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The Devil’s Advocate – The perils of living by exception

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In my late twenties I led a bible study group for a few years.  It was a beautiful collection of God’s people, meeting together each week in fellowship and community. Every member bringing their unique gifts, creating a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.  Some came with wisdom and discernment, others offered mercy and hospitality. Each gift of the Holy Spirit finding its place.  Except for me.

It just was simply all too cheery and smooth.  Realizing this, I quickly learned to assume the role of devil’s advocate.  Yes, that delightful soul who finds pleasure in pointing out the contrarian point of view.  I never found it in the Corinthian list of spiritual gifts, but I knew it was there, hidden between the lines.

It was a natural fit.  Like a well worn pair of Carhartts, I found the position comfortable and played it with ease.  Whenever someone suggested a new thought or viewpoint, I supplied the opposing argument.  Whether or not I actually believed it was irrelevant.  Often, upon further reflection I would even realize I agreed with the person.  Of course, this understanding came after the conversation had long since ended and the opportunity to acquiesce gone as well. Most people simply assumed I was ornery.  This was true, but not for the sake of being difficult or obstinate.  It was the way my mind worked.  Had I attempted any other intellectual route I am firmly convinced my mind would have welded shut, like a seized engine run dry of oil.

I imagine it’s genetic.  My family, bless their hearts, is similar, if to a lesser degree.  The instant a story, idea, even a thought leaves your mouth it is thrown to the lions.  Every possible blemish or crack in your logic is quickly discovered and politely pointed out.

I still recall coming home from school, telling my dad how excited I was about an upcoming climb, only to hear him frown and think of the 1% chance that something would go wrong. Regardless of the fact the chance of disaster was actually much higher, I still found this terribly annoying.  Within a few years I realized I did the very same thing.  Ironic how much more acceptable character flaws become when you carry them yourself.

There are innumerable negatives to viewing life this way, but it does bring a few benefits.  Ideas that persevere through the gauntlet are often very good.  Tested and tempered by fire, they come with an intrinsic reliability uncommon in Christian circles.  And because of this, people seek wisdom from those who look at life through this lens.

Theologically, the process is straightforward.  Someone brings up a point, often meant as an encouraging word or uplifting proverb.  Something like Don’t worry Jimmy, remember how God promised us in Matthew that he will clothe us with more grandeur than a lily? Interesting example.  Maybe I’m just a gardener at heart, but I’d take a lily over most of, eh, human nakedness.

Truly though, I’ve had people mention such lines to me with utter seriousness. And making matters worse, they’re often very sweet, likable people who will some day sit at the Lord’s table while I am sent to clean the gilded toilets.  Hey Jesus, have you seen the Comet around here? Ah, but at least I’ll be right.

Return to the example of the lilies.  Without losing a moments hesitation I fired back at the unsuspecting believer.  Have you considered the Christians in Siberian prisons, who perished from exposure and lack of proper clothing?  Surely somewhere in the world a Christian dies every day from a lack of clothing. Would you offer this verse as a comfort to them?

The more sensitive types recognize a theological bully and lose interest in the conversation.  More vigorous foes return the volley, claiming that there must be exceptions allowed. I reload.  Oh, and what good, my friend, is a promise with many exceptions? Shall we draw upon the great hope of a mere strong statistical possibility?

By this point internal doubts begin to arise, I start to question what I even believe.  It is one thing to tear down ridiculous arguments and replace them with sound biblical doctrine. It is quite another, and far more precarious, to slash and burn without offering a replacement.  Maybe this poor soul was better off in their delusion, I wondered.

Eventually this same contrarian approach filtered into every aspect of theology.  Every conversation, every piece of scripture, every good and holy gift fell under the guillotine of exception. Reading the bible became exciting again, but for reasons even God would disapprove.  I read to prove it wrong.

Proverbs provided the easiest fodder.  Promises of a bountiful harvest I quickly matched with a great famine in Ethiopia.  Surely Christians could be found among the dead and dying?  I dug deeper.  Pledges of wealth and prosperity arrived next.  I reminded God of Christians in China, faithful souls who lost everything in spite of, and even because of their belief.

Living by exceptions was not limited to the merely theoretical.  I began to find its influence among the most basic decisions of practical life. Where to buy a house, picking a career, even something as benign as morning devotionals lost their joy.  I knew at some point the 6:00am ritual would lose it’s inspiration and I would fall back into old patterns.  Why bother.  Better to forgo the entire exercise rather than suffer the pangs of certain failure.

The more I looked, the more I found evidence of its long and bitter fingers. With each cynical example, each caustic win of an argument, faith lost a ray of its luminous shine. One by one, the lights flickered and went black, leaving enough glow to see my own shadow, but little more.

For a moment I remained still, warmed by the satisfaction of a well won argument.  But the victory was fleeting.  The walls of pure logic and reason quickly grew cold and depressing.  In the quest to find absolute truth I had run aground on the fetid shores of atheism.

The answer rested in a definition.  Hope, I found, was the opposite of living by exception.  The devil’s advocate pleaded for me to assume the worst, while hope asked me to anticipate the best. This was a new and foreign land, a vantage point quite unfamiliar to me.  Believing He had the ability to love me was easy, but Hope asked for something very different. It asked me to believe that He would.

The moment the thought entered my mind, I quickly sensed Logic and Reason whispering their counter evidence.  Remember all those prayers you’ve heard, and how few were answered?  What good is it to hope, when you’ve seen it fail so many times?  What a fool you will appear when your ridiculous hope crashes to the ground.  It is better to just reconcile yourself to cold reality. The devil’s tirade continued, my mind an easy customer for his wares.

But this can’t be how it is.  Even if the devil was right and hope is dead, could I live in a world without desire, without aspiration?  Could I bear the silenced heart, rebuked for it’s childish expectation?  No.  I’ve met this person.  It is not a life worth living. It isn’t even life.

I looked for a righteous hope, an example of pure Christian longing.  The counterfeits were much easier to find.  The glittering poison of prosperity doctrine.  The beautifully disguised idol of health.  These, I was told, were what I ought hope for.  I searched the bible and found, if anything, these were the very things I would likely have to go without.

All was not lost.  Perfect hope did exist.  I found it among the calm and resolute.  Those faithful souls who look to the goodness of God, yet love Him no less when the reality doesn’t meet their expectation.  Who persevered not because they wanted something from God, but because they trusted Him in the first place.  A perfect optimism, balanced upon a single, simple belief.  God is good.

Amazingly this was a revelation to me.  Perhaps the most basic tenant of faith I had walked right by.  Yes, I heard the phrase before.  I’d even tossed it about with flippant ease.  But it’s simplicity belied a difficult truth.  The God who ruled the universe also loved me.  Even today it is difficult to write.  At some basic and visceral level I had just never accepted His absolute goodness.

And there it lay.  Hidden beneath the years of cynicism, under the bitter comfort of exception.  The terrible root, the single lie Satan casts before us, knowing if we believe just this one, his work is complete.

Removing it was not easy.  To this day, the work remains unfinished.  But the lines are now clear, the definitions brought into the light.  I must return to Faith often.  To remind myself of God, His character, His love.  And soon I see Hope, unbound and free, assuming it’s rightful place in my soul.

Comments

Comment from Elizabeth K
Time January 6, 2009 at 11:40 pm

This is wonderful… again, provoking emotion in the reader.

G.K. Chesterton has a good argument against pure logic, explaining how it leads to insanity and that it’s actually the poets that remain truly grounded…. and my favorite “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.”

But I trust that you have not completely abandoned your character that challenges people, since that is important too.

Spiritual riches are so much greater than earthly health and wealth, but the confusing thing, at least to me, is that earth matters to God too. Another quote this time by C.S. Lewis: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you get neither.”

It is impossible to know God nor His earthly care (or honor of persecution) apart from faith and specifically hope. Is this at least in part what you’re saying?

James, I’m beginning to see a theme in your writings. That the Christian life is not a mediocre one, nor a complacent or static one but is always searching and growing… and more rare than what might be generally seen in the Christian world today. Thank you for sharing these imperative truths in such a personal way.

Comment from jrmallory
Time January 7, 2009 at 12:05 am

Elizabeth,

Crazy timing! I just read that same line by C.S Lewis no more than an hour ago! I found it in The Joyful Christian.

I love Chesterton for his wisdom on this subject. Ironic too that he so valued the mysterious and unexplainable, even though he had such a powerful and logical mind.

To answer your questions, yes, I think a big part of my relationship with God was missing because of my misunderstanding of hope.

Thanks!

Comment from Tom Hackett
Time January 8, 2009 at 5:25 am

I have always wondered what was going on inside of your head. This is good stuff. I look forward to reading more. Matt. 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. It’s all about the heart. I have a message I preach titled “God is hiding in plain sight”. It’s all about the heart and what hope plays such a big role. I look forward to reading more. Keep posting!

Comment from Susan
Time July 16, 2009 at 12:05 pm

And that is the bottom line, God is good… even when life is bad. It helps put everything else in perspective.

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