Friday, July 10, 2009

They Think We're Strange

They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.

                        1 Peter 4.4 

Cognitive Dissonance

"Cognitive dissonance” describes uneasiness caused by simultaneously conflicting ideas. Sometimes, it’s easily dismissed as baseless, as in hearing a person smeared with icing claim he hates cake. But more often it occurs when trying to process contradictory stereotypes. Arenas of faith are sites where cognitive dissonance regularly occurs, chiefly because they’re breeding grounds for stereotypes. They nurture—sometimes demand—conformity of those who ascribe to their beliefs. The believer who embraces his/her faith yet doesn’t fully conform to its dogma or politics triggers cognitive dissonance. Try these on for size: “liberal Fundamentalist,” “pro-choice Catholic,” “Baptist Darwinian,” “right-wing Unitarian,” “gay Christian.” The welding of two presumably opposed identities throws everyone, those within the given faith community as well as onlookers who typecast its members as “all of a kind.”

Generally, people handle cognitively dissonant professions of faith politely. After being startled, they may ask a question or two and move on. The lion’s share of opposition comes from those who adhere to one of the two identifiers. They tend to protest the believer’s claim as though it were an affront to their personal faith or way of life. “How can you say that?” is the most typical response from devout Christians and devoutly non-religious gay people when I say I’m a gay Christian. Their reactions make sense. Since Adam and Eve first tasted the difference between right and wrong, we’ve had to choose between them. We define our lives as much by what we find wrong in others as what’s right for us. Yet our integrity depends on withstanding pressure to conform to another’s lifestyle or beliefs and pleasing God, regardless how strange the path He leads us down may seem.


Integrity is top of mind in Peter’s first epistle. Written with unswerving pastoral authority, Peter’s letter, though rich in spiritual truth, is less a theological treatise than a “how-to” guide. It speaks frankly (if somewhat floridly) to situations all Christians face—practical holiness and domestic relationships, for instance. Throughout, it sounds one note: live with integrity. In chapter 4, it focuses on the believer’s challenge to forsake sin while remaining in the sinful environment he/she has always known. Peter starts by counseling us to identify wholly with Christ’s suffering to overcome sin, “because he who has suffered in the body is done with sin.” (1 Peter 4.1) 

Your past as non-believers taught you what they do, he says in verse 3, giving a few examples—“living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.” Now that you’re done with all that, he says, those around you “think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.” Don’t worry about what they say, he advises. Leave them for God to judge. Instead, in verse 7, he reminds us to live every day as if it were the last: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” He proceeds to encourage us to “love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (v8) and to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (v9) Maintaining integrity with clear thinking and discipline enables us to pray for those who criticize us. We continue to love them, overlooking their faults, and we open our doors to them without complaint.

Working It Out

“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose,” we’re told in Philippians 2.12-13. Our Christian walk is an intensely personal conversation between Jesus and us. He alone knows the precise path we should follow. As our faith grows, every day finds us working it out to better please Him. For many of us, this entails breaking with several crowds—groups that promote unhealthy, fear-based beliefs as well as those indulging in destructive attitudes and practices. We can’t expect them to agree with us or leave us to find our way without a concerted effort to pull us back to their ideas and behaviors. But we’re done with that. It’s understandable that they think we’re strange. Many will scorn us. Many will press us to be “normal.” Many will avoid us entirely. God will deal with them. We must remain clear-headed, self-controlled, prayerful, loving, and hospitable. This probably won’t make them happy, but it pleases God. 

When we don’t conform to stereotypes and expectations, people think we’re strange. But our integrity depends entirely on what God thinks.

(Tomorrow: Crisis at Cana)

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