Being right & the glory of God

I have written before about why I really hate the false dichotomy between winning the person and winning the argument. We surely want to win both! And who will be won by what is manifestly untrue? We surely have to win the argument – we have to prove that what we’re saying is true and right – if anyone is going to be won over to whatever it is we’re arguing for.

Of course, we want to do that in ways that aren’t obnoxious. We should do our best not to be unpleasant in the way we argue but to simply put forward our case. Often little snide digs creep in too easily or disparaging comments go alongside our arguments. We should be careful to try and put forward an actual case rather than pejorative and all that. But when all that is done as best we can, in the end, we make our arguments and advance our case.

It is inevitable that many of us, when it is apparent we are losing an argument, are not quite prepared to admit it there and then. But we may well be won to the position as we honestly reflect on the discussion later. It may be too hard to swallow our pride and admit our reasoning wasn’t so well considered there and then; but there is no chance we will be doing that if the other person has just got nothing. Certainly not if we’re genuinely people committed to logic and reason, as most of us claim we are, and imply it when we engage in discussion and offer reasons for our position. Whilst we may not admit it in the moment, if we are committed to logic and reason, we will at least be won through the arguments advanced on reflection later. Winning the argument and being won as a person still go hand in hand. You can read some more developed thoughts on this in the article linked above.

Whilst I stand by all of that, I was struck by another truth as I was reading Robert Strivens blog post on recent discussions surrounding the Doctrine of God. The key point Strivvo was making is summed up in this quote from his post:

God is not to be the subject of some merely intellectual or theoretical study. The purpose of considering God is to know him and to fear him – to lead to saving faith in him.

He goes on:

Much of what has been written recently on the doctrine of God is clear, well communicated and sometimes brilliantly argued. Some of it is, I believe, quite correct, in terms of the bare truths that it articulates. But too often the note of pietas, of reverence and the fear of the Lord, seems to be missing. The tone of some, otherwise excellent, publications on this subject is too light, even jaunty on occasion. The atmosphere is that of the debating chamber or the lecture hall; it is not that of the worship of the Triune God. Reading Athansius, Augustine, Hilary, Anselm, Calvin, Bavinck on the same subjects is intellectually stretching, yet at the same time reverential. One senses that one is dealing with a Being who is utterly beyond us, who is to be worshipped and adored, who is not just an intellectual puzzle to be unravelled.

I’m not sure I’m quite so worried about “jaunty tones”, but I do think he is right on the principle. God is not just an intellectual concept to be poked and proded for the sheer joy of coming to understand what he is like. He is to be known so that he can be worshipped, loved and enjoyed. In other words, the pursuit of theology is not for the purpose of being right, it is so that we can properly engage in the relationship into which God calls us. The knowledge of itself is not the end; God himself – glorifying and enjoying him as a result – is the end.

And that is difficult for those of us to whom being right is like crack, inasmuch as we just can’t get enough it. Of course, nobody wants to be wrong; wanting that would be perverse. And all the more so when it comes to studying theology. It is important to be right because, if we’re wrong, we’ll misunderstand who God is, what he’s like, who we are in relation to him and, therefore, how to glorify and enjoy him. Being wrong means we’ll miss the entire point. So, being right in this case is important too. But being right is not the end to which we’re working.

That is where the problem lies. All too often, we content ourselves with our rightness. A rightness that doesn’t lead to worship; it leads to smug self-satisfaction. It leads to a pharisaical ‘look what I know’. It leads to holier-than-thou pile ons over people’s theological imprecision. Our corrections can lack grace because, of course, our knowledge was never really about worshipping the God of all grace; it was about being right. After all, rightness is only much good if everyone knows we’re right. The fastest way to do that is to prove someone else is definitely wrong. We snort up those lines of right knowledge and theological precision like the addicts we are.

We need to take seriously what the scriptures actually say to us: ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up’ (1 Cor 8:1). Knowledge for its own sake puffs us up and tears others down. Our knowledge ought to lead us to worship God more fully, which ought to lead us to love others more fully, which should works its way out – not in tearing them down – but in building them up. Others are not a vehicle for us to display our right thinking, but for our right thinking (assuming we are actually right) to build them up.

Accepting all the issues with personality tests and that (don’t write in), for an INTJ-A like me, this is a hard word. We’re built to be right. We need to be right. We want to be shown where we’re wrong – with cold, hard logic – so that we can make sure we’re right there too. And it’s not wrong to want to be right. It is sensible to want to be right because wanting to be wrong is ludicrous. But rightness for its own sake is dangerous. It makes us arrogant. It puffs us up. It becomes a battering ram with which to knock down others. We ned to re-orient ourselves – not so that we are happy to be wrong – but so that our rightness isn’t the end in itself. We should want to win the argument, but not for its own sake, but for the sake of ensuring we are worshipping God rightly and helping others to worship God rightly too. If we win the argument – and everyone knows we’re right – but they end up further from Christ than when we started, what is our rightness worth in the end? Which one of us is glorifying God then?