On Smugness

Smugness does not seem to be in short supply these days. Whether it’s presidential candidates or atheists, celebrities and even ministers, there seems to be enough smugness to go around.

Can I say that I hate smugness? It’s a sense of arrogance, a belief in one’s rightness that leads a person to look down at the poor knaves who just don’t get it. Smugness drives me crazy – especially in those who are so confident that they speak on behalf of God that they have all of God’s particularities parsed out. This morning, I was listening to a podcast, which pitted two Christian scholars against each other, as they debated an aspect of God’s identity. It was an important conversation, but the sense of “I’m right, and you’re not” gets to be tiresome.

So, maybe what I am experiencing is a smugness about smugness. Maybe what I’m feeling is my own sense of smugness about the fact that I am not as smug as others. In other words, in trying to avoid smugness, I show my own.

The writer Matthew Yglesias says it this way:

There’s a reason that Bridezillas is a show and there’s nothing called Reasonably Well-Planned Wedding Enjoyed by All. Americans don’t want excellence, and we certainly don’t want long-term sustained excellence. We want our dynasties to come with a side order of drama, controversy, and bad behavior. We want to watch a train wreck and then tut-tut in a smug self-satisfied way about the irresponsibility of the people who caused it. We want to maintain our high ideals, without needing to walk the walk (emphasis added).

Now, Yglesias may overstate his case, but I find it hard to disagree with his main premise: we like to feel a sense of smug superiority. A person can be “smugly atheist” just as well as “smugly self-righteous.”

Ultimately, that’s what strikes me about smugness: it is a human condition. From the people of God in the Old Testament, to the Pharisees in the New Testament, to Christians of all stripes and persuasions ever since, smugness is a constant struggle and temptation. And I can “tut-tut” about smugness I see in others, while hardly giving it a glance when it gets pointed out in my own life.

The antidote, it seems to me, is humility. A God-rooted, honest-to-myself humility, where I recognize my own arrogance, pride, and smugness. Some of the greatest saints in the pantheon of God’s people are those who struggle for truth, who believe in Capital-T Truth, but realize that Truth is never something they fully understand, or ever have full grasp on. Perhaps smugness is ultimately dealt with when we are honest with ourselves, with our God, and seek after Truth, while acknowledging our continual flawed way of apprehending it.

So, the next time I hear a smug politician or preacher pontificate something that drips with arrogance, may I not get as angry with them as I do with my own weaknesses. And my God do what God always does – turn the mirror at me, first, and knock my smugness down a few notches.

How to live in these partisan times

Has anybody noticed that the quality of political conversation has gotten pretty bad? Actually, that’s an understatement. Maybe we should simply recognize that it has gotten really difficult for people who disagree to talk with each other. So most people just don’t. They watch the news channel they like best. They hang around with others who think like them. And so, it’s easy to either: block out a person we disagree with, or simply ignore them.

But is that the way it should be? Shouldn’t we who are Jesus followers be different? Shouldn’t we be able to hear from, and interact with, those who see things completely differently than we do?

Clearly, living in our Christian bubble isn’t the answer. So, what can we do?

Let me make four suggestions:

  1. Listen. It’s amazing the difference truly listening to someone can make. It shows openness, grace, hospitality. Listening might be a doorway to seeing something through another person’s eyes. It does not mean you have to agree with the person. In fact, listening might only confirm your beliefs. But listening shows that the other person is first: a person – not an issue, or an opponent, or even an enemy. And listening is the first step in receiving them, not as an issue, but as a person made in the image of God.
  2. Learn. True listening isn’t just sitting silently until it’s your turn to speak. It is really seeking to understand the other person, who they are, what they’ve experienced, and why they believe and feel what they believe and feel. My guess is that there is hardly a person out there that I can’t learn from – but I have to be willing to actually hear them, and what they say. Again, learning is not the same as agreement. Listening does not lead to uniformity; but it does lead to understanding.
  3. Love. And listening leads to love. In fact, listening is love. The more I open myself to another person, the more opportunity I have to show them the love that Jesus showed everyone. Here’s the thing: it’s very hard to love people while yelling at them, or dismissing them, or ignoring them, or recounting how stupid they are. Love meets people where they are, with grace and truth. It’s what Jesus did, so it’s probably a good approach for us, too.
  4. Lead. Finally, if we are able to do the first 3 “Ls” – we can then get to the fourth. Now, it’s not a formula, nor is it a checklist. We don’t say: Ok, I’ve listened to you for 10 minutes; I’ve learned something new; I’ve expressed the fact that I care about you – Now, let me show you where you’re wrong! Truly leading someone is not like that. Instead, when we do the first three, naturally and sincerely, it then opens the door to providing leadership. When you truly have a listening/learning/loving posture, then the opportunity to guide the person into a new way of looking at things – well, then, that becomes possible.

Anybody think it makes more sense to yell, or ignore, or caricature others – than to love? If so, good luck with that. You might feel better about yourself and your beliefs, but real relationships and real change doesn’t happen when we adopt the ways of the world. So, as followers of Jesus, let’s make sure we are living a different way. One that listens with a learning posture. One that loves, no matter what. And one that allows this to open doors to leading others to a new way of thinking.

In the midst of a toxic political culture, we’ve got find a different way forward. In fact, this approach doesn’t just work in the world. It might work rather nicely in church, too.

Your cross to bear

Dr. Mona Gohara is a dermatologist who is concerned with skin care. (Makes sense; that’s what dermatologists do.) She reminds us that skin is our largest organ. She also reminds us (as if we need reminding) that everyone’s skin has blemishes and imperfections. In Dr. Gohara’s words: “Everybody has their cross to bear when it comes to their skin.”

What’s your cross to bear when it comes to your skin? A zit, or a scar, or a hairy mole? Or maybe it’s bags under your eyes, or wrinkles, or what my daughter calls “ashy legs.”

But here’s the truth. Your skin is not a cross you bear. In an age where the phrase “it’s my cross to bear” is casually tossed around, it’s helpful to remember exactly what a cross was. It was an instrument of death – cruel, painful, slow death. It was a method of the worst kind of political power, intimidation, and punishment. A cross was a way to kill people, brutally, so that all could see: This is what happens when you mess with Rome. For Rome, the cross was just another tool in its arsenal for how to govern – and keep control.

So, it’s helpful to remember that, even though we label all kinds of things as “our cross to bear,” there is really only one thing a cross does: it kills you.

So, the truth is: even things that are much more difficult and challenging than a pimple are not crosses. It doesn’t make them easy, but it’s also important that we label them correctly. So, some things that come to mind that are not “crosses” we bear:

  • Being disliked by everybody at school
  • Being divorced
  • Dropping out of school
  • Having cancer
  • Having an alcoholic husband
  • Losing my job
  • Being shy
  • Being addicted to porn
  • Having my car break down
  • Finding my finances in a mess
  • Working 70 hours a week
  • Having my basement get flooded
  • Getting slammed at tax time

Again, some of these things are horrible; none are enjoyable. But none of them are crosses, either.

There’s another word for these things: life. Or: sucky life. But life, all the same. Because: sometimes life is nice, and sometimes life can be downright nasty.

I’m not trying to make light of awful situations. Instead, my hope is that we find clarity in the midst of life’s worst situations. So, no matter what life throws at me – or, despite the bad choices I make in life – my first response should not be: It’s my cross to bear. Instead, my first response should be: pick up my cross.

Because, while bad stuff isn’t my cross to bear, it is a reminder to me that the only way through them is to bear my cross through them.

What’s the difference? For me, it means that “bearing my cross” is what I do in response to life; it’s not what happens to me in life. In the midst of life’s challenges and in the midst of my mistakes in life, the invitation from Jesus is to take up my cross right where I am, wherever in life I am. My “cross to bear” is, in fact, my choosing to pick up the cross of Jesus, where I die to myself (my sin, my need to control things and people, my desire for things to go my way). Why do that? Because only in death, comes life. Because I believe that, only in dying to myself, do I know how to live. Only in dying to myself do I learn how to live as myself, where I am, and with what I face.

So, whether your life is successful, or stinky; whether your life is amazing, or a mess; whether (as someone once said) you’re on top of the world, or the world is on top of you, the way forward is not focusing on the stuff you’re facing. The way forward is dying to yourself, looking to Jesus, and finding his strength, his grace, and his life, to walk through the life that you are very much in the middle of.