This series is related to my Kingdom Culture series: both seek to illumine and extend the voice of Christ beyond the walls of our churches by equipping Christians to represent Jesus, His Gospel, and His Kingdom in authentic and faithful ways. I hope you enjoy The Mirror.
I’d like to start this series by asking you a question: what do you see when you look in the mirror? Keep that question in mind as you read this series. Let’s get started.
If not for my own life experience, I might be tempted to think that Pharisee and Sinner are two entirely different kinds of people. I might be tempted to think that Jews and Samaritans are two entirely different kinds of people. I might be tempted to think that Republicans and Democrats are two entirely different kinds of people. I might be – no, I would be – tempted to think that Gay Activists and Televangelists are two entirely different kinds of people. I am sure many LGBT+ persons would agree.
Confession: I once was convinced that these various ‘types’ of people were polar opposites. That is not such an unthinkable conclusion – after all, they are so very different.
Or are they?
In this season of my life, I find great joy delving into the intricate dynamics of this concept of polar opposites. I suppose being called to a ministry that seeks to be a peacemaker against the backdrop of Culture War naturally inclines me toward this concept. In a very real sense, my effectiveness in sharing Christ with those ‘on the other side’ depends heavily on my understanding of it.
As a philosophy (of sorts), this rhythm of ‘differences’ – polar opposites, that is – seems to cut not only across ‘types’ of people – but across so many aspects of life. Some examples?
Empowerment, it seems, must be balanced by responsibility (or accountability).
Democracy must be tempered by limitation in personal rights (or laws).
Personal liberation must be guided by moral boundaries (or commands).
Some may ask – how can I truly be empowered if I have to be accountable? How can I truly be free if my rights are curtailed? Or how can I truly experience liberation if there are boundaries?
These questions may seem ridiculous to many readers. Yet is this not the cry of our culture? We want the purest – the most absolute – forms of freedom possible. Now when I speak of ‘our culture,’ many will assume I am speaking of those outside the church. To the contrary, I include the church because we the church are part of the culture that we live in.
This cry for absolute freedom is not just ‘their’ cry; it is ‘our’ cry as well. Unfortunately for all of us – those in and outside the church – the reality is that this drive we have toward absolute freedom does not also result in healthy outcomes. Sometimes we get what we want and it’s the last thing in the world we need (or really wanted). Yet we persist toward this end goal, it seems.
In culture and politics and the public square, polar opposites so often divide – they don’t seem to work well together. Our adversarial systems set us up to tear one another down. We looked at this in detail in Series: Kingdom.
In religion, it is no different. Just look at the polar opposite views on ‘faith versus works’ or different eschatological views. Proponents on both sides – often not so figuratively – tear one another to pieces. Whatever it takes for us to win the target audience to our position.
Polar opposites produce immense division. There is a volatile force at work in polar opposites: while they can be humorous, they so often are dangerous – even deadly in some cases.
Beyond ‘religion’ and into the realm of what it means to be a Christ Follower, I find that polar opposites can actually work together for good. For sure, there will always be collisions and divisions in thoughts and ideas – even among those committed to be peacemakers. But in many areas of true spirituality, the polar opposites work together for good.
For instance, consider the polar opposites of waiting and taking action. According to our culture, you do not act by waiting; you act by moving forward as quickly and accurately as possible. As my 5-year old son often says – Hey Dad! Up high. On the side. Down low. You’re too slow! To be sure, we hear adult versions of this game of rush every day. You don’t act by waiting; you get to it!
But according to true spirituality, waiting before acting allows the ‘waiting’ and ‘acting’ to work together for good. Waiting prepares one to act wisely. These two remain polar opposites and yet they work well together. As a clarification, empowerment and accountability likewise work together for good. We simply have trouble accepting this fact.
In true spirituality, the law (limit) and mercy (freedom) work perfectly together. The law – or rather the breaking of it – points us toward the opposite pole; it points us toward God’s mercy. Without the law, we would not even know we need mercy.
These polar opposites BOTH work together for good. Yes, the breaking of the law points us toward our need for mercy. But the law never offers us mercy – or salvation. It only convicts! Likewise, mercy – stand alone – never convicts our hearts; it gives us complete and utter freedom to do whatever we want. Mercy has meaning because of conviction that comes from breaking the law. And so it is that these polar opposites work together for good.
Speaking of the law, Pharisee thinks he has the law down. He knows it. He understands it. He believes in it. He follows it. Well, he presents an eternal front in which he follows it. Yet he breaks the law when he places himself above – and judges – Sinner.
Yet Sinner is no better. He clings to the image of a prostitute washing Jesus’ feet with her hair. Or of an adulterous woman caught in the act about to be stoned by mean, angry Pharisees. Sinner clings to these images for in them, he finds the tolerance he needs to accommodate his own proclivities. In the process, he (Sinner) – and we! – totally miss that Jesus called both of these women to repentance: or rather, we miss that their willingness to repent confronts our resistance to do likewise.
It’s actually worse than simply refusing to consider our own need for personal repentance. Underneath this role of ‘victim,’ we often throw the judgment right back at Pharisee? I cannot help but ask myself: who’s standing above who?
In truth, these polar opposites – Sinner and Pharisee – do NOT work so well together. Yet they are, so often, nothing more than mirror images of one another. I suppose we might say they are mirror image opposites. They look exactly alike – but in the most opposite way possible! Does that make sense?
So as I started out saying: if not for my life experience of seeing how often I play the roles of Sinner and Pharisee, I would be convinced that they are complete opposites. But from watching my own life unfold, I now believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are exactly the same. As the Apostle Paul says, we ALL do the SAME things. Often, in the exact opposite way of those ‘on the other side’ of the issues of our day.
I will pick this up in my next entry. Thanks for reading, my friend.
Click here to easily navigate to Part 2.
God bless you,