Letting Go of the Need To Be Better Than Others

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Dan Pearce of the “Single Dad, Laughing” blog has written an arresting article called “I’m Christian, Unless You’re Gay.” There is much in there that I applaud and support. I encourage all to read the story and the follow-up, and to learn well from it.

I do need to put that recommendation in context, for Pearce says he’s not religious, and he gets some things wrong in his description of Christianity. I’ll come back to that in a bit. But I want you first to read the story he tells, and then come back here to reflect with me on this that he wrote:

No, what makes somebody love, accept, and befriend their fellow man is letting go of a need to be better than others.

Nothing else.

I know there are many here who believe that living a homosexual life is a sin.

Okay.

But, what does that have to do with love?

I repeat… what does that have to do with love?

Come on. Don’t we understand? Don’t we get it? To put our arm around someone who is gay, someone who has an addiction, somebody who lives a different lifestyle, someone who is not what we think they should be… doing that has nothing to do with enabling them or accepting what they do as okay by us. It has nothing to do with encouraging them in their practice of what you or I might feel or believe is wrong vs right.

It has everything to do with being a good human being. A good person. A good friend.

That’s all.

To put our arm around somebody who is different. Why is that so hard?

Where Pearce asks, what does “living a homosexual life is a sin” have to do with love?, he raises a most important question. Still I have to sound a caution, in spite of its importance: Nothing is just about love; for God (and the reality he created) is not just about love. There is also truth and beauty and holiness and worship and all the virtues and excellences, and there is also avoiding that which is evil.

Nevertheless, though it isn’t only about love, it should never be without love. Love expresses itself through truth and beauty, and also through relationship—friendship, in other words. Accepting people in spite of their sin. Letting them accept you in spite of your sin.

Pearce wrote, “what makes somebody love, accept, and befriend their fellow man is letting go of a need to be better than others.” Even Jesus, who absolutely was better than all the rest of us, never gave the sense that he had the need to be better. Jesus had no self-defensiveness. He had nothing to prove. He did have much to lose, and willingly, for the sake of love, he gave it up. He was who he was, and who he was, was good.

Those of us who are in Christ likewise have no need to be better than any others. It’s not that we can relax in our inherent goodness as Christ did; far from it. Rather it is that it there’s nothing to be gained from living a lie. Though we are better than we might have been, the truth is that we can claim no credit for that, for it is Christ who makes us so. In ourselves we are no better than any other.

We likewise need no self-defensiveness, for we have security in Jesus Christ. We don’t need to prove anything about ourselves, we need fear no loss, for the goodness we need is granted us graciously by Christ, it is protected by Christ, and it is sufficient in Christ, who has made it so for us, even though we are very flawed apart from Christ.

Some might ask then, why are there preachers, apologists, and teachers who seek to lead others away from one way that we describe as false, toward another way that we describe as better? Ideally (we do not practice this perfectly) it is only because we have learned the goodness of Jesus Christ, a goodness that stands above and separate from all our flaws, yet gives itself to redeem us from our flaws.

The apostle Paul spoke (2 Cor. 1o:17) of boasting in Christ alone (see all of chapters 9 through 12 for a full exposition on the topic). In context of his whole ministry and message, I take that to mean that he had nothing of his own to prove or to protect. Nevertheless his zeal for the truth of Christ was constant.

In the same way, we Christians know that the Christian truth needs to be taught, explained, clarified, and defended, for it is in competition with other, lesser “truths” that are not true. We must stand firm with that. The Christian way is better than all others.

With all that in mind, and in that context, I agree wholeheartedly with Dan Pearce on this:

No, what makes somebody love, accept, and befriend their fellow man is letting go of a need to be better than others.

Nothing else.

And,

To put our arm around someone who is gay, someone who has an addiction, somebody who lives a different lifestyle, someone who is not what we think they should be… doing that has nothing to do with enabling them or accepting what they do as okay by us. It has nothing to do with encouraging them in their practice of what you or I might feel or believe is wrong vs right.

I have written in the past of something similar, urging us all to treat one another as humans.

To demonstrate this attitude is difficult on a blog, where the emphasis is necessarily more on propositions than on relationships. It’s hard to hug here. It was not so hard to hug when a friend of the family told us he is gay, as happened once within the past year or two. (He has not revealed his sexuality widely, so in respect for his privacy I will not be any more specific than this.) He told us he was afraid of the backlash he would get from others who would say, “homosexuality is evil!” At the point when he brought that up, we had already been talking about his newly revealed sexuality for most of an hour. I said, “You know, I agree it’s wrong to have sexual relationships outside of marriage, and that means homosexual sex is clearly and completely wrong, too.”

I didn’t have to add, “but I accept you still as a friend.” It would have been annoyingly redundant. He knew without me having to say it.

There is a paradox here; two of them actually. The first one looks like this:

  • The Christian way is uniquely good and right
  • Jesus Christ is uniquely the divine example of perfect truth and grace
  • To follow him is better than any other life, and yet
  • Those of us who follow him are no better than anyone else, except as Jesus Christ transforms us.

The resolution to that paradox is simply to see it for what it is. There is no contradiction in it. There is just the exaltation of Jesus Christ.

The second paradox has to do with another kind of “sinner:”  the hypocritical “religious” gay-bashers? Should we put our arms around them and love them, too? What would Dan Pearce say about that?

It seems to me the Bible holds the self-professed “religious” person to a higher and tougher standard than “sinners” (see 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 2 John 9-11; and also the contrasting manner in which Jesus treated the “sinners” and the self-righteous religious). The way we love the unloving “religious” is by holding them accountable, refusing to recognize their distorted religiosity as the real thing, and not accepting them into fellowship.

Am I a gay-basher myself, for holding that sexual relationships outside of marriage are wrong, and that marriage is always between a man and a woman? Is that a third paradox, even a contradiction? My best answer is one to which unfortunately you have no direct access: the gay men with whom I have actual relationships, and who do not consider me a basher. It is a relational thing. It is exactly what Dan Pearce wrote about, which I quoted above. It is possible to love a person while disagreeing strongly with some of his or her values and practices.

Anyway, these paradoxes make this hard to write. I’m probably messing it up completely, and I expect I’ll have to adjust and correct things when it moves into the discussion phase. Nevertheless, in spite of the risks, I think it’s worth making the attempt to say these things, for I believe there is something here that needs to be communicated: truth combined with love, in word and in practice; including the truth that I could know no truth, and I could live no love, except as God in Christ has made possible by his grace.

The way of Jesus Christ is good and true and uniquely right. I will defend it to the uttermost. I will forever boast in Jesus Christ and what he has done for me. I am no better than anyone else, and I have no need to be; but I surely want all to know how great Christ is. One way I can let them know is by following Christ’s example of loving people who are different from me. We all need the grace of God.

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28 Responses to “ Letting Go of the Need To Be Better Than Others ”

  1. Your article and the other article are both great reminders to me of how we have been called to love others.

    I want to reach out to people who are gay, but here lies the problem: how does one show love to a person who is gay without it coming off like you are accepting their sinful lifestyle?

    In the context of friends of yours who have come out about their attractions, I can understand how that would be possible because the relationship is already present and more than likely they already know that you see homosexuality as sinful.

    But what about someone in your neighborhood? What about the person down the street that is gay, or maybe even married to someone of the same sex? Is it okay to simply show them love and as the relationship grows reveal your disapproval?

    God has really put a burden on my heart for these people…for the atheists…for even catholics. Basically everyone the protestant church has abandoned my heart breaks for. I just want to love them in the right way. I don’t want to love them into hell.

  2. Now that’s a new one on me: lumping homosexuals… and atheists… and even [C]atholics into a class of persons “abandoned” by the [P]rotestant church (which sect?). “Right way?!?” Wrong answer…

  3. Excellent post Tom…I recently had coffee with a church leader who expressed concern about the number of people in our church who were ‘living together’ and not married. He thinks the pastor should address this and challenge these people to get it right. I asked him if he was a friend of any of ‘those’ people. He told me he wasn’t so I said, “You want to have rules without relationships. That is called legalism. If you wish to influence people it will only happen as you become their friends.”
    I am committed firmly to believing that until the church learns to become more of a family and less of a corporation, we are always going to get this wrong. Until we learn to be friends across the full spectrum of offices and gifts in the church, we will be less than faithful to Christ’s example.
    2nd point – Until the church does away with professional clergy, and everyone is to be seen as (equals) with everyone else, we continue to encourage a ‘better than’ attitude as the church. I love that John Yoder called ordination a heresy!

  4. Taras, thank you for the link and for asking about it. While recognizing that you are not (by your own statement) a native English speaker, for the sake of other readers I want to say I disagree with your use of the term “homophobia,” because it is a blanket term too broadly cast upon people who are not afraid of or hateful toward homosexuals, and yet believe homosexuality is immoral.

    You speak of “acceptance of homosexuality,” and seem to want it to increase. I speak instead of “acceptance of homosexuals (gays/lesbians…).” There is a huge difference.

  5. I see two problems here. First, Tom, you wrote, “It is possible to love a person while disagreeing strongly with some of his or her values and practices.” I don’t disagree with that. The problem as I see it is that homosexuality is not a value or a practice, it is an identity; it is who a person IS. I don’t think you can love a person and reject who he or she is.

    Second, why (with the exception of it being all a family member could offer) would a gay person WANT this kind of “love” you say you offer? There are plenty of people in the world who can offer unconditional love to a gay person; it’s a way of thinking you are better to think that a gay person should accept your conditional love.

  6. OS, just out of curiosity, what would you think of Richard Dawkins’s call at the Reason Rally to ridicule Catholics’ beliefs, and hold their beliefs in contempt? He was careful to say that he was not saying to ridicule Catholics themselves, or hold them in contempt.

    Why would a gay person want this kind of love? I can’t speak for them. I just know that some people are fine with it. Maybe they just feel okay with other people who are real with them, even when those people don’t agree with all their values.

  7. Ordinary Seeker,

    The problem as I see it is that homosexuality is not a value or a practice, it is an identity; it is who a person IS. I don’t think you can love a person and reject who he or she is.

    Actually at least one of the definitions of homosexuality refers to a practice (check the dictionary) and it is this definition that makes the most sense in terms of Tom’s article. Why substitute your definition and complain there’s a problem?

  8. Tom, you missed my first point entirely. As to my second point, I have no doubt that there are gay and lesbian people who would tolerate a relationship in which they were not fully accepted, but I would argue that that is a function of either (or both) the social environment in which they live, or their feelings about themselves (ie, internalized homophobia.)

    Melissa, the dictionary definition is not sufficient in regard to how gay and lesbian people experience their homosexuality. There is an overwhelming amount of information available on the internet and elsewhere about this. It is not “my” definition I’m using, it’s how GLBT people define themselves.

  9. it is an identity

    it’s how GLBT people define themselves

    OS is correct: this is the identity (of choice?) for many (most?) homosexuals.
    But when activity becomes identity, it becomes “off limits” to what would otherwise be legitimate questions. Please let it be permissible to ask “How did it become an identity in the first place?”
    After all, there were many kids in High School experimenting with marijuana, but only a few who chose to define themselves with all-things-pot. Similarly, there were many kids in High School committed to scholastic, athletic, or aesthetic activities — but only a few who chose to define themselves with those activities.
    Our culture pushes us in the activity-becomes-identity direction:
    “You’re engaged?? To whom??”
    “He’s a teacher/lawyer/plumber…”
    But is activity-becoming-identity a necessary part of the human experience?

  10. One thing I think has not been mentioned. If someone isn’t a Christian then why in the world would or should they care about Christian ethical proscriptions on their behavior? Further, from a Christian viewpoint, their behavior is no more sinful than mine is (See: Mount, Sermon on the).

    The problem isn’t homosexuality. The problem is lack of belief. Now, if someone becomes a Christian and is a practicing homosexual, then you have the basis upon which to address their lifestyle. Until then, first things first.

  11. os, I didn’t miss your first point. I asked a question about it, and you didn’t answer it. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough in saying so, but that’s what my comment 10 was about: identity vs. beliefs vs. practices, etc.

    As to your second point, you’re asking to do some kind of psychological analysis on people who seem content to be in relationship with me. I won’t go there with you.

  12. Also on your first point–if I had responded to it more directly, I would not have done a better job than those who have, so I hope you’ll take their answers seriously.

  13. There are plenty of people in the world who can offer unconditional love to a gay person…”

    Actually, there is no one anywhere that offers “unconditional love” to anyone. That is, execpt Christ.

  14. @OS,
    More on identity…
    – I happen to have been born a Canadian citizen.
    However, my citizenship is not a definitive part in my identity, apart from being the “platform” on or “environment” in which that identity was shaped.
    – I happen to be a male.
    Once again, while that aspect provided influence while my identity was shaped, it is not a definitive part of my identity.
    – I happen to be white.
    Again: I have always identified with international colleagues throughout life. While there is no doubt that my race provided a sheltered environment for my identity-shaping, it is not identity-defining.
    – I happen to be heterosexual.
    You get the idea.

    How is it that certain aspects of the human experience have been permitted to achieve the privileged “identity” status while others have not?

  15. unconditional love

    …is a myth.
    Love is always conditional… on its acceptance. If someone refuses my love, then I am not loving to them. What good are my feelings to them? Having rejected my actions, those who do not accept my love derive no benefit from my feelings. Under these conditions, my claims of love are an irritant and an embarrassment to the object of my “unconditional love”.

  16. @Doug:

    How is it that certain aspects of the human experience have been permitted to achieve the privileged “identity” status while others have not?

    Watching this debate from the sidelines, this for me is the most interesting question.

    Ordinary Seeker promotes what in effect is a reductionism of human identity; one is the puppet of forces one cannot control. I am reminded of the History of literature and the discovery of personhood. I will be oversimplifying the case for my rhetorical purposes, but the original heroes (whether in Myth or in Greek-Roman tragedies and comedies) are not persons in the sense we understand them today, with a human character with all its implied variability and mutability, but overdetermined agents guided by the terrible Ananke, the Goddess of Fate. In Ordinary Seeker’s account, Fate is replaced by a much more mundane, but equally terrible, congeries of biological and societal causes.

    Persons as we understand them, are first to be found where we should expect: in the Bible, the greatest cultural monument of humanity, and its primal insistence on the radical freedom of the will. And then through various stages (*), passing through St. Augustine in his Confessions, to Dante, the Pilgrim which is the only character that *changes* in the Commedia (of necessity, because the dead are beyond change), to M. Luther and his depiction of the inner Christian freedom, to a Christian humanist like Erasmus, until it reaches the apotheosis in Shakespeare where human personality finally crystallizes into a recognizable identity. We are all his children and Shakespeare, to borrow a phrase from Emerson, has become the horizon beyond which we cannot see.

    Needless to say, I reject Ordinary Seeker’s account, for reasons adumbrated in the two paragraphs above and that you also point out, at least obliquely.

    (*) This is a literary history; a parallel philosophical one could also be composed.

  17. @G,
    Bravo! 🙂 Your history bears directly on the essence of the problem, but is addressing the even-more-fundamental problem of the history of human identity itself.

  18. Interestingly enough, G. Rodrigues, your tale could even be extended forward to the 20th century existentialists with their insistence on each person’s freedom to define himself. (They would have used the generic pronoun that way.) They were of course borrowing from Christian conceptions of freedom, though otherwise their leaders were hardly known for their theistic leanings.

    What we see in this identification of self with sexuality is a strange mix. It is in part a power move: OS has used it that way right here, in an attempt to delegitimize what I wrote about relationships with homosexuals. I have used the language of postmodernism here quite intentionally. It is a language move, it is a power move, it is a delegitmizing move. As a power move it is Nietzschean. As a language move it connects with perhaps Heidegger or Wittgenstein, perhaps more likely some of the more contemporary postmodernists. As a delegitimizing move it connects with politicians and power brokers down through history, though only recently has that term come into vogue.

    The question is whether it is itself a legitimate move. A movement that is based on truth and committed to truth in all its outworkings could conceivably employ power, language, and so on under the authority of truth and in the service of truth. I have trouble seeing that as the case this time, though. There are so many other ways to define and live out one’s identity than through one’s sexuality; and for me that makes it hard to believe that we ought to accept this putative near-equivalence between the some person’s homosexuality and that person’s identity. It is, as you said, very much a reductionist thing for a person to do, to define himself or herself that way.

    It could be that there is a genuine identity relationship to be discovered somewhere in the connection between homosexuality and the homosexual rights movement. What else unites the members of the movement but that, after all?

    But that has no relevance to what I wrote; for I was not talking about loving an abstract group, I was talking about my relationships with people.

  19. @Tom,
    Fair warning: enthusiastic usage of post-modern language is (itself) “a power move, it is a delegitmizing move.” — let’s more neutrally claim that it is “question-framing” and avoid the recursion trap? 😉

  20. @Tom Gilson:

    Interestingly enough, G. Rodrigues, your tale could even be extended forward to the 20th century existentialists with their insistence on each person’s freedom to define himself. (They would have used the generic pronoun that way.) They were of course borrowing from Christian conceptions of freedom, though otherwise their leaders were hardly known for their theistic leanings.

    Thanks for the much needed corrective to my tale (very apt choice of wording). I would however argue that while the Greek-Roman account — with the already pointed out caveat that I am oversimplifying things — denies human personality in placing its source in external, and at bottom impersonal forces, the post-modernists *similarly* deny human personhood in their radical claim that we can freely redefine ourselves. We can freely redefine ourselves because we are nothing in ourselves and personal identity is borne out of a radical act of an all-powerful, unconstrained will. We can be everything precisely because we are nothing. The Christian middle-of-the-road account is the only one that is sane and reasonable. And true.

  21. Maybe I’m getting picky, but I found some of Dan’s writing a bit more “feel-good” and appealing to emotion than necessarily valid. For example, I don’t agree with:

    No, what makes somebody love, accept, and befriend their fellow man is letting go of a need to be better than others.

    Nothing else.

    There are most certainly other things that can be necessary to make someone love, accept and befriend their fellow man. Conversely, not loving, accepting or befriending your fellow man may be the result of a variety of factors other than “a need to be better than others”.

    Anyway, his general message is good, and reminds me of the point of the whole “WWJD” fad. Namely, to stop and think about your attitude and actions, and strive to behave in a truly Christlike way. On the topic of love, I’ll leave off with some rather relevant words from Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:

    If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

    Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

    And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

  22. I have read Dan’s article, watched the movie, read Tom’s article and all the responses. I still feel the tension in myself between love and truth and how to hold those in tension in relationship. A gay affirming church has a sign board that reads “Peace. Respect. Love.” As I drive by I think “Truth” why isn’t that mentioned. It seems that propositional truth creates the conflict and disturbs the peace, respect, and love. Christ loved the woman caught in adultery, but he did say go and sin no more. I would like to see Tom talk more specifically how you love others who are outside the circle of your faith. He gave us specifics for the religious.”The way we love the unloving “religious” is by holding them accountable, refusing to recognize their distorted religiosity as the real thing, and not accepting them into fellowship.” Should we apply this to other offending groups? Why not? Thanks to all for the thoughtful replies here.

  23. @Gina You bring up a good point that had crossed my mind when first reading Dan’s article. At was all purely about love and acceptance. Sure, this sounds fine and dandy on the surface, but it also comes across a little…soft. Like a parent who always gives their kids what they want because it’ll make them happy.

    I think it is *ok* (and, personally, even admirable or obligatory or to an extent) to criticize if you are doing so because you think it is for the other person’s good, and if you are doing so constructively. Granted, I suppose this could sort of fall under “tough love”, which is love nonetheless.