We live in times of polarization and fragmentation. In many places, the ties that have historically bound societies together are coming apart.
Our own society has been brewing a strong and growing distrust of everything under the sun. We don’t trust many of our elected leaders and government officials. We don’t have high confidence in our medical and health authorities. We have doubts about the agendas and intentions of large corporations. Our suspicions about media and news outlets have reached new heights. We have been let down by our educational systems at nearly every level. And the church has not been immune to our cynicism. We have even approached the bride of Christ with wariness and uncertainty.
All this fear is exacerbated, of course, by the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle. Social media, in particular, amplifies our distrust and rewards our outrage. As a result, many of us are less happy, less trusting, and more angry than ever. Division and angst have become like oxygen. Over time, it can feel like any remnant of hope might be slowly eroding, like a sandcastle at high tide.
Painful Polarity in the Pews
As I said, the church has not been immune to the polarization. Congregations have had to navigate higher levels of conflict, controversy, and contentiousness. The pain of divisions in our pews is disheartening. Here we are, the blood-bought people of God, united by Christ, but divided over so much else. This state of affairs has some of us wishing we were still arguing over whether to sing contemporary worship songs or what color carpet to lay in the sanctuary.
As a pastor of a church, a church I love to pastor, I would personally be glad to never have to talk about COVID, vaccines, social distancing, and the efficacy of masks ever again. While it was a privilege to shepherd our people through a pandemic compounded by political and social turmoil, it was also punishing at times. I’ve now added “global-health crisis,” “mass protests and riots,” and “the threat of nuclear war” to my list of “things I never learned in seminary.”
It’s good to be reminded that polarization in the church is not new. In fact, it’s a problem as old as the church. Already in Acts 6, the Greek-speaking Jews complained that their widows were being neglected (Acts 6:1). Paul admonishes another church for its divisions, quarreling, jealousy, and strife (1 Corinthians 1:10–11; 3:4). They found superiority in their allegiances to either Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, forgetting that Christ is all in all.
Again and again, through Scripture and church history, when sinful people consistently gather, they consistently sin against one another and eventually turn on one another.
Paradox of Christ
The writer of Hebrews tells us to cast off our sin that clings so closely, and instead look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1–2). By looking to Jesus — and his paradoxical qualities — we find help to navigate our polarized age.
“Jesus doesn’t fit into any of our neat and tidy categories or tribes.”
Jesus doesn’t fit into any of our neat and tidy categories or tribes. He is pro-justice, pro-mercy, and pro-life. Jesus is gentle and lowly in heart, and he also will return to make war against his enemies. He is the meekest man that ever walked on earth, yet he will strike down the rebellious nations and tread the winepress of God’s wrath (Revelation 19:11–15). He will save to the uttermost with unparalleled grace and mercy, and he will rule with a rod of iron.
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) draws out Jesus’s unique and paradoxical qualities in a famous sermon: “The Excellency of Christ.” Jesus is both lion and lamb. He possesses lionlike qualities: ferocious, powerful, regal, and appropriately terrifying. He is full of power, glory, and dominion. A lamb is quite the opposite: gentle, vulnerable, an animal of prey. How can Jesus be both? How is he both judge of all creation and a friend of sinners? How is he both priest and atoning sacrifice? How is he both strong and gentle, worthy and lowly, infinitely holy yet merciful toward his enemies?
This is the wonderful paradox of Jesus. He holds together seemingly opposite excellencies in one God-man.
His Excellencies Undo Us
Typically, we gravitate to the ways Jesus is more like us; we align with those excellencies more natural to our personality and wiring. Who he is, however, admonishes us all to not be one-sided or one-dimensional. Jesus’s example and teaching cuts both ways, admonishing us and encouraging each of us to be more Christlike than we are.
For example, tender believers may be quick to revel in the compassion of Christ: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). They may resonate deeply with Jesus’s weeping outside Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35). Meanwhile, zealous-for-truth believers might admire his woes to the Pharisees. They may resonate more with Jesus’s rebuke of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).
Those of us who are naturally inclined toward compassion and sympathy need to learn from his courageous conviction. We need to beware of minimizing the whole counsel of God to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or drawing harsh criticism. We will want to unashamedly portray the truth of Christ accurately — all of it — even as we comfort and care for hurting people. And we might be slow to condemn those contending for truth in the public square who don’t do it exactly the way we would. The gospel will necessarily offend some, and standing for truth in a world set against the truth will require courage and boldness, and may even appear quarrelsome in some eyes.
The same is true for those who speak the truth more freely. Some of us are quite gifted at saying the hard thing, but need to grow in doing so with love. If we can speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, we are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1). We will pray for greater compassion and sympathy, being quick to listen and weep with those who weep. Proverbs reminds us, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Do our words, and the hearts behind those words, consistently reflect the priorities of Christ? We want to become the kind of paradox that we treasure and follow in Jesus.
As you study him, watch where you lean and where you lean away, and then deliberately lean into the diverse excellencies of Christ. Find courage in his example. Where you are prone to wander, work to realign yourself more and more to our North Star.
Truly Great Excellencies
Excellencies is an old-fashioned word meant to ascribe extreme value to someone or something. Royalty would be addressed as “your Excellency.” For Jesus, however, it’s not just a title, but a true and accurate description of all that he is. He excels in his love and grace, in his compassion and justice, in his rule and reign.
“Jesus has no blind spots, weaknesses, or deficiencies. He is all glorious in his diverse excellencies.”
Short of glory, we’re all in process. We’re finite. We’re sinners being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Our instincts are being honed by God’s word and the power of his Spirit. And as he conforms us to himself, our glorious Savior — the Lion and the Lamb — lacks nothing. In every circumstance, our paradoxical Savior speaks the perfect word. He never lacks compassion, and he never shrinks back from a rebuke. He has no blind spots, weaknesses, or deficiencies. He is all glorious in his diverse excellencies.
Therefore, strive to think, feel, speak, and do more as Christ would in this polarized world, and delight yourself in daily receiving his all-surpassing glory and goodness.