There are many ways the divisive spirit of an "us vs. them" mentality destroys unity, but none as great as the one induced by sinful pride— the one that has us pitting our righteousness against the unrighteousness of others.
I'm referring to the condescending spirit that identifies "us" by honorable hearts marked by all things decent and "them" by dishonorable hearts marred by all things depraved. The mindset of superiority that positions our lawful and laudable standing of personal merit over their unlawful and unworthy station of demerit. The one that lifts the chin too high in pride to lower the heart in humility.
The spirit that sings of our sins being many while it sneers at their sins which are more.
When indecency plays out on the stage recklessly, it leaves the audience leaning into their own decency righteously. That's because a low moral bar always tempts those who clear it (no matter how scantly) to believe their own bar is high. When there's no absolute truth in which to sink our teeth, comparison becomes the magnetic field of our moral compass. That's how relativism works. Almost thirty years ago philosopher Michael Novak, author of The Spirit of Democratic Captialism, highlighted its deadly destruction in a public address at Westminster Abbey.
But the Church, standing on the absolute authority of God's Word, finds no moral appeasement in comparison. It doesn't matter how high bedlam runs, we bow low because of the holiness of a merciful Redeemer. A merciful Sovereign King we boldly approach as a loving Father because of the righteousnes of Christ alone. A merciful Sovereign whose perfect love lifts us as freely as his holiness humbles us.
The bedlam we're witnessing is a fallout of the sin that wars within every human heart— sin that no police or public policy, process or promise has ever possessed the power to pause. Good government is certainly a gift of grace, but only the Giver on whose sovereign shoulders that government rests holds the authority to save us from sin's sedition.
These are troubled times. The insufficency of our earthly bulwarks are being exposed, and it's revealing the state of our heavenly affections. Religious affections daily shaped by either a refusal to forget or a failure to remember. A refusal to forget our rescue, or a failure to remember. Affections that flow from a humble heart that lives for the glory of a Holy King, or from a proud heart that lives for the gifts of that King. A humble heart that has troubled times igniting purifying faith over heavenly gain, or a proud heart that has it inciting paralyzing fear over earthly loss.
Last week I found myself pacing the floor in vexation over the horrific events that unfolded in the Capitol, vexation exacerbated by the condescending comment of a news journalist of wealthy inheritance. I hate the snobbery of elitism that comes with dimwitted views of monetary advantage. Innocently levied or not, the words came with a stench of classism that jarred my already jangled nerves.
As is so often the case in the midst of these emotional storms, the merciful ruling of the Comforter sent a gentle wind of conviction that slowly softened my spirit by giving life to the reality of my own rebel heart. Specifically, the reality of my own sordid rankings of superiority. Not rankings in issues of material status or standing, but rankings of even greater consequence— rankings in righteousness.
Rankings that far too often can find me gloating in my birthright instead of glorying in the One who secured it. Rankings that far too often can find me standing smugly with those whose wealth of character classifies the spiritually superior us above the morally impoverished them. Rankings that have me delighted by mercies that are many, but disgusted by those I'm certain need mercy more.
Rankings that leave me acting very much like one man in this story. And sadly, very unilke the other.
For Christmas I bought my husband Owen Strachan's devotional book Always in God's Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards. My brief readings before gifting it inspired my decision to take a deep dive into a personal study of Edwards this year. Over a decade ago I accepted the admonition to befriend theologians of old and drink in their life from their first words to their last. Besides my study of the Word, no other discipline has more sharply (painfully and joyfully) honed my heart.
Jonathan Edwards speaks with sharp precision on the nature of pride enough for me to know it's going to be a challenging year. His words have already been used to convict and to console, to wound and to heal. I warmly welcome them, but only because I know how often I need to be shaken loose from the sinful stupor that blinds me to the poverty of my power and puniness of my perspective.
It's so easy for us to perceive our natural myopia (nearsighted vision) as being more global than what is reality. Imprisoned by our own experience, rebellion against human limitation so easily leads us to assume we are enjoying a freedom of mental engagement that runs beyond the bars of our perception. It drives us to hold strong opinons about complex matters that come with far more questions than answers. Opinions we're more prone to proclaim in pride than to quietly hold in humility.
A cultural shift from a previous era, we're living in a day where the facts of experience are upheld far more rigorously than the truth of the intellect. And the problem is that the more we pridefully assume we're being driven by the latter, the more we end up being driven by the former. This is because assumption always poisons humble inquiry, binding us to our biased perception. No longer finding need to sift credentialed citations and respectable research through the sands of time and thought, we merely use citations and research to fortress experiential fact and prop perception.
It's difficult to zoom out carefully when we're so confident we've zoomed in correctly.
This zoom of confidence is what has enflamed the fires of political turmoil. Where the experiences of some have incited a confident zoom into the problems of injustice, the experiences of others have incited a zoom into the protections of justice. Where the experiences of some a confident zoom into fraudulant process, the experiences of others a zoom into fair process. The more confident the zoom, the less humble consideration and kind compassion extends to those outside the scope of our lens.
We know what we know. We've studied it. We've lived it. We've experienced it. How can we be wrong?
Some of us may not have utilized Zoom technology until 2020, but we all came to the platform experienced at zeroing in on our own interests. Without an ounce of instruction we arrived at the gate knowing how to lure us in and leave them out. We entered highly skilled at starting conversation up and shutting conversation down. We came as no strangers to lockdowns, lockins and lockouts. We arrived as professionals, knowing exactly how to tune in at whim and tune out at will.
The art of the zoom has always been ours.
This natural (and culturally-honed) inclination to zoom in hasn't just driven division and fueled fire, it's incited the cultural messages that are chaining us to ourselves and our irrepressible insecurity. Cultural messages encouraging a belief in self that flies in the very face of gospel freedom. Dishonest messages that proudly declare that we are enough instead of humbly confessing that we are not. Draining messages that keep us pleading to be seen, instead of humbly praying to see. Discouraging messages that demand the resourceful to step up while driving the depleted to shut down.
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God.
This isn't a call of assumption, it's a call of acknowledgement. It isn't a call of confidence, it's a call of confession. A call to bow the heart to what isn't known and what can't be known. A call to bend the knee to what isn't seen and what can't be seen. A call to lean in, listen and learn from those whose ideas, interests, and investments run far beyond the borders of our own.
In other words, it's a call to zoom out. It's a call to look beyond the facts of our own experience. A call to zoom out enough to see our neighbors. Zoom out enough to see the poor and the oppressed. Zoom out enough to see the abused and the abusers, the afflicted and the afflictors, the lawful and the lawless.
The degradation of a society has always cried out in desperation for truthtellers. The Church is called to use their voice for the glory of God. But our words ring hollow when the sin of others draws a disgust that drives a dismissing of our own. They ring hollow when we tenaciously speak against sin that is socially reprehensible, but remain timidly silent about sin that is socially acceptable.
The world is scrambling under the shifting sands of a foundation that never came with the hope of safety, and the disruption is providing wonderful opportunity to love others with a heart of compassion. A heart too humbled by grace to isolate eternal souls over temporal opinions that elevate the experience of us over the experience of them. A heart too humbled by mercy not to bow low even as bedlam runs high.
It's good and right for us to promote the safety of policies and process. It's good and right for us to uphold the stablity of governing bodies and political structures of freedom. And it's good and right to be angered over sin and degradation and to mourn the earthly loss of civility and decency. But in upholding temporal security in this earthly life, its not good and right if our heart fails to uphold Jesus far higher— the only King who can seal our faith and our freedom. The only King who can secure our salvation and safety. The only King whose blood and righteousness credits us with merit that our greatest deeds could never earn.
A debtor to mercy, I pray you'll join me in asking for grace to heed this advice from Jonathan Edwards:
O THOU MOST HIGH,
Creator of the ends of the earth, Governor of the universe, Judge of all men,
Head of the church, Saviour of sinners;
thy greatness is unsearchable,
thy goodness infinite,
thy compassions unfailing,
thy providence boundless,
thy mercies ever new.
We bless thee for the words of salvation.
How important, suitable, encouraging are the doctrines, promises, and invitations
of the gospel of peace!
We are lost: but in it thou hast presented to us a full, free and eternal salvation;
weak: but here we learn that help is found in One that is mighty,
poor: but in him we discover unsearchable riches,
blind: but we find he has treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
We thank thee for thy unspeakable gift.
Thy Son is our only refuge, foundation, hope, confidence;
We depend upon his death,
rest in his righteousness,
desire to bear his image;
May his glory fill our minds,
his love reign in our affections,
his cross inflame us with ardour.
Let us as Christians fill our various situations in life,
escape the snares to which they expose us,
discharge the duties that arise from our circumstances,
enjoy with moderation their advantages,
improve with diligence their usefulness,
And may every place and company we are in
be benefited by us.
Valley of Vision; Sixth Day Morning: The Gospel