It was one of those extended arguments that we couldn’t let go of. We had only been married for a couple years and it seemed like every conversation we had over that particular three or four day stretch would result in one of us choosing sides against the other. One of us would see the bright side of the cloud, the other would point out the grey. One of us would want the window open, the other would walk past and close it. Yes, it got that ridiculous. The tension permeated everything. Though I no longer remember what we were really fighting about, I can still recall that sense of anger and disbelief and frustration and self-righteousness mingled together.
I also remember how it ended. We were standing in the kitchen. I can still see the clock over her shoulder. As our tension overflowed into yet another topic, Hennie looked at me – tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. “Enough. I love you more than my need to be right!”
And then there was silence. It was the good silence, like the calm after a storm, when you know the sun is just about to push through the last lingering grey cloud and you’re just waiting for that first robin or sparrow to announce “all clear” with it’s carefree chirp.
I’ve come back to Hennie’s words more than a few times in our marriage. They have become a staple part of my pre-marital counseling conversations and have found their way into a few of my sermons. “I love you more than my need to be right” has become one of the lenses through which I have come to more fully understand the good news of Jesus Christ. God’s right-ness was not a matter of winning an argument with us, but of God embodying his love for us. Essentially, God chose to love us more than he loved his need to be right. Or perhaps better stated, God refused to argue with us because he was right.
I’ve been thinking about Hennie’s words in the context of the verse from James above – “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” – and have wondered what difference it might make to those standing on the margins of the church. What if their experience of church was marked by people who listened well to them and each other, were careful and caring when speaking, and confined their anger to defending the biblical “widows, orphans, and immigrants” – something James says is central to God-honoring religion? How might those who now sit on the margins of the church respond? Would the people of God start to look and sound different to those who are far from Jesus Christ and his body? I suspect so.
It seems to me that Rachel Held Evans recent post “Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony” is after something similar. How do we change the tone of the conversation within the church so that instead of running around trying to prove how right we are – or worse, how wrong others are – we chose to engage each other in humility, recognizing first and foremost our personal hypocrisy, brokenness, and limited understanding? What if confession of our own sins rather than damning declarations of other people’s sins marked our personal conversations and our public proclamations? G. K. Chesterton’s famously short essay in response to the question “What’s wrong with the world?” was simply “I am.” There’s something to that type of humility. After pointing to the centrality of caring for widows and orphans, James adds “and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The faultless religion extends care to the vulnerable while guarding one’s own heart from the deceptive priorities and assumptions of the world around us. Too often, I fear that we – that I – spend more time and energy flipping that pattern around: I am more concerned about my own care and well being and am far too quick to assess and condemn the polluted condition of other people’s hearts, particularly those who are not like me.
If God really is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” as several of the biblical witnesses point to, then it seems to me that the humility and grace that Rachel Held Evan’s is calling for, that my wife’s decision to love me more than her need to be right, and that the character traits of being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” are all starting points for what it can look like to embody God’s love more faithfully than we – than I – have done so far.