Writings by Cole Huffman

A Wilderness Unto Ourselves

How do we know we’re making progress in our faith? Peter’s list of seven supplemental virtues comes to mind, as does the premium Paul puts on prayer throughout his letters, and the emphasis John puts on relational integrity. These are core competencies.

The Bible also presents role competencies. Faithful fathers, for instance, don’t lord it over their kids. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that every kid in the wilderness of rebellion was sent there by an overbearing dad. As the minister John Ames says in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, eventually we all send our children out into the wilderness that is the world. Some children, however, seem to be a wilderness unto themselves.

The role competencies pertaining to faithful citizenship, biblically considered, include honoring governing authorities for the rule of law they keep under God, and prayers for them in their work, since the thermostat on human flourishing sits by their office. As a U.S. citizen, I get to personally assess the fitness of those presenting themselves for public office and vote accordingly. But as a Christian leader, I also assess the church’s fitness to be governed.

One of the hardest things to do is ask questions of ourselves. It’s hard for conservatives, hard for liberals. I’m less likely to recognize myself participating in a politics of resentment, for instance, if I think of it as righteous indignation. But whether I’m open to reflection on my views, much less correction, depends to what extent my views are shaped by confirmation bias and information vacuums.

Confirmation bias, as explained by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, is: “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think. People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it’s your belief, then it’s your possession—your child, almost—and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it.”

Information vacuums work similarly. Many think biblical instruction is itself an information vacuum. Paul’s thought on how the person without the Spirit does not accept the Spirit’s things applies here. But many tune out the church when they believe we listen only to ourselves or to those pandering to us, those who second what we amen already.

I don’t mean to suggest Christians can’t express disgust when people call what’s evil good. We do know the difference and mute ourselves to their disservice. But I don’t know that we know (the “we” here being conservatively minded Christians) how to talk (and listen) to the other side. For most of us, I wonder whether we understand the difference between being a voice in the wilderness and being a wilderness unto ourselves?

Can citizenship still be faithful to Christ if demonizing governing authorities is something of a pastime? I once suggested to a man whose criticism of President Obama went beyond the pale that he hated the president as a human being. I can’t possibly hate somebody I pray for daily, he replied.

He’d convinced himself that his resentment was really righteous indignation. The president was Satan incarnate, he knew. But he prayed for him, so all is well.

I encounter that mental jujitsu occasionally. And yes, liberals have their versions of it too. It’s a kind of closed-mindedness-once-convinced and for some reason reminds me of a story Paul Finebaum of the SEC Network tells about speaking at the funeral of a prominent Alabama fan. The eulogizer Finebaum followed had just recounted how the dying man’s last words were Go Ducks—as in the Oregon Ducks, Auburn’s opponent in the 2011 college football championship. Finebaum said he had to collect himself before speaking, not because he found it humorous but because it was just so preposterous. Your dying words!?

A voice in the wilderness will speak of God’s judgment, yes. John the Baptist as the original VIW called for repentance and its fruit. But condemnation—which is really judgment without the opportunity for repentance (via grace)—this rolls too easily off tongues set aflame by the politics of resentment typical of talk radio bombast and evening news punditry.

Condemners of culture the church is not to be. Condemners style themselves voices in the wilderness, standing in the gap for righteousness. But in reality they’re more like a wilderness unto themselves. In my experience of them, they’re more like Israel of old, forty years in the way to Kadesh-barnea, always griping, challenging, and chest-thumping. As Frederick Buechner once put it, “They were just like us, only more so.”

Jesus stands at the door of information vacuums and knocks. Not to enter in but take us out and back to His way, His truth, His life. He knocks out confirmation bias too. What else were those clashes with the Pharisees about? He purposes to get us out of the wilderness.

But we have some work to do in response to Him. We have to clear away not just the underbrush that chokes out His word from forming our citizenship more faithful to Him, but also the overgrowth, which are all those ways we go about convincing ourselves we know exactly what’s what, and that’s that.

John Ames again: “Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind.”

Posted by Cole Huffman at 2:25 PM
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