During the late 70s and early 80s, a strange inversion happened. Suddenly, good meant bad and bad meant good. To say this car or that person was bad was a positive. It was followed by the negative assurance that only the good die young or follow the rules when they most need to be broken. This example highlights how words and their meaning often change over time.
This fluidity of meaning makes the need for a rock-solid definition of Christian love essential because there will always be people trying to persuade others that the hate of one age should pass for the love of a new era.
Look at the Gospels, and the wise-love described there is stamped with an unmistakable internal trinity: 1) humility, which leads to 2) a willingness to listen and fully hear other people, resulting in 3) broad, empathetic action (described in more detail in this post).
But many people favor a more “confident” mode of operation. They are living testaments to the belief that “real” Christianity begins with 1) a self-assured pride, then moves towards 2) an unwillingness to listen or hear, and ends with 3) an absence of empathy for anyone outside their preferred religious, economic, racial, or cultural tribe.
An understanding of the Bible that views itself as the only valid and inerrant perspective to be had might see like a reasonable stance to hold? That is is until one notices that the Bible itself says in 1 Corinthians that anyone who believes he or she fully understands these matters does not understand as they ought to.
It becomes even more difficult to overlook the the hubris that issues from an outlook that insist that the only people who count are those who are real Americans, real Christians, real patriots and that other people should hardly count at all?
Do we, as Christians, actually believe that some people are deserving and “those other people” are not? That they are deplorables or thugs, and should matter less?
When the Bible says that God’s wisdom is completely different from the wisdom of the world, it is pointing a finger straight at the prideful social hierarches that allow us to make such cruel judgements. The only social standing the Bible is willing to assign anyone is founded on our willingness to love God in all his/her indefinable mystery and others as we love ourselves (1 Corinth 13: 1-4).
This is why the logic of scriptures inverts the ladders and reverses the lines of the world, claiming the first shall be last and the last first. It is because the logic of pride and a numbness to the pain of the world is diametrically opposite the metrics of humility and of love.
But Aren’t We Supposed to be Proud?
There is an element to pride that is clearly good. Unfortunately, it is only one short step from that kernel of goodness into an unhealthy emphasis on comparative worth. The problem begins when statements like, “I’m proud of my backhand too easily morphs into a logic that proclaims, “ I’m proud of my backhand, my large house, my net worth, my skin color, heritage, or religion because it proves that I am better than other people”. This type of comparative pride presents as an ever-present slippery slope. That is the first problem.
The other problem is that pride never stands alone. As mentioned earlier, it is bound to its own unavoidable spiritual trinity. The moment pride introduces itself, an inability to listen, see, or hear anything but the voice of self begins begging to come along for the ride. This is followed by a progressive exit of concern for anything or anyone beyond the self or the tribe.
This inevitable sequence makes pride the most potent of spiritual poisons. Poisons do not kill people directly. Each one initiates a chain reaction that begins with the blocking of some essential life process.
Carbon monoxide is dangerous because it blocks the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. Pride is toxic because it inhibits the ability of the mind to absorb the alternate viewpoints that are necessary to effectively navigating the unpredictable twists and turns of life.
A Limited Ability to Hear and See?
Look at almost any large-scale tragedy in the making and it was invariably preceded by pride on the part of the person or group about to make the mistake: Aryan’s thinking they were better than Jews, Russians imagining that they were better and knew better than the Ukrainians, Tutsis better than the Hutus, Serbs better than the Bosnians, White’s better than the Native Americans, and humans better, smarter and more deserving to be at the top of the heap than all the rest of nature.
The reason religious pride, ethnic pride, general human pride is such a great predictor of coming tragedy, shame, and often outright defeat is because of the way it destroys the ability to be mindful of voices beyond the walls of tribe and self.
A raft of recent research attests to the fact that the higher up a person is in the social hierarchy, then the less likely they are to accurately read the social ques of facial expressions necessary to fuel empathy.
One particularly interesting piece of research on cells in the brain called mirror cells explains that people higher in social status expect the world to mirror them, but on average they are far less able to reciprocate in internally mirroring an understanding of the world or people they oversee.
Completely blind to the world around them? No. Somewhat deaf to the needs of others? Marginally oblivious to voices that are trying to be heard? Measurably complacent about things they feel will never affect them? Likely.
Imagine what might happen if the captain of a ship decided to go full speed ahead through in the fog while ignoring reports of numerous icebergs because he pridefully believes his ship was unsinkable. Ask what the outcome of a war might be if a general refused to listen to or enlist the ideas and might of a potential army of recruits double the size of his white army. Take a guess at the events that would have transpired if America mistakenly begun the 21st century with a president whose advisors believed “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
A prideful, self-determined covenant-good almost always marches at the forefront of a cause before which all else is about to be redefined as evil. Burning books and/or countries, legislating against ideas and/or idea makers, excluding every fact or face except the ones that support their prideful perception of the world – and the silent, uncomplaining ignorance that signal a coming fall.
Is there an alternative question that would be more likely to steer us clear of pride’s blindness? Something better than asking if other people’s actions are good or evil, right or wrong?
Here’s are questions I almost never hear issuing from corporate board rooms, the august halls of congress, or the most self-assured of churches: Is this action loving? Are we measurably humble, large-hearted, and open enough to hear, empathize, and care for the needs of the many instead of just the needs of the few? Are we acting out of arrogance, which always end in violence, if not outright hat? Or are we acting with sufficient humility to be assured of acting with empathy and love.
An Absence of Empathy
Why does pride want to ask every other question in the book but “Is this what it looks like to be a loving person or culture?” I’ll tell you why.
I’ve just spent years writing about the importance of being a loving person. An hour ago, I returned a phone call about some tires I had ordered. The person on the other end told me they were going to have to cancel my appointment. Despite their website claims, they didn’t have the tires in stock. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. What I can tell you is that I was tired of it, and I was rude to the person delivering the message.
When I hung up the phone, I wanted to feel justified in my actions. And I believe I would have been justified if the only question at hand was if promises had been made and broken. But within moments, I felt anything but justified because the better question, the more maturely human one, was had I been loving in the moment.
The question is unavoidably humbling because a loving spirit is most in demand when we feel least like displaying it. When we’re so hungry we can’t see straight, when we’ve just been cut off in traffic, when we’ve had a terrible day, when we want satisfaction and we’re just not getting any!
If your experience is anything like mine, make love the standard of your actions and you’ll quickly find no other choice but to be humbled. We seamlessly manufacture excuses for our own faults. But try doing it for other people for any length of time. Try hearing the things they can’t or won’t say. Try letting that tired look in their eyes and tussled hair make you wonder if they even slept last night, if they’re going through a divorce, if they just got a cancer diagnosis, if their child is teething…
A lack of empathy is, in the end, a lack of imagination, curiosity, or care for much beyond the perception of self. It is anchored in the immovable mud of pride – in a spirit that is either unwilling or, at last, unable to see the world from anyone else’s perspective other than one’s own. Once set, this mud forms the perfect foundation for hate.
Questions for Contemplation and Study
- Imagine America as if it was divided. In what ways do you see the other side acting arrogantly, superior, or entitled? Now ask and answer the same question about your side.
- One of the most interesting verses in the Bible says, when we accuses another person of having a speck in their eye, then we have a log in our own eyes (Matthew 7:2-4). What is the implication of this verse the moment we exit humility and embrace judgement?
- Do hate and pride really always accompany each other like blood brothers? Or is that assessment overly simplistic, and why do you think so?
- Are you proud – of your race, your education, your heritage, your religion, etc. What are you most proud of, and is there any part of your pride that, perhaps, spills over into arrogance, deservedness, or superiority?
- Do you think humans are more like mountains or icebergs? Please explain your answer.
- Why does the answer to the last question matter if we are trying to understand ourselves and empathize with other people?
- Is there any way that you can be assured that you have really heard what someone else is trying to say? And if someone is able to suggest a way of being certain, would you be willing to subject yourself to it so that you could be more loving?
Read More from Love: The Foundation
In 2002, I visited Maine to see Gregg, my college roommate, and his young family. At the Naval Academy, Gregg and I made strange bedfellows: