"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

13 September 2009

On Being Right vs. Loving

Our pastor this morning preached on I Corinthians 13. As he talked about the pre-eminence of love in the Christian life, I was reminded of a conversation I was privy to many years ago.

Two of the tutors in the writing center I directed at the time were both Christians of the same denomination. One -- I'll call him Larry -- planned to become a pastor, and was looking forward to seminary the following year. He dressed neatly, wore his dark hair in a respectable mature cut, always arrived on time and remembered to do the paperwork. He was a good tutor.

The other -- I'll call him Steve -- was also a good tutor. He tended at times to forget things, like what time he was supposed to arrive for his consultations or to fill out the paperwork at the end of a session. His blond hair was shaggy, his clothes poor-student-eclectic. I don't think he yet knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. But the students he worked with always asked for him on repeat visits.

Larry and Steve often argued theology when there were no clients, until I'd set them about other tasks. One Friday evening, waiting for the day to officially end and knowing full well no one would walk in at that hour for help, I let them go at it for their last half hour. I don't recall the subject of the argument -- some important, though I think not essential, point of theology.

Larry was indisputably right. From both Scripture and his church tradition, his argument was accurate and well-reasoned. Steve's rebuttals were so wrong-headed they made me cringe a little. But I walked home that evening knowing that if I were in trouble, I'd far prefer to have Steve, along with his error-filled theology, by my side, than Larry with his indisputable truth.

The reason is simple: Steve loved people. His resistance came from a misunderstanding of the Scripture that made him think Larry's interpretation was harsh and cold and uncaring. And Larry couldn't convince him otherwise -- because Larry couldn't understand Steve's care for people and therefore couldn't address it, couldn't explain his argument so that Steve could see that it didn't mean what he thought. Larry cared only, in the end, about being right -- and so could not frame an argument that showed the mercy and love of the doctrine about which they argued, because he himself had no understanding of mercy and love.

I've often wondered what became of Larry. I hope that he learned love, and that the lesson wasn't too crushing. I hope that he didn't finish seminary and take a parish to be a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal, a man who has all knowledge but no love. I worry less about Steve, despite his lack of purpose. I hope he came to understand how the Lord's infinite love is demonstrated in that and other doctrines he struggled with; I hope he found out what he wanted to be and became it. But I'm as sure as one can be that at least he's given hope to others along his way.


Winston said...

Thank you so much for this post. A great story and a great reminder.

alaiyo said...

You are welcome -- thanks for visiting!

eutychus said...

This is an interesting contrast to a conversation that I have had these last two days with a young Army chaplain here at Camp McGregor New Mexico. He has just finished seminary and it shows. His theology is weak and he falls back on "caring for his people."
A co-worker and I hve discussed afterwords, out of earshot, that if we were wounded or in need of counsel, we would not want his assistance.
Without boring you with the details, I would just add to, what you have already so beautifully, said.
That is, that while theology properly understood must speak in love. Love properly defined must by neccesity speak theologically.