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

Conviction Comes To Interrupting Chicken


Yup, Little Miss Active Listener went rogue again. Tigger-like, she bounced right over reflective, soft-spoken Joe with her over-eager interjections.

I could say the interrupting words were well intentioned, borne of desire to build relationship and connect. I could say that.

But I know better.

Contrition

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Psalm 51:3

Jim and I were in the kitchen with our friends Sadie and Joe, enjoying some Sunday morning omelettes. Joe was summarizing a new book. I was Interrupting Chicken.

Hon! Stop interrupting, my husband broke after one of my break-ins. Let him talk!

I shut my mouth. Those words about how it’s the fool who answers before he listens (Proverbs 18:3) came to mind.  Guilt- the good kind- moved in.

After an awkward moment of silence, Joe continued, still calm.  I listened to him- and to my wounded ego- without interrupting either. In a few minutes. Joe left to help at early church.

But I didn’t say a thing. Any thing. And I didn’t do the right thing.

Conviction

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:17

But I knew the right thing to do.  James 1:19 has been a quote-out-loud verse in this house for years. Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. And I know Proverbs 18:23 pretty well, too: Whoever covers his sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and forsakes them finds mercy. 

Obedience required confession. And not in a vague Sorry-if-I-offended-you way.  Because confession- like thanksgiving- demands particulars. Precision like, Forgive me, Joe because for repeatedly interrupting . Or, sorry I wasn’t a patient listener.  Specific. 

I knew what I had to do. Interrupting was a sin of commission. I was doing the wrong thing. But to go on without confessing, that would add to it a sin of commissionWhoever knows the right thing to do- confess to Joe- and fails to do it, for him it is sin. 

There was conviction. I knew the right thing to do. 

Confession

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. James 5:16

But my pride had kept me from confessing as a first response, before Joe left for church.

And silence when there’s sin to confess wastes away the bones (Psalm 32:3). So the ‘ole bones groaned for the next three hours at church. But when we all got home, I did the right thing.

Hey Joe, I’m sorry I kept interrupting you this morning.

I don’t know if I added Please forgive me, or not. But I know meant it. And what’s more. I know Joe gave it.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve been selfish and rash and had to confess to a friend and I’m pretty sure, it won’t be the last. Because our gracious God reveals convicts us, bit by bit. There are sins we don’t even know we commit. A year or a month ago, I might not have seen Interrupting Chicken as a sinner.

But I do now.  And once we  know the right thing to do, it’s on us to do it.

Ongoing and over and over again.

Continue

And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. 1 John 1:28

In a message on James 4:17, Russell Moore says that confessing our sins is critical for every Christian.

Then he explains why it’s so important to make things right,

Because the Christian life is about the Gospel. Because you and I understand that we are sinners. Not that we were sinners. That we are sinners. And that we are constantly in need of grace and mercy.

So what does the Holy Spirit drive us to do? He drives us to an ongoing confession of sin….

Because this is how God is drawing you near to him by the confession of your sins…The point is, you ask for forgiveness…so that you can be freed and liberated from that…

The most miserable Christian in the world is not the who is aware of his sin and is confessing it. It is the one who does not have his sins being exposed and repented of so [he can] experience the blessings of fellowship and walking in Christ.

It sounds so awful and terrifying. So does a surgeon. A surgeon rips you up to take the tumor out. So does the Word. It’s healing. 

Confess and repent is part and parcel of the Christian life until we see our Lord face to face, and are like him. And it’s not so morbid really, it’s actually, very lightening and relieving, and as Moore said, healing.

Confession, Interrupting Chicken can assure you, is good for the soul. 

Conclusion

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Ecclesiastes 12:13

So what do you do with conviction? Do you stuff it inside and protect your pride? Or do you confess it and find fellowship?

During a swim at our friends pool this week’,  my 11-year-old, called me over and asked in confidence and with conviction,

Hey Mom, do you think I should say sorry to Mrs. Mills? I accidentally dropped a cheese cracker in the water and she told us kids not to have food in the pool.

You can guess this mama’s answer.

 You know the right thing to do, Son. Go do it.

Grant me never to lose sight of  
the exceeding sinfulness of sin,
the exceeding righteousness of salvation,
the exceeding glory of Christ,
the exceeding beauty of holiness,
the exceeding wonder of grace. 
The Valley Of Vision, “Continual Repentance”