Judgement and Nonlinearity in the Kingdom of God

I’d like to talk about non-linearity, but I’m going to start with some life context: I’ve been struggling with judgement, and the toxic effects it can have on us. All in good time, my dear sister Rebekah shares the following poem on her Facebook:

A thoughtful litany I have just come across for those of you remembering the season of Lent...

Fast from judging others; Feast on Christ dwelling in them.
Fast from apparent darkness; Feast on the reality of Light.
Fast from pessimism; Feast on optimism.
Fast from thoughts of illness; Feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute; Feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from anger; Feast on patience.
Fast from worry; Feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from complaining; Feast on appreciation.
Fast from hostility; Feast on non-resistance.
Fast from bitterness; Feast on forgiveness.
Fast from anxiety; Feast on hope.
Fast from yourself; Feast on a silent heart.

Just what the Great Physician ordered, right?  This poem strikes me as being both incredibly wise, and incredibly challenging, for someone like me.

But why am I struggling with judgement? Those who know me can probably fill in the blanks, but for those who don’t, here’s a short synopsis: A year and a half ago I had my eyes opened to the disparity in the world between rich and poor, and learned statistics such as: Every 50 fifty days, 1 million children die due to preventable causes, such as lack of clean water, etc.  A second statistic I learned was that people had done the math on how many dollars on average it takes to prevent one of these deaths, and their best estimates are in the range of $2500-$5000. A third statistic was that almost half of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day. This set off a cascade of emotion, questions, and change in my life. Questions such as: Why have I, and so many other Christians, been living such apparently self centered lives? How can we hold up “do unto others as you’d have them do unto yourself” as part of Jesus’ most significant commandment and yet also uphold such incredible injustice?

When I looked at my own life, the most painful examples of self centeredness were expensive vacations, eating at restaurants, the price of our home, summer homes, etc.  The emotional pain I felt from having my eyes opened to the suffering of others was strong enough to push me away from those things, even though I am extremely fond of travel, had a McDonalds addiction, and some of my favorite memories as a child were at cottages.

But as I changed, the world around me didn’t. Now I was a foreigner in my own land, within my own church, even within my own family to a degree. I might go to a church meeting one night and hear a lady gush about heading down to Jamaica.  Or some family might order $70 of Chinese food.  Or friends might be contemplating selling their $350,000 home and upgrading to a $500,000 home.  Or a congregation might be considering spending $400,000 on prettying up their sanctuary. In each of these instances, I felt pangs of discomfort, and sometimes, if I’m going to be honest, more than simple discomfort.

As I’ve struggled with these feelings of judgement, one helpful reminder has been to avoid judging people’s intentions and character.  And that has been pretty easy, at least on the surface level.  There are many different ways we can let people’s intentions off the hook. For starters, I myself was subject to a certain blindness only a year ago. Was it my intentions that were bad?  Somewhat, but it was more a matter of ignorance.  Why be angry at blind people for their lack of sight?

What has been harder is not to judge behavior.  Even if I give someone’s intentions the benefit of the doubt, I’m still left with constantly observing behaviours that seem incredibly unjust.  And let’s face it, keeping our judgement of people’s behavior from affecting our judgement of their intentions is a bit of a tricky game.

I’m not sure how to navigate out of this rut.  As I take a step back and think about the next several decades of my life, how am I going to survive being this judgemental alien, constantly bombarded by friends and family making what appear to be extremely selfish life choices?  Isn’t that going to corod my soul and rob me of feelings of love and joy?

I’ll conclude this part with John 3:17, which comes right after the much loved verse before it. John 3:17 reads: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

I’m going to move on from talking about judgement and shift to talking about nonlinearity.  Many of these ideas are “counterpoints” to the way I naturally think about the world. Reading these paragraphs, you might think these are strange things for a person like me to write, because they clash with my typical perspectives.  And for that very reason, I hold many of these ideas with a certain suspicion.  For a person like me, adding some of these thoughts to my diet is probably like taking a vitamin and will probably enhance my overall health and effectiveness, but contained within these ideas are the things that many people in the world probably cling to in unhealthy ways to let themselves off the hook. Anyway, that’s my disclaimer...

Linearity Vs Nonlinearity: Most of my judgements are made from a perspective of linearity: That 1+1 = 2, that a dollar not spent on a luxurious vacation is a dollar that can save a child’s life, etc. We know the world doesn’t always work in our simple minded ways. One of nature’s good examples of nonlinearity is the growth of a tree: In the first two years of a tree’s life, it might put on 2 pounds of weight per year, while over the course of 70 years it might average 300 pounds per year.  That’s exponential growth.

One of the most striking examples of nonlinearity in the Bible is the feeding of the 5000. Here’s an excerpt:

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Among other things, this parable challenges our mentality of scarcity.  How many people had to suffer in order for this group to eat their fill?  None.  There was enough for everyone, with food to spare. These themes of abundance should naturally come to mind as we wrestle with apparent scarcity, and try to come to terms with how we should live and understand the world.

One perspective on this I have held is that abundance in unlocked when we open to God’s leading, and when we follow up our hearing with obeying. A couple of months ago, I wrote: “If we are willing to be open and obedient, then we will find that there is not only enough, but more than we could ever imagine. Conversely, if we live by our flesh, we will constantly be depressed about our need for more. Our openness and obedience to God is enough. God will do the rest.”  The vision is that we live on a planet that is actually an oasis of abundance, but that our selfishness can and does transform it into a place of scarcity. The theory is that if were willing to exchange our selfish ways for God’s ways, it would cause the earth, and our communities, to blossom with unimaginable abundance.

That rings true to me. Is that the end of the story?  Sometimes I’ve joked that I have the “disability of a math degree”.  A common intuition is to see the world as a zero sum game: If you eat that apple, there’s one less apple in the world for me to eat.  But there are many examples in the world where things don’t add up the way you might think.  Let’s use the concept of “sabbath” as an example: Doesn’t it seem wasteful that God would tell us to take one day a week and rest?  That’s a fifteen percent productivity loss.  Imagine all of the lives that could be saved if we worked on Sunday and took our extra earnings and used them to bless the critically poor in the world, right?  Well, not so fast.  You might have more money in your bank after the first week, but over the long haul, we’d realize that adequate rest was actually a really good investment, and without it, our health and productivity would decline, and we’d have exactly the reverse outcome we were hoping for.

Someone might make the same claim about renovating a church sanctuary: That in the short term, there is indeed an opportunity cost in terms of saving lives, but in the long term, the picture is much less clear. We might take any apparent luxury in someone’s life, and assume that liquidating the asset and directing the money to save lives would be best. And in the short term, that’s probably true, but in the long term, again, it’s less clear. What might (?) shock me is to know how many apparently virtuous tradeoffs are actually damaging in the long term.

An interesting image comes to mind when contemplating this: Sensing that God wants to bless you with a certain non-essential thing in your life, even though it would seem wiser to use the money for other things. One might wrestle with God and ask “Why do you want to give this to me, God? Shouldn’t the money be used to help people who are suffering”?  And yet, you might continue to feel God’s insistence that you have the non-essential thing.  From there, the image that comes to mind is being taken into the future by God and placed on a ridge overlooking a city to show the outcome would you accept the gift.  Upon seeing the city, your eyes are immediately drawn to the examples of suffering you can plainly see, and so you say to God, “Clearly you have shown me what I suspected all along: If I accept the gift, people will suffer”. Then God takes you to an alternate future, where you had rejected God’s non-essential gift.  He stands you on the same ridge, overlooking the same city.  To your shock, the city is even worse off, and more people are suffering.  Confused, you search for answers, and amidst your confusion, God places you back in the present.

In this story, the nonlinear nature of reality is highlighted: That our simple minded predictions about what is optimal are sometimes flawed, and can lead us astray.

Another nuance to how the world works that comes to mind in all of this is that selfish uses of money do still transfer wealth to those who need it. Take for example the vacation to Jamaica: You’re passing on your dollars to people on an island that can make good use of them. Yes, there is a very significant cost in that transfer: You’re typing up valuable human resources and building materials that could have been used in other ways on the island, but the point is that “all is not lost”. This is by no means a suggestion that lavish vacations are what I’d consider a “good” and just way to invest in communities -- hopefully you get my point. Perhaps what I’m trying to say here, in reverse, is that one might think that diverting money away from luxuries and towards critical need is a 100% win, but it’s not.  Now there’s a family in Jamaica that’s going to have a harder time paying their bills.  In the grand scheme of things, this is probably a minor point, and it makes me uncomfortable how often people might use this line of thinking to justify selfishness.

Another connection that is interesting to make is that between perfectionism and linear thinking. I’m a person that comes by perfectionism quite naturally.  I had what I’d call a minor disorder when I was about 12 whereby I would be unhappy with anything but perfectly written notes at school. I’d put exuberant amounts of energy into my cursive writing so that the pages looked great when I was done. And yet, I know that my behavior was sub-optimal. What good were perfectly written notes, really?  Is there an analogy here to linear thinking about ways to improve the world?  A person like me might cringe at going to a restaurant for supper in a similar way that I’d cringle at taking sloppy notes: There is a deep imperfection at play in the short term. In the case of the written notes, it’s unlikely that imperfect cursive writing would affect my grade on the final exam. The question then, is whether a spirit of perfectionism about avoiding restaurant food falls into the same category. (or any other behavior that involves stewardship of money, for that matter)

Moving on, consider the injustice of living in a world where so much wealth is concentrated in the bank accounts of billionaires.  The 1%.  While I’m like everyone else in crying foul, and for good reason I think, even here we find counterpoints to intuitive understandings of economics.  What seems most outrageous about billionaires is that one might imagine ridiculous, luxurious lifestyles.  Dropping millions here, wasted.  Dropping millions there, wasted.  And while some of that does go on, a person with 10 billion dollars has almost all of it invested with the aim of growing it as much as possible.  Where is the money invested?  In the very businesses that employ people so that they can care for their families.  The question then, is whether the common person would know how to invest that money better than a talented business person.  My guess as to the answer there, is that, in some cases absolutely yes, and in some cases actually not.  My point isn’t to say that I support incredibly unequal wealth distribution (and definitely not to say that I support wealthy people using the money selfishly), but is rather to again highlight how even highly imperfect systems have aspects to them which mitigate their apparent brokenness.

One of the themes that emerges for me is that good and bad are often tangled up together, and separating the two is not a trivial task. Matthew 13:24-30 is a great passage that highlights this:

Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. 26 But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!’ The slaves *said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ But he *said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

This is a fascinating parable, and I probably don’t understand it very well, but it seems like there are some profound connections between what Jesus is saying here and some of the things I’m talking about.

I’ll change gears here and consider how we understand God.  For many Christians, our view of God comes mostly from the Bible, somewhat from our culture, and somewhat from our own experience and reasoning. (and of course, some people will argue it’s profoundly cultural, but let’s not get hung up there)  We are always tempted, I think, to put God in a box, and we do that in a variety of ways.  A danger for me is to say, “If $2500 can mean life or death for someone else, and if we’re supposed to treat others as self, then spending $2500 on something luxurious doesn’t add up with God’s will”.  Wait a minute, did I just summarize God’s will with 1 sentence? That was a neat party trick, wasn’t it.  Albert Einstein famously said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.  And so we obviously need to be incredibly careful when we try to make statements like this not to fool ourselves into stuffing God back into yet another box.

This is tricky stuff to navigate, because there is an apparent conflict of interests here: Don’t people love to just say “oh well, the world is complicated” to sooth any guilt they may have, and continue living self centered lives?  Yup.

Where I am at, I think, is this: To suggest that, yes, the world is in fact simple in many ways, and that we love to pretend it’s complicated so that we release ourselves from our responsibility to do what is obviously good and right. And at the same time, the world is terribly complex, with many things seen and unseen, such that in some (and perhaps many) cases, what one might intuitively think best is not best.  That is helpful, because it not only encourages me to continue doing my best to do what appears to be right (because in many cases, the world is simple, and my intuitions are probably right), but also injects a dose of grace and humility, knowing that there are probably a good set of things that cause me disgust which are actually not nearly as bad as I think, and in some cases, are actually much better approaches than I would take, even if they appear to be unjust.