Less Magnet, More Plaid: How Polarity Hurts Humans

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart.

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO

That’s it. If you need the TLDR, it’s that. Your greatest enemy isn’t outside of you. Because like it or not, you’re primed for polarity.

Good and evil pass right through the core of you. You and every human.

Polar Opposites, Fully Charged

There is the moral dualism that sees good and evil as instincts within us between which we must choose. But there is also what I will call pathological dualism that sees humanity itself as radically…divided into the unimpeachably good and irredeemably bad. You are either one or the other.

—RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS, Not In God’s Name

The earth has poles, magnets have poles, and some molecules—if I remember my chemistry—bond because of polarity. There is north and there is south, there is positive and there is negative, proton and electron. The whole world, Hopkins wrote, is charged with the grandeur of God.

The earth is charged all right. But how ’bout all the people that on earth do dwell? Are people made like magnets, with poles to attract and repel?

There is a sort of bi-polarity to every one of us. We all have both + and -, both good and evil poles. Every one of us is both/and, not either/or. No one is good but God alone. Which means no one is all good—not one of our heroes or models or guides.

But the other side of polarity is harder to swallow. Think of that person whose views are opposite yours. Pick your most staunch anti-vax or all-vax, pro-gun or no-gun, conservative or progressive cousin. Now remember, she is not bad to the bone.

We are not unimpeachably good or irredeemably bad. We’ve all got both forces inside us.

Okay, you say. But why tell me now?

3 Polarity “Untruths”

Because when the same truth falls into my lap from three different sources in less than three hours, I take note. And because I know I’m not alone.

People we trust take polar opposite positions. I felt it last night when a close friend expressed an opinion that was 180-degrees different from other valued friends. It’s confusing and unsettling and sometimes even crazy-making. By the way, these three non-negotiables still stabilize.

The past 18 months have been the most polarizing months of our lives. Friendships suffer. Relationships break. Yes, the earth is charged and we humans are tried.

Here are the three polarity “untruths” that were dropped in my lap. Writing them down shows me how polarity hurts humans.

Untruth #1: “Us Versus Them”

“Parties have come to view each other not as legitimate rivals but as dangerous enemies.” That from New York Times Bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind.

This is emotional polarization. It means that “people who identify with either of the two main political parties increasingly hate and fear the other party and the people in it” (141).

Identity politics, the authors explain, “can be mobilized in ways that amplify…tribalism and bind people together in shared hatred of a group that serves as the unifying common enemy” (p. 60). Interpretations of “intersectionality” that teach people to see bipolar dimensions of privilege and oppression everywhere also “have the potential to turn tribalism way up” (p. 68).

Not surprisingly, this is driving many of Americans to embrace what the authors call, “the Untruth of Us Versus Them.” We go in to tribal mode and let the tribe think for us. Even worse, we show less empathy for “them” and “their” suffering when we’re in tribal mode (p. 58). That hurts humans.

Truth #1: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-24). All. Not the heathen in the enemy tribe. Not the vaxxers. Or the anti-vaxxers. Not the oppressor, or the oppressed. All have sinned and all have need God’s grace.

Untruth #2: “Unconditional Affirmer Or Mortal Enemy”

After I read that, I heard this. There are two kinds of people: those who will give us unconditional affirmation and there are mortal enemies.

Pastor and Author Kevin DeYoung explains,

Some of us think there are only two kinds of relationships. There are people who will give me unconditional affirmation and there are mortal enemies. “If you do not give me unconditional affirmation—always agree with me, always like me, always tell me what I want to hear—then you are an enemy and you hate me.”

That sensitive is not that healthy. Tribalism cuts us off from hearing helpful, but uncomfortable information. So does “two-kinds of people” thinking.

If you have that mindset, you cannot understand who God is. That hurts humans. Because God does not unconditionally affirm everything about us. He said our sins are as scarlet and that they could be washed white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).

Healthy relationships are not polar. They don’t either affirm everything or oppose everything about you. Real friends, real brothers and real sisters and affirm and confront in love.

Truth #2: If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding (Proverbs 15:31-32). Seeing relationships with polarity is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Criticism may not be agreeable, Winston Churchill said, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to…an unhealthy state.

Untruth #3: “Good King Or Bad King”

The third strand came the same day, no kidding, when I dropped a book and an old paper fell out. It was a three column chart that listed the names of Judah’s kings, the dates of their reigns, and their “character.” That was in the last column where either “good” or “bad” was printed.

But scrawled in that right side column, I had added the word: mostly.

As in:
King Saul: “mostly bad.” Recall: Early pardon of his enemies AND those spears he thrust at David.

King David: “mostly good.”  Recall: Goliath, psalms galore, grace to bloodthirsty Saul AND Bathsheba.

King Solomon: “mostly good.” Recall: Prayer for wisdom, temple construction AND 1000 wives and concubines.

Fast forward to wicked king Ahab, who “did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel before him.” Who, with his long-lashed Jezebel knocked off righteous Naboth for a vineyard. But then the murderous thug, the evil King Ahab humbled himself. He repented. So again, I added “mostly” next to bad.

Three kings later: Jehu- zealous for God. He was so zealous that he executes wicked Jezebel and slaughters Ahab’s 70 sons. Not satisfied, Jehu gathers the Baal worshipers and wipes them out too. Such a righteous warrior! But still Jehu didn’t “turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam.” His zeal was incomplete; Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord with all his heart. This time, I had scratched “mostly” beside “good.”

Seeing polarity hurts humans because we write them off as static, as of the story is ✔️ and they’re either good or bad.

Truth #3: None is righteous, no, not one; … no one understands; no one seeks for God (Romans 3:10-12). One truth is inescapable in these royal annals of the kings: the good kings are not all good, and the bad are not all bad. Like Mom says,

No one good is all good,
Or bad is all bad.
We’re all shades
Of gray or plaid.

I don’t know about you, but in my home, in my town, and in my nation I need this truth front and center. I need to give people the benefit of the doubt as much as I want it extended to me. I need to look for the good in those who naturally repel and I need to remember that no one is good but God alone as I’m with those who naturally attract.

We’re All Gray And Plaid

God does not want this truth obscured. At least he didn’t want me to miss it this week. We’re all saints and sinners. We’re all needed and needy. If we’re honest, most of us have been both victims and victimizers, oppressors and oppressed.

Shared hatred forges fast bonds. We don’t have to think in tribes. Polarity is easy: She’s always doing this. He’s never like that. Nuance takes effort. The world is charged.

But God so loved a supercharged world and his children are called to love other humans in a world where only One was ever good.

And love, so far as I can tell on this charged earth, never writes people off.

For, in the words of a one-time polarized persecutor, Love always hopes.

And Jesus said to him,

“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

Luke 18:19

4 Questions To Help Identify (Your) Idols

Polar Plunge Women in icy water

Idols? What idols? And why would you want to identify your idols? After all, asking these questions is like plunging into Lake Michigan on February 1st.

Exposure stings. It’s painful in the moment, but— my Polar Plunging niece tells me—you’re glad you did it once it’s done.

Exposing our idols at once stings and bites and cleanses and invigorates.

What is an idol?

I’ll borrow from Brad Bigney, since he wrote the idols book my girlfriends are studying with me.

An idol is anything or anyone that captures our hearts, minds, and affections more than God.

Brad Bigney, Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols

In other words, when I fear or seek anyone or anything more than Jesus Christ, it’s an idol. And worshiping idols is a fool thing to do.

Because idol worship is a self-injurious, double sin. In Jeremiah 2:13, God explains how,

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Whenever we look to things other than God to meet our desires— even perfectly legitimate desires for gifts like health and happiness or security and peace— we have become idolaters. Period.

Because God is the Giver of all good gifts. When we turn a good thing—whether health or helping, our children or friends— into an ultimate thing, it’s become an idol. Paul David Tripp asks, Could it be that desire for a good thing has become a bad thing because that desire has become a ruling thing?

3 Reasons Idol Worship Matters

  1. Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them (Jonah 2:8). That’s why idolatry matters. God gives special grace to the humble, to those who fear him, to those who seek his face. By idol worshipers forfeit that special grace that could be theirs.
  2. They pursued worthless idols and themselves became worthless (2 Kings 17:15b). That’s another reason your idol worship matters. Because we become what we behold. When we look on Jesus, we are transformed to his image, from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). But when we pursue drivel, our souls shrivel.
  3. When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts...I the Lord will answer them myself. I will set my face against them (Ezekiel 14:7-8). That’s the big gun. God does not share his glory with others or share his praise with idols (Isaiah 42:8). In shorts, if you set up an idol in your heart, God will set his face against you.

Clinging and pursuing and setting up idols sounds a lot like slavery. Timothy Keller has written, An idolatrous attachment can lead you to break any promise, rationalize any indiscretion, or betray any other allegiance, in order to hold on to it. It may drive you to violate all good and proper boundaries. To practice idolatry is to be a slave.

I told you. It would feel like a cold shower. So get your towel out. In we go.

4 Questions To Identify Your Idols

But first, have you noticed how it’s so much easier to spot other people’s idols than our own? I can see a friend with a security idol a mile away—the anxiety, the refusal to risk, the control. And an approval idol—I can spot that one from two miles away. But I can be a bit blind to my own.

So it follows that others might see my idols more clearly than me.

That’s where the questions come in to play. But my Thursday morning girlfriends and I are serious about rooting out our idols. We’ve taken the stinging, invigorating, cleansing plunge. You are absolutely right—this is not for the faint of heart.

Because most of us are a little too defensive. We’re a little too tightly wound to receive criticism aright. We want answers for our troubles, but we can’t handle the truth.

Are you ready? Brace yourself. Then humble yourself and invite a spouse or a close friend to speak into your life.

Ask:

  1. What do you see me running to instead of God?
  2. Where do you see a demanding spirit in me?
  3. What do you see me clinging to and craving more than God?
  4. Where do you see me wanting something so badly that I’m willing to sin to get it or sin if I think I’ll lose it?

An Idol Revealed

I was feeling strong the night I posed those four to Jim, and he didn’t hesitate. His answers were stinging and cleansing at once. But none was a shock. I’ll spare you most of the sordid detail, I will confess to you that Jim’s answer to #4 was <gulp> “writing.” Which, I’m aware, goes deeper to a root of influence and pride. I like to feel esteemed. Not always and in every way, but sometimes and most every day.

I am guilty as charged: I have sinned to get my writing in. Namely, I may ignore the family around, or I may stay up too late—it’s 10:37 pm as I type—and wake up grumpy and get myself sick, both of which are unloving to those around me. Or I may be tempted to use work time for writing, which is stealing. And if, after I’ve poured heart and soul into it, my writing goes is unread and ignored I may commit the twin sins of envy and self-pity.

2 Ways To Guard Yourselves From Idols

It’s not quite Whac-A-Mole, but my idols keep popping up.

Seeing as, “Man’s nature…is a perpetual factory of idols” (John Calvin), my first tear-down technique is to realize that the fight won’t be over till glory. Bigney calls this a “wartime mentality.” Galatians 5:17 is true: For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want to do. That is as true for me today as it was 20 years ago and will be 20 years from now.

The second idol-destroying strategy is to seek Jesus. I seek Him in his Word, and I seek him in the wisdom of the saints. As Bigney notes, “Reading the Bible keeps you honest, because you don’t just read the Bible—the Bible reads you.” It exposes us—Polar Plunge style sometimes—but the more time we spend with Him in his Word, the smaller our idols will be and easier to uproot. But, adds Tullian Tchividjian explains, If you uproot the idol, but fail to plant the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back.

That’s it: be on guard, and know Jesus. And follow him. Obey his Word. That will starve those idols out.

For me and my writing (and respect) idol, it meant no JoyPrO post last week. It meant delaying this post to play Euchre and watch a movie with the boys last night. And every single day, by grace, it means that I won’t open the laptop to write or head to Facebook to post if I haven’t sought God in His Word first.

Knowing Jesus Christ will keep us from idols. Or, as Elisabeth Elliot wrote, When God is first in our hearts, all other loves are in order and find their rightful place. And a cold plunge can be a rousing way to expose those other loves.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

1 John 5:21

Bonus: 10 Probing Idol Worship Quotes

1. “Thus it is that we always pay dearly for chasing after what is cheap.” –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

2. “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God, your functional savior. ” –Martin Luther

3. “Saint Augustine defined idolatry as worshiping what should be used or using what should be worshiped.” –Colin S. Smith

4. “If we make an idol of any creature, wealth, or pleasure, or honour – if we place our happiness in it, and promise ourselves the comfort and satisfaction in it which are to be had in God only – if we make it our joy and love, our hope and confidence, we shall find it a cistern, which we take a great deal of pains to hew out and fill, and at the best it will hold but a little water, and that dead and flat, and soon corrupting and becoming nauseous (Jer. 2:23).” -C.H. Spurgeon

5. “What are you really living for? It’s crucial to realize that you either glorify God, or you glorify something or someone else. You’re always making something look big. If you don’t glorify God when you’re involved in a conflict, you inevitably show that someone or something else rules your heart.” –Ken Sande

6. “The most dangerous mistake that our souls are capable of, is, to take the creature for God, and earth for heaven.” –Richard Baxter

7. “Our culture says ‘live your dream,’ but God calls you to place your dream on His altar and to keep it there at all times. It is good to have hopes and dreams for the future, but we have no rights. There are no certainties. Any dream can become an idol and, if it does, God will bring it down.” –Colin S. Smith

8. “When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshipping. When such a thing is threatened, your anger is absolute. Your anger is actually the way the idol keeps you in its service, in its chains. Therefore if you find that, despite all the efforts to forgive, your anger and bitterness cannot subside, you may need to look deeper and ask, ‘What am I defending? What is so important that I cannot live without?’ It may be that, until some inordinate desire is identified and confronted, you will not be able to master your anger.” -Timothy Keller

9. “When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around.

Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. People who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sex objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.” -N.T. Wright

10. “The bottle of the creature cracks and dries up, but the well of the Creator never fails; happy is he who dwells at the well.” -C.H. Spurgeon

How Bitter Turned Sweet & Good Friday Turned Great

Cross Good Friday

Good Friday turned great just before midnight. That’s when my pride died.

Again. This side of heaven, it won’t stay dead.

I can’t tell you the details. It would not be right. But I can tell you that it happened after a good friend confronted me about my wounding words.

Before Pride Died

But before pride died. I want you to know that the words I write do rattle around in my head. By them, I will be justified, or condemned. If I know the truth and ignore it, I’m worse than hot air. I’m a hypocrite.

So I tried to look for the kernel of truth in criticism that mostly seemed off- Assume you are guilty when a fellow believer confronts you about your life. And I tried to apply the cure for passive-aggressivetrust that God means good, leave him your hurt, and do good. By grace, I try to take my advice.

Maybe especially last night, because Good Friday is so good.

Why Good Friday Is Good

Good Friday is good because “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), and because, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). And it’s good because “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Good Friday is good because by Christ’s death, we are freed from the penalty of sin and the guilt of sin. Because he bore our sins.

That is why Good Friday is good.

Marahs Made Sweet

I read and re-read my friend’s words. They stung. But I knew there was a kernel of truth in them, because I know there is sin in me. So I confessed, not was she accused, but what I knew was true.

That layer removed, I thought of other sins of which my friend had no clue. And just before midnight, I went to bed and paged to the prayer called “The Grace of the Cross.”

O My Saviour,

I thank thee from the depths of my being

    for thy wondrous grace and love

  in bearing my sin in thine own body on the tree.

May thy cross be to me

  as the tree that sweetens my bitter Marahs…

I got that far before the bitter tears began to flow. Bitter, in Hebrew, is marah. The Israelites found water too bitter to drink and called the place Marah (Exodus 15:22-27). Then the Lord showed Moses “a piece of wood.” He threw it in the water and the water turned sweet.

Wood turned bitter water sweet. I remember when I taught the story to my Sunday school class. Millie and Michaela and Audrie got it. They saw the cross of Christ.

They understood it was wood that makes our bitter water sweet.

How Good Friday Turned Great

Last night I tasted both. Bitterness first- It was my sin that held him there.

But then sobbing like a hot mess in bed, the bitterness became sweet. I knew I was forgiven by my crucified King.

Christ died for this.

Feeling that was how Good Friday turned great. The cross makes our confessed sins, even our most embarrassing and ugly and bitter sins, sweet. Because, Who confesses and forsakes finds mercy (Prov. 28:13).

That is when bitter turns sweet, and good becomes great. We stand forgiven at the cross. We remember and we celebrate:

Christ died for this.

I saw my sin loud and clear last night. But I also saw the cross and confessed and found mercy and grace.

And that is how Marah became sweet and Good Friday turned great.

In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ, in confession we affirm and accept our cross…

The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Taking Wounds

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.  Proverbs 27:6


You wore that? To work, Hon? Those stripes with that plaid? 
I did, he said, calm as a clam. And no one said a thing. None of my patients. None of the staff. 
But, Honey, they’re not married to you, I reasoned. They’re not vested. I would never tell my doctor or my boss that his clothes clashed. Not my place.

*   *   *   *   *

Some faithful, friendly readers have told me, Get to the point. Sooner. And, A bit long-winded.

So, here she is: The rare times a trusted friend is gutsy enough to confront you in love, take it. Don’t rationalize and rebuff or get hyper-sensitive and turn to mush. Hard as it is to do, if it came from a faithful friend, you’d best listen.

(Back to the point. Sooner.)
The point here is not how to confront, when to confront or why to confront. The point is when you are the one confronted-wounded-as it were, by a faithful friend, to take it as God’s gift to you .

But I cringe, too. When my lovingly bold friends have cared enough to ask, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I cringe. I dread. I admit I worry a while, too, because nobody wants wounds. 

(But keep this simple, to the point.)

Let’s assume the “confronter” has already done his hard work before he comes. He’s overlooked what he could (Proverbs 19:11), covered more in love (1 Peter 4:8) and then removed the log from his own eye (Matthew 7:5). And he’s gotten over his cowardice.

Now he comes. Bearing a precious gift that only a friend can rightly bring. He tells you what some others see, but don’t care enough to say. He tells you that tie, that plaid-they clash. The Christ you claim, those words you say-they clash. The disciple thing, the greedy weed he sees-they clash. 


Faithful are the wounds of a friend. It’s enemies, like Judas, that multiply kisses. And Peter was one of Jesus’ three besties. How much do you think “Get behind me, Satan” cut?  The penultimate Faithful Friend delivered that blow.  
(Short-winded. To the point.)

Now he comes to you. A trusted friend has said it. He’s said your fly’s down and there’s spinach between your teeth. He’s wounded you in love. He’s bucked the system where so many, 

[S]link away from the confrontation entirely, either because they fear it or because they have bought into our society’s hedonistic, relativistic view that places a premium on letting people do their own thing, regardless of how sinful that ‘thing’ is. (Ken Sande, Peacemaking For Families, p. 38)

Dawson Trotman said, “There is a kernel of truth in every criticism. Look for it, and when you find it, rejoice in its value.” We’d best spend our energy seeking kernels, not explaining criticism away.

And let’s not get all groveling-sensitive. Let’s have thicker skin, and softer hearts. Not vice versa. Let’s look the nugget of truth in that thar’ criticism and when we find it, let’s take it and get back up.

I do not agree that when all is said and done, friendship is but, “the giving and taking of wounds.” No way, no how. But friendship will include some wounding, this side of heaven, when faithful friends are lovingly bold. It’s part of the deal. It’s modeled by God and it’s for our good. He wounds and his hands bind up (Isaiah 30:26, Job 5:18, Deuteronomy 32:39).

(To the point, to the point. Not too long and windy.)

The point: Find the kernel in the criticism and take it as God’s gift for you. Humbly take the wound. Die that little death. Adjust, correct or repent where you ought.

Then get right back up and press right on toward the goal. And go with joy and with rest assured, since you’re alive. Your response to the wound proved it. Because, like C.S. Lewis* said,

A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way, a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble-because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out. 

Baptized into his death. Repaired by faithful wounds. Alive to God in Christ.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Romans 6:5,10

*Mere Christianity, Book II, Ch. 5