There are countless examples of people vehemently standing for things in the world. There are big conversations and big issues that always seem to divide into big “sides.” How often do we identify with a belief, or a side, or a justice, and think we stand for it? In a culture so susceptible to polarization and contention, it’s not hard to “stand” for something. When things get polarized and contentious, we lose the details and the nuances and the honesty within them. We forget our deeper part in them; we forget to be seeking what we’re missing. We start seeing the side itself as the right place to be, rather than our own development within those ideas. We’re welcomed and comfortable beside those who share our perspectives, and it can feel like enough to simply help tip the scale away from the “other” sides.
This past year has been one of particular personal tension for me between the comfortability of what I’ve always (and still) valued, and the need to tease out some overlooked pieces I’ve only newly had the time or care to recognize. Part of my process has involved anger and resentment in situations where I feel alone in the attention to these values. Just because I know better than to shake my fist at those who disagree with my perspectives doesn’t mean I’m immune to the hells encouraging hatred in my heart in the name of something good. And really, I can’t think of anything worse. Anger and resentment from hurt alone is one thing, but to tangle it up in something valuable – to justify it because of something good – is one of the scariest things to me.
The problems of the world can feel so loud – it starts to feel like enough to condemn them. We feel we’re doing something right by standing for or against, but are we looking inward? Can I really pat myself on the back for what I find obvious or easy; for what perhaps comes along with a dose of pride? For the things that make me feel a bit wiser than those I’m comparing to? Can I really be standing for something I value if I’m using that same value as a jumping off point for resentment toward others instead of introspection? There is a fine line between standing honestly for what’s right, and self righteousness. I think the difference is in my own struggle: if I have to work for what I aim to stand for, I’m probably on the right track. If my energy is too consumed with standing against something outside myself, am I really fighting the fight the Lord calls me to?
Since a person has an inner self and an outer self, and both must be reformed for the person to be reformed, and since no one can be reformed unless he examines himself, sees and acknowledges his evils, and afterward desists from them, it follows that he needs to examine not only his outer self but also his inner self. (Divine Providence 152)
If in the name of valuing something I struggle to love the neighbor, I need to take a hard look at things. The Lord did not create a system where fighting for what’s right and loving the neighbor can be mutually exclusive. Sometimes there is tension between the desire to stick up for a value (and perhaps, by extension, myself), and the call to regard those who threaten them kindly. I’d argue that the harder right thing is probably the one I’m called to pay some more attention to. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry about the evils in the world, or that we shouldn’t do something when we come up against them. But resentment and anger toward people is dangerous. Using good to justify resentment and anger toward people feels wrong. Protecting children doesn’t work alongside hating people. Protecting marriage doesn’t work alongside hating people. Protecting ourselves doesn’t work alongside hating people. It looks like it does sometimes; it looks justifiable, but in reality the two are opposed.
I find a simple illustration of this tension in some of my workplace situations. Advocating for and protecting children has always been of utmost importance to me, and in my years working with kids I’ve known several people who disagree with my methods. When I saw developmentally appropriate reactions, they saw behavior problems. Where they saw boundaries, I saw inappropriate consequences. Some situations I was aware of were clearly and plainly wrong. In a situation with such drastically opposing sides, it seemed I was the obvious advocate, the hero, the protector of the children, and someone else was the problem. I “stood” for the children. I don’t want to diminish the importance of this, however, to truly be able to claim to stand for this I need to be looking inward. How can I protect my kids from my own evils? Am I automatically forgiven for my own bursts of impatience and pride just because someone else did worse? Am I great just because I pointed to someone else’s failings? I stand by every way I advocated for those kids, but the real work is in my inner work toward more honestly holding to that value. And boy is that is a messier, more humbling journey. It’s easy to make a blanket statement about caring about children’s innocence, but I don’t get to claim it as mine unless I do it from the inside. If I get lazy about recognizing my own failings because I’m consumed by someone else’s; if I spend more time condemning something outward than something inward, I’m doing it wrong.
It is strange that anyone can find fault with another for his evil intentions, and say, “Do not do that because it is a sin,” and yet find it difficult to say this to himself; but this is because the latter touches the will, but the former only the thought nearest to hearing. (True Christian Religion 535)
It seems like a simple enough reminder to look inward. Unfortunately my ego doesn’t like to focus on where I need work for too long, and inevitably seeks to look put together and wise instead. But perhaps that is not the most useful place to hold ourselves. If we really believe that the work is never ending; that regeneration is an eternal job, then surely comfortability is never an accurate representation of success. Or at least not of completion. Surely comfortability is the enemy of growth. I’m not suggesting that as we work on ourselves, on our partnerships, on our values, etc., that we don’t find some things easier as we go, or that we should never see the fruits of our labor. Certainly the contrary is true! I’m merely suggesting that staying wherever we feel most comfortable and certain of ourselves perhaps ultimately sends us backwards.
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)