14 November 2007

Differences of a Pinion

It stands to reason that conflict will arise between two or more sinners intent upon mutually exclusive actions. Something has to give. But I have been noticing how often even well-meaning Christians are quite determined to dictate or evaluate the choices, decisions and behavior of others. Not only where a clear Word of the Lord identifies what is right and what is wrong, but also in matters that fall well within the freedom of the Gospel. Or, sometimes it happens that a course of action quite in harmony with the Holy Scriptures will be questioned and criticized in favor of something else that may be at odds with the good and gracious will of God. As I have become increasingly aware of such tendencies, also in myself, I have been wondering why we poor, miserable sinners are inclined to act this way.

Tolerance and diversity-for-its-own-sake are all the vogue these days; they have been for a while now. I find that whole kit-n-caboodle a bit humorous and ironic, since it is a mindset that seeks approval from those who are different by choice. But why? As much as everyone wants to be a self-determinating individual, it seems the vast majority of folks are really hoping that their self-determination will end up looking pretty "normal" and "mainstream." Those who pride themselves in being "weird," have generally identified quirkiness and eccentricity as the very sort of cool that will help them to be accepted and fit in. We all crave a clear sense of personal identity, but, so far as I can tell, most of us would prefer that identity to be recognizable and more familiar than strange to our neighbors in the world. Tolerance and diversity are stressed, I think, mainly to broaden the parameters within which "normal" is to be found; because the truth of the matter is that no one is really very tolerant of differences in others. We want to be like everyone else, because we'd prefer that everyone else be like us.

Admittedly, there does seem to be rather a lot of tolerance when it comes to religion and the myriad things that pass for "spirituality." There's a tendency to cut everyone a bunch of slack when it comes to God, partly because there is this mistaken notion that we can't be too sure about any particular truth of the matter, but also, I think, because insisting upon any objective truth about God already rules out the notion that I am free to pick and choose who and what I am. By tolerating "anything goes" with my neighbor and his faith, I presume to give myself the same latitude and to exercise a kind of spiritual licentiousness.

When it comes to a consideration of other people, however, there is a decided lack of patience or tolerance for any thinking or behaving that diverges from one's own choices and decisions. Folks get downright aggressive about this. Some are openly aggressive, not hesitating to express their opinion as though it were the golden mean by which all else is to be measured. Others are far more passively aggressive, smiling to their neigbhor's face, but disparaging and criticizing behind his or her back. Either way, the critique emerges from the fact that people make different decisions from different perspectives, with different values, goals and purposes. Some things are plainly right or wrong, but most things in life are not so clearly either one. Great. Except that we get uncomfortable when others proceed differently than we do or have (or would), and others are similarly unsettled by our distinctive actions.

I've concluded that this urge to criticize and "correct" the differences in others, stems from the works righteousness inherent in our sinfulness. Believing that our righteousness is a product of our own behavior, every choice and every action is freighted with a fevered scrupulosity and weighted with unwarranted significance. If we are pridefully convinced of our own righteousness, we evaluate the differences in others as obviously unrighteous. Alternatively, if we are uncertain of ourselves and our decisions, then the contrasting choices and actions of our neighbors are threatening and downright dangerous to our self-confidence and sense of security. Hence we become either condescending or defensive. That appears to be the reason we poor sinners have such a hard time allowing others to be themselves and do their own thing. It's finally impossible to "live and let live" when you're trying to live by the righteousness of the Law, as the old Adam is always striving to do. The freedom to be ourselves, and the freedom to let others be themselves, is lived only in the Gospel: in the grace, mercy and peace of the New Man, Jesus Christ.


Lutheran Woman said...

Love covers a multitude of sins.

How many of us have sinned either intentionally or unintentionally and would have corrected the sin had our brother or sister been kind and understanding rather than critical and harsh?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

That is also quite true. When reproof and correction are needed, gentleness and patience go a long way toward being heard and received, as opposed to digging in the heals in defensiveness.

But it also seems to me that "reproof and correction" are often offered in response to choices, decisions and actions that are not a matter of sin at all, but simply differences from one person to the next. I've noticed the temptation and proclivity in myself to evaluate others on the standards of my own choices and decisions in life, and I've seen the same sort of critique at work in other people.

There's something to that old prayer about knowing when it is the right time to speak, and when it is best to say nothing at all. Or, as Kenny Rogers would have it, you gotta know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em. But I like the way that Johann Heermann put it best (in "O God, My Faithful God," LSB 696, stzs 3-4):

"Keep me from saying words that later need recalling; guard me lest idle speech may from my lips be falling; but when within my place I must and ought to speak, then to my words give grace lest I offend the weak.

"Lord, let me win my foes with kindly words and actions, and let me find good friends for counsel and correction. Help me, as You have taught, to love both great and small and by Your Spirit's might to live in peace with all."

Susan said...

>>this urge to criticize and "correct" the differences in others, stems from the works righteousness inherent in our sinfulness. Believing that our righteousness is a product of our own behavior, every choice and every action is freighted with a fevered scrupulosity and weighted with unwarranted significance.<<

Yes! What a helpful insight. Once you say it, it seems so obvious. When I used to be a [bigger] pietist, I thought there were certain things that "Christians" did, a certain standard of living. Like you said, those things were not what Scripture enjoined upon people, but what today's Pharisees saaaaid that Scripture called for.

And boy oh boy, coming to know the Gospel more fully (as well as coming to know the depth of my own sin more fully) makes it so much easier to see other people's choices as their choices instead of
a) wrongness, or
b) indictment of my choices.
(Homeschooling comes readily to mind, but there are many other subjects that fall into this category.)

PS: Mom said you called after I'd already headed back home. Gary said you called and talked to him, and you answered my question even though neither you nor he knew what I was gonna ask. So thank you. :-) Talk to ya later....

Moria said...

Forgive me for chiming in late on this; I'm catching up on my blog reading :).

To be sure, criticism and judgment of others in areas governed by the freedom of the gospel is wrong. And, even proper rebuke and correction, when done in a passive/aggressive or other unloving way, is also wrong.

I would like to offer, however, that part of the back and forth and exchange of opinions that we have with our acquaintances is part of our growth in practical wisdom. Something may not be a matter of sin, but the advice received can truly provide an improvement in the way we work and serve others in our vocations.

More important than this, too, is that differences of opinion can often open our eyes to our own behavior that is in fact sinful and hurtful to others, in cases where we may have thought that it was not hurtful to others and therefore in the realm of Christian freedom. I might think that my behavior just involves myself or my family, but perhaps it is also affecting others. A "challenge" by a friend can help me realize this.

Again, I should repeat, the sharing of opinions should not be done in an unloving way, but, at the same time, the conflict that naturally arises when two people have differing opinions may not actually turn out to be unloving. It might really help me learn a new and better way of doing things, and remain outside the category of works righteousness. Such is, I think, the way of true friendship.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comments, Moria. No need to apologize for "chiming in late," as there is no time table or limits on discussion here.

Your points are surely well taken and appropriate. I did not intend to suggest or imply that differences of opinion are wrong, nor that one should refrain from sharing different perspectives. I believe that is all well and good. Certainly, we can all learn and grow from one another, and, even in the freedom of the Gospel, not all things are equal, nor as edifying to the neighbor.

Notwithstanding any of that, I was reflecting on opinions that I have heard expressed by others, and on the attitudes of my own heart, as well, which presume to sit in judgment of others apart from any Word of God, and which stem from a personal self-righteousness. The fact that differences of opinion can often be shared and discussed in a way that is mutually beneficial does not yet suggest that prideful criticism of one's neighbor is ever okay. Especially since such judgments are usually not expressed to the neighbor, but harbored against him and spoken to others behind his back. For such things we are called to repentance.

Anyway, thanks for your helpful clarifications and further insights on the matter of opinions. In the freedom of the Gospel, there is a great deal of latitude in the way we Christians may order and arrange our lives. Within that context, there is also the fact to be considered that love does not insist on its own freedom, nor upon its own way, but seeks rather to serve the neighbor for Jesus' sake. It seems to me that your comments have brought that consideration to the fore, and I thank you for that.