s what makes it strong. And that’s what makes me strong.

Temporal words can color life, but permanent words are the beams of light behind the color. Life is diverse and seasonal, but that diversity and seasonality is only welcome if there’s somewhere to lay our head down at the end of the day. My mind and heart need permanent words. Thank God they have them.