Divorcing Facebook: 5 Reasons to End the Relationship

I joined Facebook on April 5, 2005, not long after it became available at Baylor University. I remember thinking how cool it was, and I spent hours on my profile. I was in love.

Nine years later, I am filing for divorce. At least, that’s what it feels like. Call it irreconcilable differences, but I can’t live   my life with Facebook as my partner anymore. It’s simply not healthy for either of us. Perhaps it is true that sometimes divorce can be the most redemptive course of action.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are my reasons for wanting to part ways with the most influential social networking site in the world. Bear in mind, what follows are my own problems in this relationship. Your own marriage to Facebook may be the picture of health. But here are my observations on how this has all gone wrong:

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#1 – It’s All About Attention-Seeking

Let’s start with status updates.

I’m no statistician or professional researcher, but it is my observation that for every one status that is a genuine word of thanks or encouragement, there are about fifteen to twenty others born out of desire to effect others’ opinions, views, and/or admiration … of me! Yes, I’m talking about the statuses that I type out in that little window, and then click “Post” like I’m a hungry fisherman casting my fishing line into a sea teeming with fish. I want to catch something that will feed me, strengthen me, make me feel good.

I’ve begun to recognize that these statuses are a kind of vanity. I’m not speaking from a standpoint of piety or a holier-than-thou attitude, either. I’m genuinely afraid of what these increasingly frequent attempts to shore up my own identity is doing to my personality. Wanting people to read what I’ve written (or the article I’ve linked to and commented on) and think I’m funny, or introspective, or erudite. Wanting people to recognize that, hey, I see things a little differently, as they will no doubt notice by my not-so-conservative-but-also-not-blatantly-liberal commentary on whatever absurd story or unavailing debate has set the Internet and cable news ablaze.

I’ve had enough disappointing experiences with this kind of behavior to finally learn that no matter what I do, I always end up establishing the wrong view of myself – one that is far different from the one I was hoping for. I suspect many of you do the same, at least from time to time. There are probably very few Facebook users who have never muttered under their breath the phrase, “That’s not what I meant!” when reading status comments.

The worst part of all this attention-seeking behavior is that it forces my friends (potentially all 911 of them) into the awkward position of either indulging my narcissism by offering me the comments I’m fishing for, openly disagreeing with me and risking whatever bond (weak or strong) exists between us, or disregarding my status altogether and wondering if that makes them bad people because they ignored a friend.

And while we’re considering what this relationship with Facebook does to my relationships with friends…

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#2 – It Drains the Desire for Physical and Emotional Interaction

There was a time when we physically sat down together with someone for the sole purpose of “catching up.” Having few tools at our disposal to stay current on them and relay our own updates, we knew the most comprehensive way to care for the relationship was to carve out adequate time to spend with one another. There would be long stretches of story-telling involved. One person’s lunch would be gone before the other one began eating his own because that person went first while the other one chewed and listened.

And if we couldn’t meet with them physically, we spent long hours on the telephone, running up usage charges but determining that it was worth it.

Sometimes, with certain friends, we would share our most secret hopes, or our most anxious fears, because not only did we trust this information with those people, but we also knew that they would receive this not as mere information; it would be handed over to them along with our facial expressions, body language, long pauses, stutters, and maybe even tears. That knowledge could never be considered mere data passed from one person to another. No, that was a person’s very identity being communicated! Hold it close, and handle with care.

More and more often, since 2005, Facebook (and really all kinds of social media) has taught me how to reduce a person’s identity to facts on a page, or to a few paragraph over a written message. A person’s status, even if it is intended as an honest expression of the soul, is viewed not as a sacred thing, but rather an exclamation blurted out into a crowded, darkened theater filled with indifferent, half-listening audience members. One’s personality and attitude is left up to the interpretation of people who do not have all the requisite empirical evidence to correctly make an interpretation.

And there is no telling who will read something one way at the exact same time another person reads it the way you intended. I once commented on a friend’s photograph of his baby niece, that she was gorgeous and so much prettier than my own newborn niece. It was an inside joke about humility, because that friend was notorious for gushing over his new nieces and nephews as if they were the most glorious children to ever grace the planet, and it was funny… to my friend. It was not funny for my brother- and sister-in-law who read the comment in their own news feeds and had no idea that what I’d written was jest. And how could they have known?

So in an attempt to make one friend laugh, my publicly offered joke broke the hearts of two other people. It made me long to go back and just make a phone call instead.

But that’s the problem with Facebook. We seem to ignore the fact that…

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#3 – It Brings Out the Worst in Our Integrity and Judgment

The comment about my niece was a terrible experience, but it was the first in what would be many little lessons on the power that this significant other of mine has over people. Ever have a friend whose spouse or partner doesn’t want to share time with you? Who treats you poorly because your relationship with your friend is apparently not as important as their own relationship? Sometimes, I can’t help but think this is how Facebook operates. I  know it is an inanimate thing, but given that all of its users are animate, it makes sense that Facebook holds the power not only to bring people together, but to also drive us further apart.

Ask people what they would do if they could make themselves invisible, if only for a day. Often times, their answer includes actions that common decency, propriety and/or lawfulness prohibits: peeping, eavesdropping, robbing, etc. On some level, what prevents most people from acting on these secret desires, however lewd, is the reality that they would most likely be seen, found out, caught (and possibly arrested). Whether in trying to overhear a conversation not meant for your ears, or pulling a Dillinger and robbing the First National Bank at gunpoint, you are breaking a deeply established social contract.

Facebook, on the other hand, allows you access to the thoughts and feelings and deeply rooted convictions of tens of thousands of people each day, including some of your closest friends as well as your worst enemies, and the convenience of this access is that you have the option, if you like, of anonymity. And distance. There exists a personal disconnect between me and everyone else online. Therefore, because few consequences can reach through cyberspace, we do not fear another person’s judgment as soberly as we would if we were sitting down face-to-face with him or her.

Take a look at the comment section of almost any article on CNN.com, let alone the Facebook comments of anyone who posts a status or links to an article that is even remotely connected to a hot-button issue. You rarely find civil discourse. It’s anger, confusion and tangential dissent. These days, people post responses to the issues, casting those fishing lines out into that overcrowded sea, but ironically they will include caveats like, “These are just my thoughts. I’m not trying to start a debate and I don’t want to argue about it, so please don’t comment anything negative.”

If these are just your thoughts, and you don’t want to engage in debate, why not keep them to yourself? That’s what we do with almost all the thoughts in our minds. Why not these?

You see, it’s not only the vitriolic commenters who have no filter. It’s us. It’s me. Facebook has somehow made me believe that any little viewpoint I have on any issue, big or small, is worth tossing into the public sphere. At the same time, I somehow reserve the right to be angry or indignant when that viewpoint is challenged. There are people who are taking others to court based on an exchange that took place, or personal information that was gained, on Facebook. People are getting fired, or failing to land jobs, based on things that they uploaded to their public profile. And they are shocked.

It’s a voluntary public forum, but we want people to respect our privacy. Am I missing something?

It’s no wonder that one of the biggest problems I’ve found with Facebook is that…

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#4 – It Wastes Time

As a college pastor, I find myself continually talking to students about the dangers of conforming to the pattern of this world – namely falling into the habit of comparison. We spend so much time shoring up and developing our individual identities based on comparing ourselves to other people. We want to be more like this person, and to avoid acting like this person, and to try to look a little more like this person. Magazine cover after magazine cover feeds our desire to rate ourselves. How do I measure up to him? How closely does my appearance match hers? How impressive do I seem to them?

I say all this to point out that a lot of what I’ve been doing on Facebook is not simply catching up on the lives of friends and acquaintances, but subtly, almost subconsciously comparing myself to other people. So that’s what he believes… What a pointless status for her to post… I can’t believe he would actually support something so stupid… And I can easily spend hours making comparisons.

I don’t visit Facebook to feel worse about myself. And, as I’ve already mentioned, judgment is an easy response when you’re surfing your news feed. However, the bigger problem for me in particular is not the judgment so much as the time I spend doing all that judging and comparing. I don’t visit Facebook to feel worse about myself, but as inevitable as visiting an all-you-can-eat buffet, I walk away from each session clutching a swollen gut and regretting the trip.

It’s because time spent on Facebook is rarely time well spent. We have only a limited amount of time each day to do the things we love – the things that we find important and worthwhile. After nine years on Facebook, I’m not convinced that any of the thousand or so hours I have spent on the site qualifies as productive or rewarding. I’m not against just taking a break and paddling out for a relaxed surf in cyberspace, but I never come away from Facebook feeling rested or recharged. Mostly, I feel drained, scattered, and sometimes even more stressed than before I logged in.

Yet I keep going back for more. And that’s because…

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#5 – It’s Addictive

…and that’s the part that makes all my other problems with Facebook so difficult to solve.

It’s also a reminder that Facebook itself isn’t really at fault at all. The fault lies with me. My behavior is what wastes time, lapses judgment, drains my desire for personal interaction, and makes me a selfish, self-seeking person. That’s the nature of an addiction. Some people can’t drink. Some can’t gamble. Some can’t eat just one doughnut. As for me, I’ve learned that I can’t “do” Facebook.

It’s a privilege to have so much information about so many people right at our fingertips, and yet very few of us sip at it like it’s a fine wine. Instead, we gorge ourselves like it’s Ladies Drink Free night at the local bar & grill.

The first step in AA and NA and most other recovery programs is admitting that we are powerless over our addictions and that the result of giving in to them has resulted in our lives becoming unmanageable. Such is the case with my unhealthy marriage to Facebook. It may seem a bit dramatic, but I believe my life has become harder and harder to manage lately. While I can’t blame Facebook for all my problems and hangups, I do know that every minute spent on Facebook is a minute lost – a moment I’ll never have back and one that will not bring me healing or wholeness. Mostly, though, every bit of time I give to Facebook leaves less time for me to do what I love – hang out with a friend, read a novel, write a short story, play with my kids, talk with my real wife. And, God help me, I want more of that. A lot more.

Thus, I’ve begun my own step-by-step process with regard to this divorce. I’ve contacted good Facebook friends no longer living nearby and asked for their contact information so I can update my real address book and not depend on the site for a line of communication. Also, rather than quitting cold turkey, I’ve set a shutdown date: April 5, 2014 – nine years to the day that I created my Facebook account. In the meantime, I am working hard to wean myself from the site.

And, finally, I’ve written this article. The irony that this blog post will be promoted on my Facebook account is not lost on me. But maybe that’s fitting. Consider this my confession as well as my vow.

We had a good run, Facebook. But I think it’s time we parted ways. It’s not you, it’s me. Chin up, though. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.

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3 Biblical Texts That Mean the Opposite of What You Think

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose…”

This is a line from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, but the prevalence of its quotation these days, especially from Christians, has made me wonder if a lot of people wrongly assume it to be a biblical proverb, right up there with “God helps those who help themselves,” and “Honk if you love Jesus.”

The line is often used as a warning, to watch out for people who would twist Scripture to prove their own un-biblical beliefs. There are right-wing Christians who will toss it out like a caution flag amidst the liberal “war on faith,” while others will cite Shakespeare’s line as a rebuttal to those whose favorite past-time is biblical proof-texting.

Funny thing, though, about this oh-so-wise aphorism is that when placed back in its original context, it’s purpose changes dramatically. When Antonio, the so-named “merchant of Venice,” tells his friend and client, Bassanio, that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” (referring to Shylock’s biblical allusion of money-lending), he is not speaking out of wisdom, but bigotry. Antonio is an anti-Semite who bears no trust for Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, and also has no qualms about directly labeling the guy “the devil” in his presence.

My point is, just like lines from Shakespeare, a lot of folks may also routinely cite Scripture for their purposes, and not all of them are devils or even proof-texters. However, it turns out many of us have been misinformed regarding the true meaning of certain “well-known” passages.

Such as…

#3 – Sodom is Destroyed Not for Sexual Impurity but Social Impropriety (Genesis 19)

What You Thought It Was About

Judgment on a society involved in rampant homosexual activity.

In the story, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, welcomes the sudden arrival of two angelic visitors to Sodom. Unlike our modern cinematic interpretations of angels, it’s likely these two visitors are not pale-faced, moussed-hair Scandinavians wearing trench coats. Rather, Lot greets them as he would visiting lords or foreign royalty. He invites them to stay in his home, but the angels tell him they plan to spend the night in the town square.

Perhaps they were only one eligible stay away from moving from Platinum to Diamond members.

Perhaps they were only one eligible stay away from becoming Diamond members.

Lot “urges them strongly” to reconsider (there’s no evidence the Hyatt in Sodom was top-of-the-line) and they do. Later that night, all the men of the town (including young boys) show up at Lot’s door and demand he give up his two visitors, “so that we may know them.”  The basic interpretation of these words is that the men wanted to rape the angels. (The statement in Hebrew is “Yatsa yada yada,” which puts that Seinfeld episode in a whole new light.) When Lot refuses their request – to the point of offering his daughters and even himself instead – the men riot and threaten to break down his door. The angels then reveal to Lot the real reason for their visit: they were sent to destroy the city. Before initiating the divine smackdown, however, they kindly usher Lot and his family out the back.

Presumably because even when he suffered from amnesia, Loki was always a quick-thinker and incredibly cool under pressure.

Presumably because even after he began suffering from amnesia, Loki remained incredibly clever and cool under pressure.

What It’s Actually About

Bad hospitality.

Just like with Shakespeare, the Achilles heel of biblical proof-texting is a not-so-little thing called context. In this case, the preceding story in Genesis helps shed some light by way of contrast, as do the statements the supposedly rape-focused men say about Lot also.

In the story that immediately precedes this one, Lot’s uncle Abraham extends an incredibly gracious and humble welcome to three angelic visitors (the identities of which are commonly interpreted as God himself and the two angels of the Sodom account). After having a generous feast prepared for them, Abraham then journeys on with them for some distance after they stay in his home (18:1-16). The guy is such a bend-over-backwards brown-noser, you’d think he was working for tips.

Abraham in his younger days.

Abraham in his younger days.

Why is this significant?

Well, now consider the entirety of the Sodom account itself. Lot proves he’s learned how to be a good host from his uncle, and he also urges the angels “strongly” not to stay in town. It almost seems like Lot knows they won’t receive a warm welcome from anyone else – that gladly rolling out the welcome mat is not how Sodom does things. Which is tragic, because hospitality was considered to be, culturally speaking, very important. It was the litmus test for what made you a good and honorable person, or a good and honorable community. In this day and age, so much of your quality as a human being was tied to your capacity for generosity and benevolence. Welcome the stranger and the traveler, and you would find blessing from God. Reject them, or, worse yet, take advantage of them, and you were persona non grata.

David, Ahimelech and the holy bread  in 1st Samuel 21. Mary, the wedding hosts and the lack of wine in John 2. Jesus’ story about the man who bothers his neighbor for bread in the middle of the night in Luke 11. All of these hinge on the priority of being a good host, a deeply ingrained social contract of hospitality. Were you to neglect or break this contract, your reputation would be forever blackened and would lead to the inevitable suffering that comes from a reputation as a social pariah.

Unless, that is, you lived in a town full of pariahs.

Consider the way the men of Sodom react against Lot after he refuses them access to his visitors:

“And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.'” (19:9)

You can either choose to believe that all these men just suddenly became alarmingly rape-y all at the same time (and chose to perform history’s largest gang-rape as a way to satisfy those urges), or you can believe that the attempted rape, while shocking, was a means to an end; in this case, domination by subjugation and degradation. Raping Lot’s visitors would have been both a power play and a humiliating insult, and it would have quickly established that even the most important visitors are nothing special in the eyes of the Sodomites.

When Mad Dog Tannen didn’t like Marty McFly’s look in Back to the Future III, he pulled out his six-shooter and fired at the kid’s feet, which is, of course, one of the Wild West’s go-to moves for putting strangers in their place. Let’s just say the men of Sodom had even less patience for foreigners and much crueler means of intimidation.

It’s one thing when a city is filled with people who have no sexual boundaries. It’s quite another thing when they’ve lost all trace of kindness and amity. Is it any wonder Sodom and its sister city ended up two smoldering piles of sulfurous rubble?

A far better American version of Sodom than San Francisco could ever be.

A far better American version of Sodom than San Francisco could ever be.

#2 – Jeremiah 29:11 is Less Concerned with Hopes and Dreams and More Concerned with Sitting Down and Shutting Up

What You Thought It Was About

Reach for the stars, because God’s got a personal success story written just for you.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen this verse printed on graduation cards, imprinted on paperweights, and scrawled in the top corner of Oh the Places You’ll Go!, I wouldn’t necessarily be a rich man, but I’d have way more dimes than even Kramer had in that episode when he tried to cook his pants.

That's two allusions to Seinfeld so far. I think I'll go for the hat trick.

That’s two allusions to Seinfeld so far. I think I’ll go for the hat trick.

It seems like such a wonderfully personalized verse right there in the middle of all that tedious, long-winded Old Testament prophecy. It’s as if God suddenly stops all his complaining about the Kingdom of Judah long enough to throw a hopeful bone out to us modern readers. For a lot of Christians, Jeremiah 29:11 is the John 3:16 of the Old Testament and certainly the most quotable line from any of the Prophets, unless you count that “mount up with wings like eagles” line from Isaiah, but that’s usually reserved for the backs of T-shirts of Christian high school track teams.

The point is, for a brief moment in Jeremiah’s heady prophetic discourse, I’m reminded that God has a special plan of success all ready for me, and all I’ve got to do is… um, well, whatever “seek me with all your heart” means. Pray, I guess. And read my Bible and, you know, keep doing my “quiet time” and stuff . The verse really isn’t clear on that part.

What It’s Actually About

The divine rescue you think is coming isn’t, so stop complaining and get used to a less-than-perfect life.

Once again, the popular interpretation burns in the light of context. It turns out that Jeremiah 29:11 is not as easy to extract from the larger passage than we would like, which is a bummer since that one verse is so darn marketable. The historical background underscoring this passage in Jeremiah reminds us that the people of Judah have recently experienced a tragic defeat at the hands of the formidable Babylonian empire; as a result, they have been exiled from Jerusalem and forced to live in Babylon, the homeland of their captors. They are strangers in a strange land.

"Hey, look on the bright side, guys. What if you'd been exiled to Sodom? You remember what those guys used to do to foreigners..."

“Hey, look on the bright side, guys. What if you’d been exiled to Sodom? You remember what those guys used to do to foreigners…”

Into these dark days, Jeremiah’s prophecy comes across not glass-half-full encouragement, but tough-love advice.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (29:4-7)

Did you get that? The instruction for the people of Judah, caught up in the darkest period of their history and forced to toil and tarry in a land not their own is … to deal with it. To accept it. To make the best of a bad situation. And to not expect a rescue anytime soon, no matter if some other prophets claimed salvation was imminent (29:8-9). So go ahead and settle in for the long haul, because things ain’t changing until long after you’re dead.

That’s right. That plan for a hope and a future, while being directly concerned with an entire race of people (as opposed to each individual high school graduate at a baccalaureate service), was actually about a future generation that would see the Babylonian empire fall to the great King Cyrus of Persia, a messianic-like figure who would later decree that all exiled people were allowed to return to their homeland.

So, yeah, it’s a nice verse, but unless you’re willing to concede that God’s perfect plan for your life might be seventy years in coming, I’d stop using it as a testament to God’s interest in earthly successes.

"Good luck with the liberal arts degree, young man. Babylon's unemployment rate is currently 34%."

“Good luck with the liberal arts degree, young man. Babylon’s unemployment rate is currently 34%.”

#1 – The Passage That Allegedly Elevates Men as Household Leaders Actually Describes Them as Household Slaves

What You Thought It Was About

God has ordained males as the unequivocal head of the household, and wives must dutifully submit.

Toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, he spends some time giving behavioral advice regarding specific social and familial systems in that city. Now, when we males were still little boys, we were more interested in reading about that whole armor of God metaphor that comes after these verses. However, as we matured, entered college and began attending Sunday School classes and small groups geared toward young singles, we encountered a lot of marriage-centered curriculum that was focused on the family stuff rather than the helmet of truth, the sword of salvation and the crossbow of congeniality (that last one may be apocryphal). Specifically, what we learned is that according to Ephesians and a few other sprinkled passages attributed to the Apostle Paul, when it comes to establishing a Christian marriage, men are the boss and, well, you ladies just gotta deal with that.

Still, I'd take this guy over Mark Driscoll or Matt Chandler any day.

I’d take this guy over Mark Driscoll or Matt Chandler any day.

It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. (5:22-24)

There you have it. For most preachers espousing what is known as a complementarian view of marriage, it doesn’t get any clearer than that. Men are compared to Jesus, and women are, well, something between a gaggle of believers and an individual in need of a head.

And once you find it, ladies, make sure you keep it covered. Them's the rules.

And once you find it, ladies, make sure you keep it covered. Them’s the rules.

What It’s Actually About

Full-fledged service to one another.

Context, context, context. Even if you believe complementarianism to be the correct way to structure the family unit, looking before and behind these three verses reveals there is something much bigger being described here. The Apostle Paul seems less concerned with mandating men to be the masters of their domains…

He shoots, he scores!

He shoots, he scores!

and more concerned with encouraging a lifestyle of servanthood among the entire Ephesian congregation. Though a lot of modern Bible translations slap a big chunk of space and a subtitle in between verses 21 and 22, take a look at how Paul opens this whole “be subject” part of his letter:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (5:21)

One another. Be subject to one another! Now, consider the way he describes the character of Jesus Christ as he extends the metaphor in verse 25:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (emphasis mine)

And in verse 28,

In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

There is something much more sacrificial being insinuated in this passage, especially since it starts not merely with instructing females to “submit” to males, but for all the people to “submit” to one another. The Greek word is hypotasso, and it means, among other synonyms, “to subordinate, obey, yield to advice.” Paul is not focused on husbands and wives so much as shedding new light on the relationship between Jesus and the Church. He has taken the traditional patriarchal structure of a family and applied it – with a caveat of full-fledged servanthood by both parties – to the Savior and those who would believe in him. And in case you missed it, he even says in verse 32 that this is his real point.

So, yes, guys, according to Paul you are the head of the household. Congratulations! However, the next time you think this means you get to call all the shots, set the dinner times, control the calendar, schedule sex, and leave all those annoying “inside chores” for that obedient bride of yours, think again. If the salvation you claim is to have any genuine influence in your home, you’ll find yourself relinquishing a lot more of your attention, time and energy than that which you keep for yourself.

But, hey, don’t take my word for it. President Bartlett feels the same:

The Gospel According to Intolerance

This post dabbles in controversy, and that can lead to defensiveness and trench-digging. Best to kick things off with a lighthearted illustration:

How Intolerant Christians See Themselves.

How Intolerant Christians See Themselves.

How Other People See Intolerant Christians.

How Other People See Intolerant Christians.

Here’s the thing. It can be tricky to determine what it means to be a Christian. What is the point – the essential, defining characteristic? What is the crux of the Christian life?…

… Pun most definitely intended.

The If/Then Statement at the Heart of Christianity (that few people heed)

From everything I have read, in the Bible and outside of it, it seems the cross (the English translation of the Latin, crux) is the crux of the issue. And the thing about the Gospels – those four hagiographic stories that describe and methodically theologize the life, death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – is that they attribute a whole lot more meaning to the cross beyond it being merely an instrument for execution upon which Roman centurions impaled a young, upstart rabbi at the start of the first century.

It turns out, the cross is less of an instrument and more of a lifestyle.

Three of the four Gospels quote Jesus saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” See for yourself  in Matthew 16, Mark 8 and Luke 9; the latter  even adds the word “daily,” a temporal qualifier that reminds followers of Jesus that this selfless and sacrificial lifestyle should not be seen as a one-time commitment but a perpetual choice.

Yet even as we turn to these particular statements, we’re aware that we hold in our hands a very large book. It’s got some weight, the print is small and the text is organized into two columns per page. For crying out loud, it’s big enough to make Melville’s Moby Dick, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or Stephen King’s The Stand feel no longer than a limerick. It’s hard not to want to add a bunch of other laws and statements and sayings and theological expositions to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”

And, yes, I am aware that I just lumped a book by a popular horror writer about an end-of-days battle in the wake of a superflu outbreak together with what is arguably the greatest novel of American Romanticism and the guy Graham Greene once called the greatest novelist of the 20th century. Deal with it.

And, yes, I am aware that I just lumped a book by a popular horror writer about an end-of-days battle in the wake of a Superflu outbreak together with what is arguably the greatest novel of American Romanticism and the guy Graham Greene once called the greatest novelist of the 20th century. Deal with it.

So let’s break down what Jesus said a bit more, shall we? Let’s be pragmatic about this. The first thing one might notice about his statement is that it is structured as an if/then declaration.

If a person is seeking practical answers, if/then statements are the most helpful because they set up a very clear, very simple cause-and-effect. (Or, perhaps in this case, the better phrase would be a call-and-response.) Jesus acknowledges a person’s desire to become one of his followers and then supplies the conditions by which this desire becomes reality. You want to be my follower? he (essentially) asks. Here’s what you do: deny yourself, take up your cross (daily), and follow me. He ends with the same word with which he starts – “follow.”

If/then statements are helpful to modern readers, and they weren’t foreign to the people of Jesus’ day either. Even a cursory reading of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy or the majority of the Old Testament Prophets reveal that God’s covenant with his chosen people – the Israelites – was structured by an if/then understanding. As one example of many, take Deuteronomy 28:1:

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.”

Now, before we start reducing in our minds God’s commands or Jesus’ call to a kind of business deal or contractual obligation, we need to remember the fundamental difference between the two. A business deal or contract is an agreement by two parties to meet one another’s needs.

When God shakes hands, do you think He goes up-and-down like a jumprope or back-and-forth like He's sawing wood?

When God shakes hands, do you think He goes up-and-down like a jumprope or back-and-forth like He’s sawing wood?

The if/then statement of Jesus does not describe a co-dependent relationship. We do our part not to meet Jesus’ needs, but rather to transform our own life experience. If we reject the conditions of the call, the world goes on a-spinnin’ and, according to a bunch of other statements scattered across those faux-gilded pages of this massive book, Jesus goes on a-lovin’ us anyway.

Reveling in Persecution

So, back to the point. In this day and age, there are a lot of people who view Christians as intolerant and judgmental. We’re believed to be superstitious, regressive and close-minded. We’re seen as morality police. We’re called hypocrites (a word that originally meant “actors” but has come to mean insincere and deceitful). And despite such negative press, there are a lot of Christians who seem to almost revel in the name-calling.

I know some people who sneer at the criticism and, in a kind of high-minded self-righteousness, will point to passages about how “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted” (2nd Tim. 3:12) and “if the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).

Sadly, this is often the most accurate representation of what comes to some Christians' minds when you bring up the concept of persecution.

Sadly, this is often the most accurate representation of what comes to some Christians’ minds when you bring up the concept of persecution.

Not only have some Christians chosen to interpret “persecution” as mere name-calling or political opposition, but we seem to think such criticism solidifies our affiliation with Jesus. The verses I hear quoted the most as a means of shoring up this identity-via-enmity is Matthew 5:11-12:

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

You see! It’s okay to be intolerant. It’s okay to pull back from fellowship and friendship with people who behave in ways contrary to what I believe. It’s okay to treat other people as the sinners that they are, and it’s certainly okay when they respond with denunciations and slanderous vitriol. They know not what they’re saying, and Jesus himself said that this is proof we are blessed.

"Good, Timmy! That's good picket sign-holding technique. Daddy's proud of you."

“Good, Timmy! That’s good picket sign-holding technique. Jesus is proud of you.”

Except, as far as I can tell, that’s not what Jesus was saying at all. The passage in Matthew makes it clear that the criticism directed at Jesus’ followers is false. However, there are a lot of so-called “Christians” who are hypocrites. They’re narrow-minded, inhospitable and just downright mean. They claim to be standing up for “truth,” but what is that truth anyway? When Jesus stood up for the truth, he had already been chained, spit upon and beaten, and there were still rods, whips and nails to come. And yet, he had not one unkind or judgmental word to utter against his criticizers and denouncers (John 18:33-38).

Oh, how much has changed since the first century! Strange, since his definitive if/then statement seems to describe imitation. Odd, considering that, at another time when he was asked what was the single greatest command, those same three Gospels record this reply:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27).

as well as his quick addition, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And when he was asked who exactly made the cut as “neighbor,” he went on to tell a story of your sworn enemy selflessly saving your life.

Holding On to Our Intolerance

So, what? Is it wrong to be intolerant? Is it wrong to speak out against behaviors that seem contrary to what is written in this heavy book with its faux-gilded pages? I mean, c’mon! Are we just supposed to roll over and play dead? Are we just supposed to stand idly by while marijuana is legalized, the government attempts to take away our guns, homosexuals receive the right to marry and vegans are treated as real people? Didn’t God call us to love what he loves and hate what he hates?

I mean, I know pigs would probably appreciate no longer being slaughtered, but I can't start my day without a few cuts of their delicious flesh.

I mean, I know pigs would probably appreciate no longer being slaughtered, but I can’t start my day without a few cuts of their delicious flesh.

In response, I can only point us back to what seems to be the essential call of a follower of Jesus: to relinquish any urge toward self-interest, to adopt a lifestyle of humble self-sacrifice, and to keep our hearts, souls, minds and strength focused on the guy who perfectly modeled this for us. Furthermore, nowhere within that if/then statement can I find justification for taking a stand against naughtiness over loving the naughty.

Some will no doubt argue the old “love the sinner, hate the sin” adage. Others might even claim that not pointing out a person’s sin is, ultimately, unloving, because it leaves the person to wallow in their wrongness. Maybe. But until you can make practical application of unconditional love a true priority in your life, I’d encourage you to zip your lips and step down off the soapbox. You may think you’ve been representing the truth, but I guarantee no one has been learning anything about self-denial and self-sacrifice from you. No one has gleaned from you an uninhibited, unbridled love of the heart, soul, mind and strength for God. And if they haven’t seen it, it’s because you haven’t really been living it.

Go home. Work on that part for a while. The essential part. The what it all means part. And when you’re ready to speak again, maybe we’ll be ready to listen.