Recently, I’ve been re-reading the book of Job. I’ve read it before–that’s what happens when you attend Christians schools, church, and Sunday school for several decades–but I hadn’t picked it apart and thoroughly examined it. So now, instead of skimming through the rather tedious speeches of Job’s self-righteous friends, I’m stopping, pondering, and making connections between Job’s assertions and his friends’ arguments. And something struck me that I hadn’t taken note of before:
The friends’ theology is correct. Mostly. They recite some creeds and share ideas that, taken out of context, are beautiful. Uplifting, even. True. (For example, in chapter 20, Zophar speaks of the wicked’s future punishment and how they will pay for what they have done wrong; in the light of eternity and future justice from God, yes, that is true.)
Yet at the end of the book, God commands Job to make sacrifices for these three men’s sins. To the eldest man, he says, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7) Not sacrifices for Job, who argued with God, or his wife, who angrily told him to curse God and die. But the ones with the good theology . . . and the wrong application.
Here’s what stood out to me:
We can get our theology completely right but miss the most important thing: relationships. A relationship with God, yes, but also relationships with other people. The friends speak callously. They apply their good theology in the most unloving, uncompassionate ways to Job’s situation. They’d sat with him for seven days in silence; one wonders why they couldn’t have continued to stay silent and listen lovingly while Job grieved and argued with God. Here’s my theory:
Because humans like to correct other people.
We love being right and we think we’re always right.
It’s not only our theology. Our ideas, our political alignments, our opinions on anything and everything from national security to proper push-up form to the stuffing versus dressing debate each Thanksgiving. Other people must agree with us!
All of our arguments can be completely correct: convincing, eloquent, and designed to drag, kick, slam, or carry the enemy to our side. Or at least whack them upside the head for standing on the wrong side. For being the enemy. Our enemy.
Once we view the other person as an enemy, we forget that they are human, like us.
In the past few months, I’ve tried to develop my reasoning and logic skills. I read a book by the late Robert Gula titled Nonsense. After several chapters on various types of nonsense (and why they are nonsensical), he writes about how to argue well. One of his final points was this: the other person is human. Treat them as such.
I realized that I often forget that. I forget that all people are made in God’s image, not only the ones I find sympathetic. While that image is a broken and shattered one, warped and distorted by evil, it is still there because God made that person.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the person is guiltless of wrongdoing and shouldn’t be brought to justice, whatever form that needs to be. It doesn’t mean that we can’t judge another’s actions as wrong. It doesn’t mean that we can’t stand with the victims or fight unjust systems wherever they are found. We can and should.
It does mean that we don’t treat that guilty person with contempt or scorn. Granted, this is very difficult to do. It’s much easier to ridicule and stereotype people we disagree with. To turn them into caricatures. To treat them as an enemy. To see them as less human than I am. I do it far too often.
This summer, I read lots of great novels and one horrible one. It will remain nameless, as there were multiple problems with the story. One of the worst was this: the villain was two-dimensional. He was your standard, run-of-the-mill serial killer. A stereotype. The kind of creep who’s easy to hate and view as inhuman.
We never got a deep view into his perspective, nor did we get a good explanation for his actions. It was all stereotypical explanations: he’s got this weird physical disfigurement (hypertrichosis, aka, werewolf syndrome), a bad childhood, a low IQ, and an evil (but wealthy) family. That didn’t explain his motivation. Not for this reader, anyway.
It was the easy way to create a villain: rely on stereotypes and the readers’ presumed preconceived ideas of how the “bad guys” act and why.
Even as I write about the book, I’m rolling my eyes. Why, oh, why, I think, did a bestselling author resort to this? C’mon, couldn’t she have dug deeper into her antagonist’s internal state and seen him as something more than an object of ridicule and scorn?
Yet isn’t that what I often do when I interact with others?
I see only the wrong-headed views or the external appearance or their words. I read their arguments and think how laughable they are. Sometimes the arguments are truly laughable.
It would be far better to ask deeper questions.
- Why does that person hold that view?
- What informed their position? Who are they listening to?
- What life experiences have they had that made them think this way?
- How can I disagree with them while still treating that person with respect, dignity, and kindness?
- Even as I disagree, take a stand, or fight for justice, how can I respond to those in disagreement without contempt?
- In this disagreement, how can I hold in tension these two principles: loving others who are wrong and upholding goodness?
- How can I see this person as God sees them?
Deeper questions. Challenging questions. Ones that sometimes I hesitate to ask from fear of what might happen. But maybe that’s exactly why I need to ask them: something good may happen. Like Job, we never know exactly what God’s doing or why or how or who or when. But he is.