Monthly Archives: August 2012

Growing in Grace

I’ve mentioned previously that one of the tasks of Christian teachers and pastors is to continue to shape the imaginations of Christian communities by creatively capturing gospel realities through new and faithful expressions.

When we use the same old speech patterns to speak of Christian realities, those realities become less and less compelling.  We lose sight of the life-giving and hopeful character of being Christian.

A colleague of mine, in the middle of a discussion yesterday, made the following statements.  I quickly wrote them down because I thought he captured growth in Christian grace in such beautifully simple terms.  This is what he said:

To grow in grace is to learn to love, to hope, to unify, and to trust, and no longer to separate, manipulate, manage, and control.

It is to move from self-regard and self-protection to other-regard, growing in flexibility in relationships and in openness to others.

Getting Practical about Passive-Aggressive Postures

I’ve been discussing passive-aggressive relational postures on and off for the last few weeks.  It’s worth lifting up the hood on this basic relational orientation because it is so pervasive and so subtle.

Many Christians are self-deceived into imagining that passive-aggressive attitudes and behaviors are somehow closely related to cruciformity and humility.

But they most certainly are not.  They are power-plays and manifest hearts of bitterness and anger.

Drawing this discussion to something of a conclusion, let’s get practical.

How would you counsel people who tend toward passive-aggressive postures?  How do they need to change and what practical steps can they take to relate to others in life-giving ways?  I’d love to hear from others who have reflected at greater length on this than I, but here are some starters:

First, cultivate the habit of believing the best of others.  Passive-aggressive postures involve putting others in the role of injurer, imagining they are out to do harm.

Learn to hope in others.  After all, true love “hopes all things,” thinks well of them, is confident that they will do good when given the opportunity.

Second, learn to receive the love of others.  Passive-aggressive people can’t truly receive and enjoy the love of others.  A typical response upon the reception of a gift might be, “well, it’s about time.”  Similar back-handed compliments or snide remarks reveal a heart of deep resentment.  Such sentiments prevent a gift-giver from reveling in the joy of doing good.

Reveling in the love of another person puts to death deep anger and dissipates long-held resentments.

Third, learn the skills associated with frank speech.  Be honest and direct.  I’m not commending unkindness or hurting others with words.

Passive-aggressive people have a hard time being straightforward about what they want or their intentions.  When their unclear communication doesn’t connect, their suspicions of others’ evil motives are confirmed.

Frank speech can be used, however, to put others in a position of freedom to choose how they will act.  Direct speech brings clarity and keeps manipulation at bay.

Well, there are undoubtedly many redemptive practices that can help us love others and enjoy others’ love more fruitfully.

What are they?

Weekend Semantic Snobbery

A personality profile once indicated that I tend to judge others on their verbal skills.  I’ll admit it.  I am indeed highly attuned to others’ facility with words.

As I’ve indicated previously, this can be a problem for me since my sole engagement with radio and television has to do with sports.  Listening to former athletes’ unscripted comments is to endure a torrent of malapropisms.

I’ve heard the term “misnomer” misused several times in the past, most recently by an ESPN talking head.  He noted that some analysts predicted that the Atlanta Falcons were ready to “take the next step” and become an elite football team.  “But,” he stated, “that is a misnomer.”

A misnomer, however, is a misapplied designation.  It does not refer to a misunderstanding or a misguided notion in general.

My favorite NFL analyst committed another common verbal error, one not limited to former athletes.  He fused two words to invent a third, one that isn’t a word at all.

He referred to a quarterback who was trying to “surplant” the first-stringer, establishing himself as the starter.  He must have fused “surpass” and “supplant.”  It did the job of communicating his thought, but he certainly didn’t escape my condescension.

I immediately recalled my former colleague who insisted on using the non-word “irregardless.”  It’s another combination of actual words: “irrelevant” and “regardless.”

My friend Dave directed me to Dave Barry’s very useful discussion of this non-word’s proper usage:

Q. How is the word “irregardless” used?

A. It is used to add emphasis to a statement:

WEAK: Webster gonna bust your head.

STRONGER: Webster gonna bust your head irregardless.

I hasten to add that I am indeed trying to be less judgmental of others’ verbal dexterity.

I certainly want to avoid misunderestimating people.

Rape & God’s Solidarity with the Violated

Rep. Todd Akin’s comments about rape last week ignited a firestorm.  His ignorance of female anatomy and human reproduction, and his insensitivity to rape victims caused great offense.

There is much I’d like to say about many aspects of this discussion, but I’ll make just this one point: If I were a policy-maker in power who claimed to be Christian, I would tread very carefully on issues like this so as to avoid God’s judgment.

I say this because those who are violated and treated with extreme injustice have a place near and dear to the heart of the one true God.

Christians confess that in Jesus God himself became a victim of abuse and injustice, his body being violated.

The New Testament is explicit that in being so treated, Jesus was the ultimate and clearest possible revelation of the God of all creation (Mark 15:39; John 17; Phil. 2:5-11).

If, then, God intentionally became a victim and one of the violated, and Scripture clearly indicates that the heart of God is for the weak, the powerless, the mistreated, the violated, then I would avoid making policy that did not take them seriously, or that left them unprotected or caused them to suffer further mistreatment and humiliation.

Israel’s Scriptures teach the sobering reality that when God’s people do not embody God’s care for the vulnerable, they are subject to God’s militant judgment.

In Isaiah 59:16-19, the God of Israel took up his armor and went to war against his people.  God did this because Israel, while maintaining the practices of piety and the rhetoric of righteousness, exploited the weak, oppressed the poor, neglected the hungry, and ignored those who were in need (Isa. 58).

Rather than minimizing the anguish and pain of the violated (a group of which Jesus is a member and for which God cares deeply), policy-makers who claim to be Christian would do well to consider the character of the Just Judge who sees through the rhetoric of pious pretension and who judges fiercely and without partiality.

Imagining the Apostle Paul

When you think of the Apostle Paul, what sort of contemporary job or career or social station do you imagine him occupying?

Do you see him as an executive person, an administrator?  Does he wear business casual, shop at a department store, play golf, drive a sporty 4-door car, and live in a leafy suburb?

Is he a hipster?  Does he listen to indie bands, own a record player, get his clothes at the thrift shop, hang out at his local coffee shop, and live in a house he bought with a bunch of friends in a rundown neighborhood?

Our image of Paul shapes how we read him and how we express his central concerns.

So, what do you think are dominant images of the apostle?  How do you imagine him?

Discerning Manipulative Relational Dynamics


I’ve been blogging inconsistently over the last month or so.  This is partially because I’ve been moonlighting for the U.S. Department of Inclement Weather (c’mon, no one gets that movie reference!?).

Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been posting about passive-aggressive relational strategies.  What’s frustrating about passive-aggressive postures is that a person can be self-deceived into thinking he’s embodying humility.  What’s more, such relational strategies are indirect or masked, so they aren’t easy to identify.  Or, perhaps I should say that the manner in which a person is being manipulative isn’t easy to pin down.

So, what to do?

The Apostles James and Paul can help us here.  They both indicate that their readers can recognize destructive relational dynamics by the social fruit they produce.  That is, they can work backward from the social results to the basic motivation and relational posture to determine if it is life-giving or rotten.

James says this:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:13-18).

Is there relational oppression?  Do people feel manipulated or treated unjustly?  Is there conflict, anger, discord?  Then you can be assured that there is a demonic sort of “wisdom” at work.  There is someone manipulating, playing power games, or in some way relating destructively.  The path of peace will be to open up conversations about what is going on in an attempt to shed redemptive light on the situation.

Paul makes the same move as James in Galatians 5:19-26.  He compares the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit.  He is not talking about how an individual can have power for the Christian life.  He is, rather, giving his readers counsel on how to identify which cosmic power is at work in their community.

Do you see divisions, anger, condemnation, a church broken up into factions?  If so, you know that “the flesh”—that anti-God force corrupting creation—is at work among you.

Do you see love, joy, peace, patience, etc.?  Then you know that the Spirit is at work among you to empower you to truly inhabit freedom.

In the same way, we can work backwards from social dynamics to discern where manipulative power-moves are at work.

We don’t necessarily need to identify a person’s motives and pin down their precise relational posture.  But we can throw a flag when we’re feeling manipulated in some way, or when someone speaks to us in ways that provoke anger and desires for retaliation.  Those may be indicators that something is amiss and that the relationship needs to be moved onto a redemptive trajectory.

Good Advice for Preachers & Teachers

Referring to preaching and teaching, a wise pastor once said, “don’t always be the hero of your own stories.”

That was great advice.

When I was younger, I heard so many anecdotes and illustrations from preachers and teachers that were unrealistic or highly embellished.  I remember hearing one preacher talking about a conversation he had with someone on a plane during which he powerfully shared the gospel and “as that plane touched down in Atlanta that young man gave his heart to Jesus.”

I was quite impressed with this preacher and his unique spirituality.  I also felt like a seriously inadequate Christian.  I never had conversations like the one this preacher had, not really having the wisdom or boldness to turn a conversation so skillfully to eternal matters the way he did.

Not more than a year later I heard the exact same story from another preacher, with the very same conclusion.

My eyes were opened.

Preachers and teachers don’t inhabit some special plane of spirituality the way their stories sometimes indicate.  They do a tragic disservice to people when they indicate otherwise.

When we tell stories or anecdotes that aren’t faithful to the complexities of our lives, we aren’t telling the truth and we aren’t helping anyone.

When you teach or preach, it’s okay to talk about how well things went once you put into practice this or that biblical principle.  But make sure to talk also about the lessons you’ve learned, your struggles, and your setbacks.  That sort of truth-telling will resonate with people and will invite authenticity from them.

And over time, such an approach will help everyone take themselves less seriously and also gain an increasingly clear vision of how incredibly gracious God is with people who don’t have it all together all the time.

The Poisonwood Bible

I’m nearly finished with The Poisonwood Bible and am beginning to read it slowly.  I dread the prospect of a good story’s end.

Good stories don’t necessarily teach tidy lessons.  Lame stories and sermons do that.

Good stories open the world to us and they open us up to ourselves.  They cast fresh light on life’s complexities, turning them before our eyes so we see them anew.

And they expose our souls’ dark corners, our hidden contradictions, the mysteries of our lives and loves.

This novel does that in so many painful and beautiful ways.

There are a thousand things to say about the passage below and the conversation of which it is part.  I had to read through it slowly several times.

The heart of the novel wonderfully captures the tragedies of a romantic naiveté that feels like faith, the grim realities of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and the feeling of being abandoned by God.

But Anatole said suddenly, “Don’t expect God’s protection in places beyond God’s dominion.  It will only make you feel punished.  I’m warning you.  When things go badly, you will blame yourself.”

“What are you telling me?”

“I am telling you what I’m telling you.  Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal.  When you are good, bad things can still happen.  And if you are bad, you can still get lucky.”

Another Iteration of Electoral Inanity

I don’t follow the national political scene as closely as some, so I may have missed earlier pieces, but I encountered today for the first time this election season an article asking the question, Is this the dirtiest election in history?

C’mon, we ask this every four years.

It usually comes about mid-August, the slowest “news” month of the year.  It’s an instance of the national media navel-gazing, over-analyzing its own speech, its “reporting,” and the dynamics of petty-sniping-passing-as-public-discourse they’ve had a hand in creating, and asking, Are we seriously this inane?

Sadly, we are.

But I would also want to add that public discourse and political debate have grown in pettiness, been hollowed out, and made increasingly shallow for some time now.  And I’m not talking decades.

I was a political science major in college and we tended to romanticize the Lincoln-Douglas debates as the last example of sustained and substantive political discussion.

That may be true, but the history of electoral politics (stretching back to ancient Rome and, before that, Greece) reveals that with few exceptions, it has ever been thus.

My favorite instance of inane public speech (and we do not lack for options) is the sniping from the outgoing President Clinton’s camp at President-elect Bush in early 2000.

Responding to Mr. Bush’s comments about the declining economy in the last few months of Mr. Clinton’s second term, a Clinton spokesperson accused Mr. Bush of “talking down the economy.”

This was instantly hilarious in so many ways.  Assuming the existence of such a thing as “the economy,” its complexity is mind-numbing.  But the comment drew attention to this entity’s personality and its potential to be deflated through simple observation.

An internet search reveals that “talking down the economy” is now a stock phrase, joining the ranks of “game-changer,” “Washington outsider,” and the like.  But just to say that if you’re surprised at all by the unapologetic vapidity of our electoral process and its attendant discourse of determined stupidity, you just haven’t been paying attention.

Passive-Aggressive Postures vs. Cruciform Love

I’ve been exploring some of the dynamics associated with passive-aggressive postures.  For a variety of reasons, such ways of relating are common among American evangelical church cultures.

Such relational postures seem acceptable because they give one the illusion that one is being humble, even cruciform (being shaped by the cross).

As Jamie commented a few days ago, a person can be self-deceived into thinking and feeling that “I had suffered the greater wrong, and was showing a noble character by being ‘patient in suffering’.”

What makes being passive-aggressive a vice, however, is that while adopting this posture, a person grows angry inside, nursing perceived wounds, feeding resentment, and deriving hope and promise from the prospect that the other person will someday get what’s coming to him.

A passive-aggressive relational posture manifests a failure of love.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, genuine love “keeps no record of wrongs” (v. 5).  Genuine love forgives and refuses to harbor resentment.  It no longer camps on actual or perceived insults and injuries.

Further, genuine love “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (v. 6).  A passive-aggressive person grasps after power over another person by judging his motives, “naming” him as aggressor and injurer.

Love, however, seeks genuine understanding of the other person.  “Perhaps I’ve misunderstood your motives, your actions, or your words.  I know you want to love me and see me flourish, so please help me understand.”

Such postures of love manifest Christian hope.  Love “always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (v. 7).

Such a relational posture puts one in a vulnerable position, a seriously cruciform posture of weakness.  But this is the only relational dynamic that invites resurrection power, drawing upon the restoring and renewing power of God’s Spirit.