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

In Days Fraught: “We Should Not Be Too Taken Aback”

Electoral College USA Map, Trump-Biden Fraught election

Fraught?

Fraught is the word of the week. As in headlines like, “How is TV news going to cover the weirdest, most fraught election in US history?” Or, “How to talk to kids about the election and fraught politics.” Fraught, fraught, fraught. Fraught.

Election or not, our lives are fraught.

So just what is “fraught”? It’s an adjective and its strong synonym is UNEASY. The word worked its way to us from the Middle Dutch noun vracht, which meant “load” and which is also the source of the word freight. As in baggage, burden and load.

Merriam-Webster defines fraught as,

1: full of or accompanied by something specified —used with with a situation fraught with danger; The paper was poorly researched and is fraught with errors.

2: causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension : fraught relationship

We agree: these days are fraught. Being fraught is nothing new.

But this might be. That sometimes God consumes like a moth what is dear to us, that the Giver of all good gifts sends moths.

God Sends The Moth

I’m here to say that God sends the moths (Psalm 39:11). God sends consuming moths to drive us lay up treasures where no moths destroy (Matthew 6:19ff).

I’m here to say that God shakes the earth. God shakes the earth that what might not be shaken will remain (Hebrews 12:26-27).

I’m here to say that God makes crooked (Ecclesiastes 7:14). God makes crooked and when we acknowledge him he makes our paths straight (Proverbs 3:6).

And I am here to remind that no evil will befall you if you make the Lord your refuge; that our faith may be endangered by security, but secure in the midst of danger; that inordinate grief betrays false gods and misplaced love.

I’m writing this post to reassure my fraught self and your fraught self that God strikes with severe mercy—he shakes our sense of security and sends moths to devour our treasures—because our Lord God will not share his glory with another or his praise with idols (Isaiah 42:8). In his grace, our Lord will not permit us to have stability apart from Himself.

In other words, I’m here to say that God sends these fraught days.

God Sends Fraught Days

Why? James answered well: “that you may be perfect [mature] and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1.4).

That’s good, right? Who wouldn’t want to be mature and complete lacking nothing?

But what if those only come at the cost of days fraught?

Our current trials may be discipline. Covid-19, the political scene, and our increasingly tense relationships could be God’s moths. He might bring these circumstances so that we tighten our grip on him or he could be bringing it to loosen our grip on our treasures. But in both cases God is working in and through these fraught days to make himself our chief treasure.

Consider the Psalmist in Psalm 39. He believed that what he was enduring was a result of divine discipline for sin.

When you discipline a man with rebukes for sin, you consume like a moth what is dear to him; surely all mankind is a mere breath!

Psalm 39:11

Erik Raymond explains,

In other words, God sends the discipline and the circumstances act as a divinely dispatch moth to consume his treasure! This is good because in sin we are, like Achan, hiding treasures in our tent (Josh. 7.22). God intends to unfasten us from these fleeting treasures and to refasten us, wholly and completely upon himself.

Regardless of whether our specific sin prompted these fraught Trump v. Biden post-election days or if God’s more general goal that his children grow in holiness was the cause (Hebrews 12:10), we can rest assured. For we know that if we are patient and trained by our trials, these fraught days will yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).

Therefore, we should not be too taken aback.

We Should Not Be Too Taken Aback…

I, for one, do not want to miss the forest for the trees in these fraught days. God’s ultimate purpose is that we trust in Him (Psalm 37:4-7, Isaiah 26:3-4, Proverbs 3:5-6). Our work, Jesus said, to believe in the One He has sent (John 6:29). To trust him.

We tend to feel like our times are more fraught than times past; as if Noah and Job, Joseph and Moses had fewer reasons for discouragement and unease. So I’ve come back to this bit by J.I. Packer a few times in the past couple fraught days.

The same wisdom which ordered the paths which God’s saints trod in Bible times orders the Christian’s life today. We should not, therefore, be too taken aback when unexpected and upsetting and discouraging things happen to us now. What do they mean? Why simply that God in His wisdom means to make something of us which we have not attained yet, and is dealing with us accordingly. 

Perhaps he means to strengthen us in patience, good humour, compassion, humility, or meekness, by giving us some extra practice in exercising these graces under specially difficult conditions. Perhaps He has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Or perhaps He wishes to break us of complacency, or unreality, or undetected forms of pride and conceit. Perhaps His purpose is simply to draw us closer to Himself in conscious communion with Him…

J.I. Packer, Knowing God, InterVarsity Press, 1973, p. 86

Perhaps His purpose is simply to draw us closer to Himself in conscious communion with Him…

Free From Fraught

As I write this votes are being recounted in my hyper-divided swing state of Wisconsin. Our nation is on a razor edge. The tension is tangible, this fraught-ness that is new. Oh sure, I’ve been disappointed before.

But this is gloom goes far beyond the two men atop hundreds of thousands of contested ballots in light blue and pink states. As much as I spout hoping in God, I’ve been more skim milk than real cream since election night. Kind of weak. Rather fraught.

But I know there is a good design in it all of this. To quote from a Puritan named Thomas Boston,

It speaks comfort to the afflicted children of God to consider that whatever the crook in your lot is, it is of God’s making and therefore you may look upon it kindly since it is your Father who made it for you. Question not but that there is a favorable design in it toward you.

By some miracle of grace, that is what saints do. We trust that there is a favorable design in our fraught days. I am drawing near. He is drawing me near. And I’m more aware of the treasure it is to commune with Him.

We trust, and we watch for the divinely dispatched moths. They might fly in with coronavirus closures and kids stuck at home. Or they might appear in the mail with late arriving ballots or on the wings of a Twitter bird that does not tweet away.

We trust that God in His wisdom sends moths to eat away our idol hopes and make something of us which we have not attained yet. Yes, we trust that God is at work. Perhaps simply to draw us closer to Himself.

And we are drawn and to him who takes our fraught upon him, who daily bears our burdens, and we are not too taken aback.

And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
    My hope is in you.

Psalm 39:7

On COVID-19, Romans 14 & The Conviction You Keep

People picnic social distancing

One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons–marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The recent loosening of stay-at-home orders has ramped up fear of missing out for countless Americans. Friends agonize on a high wire between fear of death on the one hand and fear of missing out on life on the other. It’s FOMO on steroids. Many lack conviction.

Apart from the temptation to let fear dominate us are these others Lewis described: To say the things are bad (wearing masks, singing in church) or that the people who practice- or don’t practice these- are unloving or bad. That quote has been heavy on my mind as our country opens up.

The purpose of this post is not to persuade you to eat inside or make it a picnic, to go out or to stay home, to wear a mask or not wear a mask.

My purpose is to share a bold, jarring truth, a truth Paul proclaimed to those with strong, and opposing, convictions in the Roman church to- get this- promote peace.

Ready?

Disputable Matters & Conviction

Opposing behaviors in disputable matters may both glorify God.

Before I back that bombshell up, we must define disputable matters.

Disputable matters are subjects on which the Bible does not prescribe the right way. In the church of Rome, some Christians felt they could not eat meat, drink wine, or celebrate certain holidays. Those were disputable.

However, adultery and pride, lying and stealing, gossip and envy, to name a few, are not disputable. They are never right. God has spoken on those. And he does not change his mind. (Numbers 23:19)

Jack Arnold offers this background Romans 14. What he calls “doubtful practices” are also called “disputable matters,” or “non-essentials.”

A weaker brother in Romans 14 was one who insisted that because they held the conviction that something was wrong it must be wrong for everyone else. Note: They were not weak because they did not practice these doubtful things, but because they judged others who did. So Paul told them not to judge or condemn others who held opposite convictions.

Which is, as Lewis wrote, a marks of a certain type of bad man.

3 Bad Attitudes about (Coronavirus) Conviction

C.S. Lewis talked about the badness of “looking down his nose” at someone who feels more free to do a thing than we. There are also these three:

1. Irritation. Impatient annoyance gets us nowhere. However much we may disagree, we must try to see the other person’s point of view.

2. Ridicule. No one remains unwounded when that which he thinks precious is laughed at. No one has a right to laugh at what another holds sacred.

3. Contempt. To scorn and disdain is unloving. William Barclay notesOf all attitudes towards our fellow man the most unchristian is contempt.

The point: Have your convictions. Make them motivated by love and faith, to the glory of God. But recognize that there are many paths to the same end. My husband and I take different routes to town. I take Johnson Road and he takes Potter. My route is steeper, his his longer. But, both roads get us there.

Paul’s plea is that the common goal should unite us and the differing routes should not divide.

Each One Should Be Fully Convinced

Romans 14:5 says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Note well: Paul does not say “lighten up,” or “let it be.” He says, “Where you see things differently- be fully convinced.” This is not what we would expect.

In a timely message on this text, John Piper says what we’re thinking.

He is not saying as a kind of concession, Each one can have his own conviction. He is saying, Each one should have his own conviction. It’s a command, not a permission: “Let each one be fully persuaded in his own mind.”…It’s the same idea that we find in Romans 14:23, “Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” In other words, minor matters do not call for mushy faith or flimsy convictions. They call for clear faith and full conviction.

Romans 14 says that Christians who disagree on non-essential things like these can do opposite things to the glory of God. 

Shocking as it may sound, dinner with friends or takeout at home, can both be done by faith, with conviction, to the glory of God.

“Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.” If God has convicted you that something is wrong- that wearing a mask or dinner with friends is wrong- then you must not do it, but this does not mean that this same act is wrong for another Christian in the area of doubtful things. 

But, whatever is not from faith is sin.

Whatever is Not from Faith is Sin

Romans 14:23 says, Whatever is not from faith is sin. And without faith it is impossible to please God. (Hebrews 11:6) Faith looks forward to the promises of God, believing that He will keep his word.

If he says all things work for good to those who love him (Rom. 8:28), we believe they do. If he says he will supply all your needs (Phil. 4:19), we believe he will. Which means, by the way, that if we don’t have it, we don’t need it.

In a message on Romans 14:23- 40 years before all this COVID-19 chaos- John Piper said, Coming to church may be sin, staying home may be sin. Eating steak might be a sin, not eating steak might be a sin…Sin is not a list.

Because faith is not a list.

Conviction Comes To You Of Little Faith

To you who still feel anxious and panicky and just not convinced, Jesus loves you. You say, Abigail, easy for you. You’re healthy as a horse and don’t have a family member with fragile health. We just don’t know what’s coming.

Granted.

But guess what? No one but the Good Lord knows what’s coming. My choices must be borne of faith as much as yours. I don’t know if there’ll be another spike in COVID-19 deaths. We don’t know if we’ll get sick from having friend over for dinner or singing maskless at church. You don’t know if you are hugging a friend who is an asymptomatic carrier or if that hug might might do more harm to your body or good for your soul.

We just don’t know.

Exactly. That’s what faith must be: the conviction of things unseen. Unseen.

But, as Paul says in Romans 14, be fully convinced. Do your research and say your prayers and believe that God will care of you through whatever decisions you make, come what may. Have your conviction and carry on.

We walk by faith, not by sight.

Jesus’ Death Defeats FOMO

Let’s not be those who drown in information and starve for wisdom. The research– for and against– is ever new and at our fingertips. What seems obviously good and loving to one person is not so clear to another.

But whoever said love always looks the same?

We don’t need the CDC to tell us that ten out of ten people will die. And still no evil shall befall you. Christians are united by faith to the One whose own death broke “the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15) It’s not just that Christians aren’t afraid of rejection or affliction- it’s that they are free from the fear of death!

Yes, there is wisdom in caution. But he who observes the wind will not sow. We must move forward in our convictions.

The Best Response To (Others’) Fear

Finally, I offer this advice to you who have moved forward in faith with conviction but love someone who is afraid: The best response to fear is to live free of it. And be as gracious as you can be. (Douglas Wilson’s to C.W.’s “Letter to the Editor“)

Back to Romans 14. As if to prove the point that opposite extremes can both glorify God, Paul adds in verse 8: If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 

Talk about taking an argument to its logical end. Living and dying. Both can glorify God. I write this on Memorial Day. All gave some and some gave all. In God’s providence, some faithful soldiers lived to ripe old ages and some died on beaches. Life and death- BOTH to the glory of God.

And if God would ordain some live to his glory and some die to his glory, might he ordain that some don masks by faith, to his glory and some don’t, also by faith to his glory ?

That’s it, folks-Romans 14, Memorial Day, and COVID-19 together. Here’s the end of all three: Live free from fear. Be fully convinced.

And be as gracious as you can be.

Whatever you do, whether you eat or whether you drink, do all to the glory of God.

1 Corinthians 10:31

Bad Infection & Good Infection

The infected earth wears a mask.

Something bad happened, Mom. You don’t want to know.

So ended our easy Saturday morning.

do want to know, Gabe, I assured, kneeling before him.

Then my seven year-old showed me two of the most obscene gestures I’d ever seen. The sun went dark.

But ever the prisoner of hope, I thought: Maybe they’re only meaningless motions to him. Innocent-like when he’d use his third digit to point.

Alas: This one means a boy is…And that other one is what a girl does…

Test positive. Gabe was infected.

Exposure

The boy who watches G was exposed to X, or R at least. The son with the sensitive eyes- the son who won’t watch Wallace and Gromit for “weirdness,” and who covers his ears to block the voice of a Talking White Rabbit-this son saw that. He heard that.

My heart crashed into my gut. Then, in the hush I asked,

Gabe, where did you learn that? Who showed you that?

Wide blue eyes to mine. Earnest, sober voice to me:

It was Evan, Mom, on the bus. I shouldn’t be his friend anymore. And a big boy-he showed Evan. He told me what it meant. But I don’t know his name. He doesn’t go to my school. 

That’s how Gabe got infected and his tender mind was tainted. It’s how his innocence was lost.

Bad Infection

Actually, Gabe’s innocence wasn’t lost by the vile words and vulgar gestures of a big boy on the bus. It actually happened way before that.

Because neither Gabe, nor any of us, has ever been truly been innocent. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, Israel’s sweet, sin-stained, Psalmist wrote. Babies aren’t blank slates and children aren’t cherubs.

Apostle Paul knew and in our heart of hearts, we it too: we’re all infected with sin’s dread disease. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12).

We’re all carriers and one day we’ll all die of it. Sin is a bad infection.

But there is another kind.

Good Infection

In Mere Christianity (Book IV, Chapter 4) C.S. Lewis wrote about infections. Not all infections, he asserts, are bad.

Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them…

Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ…We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has–by what I call ‘good infection’.  Every Christian infected is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else. 

This is the good infection- that we may share the life of Christ. That we may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10).

And we ‘little Christs’ can spread this good infection, this loving life of Christ, to those infected with the bad.

Prayers For Carriers

That exposure came 5 years ago. A couple years later there was that online scare with the 12 year-old. And just this morning there were texts too ugly to show my husband. Contamination, exposure, infection. So we pray.

We pray that, though both sons were exposed and, like their parents carry the bad infection, God will keep keep them largely symptom-free. We pray they won’t infect others with this brand of the sin disease, and that they’ll be able to be sensitive to the Spirit and to resolve each day not to set of before their eyes any worthless thing (Psalm 101:3); that they will be wise to what is good and innocent to evil (Romans 16:19-20). We pray that this disease won’t keep spreading, that it’ll stay in remission.

And today when I jogged by Evan’s house I prayed for him too. For Evan and the big boy on the bus who infected him all those years ago. I prayed that they will know Jesus so that they too can be healed.

Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who infect us with theirs. Please use us to spread your “good infection,” too. Help us to live in love like you. Amen.

For in Adam all die, so also in Christ will all be made alive.

1 Corinthians 15:22