Easy Answers and Loving My Neighbor

This week I watched a TED Talk [1]. The presenter, Dr. Brene Brown, recently finished research on the way some people are able to overcome shame and have deep relationships while others remain overwhelmed by it. According to her, the basic difference between these two groups is that the former believes themselves worthy of love, while the second isn’t convinced. It’s one of the more important lectures I’ve heard recently, especially for Christians.

This is very important for Christians. We claim Jesus liberates us from guilt and shame, but for many of us, it isn’t working. We intend to minister (a fancy word for love) to Christians, and to point pre-believers towards the freedom that God gives. If we want to be successful in these things, it is crucial that we understand the psychological mechanisms that make this liberation happen internally. If we want to be able to live out freedom from shame, we need to understand what goes on in the human head to accept this.

Importantly, what happens to make this freedom actually work is at odds with a great deal of Christian behavior. One of Dr. Brown’s core findings is that people must accept themselves as both flawed and worthy of love in spite of those flaws. Sounds like the Gospel preached from pulpits across America, doesn’t it? “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
This doesn’t mean we have to accept our flaws permanently, or ignore that they are flaws. It does mean we have to believe we are worth loving even though we have flaws.

However, in practice many (most?) conservative American Christians are uncomfortable talking about our flaws with each other. When someone in our small group talks about difficult situations in life, they often encounter unhelpful platitudes, or even a bit of scolding. For example, most people struggle with hatred towards a few people, or an addiction or two. If they bring this up with fellow Christians, they are likely to hear:
“Well dear, you just have to have faith.”
“Take it to the Lord.”
“I’ll pray for you.”
Or worse yet, a comment or two before changing the subject altogether!

Now, some of these things are true and good (like a promise to pray), but if that’s all that is offered, it isn’t very helpful. A tangible discomfort with your sister’s struggles delegitimates them, and basically communicates “that’s not OK, and you’ll get no help here! Christians aren’t supposed to have problems.” This is communicated in a dozen different ways by Christians, but it is a devastating thing to hear.

A better response is patient listening. Good listening skills are fairly easy to develop, especially since the standard for listening is so low, and it is one of the most useful tools in ministry. Most importantly, it communicates acceptance. If Dr. Brown’s research has shown anything, it is the basic need for acceptance in human relationships. That means acceptance is a basic need in ministry.

Some churches — no, wait — some Christians are actually pretty good at this. In fact, you can probably think of a person or seven who listened to you and made a big difference in your faith. It seems to me that this is something every Christian needs to be good at. Every Christian is called to love their neighbor; it is as fundamental as loving God. Listening, and therefore communicating a basic acceptance, is a good place to start.

[1] TED Talks are presentations made at TED conferences. They are, basically, a collection of brilliant people in the fields of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. However, in practice, many presentations come from more varied fields, such as disease research, etc. Back to Article

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  1. One of the best things I learned from Zizek was that love (Agape love) loves the other person even in his/her flaws. Idealized love is a fake. So I agree with you that we need to have space where we can be as open about these things as possible.

  2. I have been considering these sorts of questions lately as well.

    I agree with you that we do not handle sin well. We either dismiss it with a quick “I’ll pray for you” or “Here’s a Bible verse,” or we judge and essentially excommunicate the individual. We ostracize them simply by our judgmental attitudes.

    I have seen Christians veer to the other side of this, though. They accept the individuals, but also accept the sin. These Christians (I’ve been guilty of this) love the person so much, that their desire to not hurt them overrides their desire to help them rid themselves of sin. We rarely are called out for our sin, and when we are, we feel as though we, as people, are being called out and hated.

    It’s a problem, but we have lost the ability to approach someone concerning their sin without appearing as though we would just as soon damn them.

    • Stephen Hale
    • April 13th, 2011

    Maybe we’re talking about two different things, James, but I get nervous when I hear people say what you did in paragraph 2: “they accept individuals, but also accept the sin.”

    When people say that, they can never be totally at ease accepting the individual, always nervous to make sure they don’t fall into the error you outline.

    It seems to me that most people know what they are doing is a sin; that’s why they probably brought it up in the first place. If someone knows they have done something wrong, and come looking for help from their openly Christian friends, and their Christian friend feels pressure to make sure they don’t fall into the error you mentioned, they’re going to point out to the sinner that they’ve sinned. Even if they try and point this out, it’s pretty tough to do this without looking like an idiot, and being a jerk. (This is related to what my post on P. Diddy was about, btw).

    People usually know they’ve done wrong, and are looking for help. In practice, it’s pretty tough to do anything other than just help them get through it without being a jerk.

    Most Christians are so embarrassed and humiliated to confess their sins anyway, that it takes a real bastard to remind them they’ve sinned.

    Imagine yourself confessing a pornography problem to a fellow Christian. You’re ashamed of it, but in your head you know some 65% of PASTORS struggle with this, so you’ve hardly got anything to be (particularly) ashamed of. It’s just a problem that needs it’s ass kicked, but you’re ashamed anyway, like we all are. And your confessor says “James, you need to stop this.” And you think “really? I need to stop? Thanks. Thanks a lot.” See what I mean? It’s pretty ridiculous in practice.

    Yeah…in general, I think we’re far too eager to call sin “sin.” Sure, there are some Christians who don’t have this problem, but….well, then we have a theoretical problem, not one of practice.

    My .02.

    -Stephen

  1. February 2nd, 2012

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