One’s identity is often defined by where one stands, given a particular divide: Democrat or Republican, Coke or Pepsi, theist or atheist, Five Guys or In ‘N Out (answer: Five Guys). You’re either right, or you’re wrong – and you don’t want to be wrong. Ever. Because if you don’t know which side you’re on, then you don’t know who wins and who loses, which means the loser might be you. And if this is principally a question of identity, of who you are, then losing means a whole lot.
Humans tend to distrust a spectrum when they believe their identity lies somewhere along it. It’s unsettling. It’s not black-and-white enough. Gray area is a scary thing. We’re uncomfortable with tension and distressed by uncertainty. Dichotomies, on the other hand, are safer, simpler. They boil life, self, and others down into distinct and polar categories, dismissing anything that doesn’t fit neatly on either side. How else do you know who to blame? Who to love? Who to vote for? Who’s wrong, and who’s winning?
But if Charlie Sheen has taught us anything, it’s that while we may be convinced that we are winning, we’re the furthest thing from it.
For our first post together, Steff and I decided to explore (BuzzFeed-style) 4 widely-accepted dichotomies in human experience (at least, but not limited to, Western American Christian human experience). We’ll list the underlying belief inherent in each dichotomy, discuss why the dichotomy is false, give our 2 cents about it, and conclude with some questions to consider with the Holy Spirit as you process each one.
Dichotomy #1: Perfection & Failure
Underlying belief: If I’m not absolutely perfect, then I am a total failure. There is no grace.
Why it’s false: Perfection (in the sense of flawlessness) does not exist. But we are in the process of being remade in perfection or being brought to completion.
Steff’s thought: More and more I think that we do not need to fear failure because it is a key part of the journey. In our failure – as vulnerable as it is – we see our true state and become openly aware of our need for grace. We tend to go to extremes –“ I did it 100% right: I’m perfect!” Or” I screwed it up – I’m a total failure.” But maybe perfection isn’t something we do; maybe it’s being done to us.
Questions to consider: What would it look like to live not like someone constantly trying to do the perfecting, but someone who is already in a state of being perfected? Perfected in love. Not the author or initiator, but the object and recipient of a deep, unending love.
Dichotomy #2: Heaven & Earth
Underlying belief: All things earthly (i.e. physical, temporal, present, near) are fallen, broken, and evil. Escaping and forsaking them for the heavenly (i.e. spiritual, eternal, future, distant) is the only good choice we have in life.
Why it’s false: First, our good God made creation and deemed it to be good, even humans (with our physical bodies) very good. Second, He chose to incarnate His Son in our physical likeness and resurrect Him in a glorified physical body (which ascended into heaven, physically). Third, He promises to return and make all things new: heaven and earth.
Jake’s thought: To paraphrase N. T. Wright (and his entire book, Surprised by Hope), heaven and earth were never meant to be far apart. The church has adopted this view of heaven (and thus of God) that is very distant and remote – pure and perfect and holy, sure, but just ridiculously far away. By doing so we have agreed with the Enemy that this world, this life, even our very bodies are neither savable nor worth saving. Whereas the whole story of scripture is about the redemption and restoration not of ethereal disembodied souls but of all creation, the whole earth, the entire universe!
Questions to consider: What detriment might it cause our faith to believe that escaping our earthly existence for a heavenly one is our ultimate goal? What might it mean for God to glorify and redeem the physical?
Dichotomy #3: Joy & Pain
Underlying belief: If you are in pain something has gone terribly wrong. Joy cannot exist in a state of pain.
Why it’s false: God uses pain to shape, discipline, and strengthen his children. God does not fear pain nor does he avoid it. Joy is far more than the absence of pain. It is dynamic! Deepest joy is often accompanied by deep pain.
Steff’s thought: Like most human beings, I hate to feel pain and I love to feel joy. I prefer to keep them far apart from each other in their “purest” forms. That’s why I was so uncomfortable when I heard someone make a striking comparison between the two. She said, “Think of someone crying in deep pain or laughing for great joy. Isn’t it almost alarming how similar those sound?” Henri Nouwen describes it beautifully: “Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment.” Brené Brown reminds us that we cannot avoid or numb certain feelings and not others. They are connected. To diminish one is to diminish them all. (For Brené Brown’s thoughts on the church as a midwife, rather than an anesthesiologist: click here.)
Questions to consider: What does it really mean to “consider it joy” when we suffer? How can we embrace the whole spectrum of emotions and fully open those spaces to God? How might that deepen your intimacy with Him and increase His work of restoring you to your truest self?
Dichotomy #4: Faith & Doubt
Underlying belief: To be a person of faith is to be without doubt. A strong faith is one with absolute certainty.
Why it’s false: Faith is about God—the only eternal One without shadow or change. History (and even the Bible) shows us that just about everything else is up for grabs.
Jake’s thought: Faith in God provides very little certainty. Adopted by the Father; coheirs with Christ; sealed in the Spirit: great! What’s going to happen tomorrow? Jesus’ answer: don’t worry about it. If faith were truly the down payment on the certainty of any outcome, then what would have happened to the faith of those hailed fathers and mothers of faith in Hebrews 11: all of whom died without receiving that which was promised? It would have been destroyed! But their faith was not in unwavering certitude, not in that which was promised, but in God – who is with us each step of the way.
Questions to consider: What does it mean, as the people of God, to ask the right questions (instead of having the right answers)? What does it mean to wrestle with God, and for God to bless us for it? (And while we’re at it: Why do we give “doubting Thomas” such a bad rap? Did not Jesus uniquely bless Thomas through an experiential knowledge of His resurrection?)
For more developed thoughts on another big dichotomy (Scripture & Science), stay tuned for another post by Jake later on…