I have arrogance in my heart,
and God is faithful in addressing that,
in such a tender and gentle way.
As I have wandered somewhat aimlessly over the past 9 or so months looking for a church, my grief (missing the church I had been in previously) and frustration and uncertainty began to turn into something worse–arrogance. Or maybe the arrogance was there, a bit latent and unseen until I was out of my comfort zone.
In any case, over the last week, I have been grieved to recognize the arrogance, criticism and discontent in my heart as I visited various churches. I wanted to find a church that “got it right,” which meant of course (and this is hard to admit) “getting it right” according to my standards and values and convictions–about theology, teaching, worship, service, etc.
There is a part of the criticism and discontent that is not, in itself, wrong. Discontent can be tied into the everpresent longing for things to be different than they are. Discontent is tied into hope. Why do I need hope or hold onto it if everything now is as I would want it to be or as it was designed to be?
And criticism, well I hope I never stop thinking critically about things–weighing them, searching for increased understanding and truth, not taking things for granted just because they sound impressive or persuasive. Sometimes I think I’m critical as a reaction to and protection from how easy it is for me to mindlessly accept what someone else teaches just because it makes sense. And as an empathetic person with the blessing/curse of being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes and see and understand things from their perspective, I feel especially vulnerable to falling for things I shouldn’t be falling for. Critical thinking is something I’ve had to learn (some by being taught and some by the hard knocks of life).
A result, though, is that now I feel like I’m a person who thinks a little bit like a lot of different people and simultaneously not very much like anybody. I know that is an exaggeration, but not much, in my immediate circle of friends. Another result of my thinking critically from different angles is that wherever I am in church, I end feel like there is a whole lot being missed. And from there it is not a big jump before I am looking down on the specific church and the people “doing church” there and also playing around with self-pity of how lonely I am in my “getting it”. Yuck–when my critical thinking and longings feed a “me vs. them” mentality, I’m digging my own hole of arrogance, loneliness and destructiveness.
You have to know me to know how much I hate arrogance and as a result, how hard it is for me to see and face this ugliness in my heart. I mean I HATE arrogance, and here I am a hypocrite, with arrogance in my own heart. But recognizing that before God is an amazing thing. More than ever before in my life, I realize how helpless I am to will this ugliness out of my life. I couldn’t stop myself from seeing things critically in the churches I visit by just wanting to stop. I couldn’t focus enough on the good and right and true things in the churches and in the believers who worship and teach there to change my internal struggle when I visited.
I could see, before God, how ugly my arrogant attitude is. And I could feel how ugly and hurtful and wrong it is, because I know what it feels like to be looked at by others in arrogant ways. What I could not do was change it by my willpower.
But, the fear of the Lord is such an amazing thing when you trust Him. There was no hiding my arrogance from Him and no covering up. No ability to paste on smiles or better attitudes. I could see the arrogance and hate it, but what a gift to be able to stand ashamed about it, but not afraid. Not afraid, because I trust God. To know that I could truly rest and trust God to change my heart and teach me and touch me. To humble me.
And, tonight, I say with tears in my eyes that He is doing that. And doing it in beautiful and tender ways that make my heart overflow with thankfulness–not just for his tender mercies, but also for the gift of helping me see people–individually and corporately–in different ways. I love Him for helping me see how I need people who I have found it easy to look down on. That doesn’t really say it well. It is not nearly as utilitarian as those words make it sound. I’m struggling to figure out how to say it.
To come at it from a different angle, part of how God has been tenderly shaping my thoughts and feelings has been through the writing of three of my internet friends:
Kathy at Beyond Words has a powerful post about a group she is involved with called Beyond Welfare. As a single mom, in a rather financially precarious place myself, I personally feel the value of a program that does not treat financially needy people in demeaning and devaluing ways. Sometimes receiving help can be demoralizing, but when it happens in the context of real people really knowing other real people, the same help can be truly restorative.
Codepoke has been writing articles which have challenged me and shaken up my whole “church searching” mindset. How his writing is affecting me is still too fresh and big to articulate more specifically. But the impact has been big and very good.
And John at Ancient Hebrew Poetry models scholastic genius and firmness of conviction that comes out of a heart that is tender and humble. If anybody could be arrogant or exclusive, John could be that person. And yet, whether he is writing to people in general or responding personally to an individual’s comment, he speaks in a way that affirms the value of others; he is attentive and listening to what is said; and he is patient, kind and humble in his response.
To realize that John could look at me in the same way I’ve been looking at other people is humbling. After all, it would take many books to contain all the things I don’t “get” that John understands and talks about. And yet, he makes space and time to speak with me about these things on the level where I get them and want to dialogue, without demeaning or putting me down, because of how small the aspect that I get is. I hope I haven’t made a fool of myself trying to express this, and I hope I haven’t embarrassed John. It’s not easy for me to put in words how this has affected me and been part of God’s work in my heart. It’s sort of like by receiving what I’ve not been giving, I also receive a vivid picture of what I long for God to do in my heart.
John said something that I am going to quote very out of context here. He is talking about approaching the Scriptures critically even while being comfortable with labels like inerrancy and infallibility (I’m not doing his writing justice in this little summary). Where his words found a deep application to me, though, was in how I listen and process and interact with the theology and teaching of other believers, both individually and corporately in the churches I have visited.
A believer, even and especially a believer who feels called to approach the text with a full panoply of critical methods, will do so with the following words in his heart: “With all that I am and all that I have, I honor you.”
And that in a succinct way expresses the attitude that God is growing in me towards others. It gives me a beautiful picture of how the ground can be level where believers meet, even with so much diversity–diversity in cultures, personalities, intelligence, wealth, theologies, power, abilities. Regardless of how different we are on however many levels, I can hear from you, I can learn from you, I can love you, I can understand you, I can walk together with you, I can help you carry your burden and you help me carry mine. And I can do this without denying or minimizing our differences. And I can do that without letting our differences become the main thing. Because I honor you. That honor is a holy thing, and I think I am only beginning to comprehend what it means and what it implies.
I let myself see God in your life and at work through you. I celebrate the ways that you reflect God to me. I’m grateful for what I learn from you. But, mostly, I honor you, because our differences don’t make us stand at opposite ends of some spectrum. I, with my uniquenesses, stand with you before God, in all the ways that you are the same as me and all the ways that you are different than me. I can truly listen to you and learn from you and interact critically with you. I don’t have to become like you or agree with you. But, I’m grateful to be standing with you, as co-loved-by-God ones, as co-servants of God, and as co-beneficiaries of the faithfulness of the Lord.
All of this is part of what is stirring in my mind as I try to comprehend being a critical thinker (albeit always only partially and imperfectly) and doing so (thinking and interacting critically) in a way that never lets go of a firm commitment to give honor. Grasping some of the things which Kathy, John and Codepoke are writing about is part of what makes me so thankful for how tenderly the Lord addresses the arrogance in my heart. Where harshness would have been appropriate, he is changing and shaping and touching me in such gentle and powerful ways. I am grateful for how His love fills me and overwhelms me and changes me.