Over the past few weeks, I have found myself engaged in several different conversations in which a desire for understanding has collided with an incomplete interpretation of the Bible. One conversation concerned how Christians in our day and time should consider divorce. Another exchange focused on how “the unpardonable sin” of blasphemy manifests itself in our culture today. And still a third discussion revolved around whether or not homosexuality is a moral sin and how Christians are to respond to homosexual lifestyles. The interesting thing was that, in each conversation, I began to notice that the source of the tension stemmed not from the desire to figure a definite stance on the issue in question, but rather from a much deeper anxiety that is aroused when a person is forced to place his or her preconceived idea on the examination table.
Thus, this post is an exploration of that deep anxiety; I am sorry to disappoint any readers who might have thought I was going to tackle one or all of the above mentioned issues and declare my own particular stance on each.
It is the need for a stance at all that makes the human specimen so odd. It does no good to ask why a person feels the need to take a distinct stand on particular issues. The urge to do so is deeply ingrained – so much so that I cannot confidently state that it isn’t an ineluctable facet of human nature. I’m no psychologist – I don’t know the mind well enough. I’m no scientist – I don’t know the chemistry well enough, either. What I am is a pastor, and so all I know is what I have read in the people I have encountered and talked to, and how I have read them.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to appreciate the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, specifically her Five Stages of Grief in which we generally recognize that the standard method (though not a formula) by which most people react to tragedy and death is 1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression, and, eventually 5) Acceptance. Now, further research and clinical study have revealed that this five-stage model must be taken with a grain of salt – not everyone goes through these stages in a timely or orderly fashion. There is progression and regression. There is reordering and rearranging. However, the deeply rooted emotions that each of these stages describe are very real.
I submit, though, that we experience something like the Kübler-Ross model not only when a very tangible, concrete tragedy befalls us (such as the death of a loved one or a shocking natural disaster), but also when our personal reflective faculties are forced to evaluate deep-seated conceptions in the moral, ethical and/or spiritual arena. In other words, there are times when changing our minds about a particular issue can be so stressful that letting go of our old understanding and our preconceived notions is not unlike grieving the death of a friend. After all, for a person who has, for example, believed for years and years that abortion is not only a legal right but a human one, and has immersed himself in rhetoric and scholarship that supports this stance, shifting to a pro-life stance can be extraordinarily disorienting. The arguments and apologetics on which he has leaned and in which he has placed his trust are suddenly stolen away. The supportive friend is gone. No wonder so many deeply entrenched culture warriors find it difficult to genuinely and successfully change minds. No wonder the Civil Rights Movement was not a week-long struggle but a multi-generational transformation of the social mindset.
Another example. Let’s go ahead and sample from my opening paragraph. Say a person has been raised in a predominantly conservative environment – Republican parents, orthodox evangelical church, traditional local government and conventional schooling. He is a Christian who has grown up under a host of particular conceptions, one of which is that homosexuality is immoral and most definitely a sin. No doubt the stance has been backed by direct references to the Bible, most likely some verses from Leviticus and some of Paul’s letters. The young man goes off to college and ends up meeting another young man with much the same upbringing as his own, but who claims to be gay. If our protagonist in question doesn’t immediately shun his new friend (as some, sadly, are apt to do, which already argues for a manifestation of the first two stages, a form of denial or of anger, or both), he will soon be faced with a conundrum which basically boils down to, “Do I think my friend is willfully living in sin?” To address this question, he will have already fallen headlong into the third stage, bargaining. Not so much in the form of trading reality for one that isn’t possible, as we do when we wish a friend who has died would be magically restored to life. Rather, this bargaining is identified in the way the young man finds himself pulled back and forth by competing arguments. Is what I have been taught my whole life correct, or has there always been room for error in that viewpoint? Is there some other way of seeing things that offers a valid alternative through which to view my friend?
How this man responds to the examination, and how deep that reflection goes, has a direct bearing on the fourth stage – depression. This, of course, is the lowest stage of the Kübler Ross model – the one that people have the most trouble overcoming. It is the deepest valley through which we must trek if we are to arrive at the vista of acceptance, stage five.
As a Christian and a minister, if I am not sensitive to the struggle of such self-reflection and internal debate, then I am doing a disservice to every person looking to me for spiritual direction. Contrary to popular belief and practice, a pastor’s job is not to supply a particular stance on an issue, or to back up a commonly held rule with proof-texts. It is to shepherd people through the intense journey that comes when we choose self-sacrifice and commit our lives to the will of Christ and the transforming work of the kingdom of God. It is to lead by example, because none of us are immune to the grieving process that comes when we put old ideas to death in favor of what we may eventually find to be new ways of understanding and engaging an issue.
This is what transformation is all about. It is part of salvation – saving us from our own lazy acceptance of truth without reflection. A person must “suffer the death of your own misunderstandings, ignorance, and attitudes,” writes Bishop Paul Egertson. “Then you mourn the loss of a nice and tidy view of the world in which everything fits neatly into boxes of black and white, right or wrong, true or false. And, as a Christian, you mourn the loss of security provided by a few biblical passages that can tell you which is which so you don’t have to take any responsibility for making a judgment.”
So may you love the Lord our God with all of your mind. May you not fear the anxiety that is an inevitable side effect of self-examination. May you remember that we have all been captives of fear, especially the fear which tells us that questioning things is a symptom of rebellion rather than a thirst for righteousness. And may you come to fully trust in the Savior who, by his death and resurrection, has dissolved the crippling power of all fear.