The late David Foster Wallace is famous for the following anecdote:
There were two young fish swimming side-by-side in the ocean. An older, seasoned fish came swimming towards them from the opposite direction. As he passed, he asked, “How’s the water?” and then swam on. The two young fish glided along for a while and then one said to the other, “What’s water?”
The very thing that defined them as fish was something about which they were oblivious. But their ignorance didn’t stop it from influencing everything they did. I wonder how much we Christians collectively struggle with the same dilemma?
We’re supposed to be people of the way, the truth, and the life, but when called upon to weigh in on the myriad issues-of-the-heart within our culture, I wonder how often our spiritual—even biblical—response is skewered by obvious features of our lives that we’re unaware are actually conditioning our conclusions.
Just pick the issue—whether it’s social justice, racial disparities, police policies, the undocumented Immigrant, climate change, how we deal with the poor, or the endless challenges that accompany the debates about gender, we probably don’t realize how much things within us, around us, and about us are influencing the bottom-line biblical/spiritual positions we hold. And then, if you add in the various issues that go with trying to do church—like: worship styles, budget priorities, expansion, and the level of emphasis placed on various age groups or demographics—it’s possible that we’re unaware of how much our biblical/spiritual positions on these matters are being tempered by our personal preferences. I realize that on any of these subjects, two different people can find the Bible falling completely different ways on the same issue. Which points directly to the problem I’m addressing here. The Bible doesn’t speak out of both sides of its mouth.
If we’re committed followers of Jesus, what He says about these issues in the Bible should be what we ultimately embrace … regardless of how it personally affects us. But that would assume absolute objectivity and unvarnished selflessness; two extremely naive assumptions (if we’re being honest with ourselves). Reality would suggest that we all have a tendency to look at the scripture through lenses that are tinted in favor of our own self-interests.
Let me list off the usual suspects that can easily cause us to put our thumbs on the scale as we try to weigh in on these different issues:
- Our age.
- Our gender.
- Our marital status.
- The color of our skin.
- Our citizenship.
- The philosophical presuppositions that framed our education.
- Our income level.
- Our net worth.
- The fears that hold the high ground in our heart.
- Our personal need for safety and security.
- Our particular desire for comfort and ease.
- Our unique spiritual passions.
- The way we were raised.
- The hard-wiring of our personality.
- Some traumatic incident we endured in the past.
These factors make up who we are. They can bring enormous nuance and insight to our perspective when processed through the filter of the Bible. But what if it’s the other way around? What if it’s the Bible or Christ’s finished work on the cross that is being filtered through these factors that make up who we are? The conclusions we passionately embrace could actually be aberrations or even full-out contradictions to God’s applied truth and grace. They could knock us way off course when trying to determine His holy righteousness on issues.
I guess as I’m getting older, I’m realizing how much more our selfish best interests tend to unwittingly dominate our thinking process … and we don’t realize it. Although that sounds like a personal indictment against whoever happens to be reading this, it’s not meant to be. It’s just an observation.
I will be bold to suggest, however, that a defensive posture or unwillingness to admit this reality should scare the junk out us. It would indicate a dangerous streak of either self-protection or self-righteousness. It’s like the question, “Who would you say is the most selfish person you know?” If we don’t point to ourselves, most likely we don’t know ourselves very well.
I’m not talking about us being unaware of our sin and weaknesses. These should be fairly standard assumptions for anyone who has been redeemed by Jesus from the mess of their life. I’m talking about those things about us that aren’t necessarily bad at all, but can nonetheless over-influence our thinking at the expense of God’s heart on a matter.
I think one of the reasons we not only find the advice of St. Paul so reliable, but also refreshing is because he seemed to maintain an on-going awareness of his propensity toward this dilemma. Maybe that’s why he summarized his thoughts on love by saying, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Obviously, I believe it’s possible to arrive at biblically orthodox positions on the various issues that confront us, but I think it assumes at least two realities. First, that we’re being led in our thinking and application of scripture from the power of a heart-connected relationship with Jesus—a relationship that is guided by His truth while at the same time tempered by His grace (John 1:14). Secondly, that we’re always aware of our on-going proclivity to allow our selfish best interests to become the tail wagging the dog when it comes to how we arrive at our spiritual and biblical conclusions. When these two realities are in place, we’re more likely to humbly submit our conclusions to the litmus test of David’s plea in Psalm 139:23-24 … “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”