In this third part of the series on controversies, we will explore the dark side of controversies. While some controversies are worth having, others can prove fatal to our hearts, minds, and spirits. They can distract us, drain us, and leave us in a foul mood. They can sap our spiritual strength and leave us entrenched in a rut we feel obliged to defend.
So which types of controversies can kill you?
There are multitudes of websites and YouTube channels getting lots of hits because they are casting Covid-19 as the apocalypse. “These 12 things are going to happen before the end.” “Get your Go Bag ready, and your bunker stocked because this is it.” The way some of these websites deal in fear is no different than snake oil salesman selling useless salves. In this case, what is being sold is fear. Fearmongering is defined as, “the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue”. Yet in the scriptures, God is never the facilitator of fear, but of hope.
1 John 3:3 (NRSV)
3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Notice what those who purify themselves have? The pure have hope instead of fear. A commitment to God that is based on fear is no commitment at all.
Too often issues become an, “Us against Them,” affair. “If you don’t agree with us, then you are one of them”. ‘If you don’t wear a mask, you are one of Them,”; If you wear a mask . . .
Among Christians, division along political lines can sometimes lead to defection from the Body of Christ. Some Christians, when they disagree on something, they take their ball and go home. They become quick to disparage, dismiss and demonize other Christians who are not from their tribe. Yet Matthew 18 is clear that we are to work through relationships. If we don’t, we deprive the Body of Christ and the world of our gifts and talents.
Most would agree that uprisings, revolts and insurrections are the language of human democracies; this is how America was born. To think otherwise would deny what it means to be a Western country. However, when God’s kingdom is envisioned in the New Testament, there is a whole different language. A caveat, this part is for those who follow Christ: Many Christian’s concerns and disagreements with what is happening in the world have crossed over into rebellion. I have heard Christians give disrespectful names to opposing politicians and seen others exhibit a stunning lack of love for government leaders they don’t agree with. The Kingdom of God however has another language.
Romans 13:1–2 (NRSV)
1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
In the kingdom ethos, God is the source of all authority; all authority is delegated by Him. The apostle Peter describes why followers of Christ are to submit to authority:
1 Peter 2:13–16 (NRSV)
13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme,
14 or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.
15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.
16 As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.
When those who don’t follow Christ see how Christians act in the face of controversy, they should say, ‘Wow, how do they do that? How do they disagree and still love?’ instead of, ‘Oh, they’re just like us’. Notice when Peter wrote this, at a time when the Church was under persecution. Roman games were played at the Colosseum with Christians being fed to lions by order of the Emperor. Thus, Peter’s words are stunning in the face of such casual brutality exhibited by the government of his day.
Ed Stetzer said, “The majority of people who claim to be Christian do not have a Christian worldview. Rather, they have a secular worldview with a few dashes of Christianity sprinkled in.”[i] With many who profess Christianity, God’s kingdom is not the lens through which they see the world. The glasses used are secular culture tinted with some Christian ethics. This is the equivalent of having good morals without Christ; in it is the glaring absence of zeal and love for God. It is truly possible to have Christian roots with no fruit (Matthew 3:8–9). As we will see in Part Four of this series, the Gospel and the Kingdom must be the lens with which a Christian must engage controversies. It must never come from a sense of morality, nationalism, or constitutional pride; rather it must come because the Kingdom of God is in us.
‘This issue is affecting my way of life, my values, my political views.’ The difference, says Ed Stetzer, is that, “Righteous anger is aimed at the glory of God, but outrage is an angry reaction to personal injury or insult.”[ii] An example of righteous anger can be found in Psalm 119:53:
Psalm 119:53 (NRSV)
53Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, those who forsake your law.
This is zeal for God, not zeal for capitalism, for the American dream or a return to the good old days of what our nation once was.
Lastly, there are controversies that mistakenly reduce complex debates into oversimplified bumper sticker mottos. We can easily dismiss something with a generalized comment that reduces the debate to a word or sentence. Imagine cooking down chicken in water and spices into a beautiful thick broth. It is also possible to over distill a chicken in broth to the point where it becomes reduced to a shriveled lump of inedible food. Oversimplification works in a similar way. To oversimplify is “the practice of simplifying something that is complicated to the point where it becomes minimized and distorted.”[iii] Adding to the challenge, the internet makes everyone an “expert-researcher”; the problem is that the research done is often undisciplined, shoddy, and often distorts a controversy. Conclusions that took 30 years for a legitimate researcher to arrive at are dismissed in trending 30 minutes YouTube video. What we oversimplify, we will tend to dismiss and demonize. The Disciples tried to oversimplify a concern by making a snap judgement.
Mark 9:38–39 (NRSV)
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
The disciples were quick to draw conclusions because they worked out of a small picture. When we oversimplify, we work out of a limited, naïve picture, assuming that this is how the world works. In a world drowning in arguments, opinions and anger, how do does one remain steady?
If this applies to you, ask yourself, how does God see my pride and stubbornness in the way I handle controversies? God sees these like idols that must be surrendered. The idols I worship could be my opinion, political view or national pride.
God has another word for stubbornness in the Scriptures. King Saul’s stubbornness was revealed to him in a graphic way by the prophet Samuel’s words of rebuke.
1 Samuel 15:23 (NRSV) S# 20
23For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry.
Another way to prevent becoming a fatal statistic of controversy is to refuse division where possible. It is possible to disagree with someone and still relate to them in a respectful, loving, and humble way. We do not have to automatically assume that the person who disagrees with us is our enemy.
However, when there is division, we must make sure it comes from zeal for God’s glory, not personal anger or political sentiments. The Gospel and the Kingdom naturally cause division when they demand that we “Take up our cross,” or “Deny ourselves.” We do not want to add to the Gospel’s natural offensiveness by being personally offensive.
Another way we can avoid becoming a fatal statistic is to respect complexity. Some answers are not as easy as an off-handed comment that ties everything together into a neat package with a bow on top. There is often more to the picture than what we garner from Tweets and protest signs. We must be careful not to label things too quickly, judge people so easily, or demonize and dismiss things at the drop of a hat.
One last thing we can do is to focus on hope instead of fear. We know what the darkness, the rage, and the anger are saying, and the hopeless stories they convey, but WHAT IS GOD SAYING? Shouldn’t we moor ourselves on God’s Word when the storm hits and let it form our narrative? Since God’s Word tells us how the story will end someday, it must be the mainspring of all other hopes.
[i] Ed Stetzer, Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is at Its Worst (Tyndale Momentum, 2018), 62.
[ii] Ed Stetzer, 80.
[iii]. Dictionary.com, “Reductionist,” https://www.dictionary.com/browse/reductionist.