A Family of Bare-Knuckled Faith

Jason Coffman’s knee came down on my nose. He didn’t mean it, but that’s what happened. I was a sophomore, on a wrestling mat. I was fighting hard to get him off me, so I didn’t feel much pain, but the force was noticeable enough to catch my attention. We got up, and I went over to see Coach.

“Coach, Jason kneed me in the nose. Does it look okay?”

Coach gripped me by the face and shut one eye, as if sighting down a gun barrel.

“Eh—looks alright. Go see Janey.”

I went to see Janey, Coach’s niece, a year or two older than me and possessing vast apparent medical expertise. She gripped me by the face and shut one eye.

“Eh—looks alright,” she said.

So began my intermittent time as a martial artist. I quit the high school wrestling team for my grades, but I did four years of judo in college and loved every minute of it. Even when getting thrown around like a rag doll by Mani, an action figure of a classmate who held a wrestling scholarship, there was never any rancor in grappling for me. It was always fun, a wonderful release. Anger, in fact, was one of our sensei’s three rules for the class.

“Protect yourself,” Dr. Kerr said, holding up one finger at us. He followed it with, “Protect your opponent,” and, “If you get mad, get off the mat.”

It didn’t occur to me at the time, even attending a Christian liberal arts school, but these were also good rules for debate.

It’s almost old hat to say we live in a divisive time. For a measure of comfort, we might return to Solomon’s reminder that there’s “nothing new under the sun.” It should be obvious. I’ve been disagreeing with people all my life. I disagree with those closest to me, with my wife, my children, my parents. I even disagree with the Lord.

Good heavens, what an admission! Yet it’s true. I’m not saying I’m right—far from it—but I do disagree with the Lord at times. I’m not sure why following Christ isn’t easier, but I’m not the first to grapple with God. Jacob ben-Isaac got dubbed Israel, meaning wrestles/struggles with God, or even God struggles. Then there’s the Book of Job, according to some scholarship our earliest-written biblical text—and it’s about a fight with Yahweh.

Spoiler alert: Yahweh wins.

God’s climactic command to Job that he “brace [himself] like a man” to answer God’s questions feels both straightforward and tongue-in-cheek. It’s definitely militaristic language—Job is told in older English translations to gird his loins—but God’s wink in the whole matter is the fact that Job is a man arguing with his omnipotent Maker. He can gird every girdable loin he has, and it will make little difference. The argument is still an argument, though, and the Lord loves Job through every bit of it. God deigns to wrestle with a man, and, knowing he’ll win, barely suppresses a little grin. He gets positively sardonic with Job and goes on about dinosaurs or dragons or whatever a Leviathan is. Then, after a good thrashing, he heaps temporal blessings upon his beloved man again.

In my head, I hear Rich Mullins, saying, “It don’t do to fight with God, because he always wins. He bloodies your nose and then gives you a ride home on his bicycle.”

I’m not sure if pugilism as Christian faith is dysfunctional or not. Regardless, I defy anyone to show me a fully-lived faith that isn’t at times argumentative. We all have our fights at the Fords of Jabbok. Professional martial artists can tell you, however: fighting someone certainly doesn’t mean you hate him. You’re touching, even embracing after a fashion. Following a match, two combatants will often hug one another and speak encouraging words.

Now, we draw a hard line between a good fight and a bad one. Two people wrestling or boxing—or arguing with the underlying knowledge that they will still work to love each other—is a far cry from domestic violence or fighting as an expression of wrath. These things are not equivalent. Yet, we ought not be afraid of a good fight in itself. It’s written into the DNA of this family we call the Kingdom of Christ.

Since the Book of Acts, the Church has been arguing theology. To the world at large, this hardly looks familial. Continually infested as it is with crippling pluralism, the world outside the Church must ever soften its ideological blows if it is to remain civil. If progress would be made on state policies, compromise must happen, and not always a compromise purely physical or civic. As we are unified beings, body and soul, civic and physical compromises mustneeds stray into moral and metaphysical territory. Despite notions we may have about maintaining our beliefs objectively, it seems nigh impossible to hold any doctrine without being changed by it. Politics, in the long view, should certainly have taught us that.

This ideological motion has the effect of creating encampments. Those with ideas wield them like weapons; therefore, to avoid damage to society, they must remain among likeminded folk, pounding and swinging our swords in the same direction, as it were.

In the Church, not only do we wield our ideas, but like good boxers, we must harden our bodies and minds to accept the blows rained down upon us by others. These differing individuals are our brothers and sisters, and we cannot—should not—get away from them. If we believe in the wideness of God’s mercy—the dangerous willingness to understand not only that, in body-spirit unified mankind, there are “sins of the intellect,” as C. S. Lewis posits in The Great Divorce, but that God’s grace can and does cover those sins—if we believe this, what reason do we have not to accept getting punched with a disagreeable doctrine now and again? Surely at least one person in the argument is wrong, so far as we can tell, but the blood of Christ is thicker than the water of, say, pedobaptism. Furthermore, when your sister socks you in the eye, she’s still your sister.

Several years ago, pastor-theologians John Piper and Tim Keller released a video discussing the influence of C. S. Lewis, and Keller dropped a small grenade into my life: “George MacDonald wasn’t just an Armenian…he was a Pelagian,” he rued.

I was cut, but I began to grasp that all the Christ-following giants I lionized were people—fallen, wrong, complex people. Making my way through an ongoing curriculum of my heroes, I was bound to uncover disagreements with them at some point.

In a more modern example, I’ve been poking through My Bright Abyss for some time now. I disagree mightily and often with author Christian Wiman—though I agree wholeheartedly just as much. The fears these differences spark in me are soteriological—that is, fears about who is saved and who is not. It’s the heady froth of a Southern Baptist upbringing, perhaps, rising to my surfaces. What if Wiman’s readers are led or driven away from the Lord because of the text? What of Wiman himself? I mustn’t discount such concerns, given that they are Scriptural, but until I get the pleasure of speaking with the author, or some other reader, these should be matters of prayer. The Lord is not discombobulated by the struggles of either apostles or apostates, be they private or published.

Despite my fears, I feel it’s important that I keep reading. I do like the book. I want to like it. More than that, though, the contrast of our differential views—Wiman’s and mine—opens my own windows onto the possible vistas of God’s mercy and ongoing work. In the aforesaid video series, Tim Keller mentions his uncertainty about George MacDonald’s conversion. The confession disturbs me, but I’m comforted—yea, validated—by Keller’s very uncertainty. This erudite man uses phrasing such as “not sure” and “consider” to put forth his line of thought about MacDonald. These are the words of someone pulling his punches to humbly allow that he could, in the end, be wrong. I trust Keller, but I’m also willing to listen to MacDonald. That means that, when they go swinging for each other, so to speak, I who stand between these giants must accustom myself to a good pummeling.

One glaring hole in our ecumenical education is a course on fighting fairly. We’re marvelous at disagreement, often to the point of being marvelously disagreeable. Fighting fairly, though, means two things: protecting your opponent and admitting when you’re wrong. In fact, the one nugget of wisdom I’ve collected about fighting fairly comprises all of what I recall from marriage counseling. Before my wife and I plighted our troth, our pastor sat us down in his office for some good chats. The only thing I remember is him telling us, “When you fight, hold hands.”

We haven’t always, but it’s been helpful advice. There’s little substitution for the electric current of someone else’s hand in your own. It reminds you of your spouse’s humanity, and it’s hard to ignore. As brothers and sisters in the Lord, we should keep a good grasp of each other when we disagree. Protecting ourselves is easy to remember; it’s instinctive, and we’re quick to the defense of our own opinions and beliefs. It’s also good to protect our opponents—and if you get mad, get off the mat and cool off for a bit. David French, in his unblinking look at the years-long excoriation of Beth Moore, codifies the dark side of ecclesial fighting in this way: “It’s past time to acknowledge that cruelty is its own form of apostasy. Cruelty is disobedience.” We should never be cruel. The love of God demands care for others, even when we contradict them.

This isn’t a big exhortation to man- or woman-up somehow. There is a time to grapple and a time to refrain. Even seasoned fighters, with hardened bodies, must take time to heal from their wounds. Unbeknownst to me as a sophomore, my nose had been broken, requiring surgery down the road. Wounds can lie hidden and cause problems, and taking time to heal is not unreasonable. Fighters, though, heal with a view to reentering the fray. We also, the diverse Body of Christ, must remember that until Jesus’s return, disagreement will ever be with us. It’s good for us to accept ideological blows from brothers and sisters, who have our best interest—that is to say, an interest in us knowing the Truth—at heart. When you fight, hold hands.

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