“Don’t write me!”
That is the classic preemptive strike of Chuck Swindoll during a sermon. If he says something that he knows people will have problems with (and he often does), it’s his way of informing them that he already knows the issues with what he is saying and has resolved to say it anyway. Many people write him nonetheless!
I thought about titling this post “When to Write Your Pastor,” but I changed my mind. Writing your pastor is merely an illustration of the issue about which I wish to speak.
We have all been around those people who feel the need to correct everything we do and say. They are not much of a joy to be around. I have many people from this blog that when I see their name in my inbox, I know with unfailing certainty it is some sort of criticism. Some people are the watchdogs of the world and they cannot help it.
In theology, a critical spirit is something that is often hard to avoid. In these halls of truth, belief, and conviction, words like “defend,” “contend,” and “battle” can quickly mutate themselves and become like germs of a plague. They are on the sink, the bathroom door handle, the remote control for the TV, and on just about every book we pick up. They are even on the pillow cases. It’s easy to be critical. However, the more critical you are, the thinner the ranks of your audience will become. After a while, people will just stop listening to you. “Oh, here comes Michael…just smile and act like you are listening, but turn your hearing aid off.”
Why do we get like this? Because we are learners. And learners are understanders. And understanders believe they are right. And being right makes other people wrong. And if you are wrong, you need a teacher. And teachers need to correct others. We need to write people.
Some of us are this way. We just cannot help correcting people. When we are able to stay silent about it, we merely move the party indoors and begin correcting them in our mind. The problem is that nobody wants to be around us. We lose all our influence.
I don’t imagine that it was this way with Christ. Everyone wanted to be around him. Sinners and people who needed to be corrected avoided the plague that had set in with the Pharisees, who were always ready to correct, straighten out, and write people, but they were magnetically drawn to Christ. So much was this the case that he was called a “friend of tax-gathers and sinners.”
I wonder how many of us in my field could be accused of being a friend of the theologically wayward. I wonder how many Calvinists could be accused of being a friend of Arminians. How many Arminians could be accused of being a friend of Calvinists. God forbid that any Reformed fella be a friend of a Catholic!
I remember not too long ago when I was talking positively about Francis Beckwith (that damn Catholic turncoat!), and someone in my camp looked as me like my Luther Latte (which I got at the Credo House!) had been laced with something. “He is a heretic. You should carry him in such a way. Don’t say anything positive about him until you qualify it by how bad he really is.”
You know what? Ninety-five-percent of the time that is not my responsibility. I don’t have to qualify everything I say and everyone about whom I speak by explaining all the points of departure that we have. I don’t have to limit my circle of fellowship to only those who fit my theological leanings. I will do my best to go out of my way to show honor and grace to whomever God puts in front of me. Francis Beckwith, Paul Copan, Roger Olson, and Wayne Grudem can all come here to the Credo House and I hope they don’t sense any reservation in my love for them. Though I have some disagreements with each of them (some more significant than others), I will not feel the need to hide some scowl of my theological heart. It won’t be there. And my ultimate end will not be to secretly convert them. We will just hang out. When theological subjects about which we disagree come up, I will listen and stand by my convictions to the degree that I hold to them at the time. When the subject changes due to tension which arises, I will feel no need to tug-a-war it back to contention in the name of the Lord.
I have my particular theological convictions. Many are very strong. Many I am out of my mind passionate about. But what I have found is that if my ambition is to correct your theology at every point, I will have completely lost before I even begin.
Last week we had a guy here at the Credo House who sat down with me on the couch and told me his story. You cannot imagine how filled with theological problems it was. Bizarre is all I could say about it. As much as I had to fight off my desire to correct him at every turn (“But that is wrong,” “Let me correct one minor point here,” “Your are using that passage wrong”…), I made a decision while listening to this guy that I was not going to correct unless there was a very clear opportunity. I was just going to listen. I was going to be a friend now, maybe an admonisher later. As time went on (and we passed by about a thousand theological “bridge-out” signs without word), I sensed he was beginning to trust that I was not hiding a theological hammer behind my back. It was then that he asked me some key questions and I was able to explain to him what I believed and why.
Isn’t this the apologist’s mandate? Be ready . . . to give an answer . . . to everyone . . . who asks you . . . with gentleness and respect (1Pet 3:15). Many of us lack the gentleness and respect part, but I am beginning to think that what we lack even more is the waiting for someone to ask!
Ninety-five percent of the time, people don’t really care what you have to say. It is during this time that we sit, listen, and love the person. If we do, then the five percent of the time that opportunity is truly present, we will be ready.
This is why I tell young theologians who are so passionate about theology to be passionate, yet calm down. Let about ninety-five percent of what you hear roll off your back. Put down the hammer. Quit writing people so much.