Gotcha!

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I like being right. I don’t like being wrong.  What is it about human nature that almost delights in being proven right over someone else?  Feeling like we’ve got special insider information (a corner on “truth?”) can be a secret, prideful obsession. It gets revealed when we find ourselves delighting in setting others straight (“Gotcha!”). Sometimes it disguises itself as deep concern for others and their spiritual health or understanding… when the truth is we are merely, and unfairly, judging them.    

When I was in high school, I spent four years on the debate team.  We were good. I got to debate all over the state of Michigan as well as several places in Ohio. My partner and I won tournaments at both the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Philadelphia. I even got to compete at Harvard. We worked hard, studied a lot, and were altogether arrogant. It went with winning.

Cross-examination swing debate featured competitions between two, 2-person teams. A flip of the coin would decide if you were the affirmative team (presenting a case before a judge), or the negative team (arguing why the case was a bad idea). Winners would advance, and losers would go home. My partner and I were adept at either side, but being negative was way more fun.  My favorite role was being the first negative speaker. The job consisted of probing and exploiting weak spots in the other team’s opening position while questioning the meaning and intentions of their words.  The goal was to present as much attacking argument as possible in order to confuse the other side and trip them up. Nothing was better than catching them in a technicality!  Inevitably someone would mis-speak, and then I’d zero in on the “gotcha” moment. More often then not, my partner and I wouldn’t just win the debate, we’d demoralize the opponent.  And we relished every moment of it.

The problem, of course, is that such tactics might win competitions in the world of academic debate, but they don’t translate well to real life. Not for the Christian, anyway. Though I am very thankful for the logic training and the ability to scrutinize evidence, the tendency to pursue “gotcha” moments in the world around me isn’t really conducive to winning friends and influencing people.  If we’re not careful, it’s all too easy for any of us to fall into that trap.

Have you ever met a “gotcha” Christian? You know the type…ready to pounce on those who don’t line up to their current level of “biblical” understanding.  Examples?  How ’bout these:

  • “You said that you’re sick?  That’s a bad confession!  You’re sick because you’ve spoken it forth!l”
  • “You were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  That doesn’t count because it should have been in the name of Jesus only!”
  • “You prayed to Jesus? That’s not right! You’re supposed to pray to the Father through Jesus by the Holy Spirit!”
  • “You wrote GOD when you referred to the Heavenly Father? You should have instead put “G_d,” so you won’t risk taking His name in vain!”
  • “When you repeated the Lord’s Prayer, you used the word “trespasses?” It should have been “debts” or “sins.” You are watering down the Word!
  • “Don’t you know that the whole idea of people coming and listening to a pastor has more to do with pagan Greek philosophy than the Bible?  The way you do church only serves that which is anti-Christ!”

I could go on and on. There are thousands of possible illustrations here.  It amounts to some variation of “You’re not praying/speaking/believing/performing properly!  Let me correct you!” So when someone’s words, conversation, Facebook post, or whatever doesn’t measure up, it’s time to pounce!  Gotcha!  “I know you thought you were honoring God by doing whatever violation I think I’ve caught you in, but what you are really doing is engaging in heresy, false teaching, error, inviting demonic spirits, etc., etc., etc.

Sigh.    Really? Why do we do this to one another?

We tend to think there is value in diagnosing people rather than serving them in love. At least that’s how it seems to me. In 28 years of public ministry, I’ve been accused more than once (at various times) of being: close-minded, ultra-conservative, legalistic, overly permissive, liberal, steeped in Greek philosophy, a Judaizer, influenced by Eastern myticism, tainted by Western elitism, opposed to the move of the Spirit, a chaser of Spirit encounters, too educated, not educated enough, too influenced by the needs of people,  too aloof to notice the plight of others and much, much more. Never mind that most of these accusations are mutually exclusive and contradictory. People make assumptions based more on the filtered colored lenses of their personal biases than actual truth.

Here’s a Reality Check:  I’m sure I’ve done the same to others many times over as well. For some reason (perhaps our undisciplined sin nature?) we want to think we have people figured out, or God figured out, or religious formulas figured out. So we judge by human standards, critiquing the people of God in both word and action, while assuming their motives…as if our little bit of sudden revelation or revealed knowledge has given us complete insight to the inner world of those around us.

Here’s the problem.  Man looks at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart.  We each have a responsibility to judge our own hearts with fear and trembling, but the truth is that someone else’s words are an easier and more comfortable target. Excuse me sir, but there’s a speck in your eye!

For the record, I don’t believe that the Lord is out to trap people by their words.  He’s not suddenly moved by the right declarations or the right phrases. Neither is He put off by the “wrong” words or the “wrong” phrases.  He looks much deeper within.  If you ask for bread, He will not give you a stone…even if you called it by the wrong name. Why? 1) He isn’t mean, 2) He knew what you meant, and 3) refer back to 1 and 2. The truth is that no amount of right phrasing will help us if our hearts are not submitted to Him AND no amount of improper wording will hinder Him if our hearts are surrendered to His Lordship.  Jesus is not a legalist. Despite the Law, He healed people, picked grain, and otherwise worked on the Sabbath. The pharisees, on the other hand, were quick to accuse and condemn. Their constant objective – to declare “Gotcha!” The spirit of the accuser will always be in opposition to the heart of God no matter how much it attempts to dress itself up in the veneer of simply supposedly being concerned for others…or for “the truth!”

The Apostle Paul touches on this when he wrote to Timothy, “Remind everyone about these things, and command them in God’s presence to stop fighting over words. Such arguments are useless, and they can ruin those who hear them.” (2 Timothy 2:14).

Here’s the truth:  Real love gives others the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t condescend or patronize. The Message Bible says that love “trusts God always and always looks for the best.” (1 Cor 13:7). It’s the opposite of the “gotcha” Christian’s typical behavior. It’s time to let that go. Instead, we are given a much better admonition:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.”  Colossians 3:12-15

At least, that’s how I want to live.  I don’t want to be the “gotcha!” guy.  I want to be gracious.

How ’bout you?

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