Bright Lights in an Age of Complaint

Some centuries have cooler names than others. Historian Will Durant labeled the Reformation period “the age of faith” and called the 18th century “the age of reason.” Lately, I have been wondering what historians will want to call this century, and I think a good candidate might be “the age of complaint.” 

The thought came to me the other day when I read Philippians 2:14, saying that we are to do all things “without grumbling or arguing.” I am not sure that I could find a directive in Scripture that is more out of step with the spirit of the current era. As proof, I submit the ubiquitous and generally disingenuous phrase, “I don’t know who needs to hear this but. . .” It is one that often shows up in Christian posts on social media. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but most of the time, the person who uses this phrase knows exactly who they think needs to hear what they are about to say. 

On the surface, Paul’s admonition that Christians should distance themselves from grumbling seems a bit trivial, coming on the heels of his stirring description of Christ’s descent into humility in verses 5–11 of the same chapter. It is as if, after urging us to make the effort climb to a great height because of the vista it affords, the apostle uses the occasion to draw our attention to some relatively insignificant blemish on the horizon, say a gas station or fast-food restaurant. What he points out is ugly, but is it really so serious as all that?

Given the magnitude of Christ’s example, we might have expected Paul to set our sights higher by urging us to a greater level of sacrifice. He might have asked us to meditate on the possibility of martyrdom or spoken of some great act of surrender or sacrifice. Give up your kidney. Sell yourself into slavery to preach the gospel to the heathen. Something like that. Instead, the admonition Paul leaves us with is the rough equivalent of a warning nearly every parent has had to give when taking the family on a long trip in the car: “Stop arguing with your brother. Don’t make me come back there.”

Not only are grumbling and arguing commonplace occurrences in everyday life. They are now a source of popular amusement, thanks to social media. As long as they do not direct it at us, we find the expressed contempt of friends and strangers immensely entertaining, second only to the articulation of our own dismay at the stupidity and wrong-headedness of others.

Censoriousness is no longer a character flaw. It is treated as a virtue, especially on social media, where our observations compete with one another for the audience’s attention. We do not feel that we have done our job until we have driven a stake through the heart of our opponent’s argument. The sharper the comment, the greater its sticking power. It is even better if we can express the sentiment with the cynic’s half-smile.

There is, however, an unsettling subtext to the apostle’s command in Philippians 2:14 that deconstructs our utopian fantasy of what we should expect from church life. When Paul tells us that we must do everything without grumbling or arguing, he implies that others in the church will provide many opportunities to do those very things. Tertullian, the second-century church father from Carthage, wrote that observers of the early Christians marveled at what they saw. “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us,” Tertullian wrote. “‘See how they love one another,’ they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, they say, for they themselves will sooner put to death.”

See how they irritate one another.

Paul’s directive to stop grumbling provides a necessary counterpoint that helps us understand the true nature of the love Tertullian’s quote describes. Those early pagans made their observations from the outside. They saw the behavior of Christians after grace and the gospel had done their work. Beyond their vision was the underworking of the flesh that created the occasion for those remarkable acts of love. If they had looked at the same deeds from that perspective, they might just as truthfully have declared, “See how they irritate one another.”

Another clue that the experience of mutual irritation is the field in which the Spirit sows the seeds of Christian love is found in those New Testament commands, which tell believers that they are to “bear with” each other (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13; cf. Rom. 15:1). The elegance of this phrase does not do justice to the experience it describes, and it would perhaps be more honest to translate the command “put up with” one another. Such language signals that Christian fellowship is as liable to be an act of endurance as it is a love feast. Indeed, the frequency with which Paul speaks about the church’s relational difficulties in his letters gives one the impression that Christian fellowship is primarily the practice of enduring the company of those who would otherwise be unlikely companions. In his poem The Death of the Hired Hand, Robert Frost defines a home as “the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in,” In the same poem, he also proposes an alternate definition when he says that home is,  “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” It strikes me that we could say the same about the church.

Throughout its history, the church has struggled with two related problems where community standards are concerned. On the one hand, it has often veered in the direction of perfectionism. Perfectionism, in turn, inevitably leads to hyperbole. When I say that the church has veered in the direction of perfectionism, I do not mean that it reaches a state of perfection on this side of eternity or even necessarily makes a serious attempt to do so. Rather, it is a habit of one-sided expectation. We make demands of others that we do not require for ourselves. When the church slips into perfectionism, it falls into a state of mutual disappointment.

We used to call this Pharisaism–the hypocritical practice of expecting more from others than ourselves. According to Jesus, the chief problem with this moral affliction is not merely its failure to meet the standard it sets but its lack of self-awareness (Matt. 23:25). Pharisaism turns us into blind guides who make demands of others but cannot see how we fail to apply the same standards in our own lives.

This lack of self-awareness, in turn, affects the church’s view of its practice of holiness in much the same way that over-realized eschatology does one’s view of the kingdom. That is to say, the church tends to claim too much for itself too soon. The result is a false perception of our own experience supported by exaggerated claims about our performance. “We have a fatal tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize the gravity of our own,” John Stott observed. “We seem to find it impossible, when comparing ourselves with others, to be strictly objective and impartial. On the contrary, we have a rosy view of ourselves and a jaundiced view of others.”

It is easy to see how such a view would lead to grumbling and criticism. The inevitable result is a toxic mixture of self-satisfaction mixed with disappointment. We are pleased with ourselves while being irritated with others, and we fail to understand why they can’t be more like us. The irony, of course, is that they are like us. Or rather, we are like them, and we can’t see it. But is Paul’s message in Philippians 2:14 essentially that Christians are irritating and that we need to just suck it up and put up with the unpleasantness that comes with such an unfortunate condition? Far from it.

The church is not a community that has already arrived at perfection but one in the process of becoming. The apostle’s command implies not only the power of the Spirit to control our innate tendency to grumble and criticize, but it rests on a promise of transformation through the gospel. We are to do everything without grumbling or arguing so that we “may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’” (Phil. 2:14–15). Self-help gurus tell us not to sweat the small things. But it turns out that that it is precisely in the small things where grace is most needed. It is in our small speech and everyday actions, where the reality of our salvation shows up most vividly.

The Last Whole Earth Catalog

Sometime in the early 1970’s, I stumbled across the Whole Earth Catalog. It was expensive. It cost five dollars, a lot of money for someone in my income bracket in those days. The edition I purchased said that it was the Last Whole Earth Catalog, which made me wonder what had happened to the others and why I had never seen it before. But I had to have it. It was the cover that first caught my eye, a huge color photograph of the earth as seen from space. I was even more captivated by the content that covered its pages. In a way, this giant volume functioned as a kind of Sears catalog for the counter-culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. But it was really much more than that. The Whole Earth Catalog was a kind of manifesto. To someone like me, in my late-teens and creeping reluctantly toward adulthood, it seemed like a revelation. To use the vernacular of the day, it blew my mind.

I was intrigued by the design and the scope of the project, which somehow managed to seem both carefully crafted and haphazard at the same time. But it was the utopian ethos of the catalog that really gripped me. This was an Edenic vision of a future marked by community, sustainability, and peaceful coexistence. I read about Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome and saw pictures of resources that were meant to enable people to live off the land. I lived in a working-class community in the heart of the rust belt. My father and most of my relatives worked for the automobile industry. I did not want to work in a factory. Indeed, I did not really want to work at all. I wanted to live on a commune, where we grew our own food and with people who spent their time having deep conversations. I did not know anybody who lived this way. It did not occur to me that living this way, if such a thing was even possible, would probably involve more work than any factory job I might get.

I also did not realize that I had come of age during the closing days of 60’s counterculture, which was starting to look more like a failed social experiment than a cultural revolution. I doubt that I could have articulated this at the time but I could sense it. From a distance, the freedom which the counter-culture reveled in was starting to look more like squalor. Love was hard to differentiate from debauchery. Too many of the kids who left their families looking for utopia found homelessness, addiction, and a lifestyle of grifting instead. By the time I was fantasizing about joining them, the smell of decay was already in the air.

Was it the protection of Providence or simply a lack of courage that kept me from following? Perhaps it was a little of both. I fantasized about moving to the West Coast but couldn’t bring myself to take the risk. Besides, by the mid-1970’s I had decided to become a Jesus freak. They seemed to possess a similar utopian vision, although it was one tinged with apocalyptic flames. There was no commune but there was a kind of community. They addressed each other as “brother” and “sister.” They talked about the peace of Christ. It all seemed so familiar. So much like the Whole Earth Catalog but without the Eastern mysticism, drugs, and sex. Maybe it felt safer to me.

I won’t say that this Christian vision of community was borrowed from the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s. But it certainly was influenced by it. It was no accident that many of the Jesus freaks I knew had initially been part of the counter-culture and had grown disillusioned with it. I met more than one who told me that their first encounter with Jesus had come during an acid trip. Also, like the utopian vision of ordinary freaks, the idealized community of the Jesus freaks never really realized its full potential. This was not because of drugs, debauchery, and grifting but as a result of something far more mundane. We got older. We got married and went to work. We had children. We ran for the school board. We left the coffee house and joined the church.

Looking at it from the distance of age, it seems to me that there was something infantile in the utopian vision that first attracted me to both these movements. Was I looking for some version of Neverland, a place where I would never have to grow up? Perhaps I was searching for an alternate family, one that felt less broken than my own. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns that utopian idealism is the enemy of community. “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream” he notes. “Only the fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy, and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”

I confess to feeling a certain nostalgia for the golden vision of those early days. But if the gates of Eden are closed to us this side of eternity, the reality of community is not. The Christian community is an earthly community in every sense of the word, one that is as earthy in its limitations and its failures as it is in its location. It falls short of the vision I had for it more often than it fulfills. There are times when I consider walking away from it. On those occasions I remind myself of Bonhoeffer’s warning: “A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of the Christian community.”

They lose it, not as a punishment, but as a natural consequence. What they call community cannot survive because it is a vision that is not grounded in reality. “Sooner or later it will collapse” Bonhoeffer warns. Either the vision will collapse under its own weight, as a result of the imperfections of those who espouse it, or it will dissolve into the mist like the mirage that it is. The church, however, will survive. When the old earth is remade the church will be remade with it. I realize that this is still a kind of utopian vision. What has changed is the point of origin. It is no longer a community that we create for ourselves but one that comes down from above. It is still earthy in terms of its location. But its foundations lie elsewhere. It is the city whose builder and maker is God.

How to Create the Ideal Colleague

The other day a group of us were asked to describe our ideal colleague. You wouldn’t have been surprised by the result. The person we came up with was winsome. Generous. Quick to forgive. Patient with everyone but not afraid to say the hard thing. In other words, perfect. It occurred to me when we were finished that the profile we had created didn’t look anything like me. To be honest, it didn’t look anything like any of us. It looked a bit like Jesus. Only shinier.

I am not against idealism. We all need ideals. They are inspiring. But I find that this kind of idealism doesn’t help me much when it comes to living in the real world. My heroes are my heroes precisely because they aren’t like me. I have people in my life that I admire very much. Some of them are my colleagues. But I admire them because I can’t do what they can do. In most cases, I never will.

The problem with our ideal colleague was that we did not really have ourselves in mind when we created him (or her). Not our true selves. Ours was a profile shaped mostly through reverse engineering and preening. It is easy to do. First you catalog the traits you like the least among your peers and describe the opposite. Next add the qualities you admire the most about yourself. The result will be an ideal person who does not look like anyone you hate but who looks like what you think you look like when you are at your best.

There is a word which describes this kind of idealism. I am reluctant to use it because it will seem harsh. This is not idealism at all. It is hypocrisy. The self-pleasure we took in completing the exercise should have tipped us off that something was wrong with our creation. We had been asked to come up with a portrait. Instead we produced a mirror. A false mirror at that.

The greatest challenge of living in community is not the challenge of living up to our ideal. It is the challenge of living together as we are. What we need is not a better ideal but a savior. We do not need better colleagues either. Only the grace to live with the ones we have.