Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How To Be Convicted Without It Being Meaningless

If you've been in church for a while, you may be familiar with people talking about being convicted about things. Rather than describing part a criminal proceeding, it refers to when someone has a deeply felt moral view, regarding a specific issue. Sometimes it comes with feelings of guilt leading to repentance. Other times, it is less a matter of guilt and more a strong, heart-felt sense that God has opened your eyes. Whatever the case, people talk about being convicted all the time after hearing certain sermons, reading certain books, having certain experiences etc. Last Sunday at my church, there was a sermon on the book of Amos so I can only imagine how many times the word "convicted" has been used int he last 24 hours by people I know.

Sometimes, people getting convicted is great. Sometimes, it leads to repentance of sin, spiritual growth, righteous deeds, and other very good things. Who knows what good fruit will arise from Sunday's Amos sermon?

And sometimes, people feeling that they are convicted is meaningless. Sometimes it is little more than guilt for the sake of guilt that doesn't lead to any fruit at all. In some cases, this so-called conviction, which is supposed to be from God, never could lead to any fruit in the first place - at least not fruit that resolves the underlying issue which the person was convicted about.

Meaningless "conviction" is often the kind of conviction that pertains to guilt about two kinds of circumstances. The first type pertains to things that a person has no power to change, and therefore cannot lead to any meaningful repentance. The second kind of meaningless conviction pertains to things that a person could change but won't, either because their "conviction" is really just misapplied sympathy, or because they are simply hypocrites (usually the former, I believer).

Getting Convicted About Things You Cannot Change

Your Race

There is still some racial injustice in America. It is naive to say that all else being equal, being born white does not give you some degree of an advantage in white majority countries (and the US is no exception). Of course it is also naive to say that things have not changed radically and for the better in the US in the last 60 years. But there is still unfairness and injustice. Some social justice warriors argue that because there are levels of systematic oppression of minorities in the US (though again, nothing like there was 60 years ago), therefore white people are all racist simply by virtue of being white because the system benefits them (e.g. DiAngelo, Yancy). The fact that these people and your progressive Facebook friends then can't seem to wrap their minds around why anyone would get offended at them making a negative judgment about a whole group of people based solely on their skin color (isn't there a word for when people do that?) is nothing short of remarkable. But some Christians inevitably buy into it.

Here's the thing, though: you can't change your race. 

Because you cannot change your race, if you buy into this line of reasoning and get convicted about how your very existence means you are guilty of contributing to systematic oppression, then your conviction is meaningless. If you being white makes you an oppressor, it then follows that since you cannot change your race, you cannot stop being an oppressor. You cannot repent. You cannot cease the evil you are doing.  So your conviction in meaningless.

Now, there are, of course, ways that being convicted about racial injustice can lead to meaningful conviction. When you understand the oppression of minority races, you can be convicted to do something about it. If you have treated people poorly because of their skin color, you can be convicted to stop doing that. And beyond that, you can be convicted to do good. You can do things to help those who are oppressed. You can do things to fight injustice. You can do things to help move society in a direction where race doesn't put anyone at a disadvantage. And if you are white, you probably can probably do these things all the more effectively to the extent your race does benefit you. All of these are good things that Christians should do because they are right. And meaningful conviction about the injustice others suffer will lead to good actions. It will not, however, come from feeling guilty about your skin color.

Your Gender

Much of what can be said about race can be said about gender. You cannot change your gender (I guess Bruce Springsteen will start boycotting my blog now, but it's true). If you are male, then you will always be male. Feeling convicted that you are guilty of oppressing women solely because you are a man is meaningless conviction because following that logic, you can never stop being an oppressor.

However, there can be meaningful conviction. You can do things to be a good man who acts justly. Being convicted that you should act differently, either by repenting of sin or simply doing more that is good, is meaningful conviction.

The Church Has Failed to...

Every true, saved believer in Jesus Christ is part of the collective church. But that does not mean any one of us is the church. And as such, we cannot change the church itself. You can reach out to your unbelieving neighbors. You give to the poor until the cows come home. You can decline to silence sex abuse victims either through guilt and shame (like Protestants do) or by threatening them with eternal damnation if they speak up (like Catholics do). But at the end of the day, you can't change what everyone else does - especially when so many professing Christians who make up the visible church are nothing more than the unsaved degenerates that the book of Jude talked about.

Your guilt about the church collectively failing in some regard is meaningless, because you yourself will never be able to change the problem you feel convicted about. T

That is not to say that convictions cannot be meaningful here. Perhaps one might be convicted that since the church is supposed to good, they have a duty to work to change things. After all, just because one person generally cannot change the world does not mean that one person is useless in getting others to act right as well. That is real fruit, and real meaningful conviction. And when many people have that conviction, things do change for the better. But even aside from the many ways Christians collectively have helped the world, feeling guilty because "the church" has let people down so much won't get you very far.

Getting Convicted About Things You Are Not Willing to Change

Being Wealthy (By World Standards)

Living in the United States, this one comes up all the time. If you live in the US, and you aren't homeless or starving, you might realize that you are wealthy by world standards. Although the world economy has changed radically for the better in recent decades, and far fewer people live in dire poverty than you might have been led to believe by guiltmongers, nevertheless America has an exceptional standard of living overall. And this may lead people to be convicted about their standard of living. 

This can play out in different ways. Sometimes, people can have a sense of conviction that leads to concrete action that corresponds to that conviction. Maybe after hearing God rail against those who cheat the poor, someone who was using dishonest business practices (even if they were legal) will stop their wrongdoing. For others, who already were generally dealing fairly with others, they might be convicted to spend less money on themselves and give more to the poor. Others might decide to consume less and spend more money on what they do consume to ensure that what they buy is fair trade or otherwise comes from sources they can trust will probably deal fairly with others down the production line. This is the good kind of conviction.

Where conviction becomes meaningless is where it leads to feeling bad about something you have no intention of changing. Some will feel guilty about being wealthy by world standards. They don't simply feel like they need to be more generous; they feel that they contribute to the oppression of the poor by virtue of being wealthy. In a heavily globalized economy, there is always the possibility that in the complex network of multinational corporations and foreign subsidiaries, one of the components of production in something you buy was the labor of a child slave or something like that. And so, they feel convicted that simply by being an American who is relatively wealthy that they are as guilty as the thieving merchants of Amos 8:5-6.

Here's the thing: if you are wealthy, you can change that. If being wealthy is sin, if being wealthy is bringing God's judgment upon yourself, then you totally can choose to completely change your life. You can give away your possessions. You can move to another country where people are poorer. Lots of foreign missionaries do those things anyway (though usually for different reasons). When Jesus told the rich young ruler in to sell his possessions and follow Him in Matthew 19:16-22, that wasn’t empty mockery or some attempt to show how it is impossible to live up to God’s standards; the ruler totally could have done it if he had been willing to. If you think Jesus expects from you what He asked of that rich young ruler, then you totally can live up to your conviction. Now, it won't be easy, and there may be reasons one would not want to. But if you have become convicted that it is somehow bad, somehow ungodly that you are in the life position you are in, then you can change your life position.

So why aren't you changing your life position? If you feel convicted that you should feel bad about your wealth and comfort (by world standards), why haven't you gotten rid of them? Do you think that making that life change right now would be the wrong thing for one reason or another? If so, then why are you convicted in the first place? If you think God doesn't want you to stop being wealthy, then why would He convict you that you need to feel bad about it? Your conviction is meaningless. If you really feel that you are being evil simply by being wealthy, then get rid of your wealth and change your life. Change your life or stop talking.

Or, perhaps it's just misapplied sympathy. We feel bad that other people suffer in the world. And that is perfectly healthy. It's also why you should be willing to make sacrifices to help them, and encourage others to follow your example. But maybe you also realize that it's not wrong to live in a house that keeps out the cold and heat, to have abundant food to eat, to able to utilize modern technology to keep in touch with family, and even do some leisure activities to recharge. And maybe realize that giving to charity helps but it isn't going to solve the greater, macroeconomic factors that make it so that working in a sweat shop is for many people the best option they have. And so you feel bad. And since as Christians we have a more acute awareness of the existence of sin in the world and in ourselves, maybe we are more inclined to blame ourselves instead of a messy and complex web of greed, politics, and circumstance.

What Then Should We Do?

If I could sum up what makes meaningful conviction, such as in the examples above, I would say the following:

If you feel convicted, ask what and how you feel convicted. Then, once you figure that out, if there is something you think you should do differently, go and do that. You might not even have a specific change in mind. Maybe all you know is you should be giving more to the poor. That's fine; you can figure that out as opportunity presents itself. Maybe at work you eat lunch out a lot and realize you could make lunch at home and give the money you've saved to the poor. Maybe your 401K can do with 1% or 2% of your income less so you can sponsor a child through World Vision or help some persecuted Christians by giving to groups like Open Doors. Or maybe you actually give quite generously but you have a useful skill and can spare some time to use it to help others. Maybe you can spend an occasional Saturday giving free teeth cleaning and checkups to people on skid row, or doing tax returns for the poor, or helping paint a church in the inner city. 

Do something with your conviction. Don't beat yourself up about something that you can't control or that you really don't think is actually wrong. God isn't a God of self-loathing. God is a God of action and righteousness. When your convictions match that, do accordingly. God loves you already because He is that good. Go and do things you know will please Him.

Works Cited

DiAngelo, Robin. "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People about Racism." Blog. The Good Men Project. 9 Apr 2015. Web. 20 Sep 2016. <https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/>

Yancy, George. "Dear White America." The New York Times. 24 Dec 2015. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/24/dear-white-america/?_r=0>

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