Saturday, March 13, 2010

When Worlds Collide

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” (Mark 5.6-7)

The Guise of Goodness

Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods ends with the fairy-tale characters summing up what they learned during their forest forays. Red Riding Hood—the least likable personality in the show—figures caution is best when strangers (like the wolf) turn on the charm. After the wolf devours her grandmother and nearly makes a meal out of her, Red concludes, “Nice is different than good.” How true this is—and how difficult for believers to absorb. On its surface, it totally contradicts what Jesus teaches about kindness. Because the type of charity we practice is genuine, we assume it’s genuine all-around. Much of the time it is, but not always.

Many who mean us no good are exceedingly adept at assuming the guise of goodness. They entice us with kindness, win our trust, and then, once our guard is lowered, reveal their appetite for vicious, often violent cruelty and condemnation. Paul warns us to watch out for these types, saying, “For Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 11.14-15) But do we want to second-guess every kind act shown to us? No. That raises our risk of rewarding true kindness with disrespect and ingratitude. That’s why 1 John 4.1 tells us to “test the spirits and see whether they are from God.” How do we do that? Looking back to 1 John 3.10, we read: “Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” The instant we detect false motives, prejudice, or injustice, we know what we're dealing with—deceptive niceness, not genuine goodness.

Different Worlds

Recognizing counterfeit niceness as “kindness” that potentially kills is fairly straightforward. Yet even when it’s tendered in bad faith, we’re compelled by Christ’s laws of love to offer genuine kindness in return. This does not mean we’re bound to indulge it, however. Just as “nice is different than good,” tolerance is different than permission. And this is where things get murky for us, because we tend to do the “nice thing,” forgetting spiritually guided people and carnally driven ones inhabit different worlds. The goals, mindsets, and success measures aimed at achieving earthly status and favor don’t apply to us. As Paul explains in Colossians 2.20: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?” Common customs, like “playing nice,” are foreign to us, because they lead to ruinous compromise and subject us to dangerous influences and environments. Most of all, they sidetrack our attention toward pleasing others and ourselves, which often results in displeasing God.

Paul writes in Romans 12.2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” There they are again: test and good. A transformed mind discerns what is authentically good, pleasing, and compliant to God’s perfect will versus what is not. In 1 Corinthians 2.12, Paul asserts this isn’t a skill we acquire, but a gift we’re given: “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” When we embrace new life in Christ through His Spirit, distinguishing between “nice” and “good” is governed by our desire to please God.

Close Proximity

Mark 5 provides a superb example of what happens when our world and other worlds collide. Christ and his disciples have just sailed across the Sea of Galilee, when their path crosses that of a seriously troubled man. He’s vexed by an evil spirit and lives in the tombs, where he’s least likely to harm others or himself. He sees Jesus and rushes to meet Him. Once He gets in close proximity to Christ, the spirit that controls him cries out, “What do you want with me, Jesus? Swear you won’t torture me!”

Let’s look at this. Jesus is in the first stages of His mission. He’s new to the area, and already its most problematic resident is making a scene. The evil in the man’s mind convinces him Jesus has come to attack him. The nice thing to do would be to calm his fears so he can return whence he came and Jesus can move on. But that’s not the good thing—the right thing. Despite the spirit’s protests, something in the man knows Jesus can help him. Leaving him in his current state is unacceptable. Jesus speaks to his problem: “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” (Mark 5.6) The spirit resists at first. Jesus asks for the man’s name, but the spirit answers instead. “Legion,” it says, “for we are many.” The demon begs permission to infiltrate a nearby herd of swine. Jesus assents, and the pigs—about 2,000 of them, Mark says—immediately dive into the sea.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever clash with evil in this manner or on this scale. Yet dismissing this as a “miracle story” without personal relevance is unwise. The same Spirit Who embodies Jesus lives in us. And when our world collides with worlds where evil runs rampant, it’s expected those vexed by its power will seek us out. Yet when they reach close proximity to the Spirit in us, it’s also possible a scene will develop. In their world, this is enough for anyone unaffected by its influences to move on politely and quickly. But in our world, we see what’s really happening. They need help. In kindness, we speak to their turmoil. The goodness we portray shows them their consuming thoughts and actions are unworthy of them—and everyone around them. They may resist us. They may opt for life in the tombs over life in full. But when our worlds collide, we have an opportunity to present what life in our world can be. They now have a choice. That’s why nice is different than good, and good is better than nice.

Although we occupy the same planet, followers of Christ and those driven by harmful thoughts inhabit different worlds. When they collide, we speak to their problems and show them a better way.

Postscript: If I Can Help Somebody

A riveting arrangement of the gospel classic, “If I Can Help Somebody,” performed by the Morgan State College Choir, featuring a stunning turn by the finest male soprano I’ve ever heard, Earnest Saunders.


If I can help somebody as I pass along

If I can cheer somebody with a word or song

If I can show somebody that he's traveling wrong

Then my living shall not be in vain

If I can do my duty as a Christian ought

If I can bring them beauty to a world up-wrought

I can spread the message that the Master taught

Then my living shall not be in vain

Then my living shall not be in vain

Then my living shall be in vain

If I can help somebody as I pass along

Then my living shall not be in vain


Gary Lewis said...

Very well thought out. But, I have a dilemma. An old dilemma -- Probably as old as Scripture.

How do you temper right, good, and truth; i.e., the Little White Lie?

Obviously you don't want to tell your friend his new suit is too small, your girlfriend has an awful dye job on the hair, or someone's home renovation looks like something out of The Flintstones.

You don't mean evil as an intent, but if you accept the atrocity with a smile, you're not being good, either. All the way around, you're trying to do the best thing by protecting the feelings of someone you care about to some degree.

I taught, and continue to teach my three boys that the truth will always set them free. That said, I don't want them to be the guys who ALWAYS speak their mind and alienate friends, and friends of friends, who learn of that kind of reputation.


Tim said...

Gary, the white lie is a common pitfall. Its motives may be kind, yet it's still untrue, which means it's unkind. And I'm also not convinced about the purity of its motives. Are we really trying spare another's feelings or sparing our own guilt for hurting them by speaking the truth? It's a very gray area.

Tact goes a long way, particularly when coupled with honesty about the opinion. "I'm not the one to ask about this." Or subtly turning the tables: "Do you like it? That's what counts." Times when I feel really pushed into a corner are when I fall back on, "I really don't know what to say, and I never want you to think me unkind."

But these tactics only work when the person asking is a casual friend. If it's someone who really trusts us, we owe them the respect of honesty--couched in love and respect, of course. Any regret we may have about speaking the truth is far less agonizing than the guilt we experience when we're less than truthful with someone and he/she suffers embarrassment--or worse--as a result.

Your question reminds me of my late friend Dwayne. If we were out somewhere and we saw someone sporting a truly atrocious outfit or hairdo, the first words out of his mouth were, "Poor thing's got no friends."

Caring always comes down to putting the other's feelings and pride before our own.

As for your concern about your sons, I can only encourage you to teach them to do as Paul instructs in Ephesians 4.15: "speak the truth in love." If their honesty is tempered in compassion, they'll never be tagged as "honest brutes," but earn deserved praise and respect as caring friends.

Thanks for the comment--this issue is a tough one!


Sherry Peyton said...

Tim, you tackle such a difficult question. It touches on that old "love the sinner, hate the sin" argument and the far rights penchant for speaking out against "sin" lest they be charged with condoning it. Worse, they claim God requires them to speak out. But there is a difference between being honest and being tolerant and compassionate, and also judgmental. You come as close as anyone to giving a good answer I think. Thanks for making me think! as usual!

Tim said...

Sherry, this is one of those posts that feels inadequate to me on so many levels--so much needs to be said about disregarding the kindness counterfeiters and developing the poise and grace to speak to the worldly spirits that vex them.

But at the end of the day, I think the litmus test really comes down to who stands to benefit from what we say. When people judge us, are our best interests in heart--or are they trying to minimize us because of their own fears and securities? And when we respond, are we caring for them for defending ourselves? A lot of the time the line is very clear, but not always.

Of course the irony of the demoniac story is that the spirit was afraid of Jesus, not the other way around (which I imagine the case would be for most of us). We forget that genuine believers make people afraid--especially those who pander in dead, faux-spiritual ideas. (Any time I hear someone say "You/he/she is going to Hell," I see rigor mortis and smell rot; they're tomb dwellers.)

The complexity of these interactions is something we all should be thinking about, because they're becoming more prominent and frequent. The more worlds that clash with ours the more opportunities we have!

Thanks, dear friend, for this comment. I've been tracking the weather out your way, watching the thaw, and praying that you all stay dry!

Blessings always,