The False Comfort of Simple Absolutes

*Note: This reflection is from today’s With God Daily devotional. Throughout July we are looking at the book of Acts. If you are not a subscriber, I encourage you to sign up. WGD is only $1.99/month and delivers a reflection, Scripture readings, and historic prayers directly to your smartphone every morning. You will also get access to over 700 devotionals in the archives.

When Paul finally arrived back in Jerusalem, the leaders of the church there warned him that his reputation had preceded him. They told Paul that thousands of Jews in the city had come to believe is Jesus Christ, but they remained very patriotic—zealous for Jewish tradition, committed to the temple as a symbol of Jewish identity, and they held tightly to the dream of Jewish nationalism of someday overcoming Roman rule. They wanted to make Israel great again.

These new, still immature Jewish Christians had been hearing rumors about Paul’s ministry in distant lands, and they’d come to the conclusion that he was a traitor to the Jewish cause. They thought he was teaching Jews to abandon their traditions and to assimilate among the Gentiles. This was, however, entirely untrue. Paul was preaching that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised or adhere to Jewish traditions in order to follow Christ, but that is very different from telling Jews to abandon their customs—which Paul never did.

Paul’s messages about the Old Testament law, the temple, and Jewish tradition were nuanced and complicated. Zealous people do not tolerate nuance. They demand simple, soundbite declarations of loyalty. You are either with them or against them; they see the world in absolutely categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Paul resisted this oversimplification and paid the price for his thoughtfulness.

The people of Jerusalem rioted when he arrived at the temple to show he was not, in fact, against Jewish law or tradition. It didn’t matter. The mob had already made up their minds about Paul, and they caused such an uproar in their attempt to kill him that the Roman soldiers had to intervene.

Life is messy, our world is complicated, and the mysteries of God cannot be reduced to slogans. However, when people feel afraid and oppressed, as the Jews did under Roman occupation, these realities are quickly abandoned for the false comforts of simple absolutes. We see the same tendency today. I am often asked by zealous Christians who feel marginalized: “Are you for Trump or Hillary?” “Are you for religious liberty or LGBT rights?” “Do you support Black Lives Matter or the police?” If I try to respond with nuance, or reframe the issue to acknowledge its complications, the inquisitor is quickly frustrated. It’s also why I rarely engage such questions on social media.

We’ve been conditioned to think God’s view on every matter should require no more than 140 characters to communicate, or even better—a single emoji. Those of us who refuse the false comforts of simple absolutes, like Paul, are branded as sellouts, wishy-washy, or the most insulting label today—elites. We now celebrate unthoughtful and unnuanced opinions as the hallmarks of a strong faith when they are, in truth, clear signs of immaturity and spiritual retardation.

How are you tempted to oversimplify the application of your faith?

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