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

Don’t (Dash from a ) Dish and Dash

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He has the right to criticize, who has the heart to help.

I’ve always loved those words of Lincoln.* He knew the sting that criticism brings. Abraham Lincoln lived-and died-a target. He had more enemies than all of us combined, I’d bet. And he knew how to dish: stand-by-me friendship style.

In a “Temperance Address” he said, It is an old and true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. And a soft tongue will break a bone.

When Criticism Comes Without a Heart to Help

I totally did not see it coming. I was broadsided, then they stung. Her words were very personal, strongly worded, and cut me to the core.

Not that those are bad, by the way. But it was dish and dash. The words were served up and she was gone.

In days and weeks that followed, I stretched and asked if we could talk, and try to work things out. But she didn’t reach back. Bitterness tempted me.

I did pray a lot. For me, for her, for pure hearts, for God to get glory out of this mess. And for power to practice what I preach about not being so thin-skinned that we crumble- or lash out-when criticism comes.

And I looked for the kernel.

Look for the Kernel of Truth

Since most criticism has a kernel of truth and we’d best sift to find it, not write it off or explain it away. So I sat and prayed on that a while.

And I sought out a kernel and found it. I asked a few friends if they’d seen what she’d seen. Now that you mention it, one said.

Around then, Marshall Segal’s “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” challenged me big. Try this, he said,

Assume you are guilty when a fellow believer confronts you about your life. I’m not saying respond as if you’re guilty. Don’t immediately plead guilty. But put on a posture of faith-filled, no-condemnation deference, and be willing to test whatever questions or accusations they bring to or against you. 

The Bible tells us to consistently test ourselves anyway, regardless of what others think or say (2 Corinthians 13:5). Don’t assume you are in the right. Ask yourself serious, probing questions about your faith and life. “[God] leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9). Why not, then, also use others’ critical comments as an opportunity to truly search yourself for anything out of step with the gospel? “Test [every potentially prophetic word against you]; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). With your Bible open, and your heart humble, try their words on, and see if they fit after all.

Best Practice: Serve it up with Love

If dish you must, be sure to serve it up with love.

Priscilla and Aquila didn’t dish and dash on Apollos when he was preaching wrong (Acts 18:18-28).

Paul didn’t dish and dash on the Corinthians. He wrote hard things (1 Corinthians 3, 2 Corinthians 2, 13), then came to be with them (Acts 20:2-3).

Jesus didn’t dish and dash on Peter. He said, “Get behind me, Satan,” then six days later he was one of three Jesus called up to see him transfigured (Mark 8:33-9:8).

God doesn’t discipline and convict and dish then dash on us. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit promise to be with us, never to leave us (2 Corinthians 13:11, Matthew. 28:20, John 14:16, respectively).

So let’s don’t dish and dash. Because, says Christopher Abel, criticism is best tethered to a helpful heart. 

Criticism alone is distasteful at best. It’s lazy. It’s an easy way to make you feel better about your own life. But criticism tethered to a helpful heart is how the world is changed. 

Critique the world. Challenge the status quo. Hold people to a higher standard. But don’t stop there. Have a heart to help.

A heart like Jan’s. She has a heart to help. She’s the friend who confirmed, when I asked, an hard truth in the criticism. And Jan stuck around. Her presence beside me is a tribute to God’s grace and a reminder to apply that kernel I found.

The Least Defensive People on the Planet 

And if it’s all true about God never never leaving and no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus, then we should, as Segal says, be the least defensive people on the planet, because the gavel has fallen once for all and we are free. 

Instead of being defensive or angry we should test every criticism offered, whether it’s served dish and dash or stand-by-me friendship style. Because, as Marshall Segal concludes,

Ultimately, there’s only one judgment that matters, and it’s not the courtroom of your friends’ opinion. Through Christ, God has already ruled decisively and eternally on your behalf and in your favor.

*   *   *

One hundred fifty years ago Lincoln saw the “storm coming.” He was bitterly attacked for his stance on slavery. In the face of critics on the right and left, Lincoln said

If He has a place and a work for me- and I think He has- I believe I am ready. I am nothing, but truth is everything.

He has the right to criticize, who has the heart to help, is great. But, I am nothing, truth is everything, that might be better. At least when you’re the receiver.

Criticism is one of God’s gifts to conform us to Christ, and this gift won’t always come sweetly. But being conformed to the image of the Truth Himself is way more important than how the criticism was served.

Because I-my image, ego, I- am nothing. And Truth, who loves me and will never leave me, is everything.

Finally, brothers, rejoice.

Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace;

And the God of love and peace will be with you.

2 Corinthians 13:11

Abraham Lincoln

*The quote is, however, “spurious.” Still I love it. And Lincoln.