God has made it clear that the norm for his children should be love. It is the thing that the listening and watching world should know us for. We should be recognized not only for the purity of our theology but also for the consistency of our love. This love is the new commandment that Jesus left with his disciples in his final days with them: “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). The standard for our responses to one another is not just some standard of cultural niceness or human love. The standard is nothing less than the generous, sacrificial, pure, forgiving, and faithful love that God has so graciously showered down on us in the person of his Son.
Now, I will speak for myself here: this kind of love is not natural for me. If I am going to live out what God has chosen to be the norm for his children, then I need to start by confessing how utterly foreign this kind of love is for me and cry out for his rescuing and transforming grace. You see, I don’t so much need to be delivered from the people around me who seem hard to love and be transported to some community populated by easier-to-love people. No, I need to be rescued from me, because until our Lord returns I will continue to be a flawed person, living near and relating to flawed people in a fallen world. In the world that I have just described, God’s norm is only ever the result of the powerful operation of his grace.
So, because of the clarity of his call to love and his promise to us of empowering grace, there are things that we cannot allow to be normalized in our everyday responses to one another.
1. The normalization of emotionally driven responses.
In our middle-of-our-sanctification imperfection, we will be hit powerfully with compelling and motivating emotions. Sometimes it will be hurt, sometimes fear, sometimes irritation, sometimes anger. If you go where those emotions lead you, you will do and say things that you should not do or say. So, if you want to live out the kind of responses God has called you to, you have to be good at saying no. I don’t mean a cancel culture “no” to other people. What I mean here is saying no to yourself. Saying no to where that spontaneous anger is leading you, no to where fear may lead you, and no to the hurt that often makes you want to inflict hurt on others. How can you do this? God knew that between the “already” and the “not yet” your struggle with remaining sin would be so great that he did more than just promise you forgiveness. God got inside of you by his Spirit. The Spirit that lives inside of you blesses you with the power to say no to where raging emotions may lead you and to turn and go in another, more restrained and loving direction. What would otherwise be impossible for you is made possible by the Spirit’s presence and power, and that is a very good and encouraging thing.
2. The normalization of anger-driven responses.
Although I talked about anger above, I want to give it added attention. It doesn’t take very careful observation to conclude that we are living in an angry culture. Outrage of some kind, directed at someone who has created some offense somehow and needs to pay in some way, greets us every day. The level of hair-trigger intolerance of even minor foibles, errors, or offenses should concern us all. We are mad, and we are about to let you know it. Be very careful of what you post or say, because there are a lot of angry readers and listeners out there who are ready to respond with vengeance.
As I have reflected on the angry state of things, the words of James have come back to me again and again: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20). May we be those who are known for being ready to listen, slow to speak, and not given to quick angry reactions.
3. The normalization of disrespectful responses.
The level of cruelty, dismissiveness, and downright mockery that lives on Twitter (and other social media sites) within the Christian community is breathtaking and disheartening. Being theologically correct does not give you the license to be mean. Defending a biblical truth doesn’t make it okay to mock the person you disagree with. Standing for what you are convinced is right does not give you permission to question the thinking and integrity of the person who has taken another position. Theology, properly understood and lived, will never produce meanness, misogyny, disrespect, mockery, or cruelty of any kind, ever. It produces just the opposite.
Listen to the words of Paul, who says that if the truth you say you believe and understand doesn’t result in love, then maybe you don’t understand it as well as you think you do: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim. 1:5–7).
What straightforward and convicting words. May we pray for grace to always hold truth and love together, never willing to abandon one for the sake of the other.
4. The normalization of self-righteous responses.
Humility radically changes the way you respond to the sin, weakness, failure, immaturity, error, or opposition of others. If you admit how wrong you are capable of being, how you too can be thoughtless, how prideful you can be, and how patience is still a struggle for you, then it’s much harder to go on the attack. And if you know more, understand more deeply, and have arrived at positions that are more biblically right, you have gotten there only by means of the intervention of divine grace.
Humility makes it hard to be quick to criticize, dismiss, or judge others because you know you’re numbered among them. It is easy to judge people with the law that you are convinced you keep. It’s easy to quickly react judgmentally to wrong when you are convinced you are almost always right. It’s all too easy to see others as weaker and lesser, when they haven’t lived up to the standard that defines how I think I am living. It’s easy to refuse to listen when I have judged another person as having little to offer to someone like me. Self-righteousness turns the human community into a toxic and dangerous place to be, where outrage and judgment are just around the corner and where honesty is dangerous and opinions come at a cost. A spirit of personal always-rightism will never produce patient, humble, loving responses to others. The truth is that none of us has anything of value that we didn’t receive and, if we received it, we should neither boast because we have it nor mistreat the person who seems to be without it (see 1 Cor. 4:7).
5. The normalization of vengeful responses.
A quick scan of Twitter responses reveals that it is not unusual for responses not just to debate, rebuke, or confront, but to harm. A person who is hurt by a post responds in a way that is calculated to hurt in return, to damage a person’s reputation, or even to attempt to end someone’s career. Here’s what we need to remember: vengeful anger is always the result of some person trying to do God’s job. There is only one judge of the heart. There is only one who is able to mete out perfectly holy and just judgment. Consider the powerful and practical words of the apostle Paul, in a passage that seems like it was written for today’s reactive culture:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:17–21)
By the Creator’s design, we don’t just need people who are like us; we desperately need people who are unlike us.
How humbling it is to admit that we still have moments when we are tempted to do what God alone is able to do, that is, to deal out the judgment that we believe another person so much needs. So, the exhortation here is always needed, always timely. Paul’s directives are clear and, if they were heeded, would transform our culture of reactivity. Never repay evil for evil, ever. Always overcome evil with good. Leave vengeance to the Lord. When Paul says, “Leave it to the wrath of God,” he’s saying, “Get out of God’s way and let him do what he alone is able to do.” Human anger that is weaponized by vengeance and unleashed by self-righteousness never produces anything good. Evil in the face of evil only multiples the evil. Only good in the face of evil will produce a harvest of good things.
6. The normalization of individualism.
Disrespectful, dismissive, vengeful, mocking, motive-judging, and condemning reactions never produce healthy, loving, vulnerable, honest, reconciled, and unified community where confession, repentance, and forgiveness are encouraged. This is the kind of community God carefully designed for us to live in. By his wise plan, it is not good for us to live alone. We are born with the need for relationships. Each of our lives is a community project. So we must always respond to one another with the humble recognition that we need one another. This means responding in ways that strengthen our community, deepen our bonds, and stimulate candid, loving communication.
The “drive-by-shooting” reactions to something that you disagree with or that has disturbed you in some way is individualism run amok. It’s an “I don’t need you, here’s what I think of you, and I don’t care what this does to our relationship” way of responding. If you keep slugging me when I speak, I am going to quit speaking to you. If you are a believer, the life that God has planned for you is entirely relational. That is why Jesus prayed that we would be one as the Trinity is one. This is why Paul says we should do everything we can to preserve the unity of the body of Christ. This is why we are directed to forgive as God has forgiven us. This is why we are called to speak the truth, but to speak it in love. We are not little human islands; no, by God’s design we are connected in mutually dependent community. Denial of our foundational relational design allows a culture of reactivity to chip away at our trust in one another and the community of interdependency that is essential for us all.
7. The normalization of the love of controversy.
It needs to be noted that there is an important difference between the love of theological purity and intellectual integrity and the love of controversy. Our culture of reactivity is a culture on a hunt for controversy. It is propelled by the thrill of the hunt and that scintillating moment when you draw your word weapon, take aim, and pull the verbal trigger. It’s enjoying watching how many bullets it takes before the person drops. The love of controversy sadly views other human beings not as your community but as your prey. And what gives you joy is not the messy process of love but the thrill of having captured your quarry again.
A love for truth that doesn’t produce a life of love is a love for something else masquerading as a love for truth. Theology that doesn’t produce a life of love is bad theology. Holding your insights in a way that produces a lifestyle that loves the fight more than the thing that is worth fighting for keeps you from using truth in the way it was meant to be used. We will all find ourselves in moments of controversy, but it’s the love of it that never produces anything good.
8. The normalization of tribalism.
It is always easier to react to a group that you’re not part of. No one holds a sign in a protest that says “My tribe is the problem.” The goal of our communication should not be preserving the power of our tribe but creating an intertribe culture of respect, relationship, mutual dependency, and learning. God works to do in us and through us something that is not natural for us. He works to break down the barriers that separate us from one another. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). God is not working to destroy the distinctions of ethnicity and gender, which he created, give him glory, and propel the work he means to do in us, but by grace he is working to transform the way we think about and respond to those distinctions. By the Creator’s design, we don’t just need people who are like us; we desperately need people who are unlike us. The community that God is working to create is not tribal; it is universal, gathering all the tribes together as one.
Our culture of reactivity is a culture of tribalism. The message we communicate is, “I don’t respect you because I don’t respect your tribe, so I will respond to you in ways that I would never think of responding to someone in my tribe.” This means I live in a tribal culture of groupthink and group do, never benefiting from the challenging and potentially transforming insights from someone from another tribe. We are too divided, separated into racial, political, theological, ethnic, economic, gender, age, and class groups. We build walls not bridges. We yell over the wall at one another, but we don’t stop to listen, consider, and learn. We make uninformed assumptions that turn potential helpers into enemies while thinking we know best and, because we do, we don’t need “them.” We even react against our own when we think they are building bridges and not shoring up our walls. Tribalism produces endless war and leaves lots of casualties but never produces the community that is essential if we are ever going to grow to be what God intended us to be and together live as he created us to live.