I still remember sitting around the lunch table in Martine’s with a bunch of businesspeople, lawyers, and family as we celebrated my dad’s 59th birthday. The conversation was lighthearted and cheery as the group laughed together, reminiscing of times past and looking forward to the times to come.
Then the conversation got political. One of the people sitting around the table sabotaged the camaraderie with a jab against Republicans, and it wasn’t long before the rest of the group joined in. Having been raised in a liberal family, I was used to this, but aided by the training I’ve received at Fuller Theological Seminary, this was the first time I was able to actually be just a fly on the wall, observing the people around me and reflecting on what I was seeing.
I watched as ideas would bounce around the table. One person would say something about a policy, a candidate, or a political party, and eagerly look to the table for validation of their assertion. Another person would quickly chirp up, giving the person before them the validation they sought and then asserting a proposition of their own.
In psychological terms, I was witnessing confirmation bias. Instead of inquiring about whether our hypothesis is actually true, we look for confirmation of what we believe, and often get it—even if it’s not true.
The Dichotomy of Truth and Comfort
I am not a psychologist nor do I have any desire to be one. (No offense intended for my friends who so aspire.) I am a theologian, and as such, I have an insatiable tendency to engage and reflect upon the world around me in theological terms.
Best known for his Chronicles of Narnia series, English professor C.S. Lewis has had more influence on the modern Christian Church than most people realize. Many people regard Lewis as one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the Twentieth Century, and most Christians in my generation have at least heard about, if not read, Lewis’s esteemed work, Mere Christianity. (So influential was this book on the life of one Christian that I heard him remark that if the biblical canon were still open, he would include Mere Christianity among the works of the Apostles.)
Like many Christians in my generation, that book (and many of Lewis’s other writings) had an enormous impact on me. In fact, the following words of Mere Christianity have stuck with me to this day and continue to serve as one of the primary theological lenses through which I view the world:
In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.
Sitting around that lunch table in Martine’s on my dad’s birthday, I was seeing this dichotomy of truth and comfort play out right before my very eyes. Instead of seeking truth, the people around the table were looking to one another for comfort. They gave little concern to whether or not their political ideologies were true, but only whether they had a group of people who believed as they did.
They’re not alone, either. Republicans do the same thing that my dad and his liberal friends were doing. In fact, Republicans have crafted their own news channel precisely for this purpose. Assisted by the idol of capitalism, political news channels have given both Republicans and Democrats the comfort they seek, an echo chamber that offers as its “product” the validation of ideas that may or may not actually be true.
Truth and Comfort in the Church
To be honest, Christians are some of the worst at this. Afraid of what someone might find if they actually question their faith, many pastors and church leaders encourage their parishioners to stuff their questions in the vain of “having faith.” And while that sounds all good and churchy, the irony is that these leaders have encouraged their congregants to place their “faith” not in the God of Truth, but in a god of comfort.
In theological terms, this is idolatry—the placement of something other than God in the place that only God can occupy. And that’s what I’ve observed to be true in a variety of different circumstances: wherever we are seeking comfort instead of truth, there’s always an idol, always a false god lurking beneath the surface.
I’ve had experience now of two Willow Creek churches, and my experience tells me that churches who affiliate with Willow Creek tend to be the worst at this. In the name of relevance and “reaching the lost,” they believe the lie that if a person in their midst is uncomfortable, they’re not being loved. They may cite to the words of Jesus that the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.
But for all the love of context that comes along with modernist interpretive methods, these churches often forget the words of Christ that come right after the greatest commandment: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” By saying that Love God and Love Others are the two pegs on which everything else in the Law of Moses and the Prophets hang, Jesus is saying that everything in the Law of Moses and the Prophets is an expression of either love of God or love of others. What that means, then, is that many of the acts and commandments of the Old Testament that Westerners find untenable are what it means to truly love God and love others.
Cherry-Picking a God We Like
“But wait! God spoke in David’s day in David’s way, and in Moses’s day in Moses’s way.” Perhaps. Peter Enns and others would have you believe as much, and I’ve watched pastors and church leaders dismiss as “culture back then” those parts of the Bible that rub Western culture the wrong way, but the problem with interpretive philosophies like that (at least, from what I’ve read of them) is that they offer no sound, objective way of discerning which parts of the Bible transcend the culture in which they were written and which parts of the Bible do not.[fn]The best effort I’ve come across (for those who are interested) is William Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic, but the problem with Webb’s interpretive method is that he bases it on a complete understanding of the original culture in which the Bible was written, and as a study by historian Edwin Yamaguchi made clear, our hope of ever having a complete understanding of the biblical cultures is rather bleak. (Yamaguchi’s study revealed that in trying to get a full picture of the ancient culture, we’re essentially holding up one piece of a 100,000-piece puzzle and assuming that we have the full picture of the puzzle from that single piece. Human arrogance at its finest.)[/fn]
The truth is that so many churches and Christians in the West don’t actually like the God of the Bible. We prefer our conservative and liberal political ideologies, our palatable and easy-to-swallow theologies—our comfort—to the God revealed in the biblical text, so we find robust theological and ideological justifications for picking and choosing those parts of the Bible that we deem to be relevant and applicable today, while dismissing the rest of the Bible as the product of “culture back then.”
But (as I mentioned above) where there’s a preference for comfort, there’s an idol. By cherry-picking the parts of God that we like from the pages of the biblical text, we are, in fact, constructing for ourselves a god that we like, a god that we want to worship. But such a god, custom-made to suit our fancy and bend his will to our liking, is not actually the God of Truth, but a god of comfort, who we are more than happy to worship…just so long as he doesn’t challenge us or prod us in ways we don’t like.
Learning to Love Well
Loving well in our culture isn’t easy, because in one way or another, the vast majority of Americans are doing exactly what my dad and his friends did as we sat around the lunch table in Martine’s back in January. Instead of preferring truth to comfort, even when it’s costly and even when it hurts, most Americans choose comfort. (See: 2016 Presidential Election.)
If someone tells us something we don’t want to hear, something that gets under our skin and makes us uncomfortable, we don’t pause to ask whether or not what they said was true, but instead write them off as the unloving asshole who really doesn’t know us. We choose comfort instead of truth.
I recently dealt with a couple in our church whose relationship didn’t measure up to God’s best. (This was the girl whose question spawned my last post.) I followed up with this girl a few times, bringing her back to what God’s best for relationships looks like and gently pushing her to consider whether her relationship with this guy measured up. In the end, she chose to stay where she was comfortable instead of chasing after Truth.
When another leader in our church heard about my conversations with this girl, he and I sat down to talk about it, and what bothered me about our conversation (a part of what led to this post) is that the question he was most concerned about was, what can we do to make them comfortable? Like most leaders in churches that affiliate with Willow Creek, he seemed to assume that anything we might do to make them uncomfortable wouldn’t be an act of love.
But the God of the Bible doesn’t seem very concerned with our comfort. He anoints a man to be king over his people then sends him running for his life for a decade or more.[fn]This is the story of King David. See 1 Samuel.[/fn] He gives another man the son he’s always wanted, then asks him to sacrifice his son on the altar.[fn]This is the story of Abraham. See Genesis 12-25.[/fn] He tells single women they should marry their rapists. He commands his people to slay not only the fighting men of Canaan, but the women and children as well.[fn]This is the story of Joshua’s military campaign. It also has its basis in the Law of Moses.[/fn]
I don’t like these parts of the Bible! (Especially the last two.) They make me squirm! But that’s the point. If when I read the Bible, I never have to deal with a God who makes me squirm, who makes me uncomfortable and even angry, then I would in all likelihood be dealing not with the God of the Bible, but with some other god I’d cherry-picked to my liking.
And don’t get me wrong. Choosing truth over comfort doesn’t give anyone a license to be an ass. One of the truths we find about the God of the Bible is that in all his glory, he is too much for us to handle, which means that we can infer from the incarnation—from God limiting himself for the sake of a relationship with us—that one of the greatest acts of love in which we can engage is limiting the truth we share to only what the person on the other side of the table can handle.
But neither does that mean that our first question should be whether the person is comfortable. Even the incarnate God (Jesus) did all kinds of things to make people uncomfortable. He called the religious leaders a brood of vipers.[fn]See Matthew 12:22-37 and Matthew 23.[/fn] He told people they needed to feast on his flesh and blood to inherit eternal life. He overturned the tables of money-launderers and tax-collectors in the temple.[fn]See Matthew 21:11-13, Mark 1:14-16, and John 2:14-16.[/fn] He rose from the dead.
If the God of the Bible is indeed a God of love, then we can assume that whether or not someone is comfortable has nothing to do with whether or not they’re loved. Churches, and especially Willow Creek churches, are prone to fall into this trap because they want people in the pews on Sunday morning, and people aren’t likely to be there if they’re not comfortable. (Some churches have taken this quite literally and replaced wooden pews with cushy chairs.)
But the real test for churches seeking to tell the truth and do so in love, the test based not in a god of comfort but in the character of the God who reveals himself biblical story, is not in the person’s reaction to what we say or do (i.e., whether or not they’re uncomfortable), but in how we respond to whether they stay or leave. We worship a God who doesn’t want anyone to perish, but all to come to eternal life, who has delayed the glorious Day of His Son precisely because he wants everyone to be at the party. But the ends do not justify the means. While the God of the biblical story doesn’t want anyone to perish, he also doesn’t want them to mistake him for the god of comfort he is not.
If we are to be a Church that reflects his character, his light to the world, we cannot continue to sacrifice truth on the altar of relevance. Instead, we must be disciples who tell the truth and who do so in love, so that the world might know not the comfort they seek, but the truth that sets us free.