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Thursday 15 September 2016

They Don’t Care What You Think

Anyone who knows me knows that I have strong views on certain issues. This is partly because of my personality, I was brought up to be confident, especially in matters of Scripture, but it is also due to what I do for a living. I am an ordained minister, and as such it is my role to teach God’s word, and make sure I handle it well, so that I know I am speaking the truth with a degree of confidence. I also must be able to connect it to the context of the world we live in which requires me to read a broadly as possible.
An issue that I am extremely strong on is freedom of speech and listening to other people’s opinions. If you get into a debate with me, I may appear to talk over you, but in most contexts I will seek to draw out of people what they think, so I can grapple with it in whatever way is necessary for the context. I seek to apply this to my reading as well. I am a Christian minister, but I will regularly listen to non-Christians, atheists, people of other religions, people on the left, and people on the right, because I want to test my views against the views of others, and I want to learn where I may be wrong, and I want to hone my views so they are sharper, more communicable, and therefore much easier to bring to others.

This is how Western society is supposed to work. When Australia, in particular, was colonized, it was founded as a secular society. This originally meant that it was to be a society where no Christian denomination was favoured by the state, or the official state Church, but it was founded to be a country where all settlers, no matter their particular beliefs, could participate in building our society, contribute their diverse views, and therefore make us stronger. We created a society where people were not to be persecuted or ignored for their beliefs, but all allowed to contribute equally. This is the way a healthy and free society is supposed to work.

This is why there is something about the current debate around the plebiscite regarding marriage equality that really grinds my gears; those in the Labor and Greens parties, don’t care what you think. They just don’t care, and worse, they think what you think is dangerous.

Read this article for instance, where Tanya Plibersek, calls the potential plebiscite “unnecessary and damaging and divisive.” In fact, Bill Shorten is expected to tell his MP’s to do all they can to block the legislation. Now, as much as possible, let’s put politics aside, I am a swing voter, and am not particularly pleased with either major party at the moment, but let’s think about this: what does it say about the opposition when they consider a public debate “unnecessary and damaging and divisive”? Well it says a few things.

Firstly, they consider it unnecessary, because they don’t care what you, or I think on this issue. They are settled on their views, and they will not stop until they get what they want. Never mind that same sex couples already have all the same legal protections under the law as heterosexual couples. Never mind the fact that we are not creating equality here, but redefining a term which means marriage between a man and woman, and is already enshrined with this definition in our law. Never mind that multiple bills for same sex marriage legislation have been voted down in the past in our parliament. The Labor and the Greens are determined to push this forward, without your say. Labor promised to pass same sex marriage legislation within a hundred days of being voted into parliament, they lost, yet they are still determined to push this forward, and block the plebiscite, and your view is unnecessary to them.

What does this tell you about their governing style and ideology. Let’s put same sex marriage aside for the moment. When a political party, whichever side of the aisle, is determined to move forward against the will of the people, or without even being willing to hear the will of the people, does this not sound a bit totalitarian? Or at least inclined that way? The Australian people just voted in a government that promised to allow a plebiscite, but the losing side is determined to ignore that mandate and block it, because your opinion to them is unnecessary. That is the total antithesis of democracy. One of the foundations of democracy is that your opinion matters. You may disagree with me on same sex marriage, you may want it to be passed into law, or you may not, either way you should be allowed to have your say, and not be told your view is unnecessary. This is integral in a democracy. Especially when we are being given the chance to do so, as the plebiscite will do.

But even worse you are being told that you will damage people with your opinion. When I was growing up we used to sing this song, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now I know words can be painful, but they can only hurt us as much as we let them. Don’t you think that our government should have enough belief in its voting citizens to participate in a public debate like adults, and not try to get us to shrink back from ideas and views which we disagree with? This smacks of the safe space debacles effecting American Colleges.  

We do not need to be protected from differing opinions, even ones we consider hateful. Seriously, is it even conceivable that a public debate on the issue of same sex marriage could degenerate as far as discussion does on reddit, or tumblr, or twitter? Not likely. These are places where our young people already are encountering all kinds of views on every topic, including all the views and more that will be discussed in a public debate for a plebiscite on same sex marriage. Even Facebook is filled with lively discussions on the issues. The couple of times I ventured into the world of reddit I was blown away by the plethora of immature, and viscous opinion, but I came away unscathed, as do we all when we maturely engage in debate, and recognize that the opinion of that keyboard warrior I just encountered online can’t hurt me. Debate is good for us, it sharpens the mind, and we need a few more razor sharp minds in this country, not less. 

There needs to be less of the government trying to protect us from words and ideas in society, and more encouragement for engagement with contrary ideas, so that we wrestle with them publicly, as adults are supposed to do, and as children are supposed to see adults do. Frankly, I think it is insulting that the Labor and Green’s parties think we are so fragile that they believe we as a nation are not able to handle a public debate on this issue. Our ancestors fought the Nazi’s and won, they defended the Kokoda trail, we are not a nation afraid to defend our country and other countries from invaders, we are certainly not afraid of a discussion. I would think people on all sides of this issue would agree.

But they also think it will be divisive. This is the perennial argument brought forward to stifle debate in so many contexts. And sure debate can be divisive, especially if there is a perceived winner of loser. But we already have a society which is divided, between labor and liberal voters, between left and right, between monarchists and republicans, between the religious and irreligious, between NRL fans and aerial ping pong fans, between Queenslanders and New South Welshmen, between those who think Melbourne has the best coffee, or Sydney does, between soccer lovers, and football lovers (see what I did there). In other words, our society has so many dividing lines already, yet this is without-a-doubt one of the best places in the world to live, if not the best place. Every society has dividing lines, our society seems to handle them very well indeed, and much better than most.

Yes, a plebiscite will divide the country, between those who agree we should change the law, and those who believe we should not. But is not one of the characteristics of the mature person the ability to agree to disagree. There is an old joke, get me three Baptists in one room and I will give you four opinions. But doesn’t this relate to all of us really. Do any of us ever really agree over everything? Isn’t is a little childish for the Labor government to try and protect us from a little divisive argument over an issue as important at the backbone of society: the family unit, and what should be considered marriage? I think we can handle it.  

They, that is Labor and the Greens, don’t care what you think, but I do, and so do many of your fellow citizens. Even if we disagree on marriage equality, I think we should continue to push to be given a chance to share our opinion in a public plebiscite. What do you think?

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Why the Obsession with Self Affirmation?

There is an obsession in the wider church today with teaching people to love themselves, to focus on self, to stand in front of the mirror and proclaim ‘I am awesome!’ Much of it is the product of good intentions, because there are a lot of hurting people in this world, and people want to help. We should be building people up, helping them feel loved, and helping them feel secure in their family environment, workplace and other contexts. But what I am talking about goes a step further than that and delves into the realm of self-affirmation of the narcissistic kind, the kind we should expect from a Hollywood movie about a famous football player, not from those who say they teach the Bible. So I want to speak to this issue and begin with a bit of my own story and struggles from my teenage years.

I was an emotionally messed up teenager in many ways. I had lost my faith in God at the age of twelve because of a counterfeit movement of the Spirit. I gave up on Christianity, but it took me a while to recognize that I had done so. I progressively walked further and further away from the faith until I gave it up completely at about 15, though I stopped going to church when I was 17, as I didn’t have a choice until then.

Because I walked away from what gave me certainty when I was young, I began searching for fulfilment in different places. I became fixated on other worlds and I wanted to escape reality, so I tried to fill my longing for meaning with delving into science fiction and fantasy. I became obsessed with the world of Star Wars, the powers of the Jedi, the stories of the space battles, the intrigue of a world where so much more was possible. I read many, many books and stories because it was luring to me, it was exciting, but it was ultimately a meaningless path to fulfilment, because it is a fantasy world, a fun one sure, but one disconnected from reality in a truly profound way (though I still enjoy sci-fi).

I explored other means of fulfilment as well; sport, work, I got a job as soon as I was old enough, then it was alcohol, girls and eventually drugs. I had a jacket when I was 18 that said on the back of it: ‘I’ve fallen in love twice: Once with a beer bottle, once with a mirror.’ How narcissistic, but it was an accurate description of who I was at the time. I was seen as a reasonably good student in high school, but behind the scenes I was progressively getting more rebellious, I was sick of being the good kid, I was sick of being a nerd, I was sick of being who I was, so I tried to forge a new path, which ended rather obviously in disaster. I swung between jumping into doing drugs and fighting against them from the age of 17 to 22, six years of burning my life like a candle lit at both ends, it wasn’t good.

Some would say I was a just an uncertain kid who needed affirmation, who needed to learn to love myself, so that I didn’t become depressed and do stupid things that put my life at risk. Those who actually knew me would be able to tell you that I had no confidence problems at all, I was in fact supremely confident. Both would be right to some degree, internally I was an uncertain kid, and I was over confident, these two personality traits combined together into a truly destructive force. Because I was uncertain about who I was and what I wanted I would try almost anything, because I was overly confident I thought I could handle it (I couldn’t). But what I definitely did not need was to learn to love myself more, what I needed, and what everyone needs more than anything is not a deep self-anchor like a strong self-esteem, or self-affirmation, but a true anchor, something firm that we can all lock onto to keep our selves stable.

You see telling people to find their fulfilment, or their joy, in life in themselves is like telling a ship’s captain to anchor his ship by dropping anchor into the hull of his ship, it’s ultimately a fruitless exercise as it is not going to lock the ship into place. In fact it may be worse than fruitless because if you drive the anchor deep enough and hard enough it will pierce the hull plating and the ship will sink. I had driven the anchor of my life deep into self-esteem and I was sinking fast. Or you could say it is like encouraging the earth to rotate around itself. I am not the best person to give this example, because I am not an expert on the show, but from what I hear about him the Dr from Dr Who has the power to make sun disappear. What would happen if the sun was vanished from our solar system by a powerful being? Well the earth and the whole system would go sky rocketing into oblivion. It’s ok though, we would be instantly frozen and therefore wouldn’t have to experience the earth hurtling out of control through space, not that this is any consolation. No, a ship cannot lay anchor in itself, and a planet cannot rotate itself. The ship needs land, or a reef, something solid, sure and firm, the earth needs the sun, something constant, strong and powerful, and we need something or someone outside of ourselves to anchor our lives to or we will end up like self-anchored ship; drifting, or like a self-rotating planet; destroyed, barren and dead.

What we really need is a dose of reality: we cannot find complete joy in ourselves, and we cannot seek to find complete joy in this world; we need to turn to the source of life and joy everlasting, we need God; more specifically we need to come to God through Jesus Christ. It was when I became a believer in Jesus Christ that I stopped seeking joy in myself, and started to see that self-affirmation was not helpful but dangerous as it took me away from the true fountain of life and joy; Christ. Jesus teaches us through his word that it is better to humble ourselves, than exalt ourselves, for he lifts up the humble, but humbles those who exalt themselves (Luke 14:11). Jesus is the firm foundation, the cornerstone as he is called, and he gave me the ability to begin to seek to find my rest and ultimate joy in him. I don't do it perfectly, none of us will, but when we are made new in Christ he reorients our compass north towards him and gives us his Spirit to help us to continue to re-focus on him.  

So why is there this great obsession with self-affirmation? The answer is simple: sin. In our sinful natures we are cut off from the sun to our planet, the land to our ship’s anchor, and we seek to find joy in sinful and ultimately meaningless ways. This is why the church is rife with teaching encouraging people to love themselves, to honour themselves, to look at how awesome they are. As Paul said, “3 But mark this: there will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves…” (2 Tim. 3:1-2). He said more than this, but this is something we should hone in on, because this idea of loving ourselves has wormed into the church and become a part of our conferences, our best-selling books, and our teaching to young people. But here’s the ringer, the Bible is not about self-affirmation, or helping us find fulfilment in ourselves, it in fact does the opposite, it points us outside ourselves to Christ, as Jesus said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

When we seek to help struggling young people, or any one really, by teaching them to say to themselves: ‘I’m all I need’, or ‘I’m awesome’, or something similar, we are not ultimately helping them, but are actually pointing them away from Jesus, in whom life is actually found, a life that teaches us to deny ourselves, not self-affirm, a life that teaches us to look to Christ, to get out of ourselves and into focusing on him.

The Biblical writers do not say, ‘God loves me because I’m awesome.’ They say, ‘God loves me because he is awesome.’ To give a biblical example in Psalm 8 when the writer says: “…what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:4-5), this is not an exercise in self-affirmation, but worship of God, as shown by the last statement in the Psalm, which is identical to the first “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1,9). David here is praising God, not himself, he’s in awe of the fact that the awesome God of all creation bestows such honour on human beings as ruling over this earth, when only God deserves the glory of rule. David is moving from self-focus to God-focus, or in other words he is not worshipping himself, or humanity, but God.

A lot of what happens today is well meaning. Taking someone who is struggling with self-image issues and self-esteem issues and making them believe they are actually incredible, and awesome, and powerful in and of themselves, can make people into very successful human beings of a kind. But the ultimate end of such teaching is destruction, because we are designed and created not to find our fulfilment in ourselves and our ability, but in Christ and what he has done for us. If we use the Bible to point people to themselves we are ultimately making the mistake that the religious leaders Jesus condemned in John 5 did, we are teaching people to look for a way of life apart from Jesus, and this is ultimately the path to destruction, as Solomon wrote, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).

Let’s not do this, let’s not fall into the trap of self-love, it’s powerful, it’s pervasive, it’s everywhere around us in this world in movies, in TV shows, in advertising, in the way we are taught to talk to each other. Inside of all of us according to the Bible is not an awesome person waiting to be unlocked, but a sinful nature that is in need of the forgiveness and redemption that comes through the message of the cross. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for us because we are awesome, but because he is awesome and we are sinful and selfish, and because he is great he paid for our sins in his death, and made a way for us to live again by his resurrection. Let’s not point people to themselves, because this is the way that leads to death, let’s point people to Jesus, because he is the way that leads to life.