The Extra Mile

Sometimes my job requires going the extra mile. I’m sure this is true of most people, but for us—agents at American Income Life—it can often mean literally driving an extra mile, or two, or, in my case this week, one hundred. A union member didn’t feel comfortable sharing his info over the phone, so I drove two hours to meet him and go over his options. While on the road, I started thinking about going the extra mile and how making an extra effort is nine times out of ten rewarded in some way. Maybe not in dollars and cents, but I am a firm believer in my wise mother-in-law’s saying that if you cast your bread upon the water, it will come back to you as a sandwich. In other words, the gifts that you give will come back to you in greater proportion than you gave. I have seen this over and over in my own life. In fact, my entire adult life has been shaped by one act of kindness.

As a recent college graduate, an acquaintance needed a ride and I offered to give him one. Now this was no ordinary “Hey, can you give me a ride to the corner store?” ride. This was a 15-hour, 800-mile, two-way trek. I offered thinking he would probably turn it down. But he didn’t, so I drove from Knoxville to Jackson, Mississippi, got out of the car and was greeted by this acquaintance, only to realize in an instant that I loved this man, and we have been married for over twenty-two years now. I can’t imagine my life without that one “Sure, I can do that” and all the many blessings which have followed from it.

Reflecting on that instance has given me a boost of confidence in being, whenever possible, outrageously, foolishly generous. It doesn’t have to be money, or things, or long drives across the country. Maybe it’s the few extra minutes you spend listening to someone who needs a friendly ear. Maybe it’s the card you send or the smile you give or the prayer you offer up.

While driving the extra mile the other day, I was listening to a John Maxwell podcast that had been shared with me. He was talking about how we can prepare ourselves for whatever lies ahead. Along with being adaptable, promoting discussion and humility, he talked about the importance of being open-handed. The closed-fisted will be unable to grab hold of opportunity when it comes their way. I encourage us all to live open-handed and go the extra mile. You never know who or what you might pick up along the way.


Covid-19, Churches, and Hardware Stores

Here is another point about the issue of government bans on Church worship services that in my two previous posts I have taken for granted but which I evidently need to make explicit. Do these bans really accomplish much given how little time each week is devoted to corporate worship? And does the small reduction of risk achieved by such bans compensate for the loss of religious freedom they entail?

Consider the fact that during the pandemic hardware stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Menards are open every day of the week for 11-14 hours each day with thousands of customers coming and going throughout the week, while church services, which average just 75 people, are not permitted to meet for even one hour each week. When it comes to presenting a real danger to a community in terms of spreading the Covid-19 virus, the risks at a small church service are negligible compared to those at such large hardware stores. Yet the former are closed while the latter are bustling with activity all over the country.

One might argue that our society needs hardware stores to stay open far more than we need weekly worship services. First, such a response presupposes that corporate worship is not necessary for human flourishing, which begs the question of my original argument in my April 25 post. Secondly, even if one grants that corporate worship services are not as essential to human flourishing as home improvement supplies, then can we not at least grant that worship services are 1/60th as valuable as hardware stores? If so, then this would warrant permitting a 90-minute worship service once per week (to maintain the proper value ratio vis-à-vis a Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Menards, which are open 80+ hours per week).

So, fellow Christians, if you support the ban on church worship services while you’re supporting keeping open such hardware stores (and your shopping at one of these stores during the week is a tacit admission that you do), then this would seem to imply that you have a rather low view of the importance of corporate worship. For some of my critics, perhaps that is the real crux of our divergence on this issue, and that is fine. But for those who say they place a high value on corporate worship, something has to give here.

If you are really that concerned about human contact hours and the risk this presents regarding spreading the virus, then it would be far more efficient to create a stricter limit on the operating hours of retail stores. Therefore, I would suggest this modest compromise: Reduce the operating hours of large retail outlets by just one hour per day and lift the ban on corporate worship services. This would create a net reduction in the number of contact hours during which the virus can be spread while preserving the public good of corporate worship. Everybody okay with that?


More Thoughts on Government Bans of Worship Services

In his powerful plea to keep churches open during the Coronavirus pandemic, First Things editor R. R. Reno declared that “the massive shutdown of just about everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs.” It is interesting to note, however, that in this country we don’t take this approach with any consistency.

Let’s suppose we could be confident that Covid-19 is, say, three or even five times as deadly as seasonal flu and thus likely to kill tens of thousands more Americans if the bans on corporate worship are lifted. Would this justify these mandates? Well, consider some other legal behaviors in this country which result in the deaths of large numbers of people. Every year approximately 40,000 Americans die in traffic accidents. This figure could be greatly reduced by simply lowering the speed limit 10 or 15 mph. But no one is clamoring for this in the interest of saving innocent lives. Why? Because we cherish our freedom to drive fast and arrive at our destinations quickly, even though doing so endangers ourselves as well as others.

Or consider the fact that there are approximately 480,000 deaths in the U.S. each year due to tobacco use. We have chosen to keep tobacco use legal despite this high mortality rate. Why? Again, because we cherish our freedom to use these products. Similar points can be made regarding the legality of alcohol and fatty foods in this country.

The point is that there are many activities which cost hundreds of thousands of American lives every year, but we keep them legal despite this because of the pleasure we get out them and simply because we cherish freedom. So why not permit religious worship services even if this costs more lives? Is not the freedom to engage in the corporate worship of God at least as valuable as the freedom to drive fast, smoke a cigarette, drink a beer, or eat a cheeseburger?

Here many Christians appeal to the alternative of on-line worship as a reasonable alternative to traditional corporate worship. Aside from the fact that on-line worship is an inherently poor substitute for worshiping in the physical presence of fellow believers, there is the further problem that two church sacraments—baptism and communion—cannot be administered via on-line services. For those church traditions where communion is done on a weekly basis and necessarily administered by an ordained minister, this is a serious loss. Even in those traditions where communion is administered monthly, as the corporate shutdowns continue, the loss is felt there as well. Perhaps your particular church tradition is not highly sacramental, but for tens of millions of Americans communion is a means of grace. This is vital spiritual nourishment, and government mandates are depriving them of this. That is a big deal, a serious blow to their relationship with God. This is another reason why I am surprised that more Christians aren’t challenging the shutdowns of corporate worship services.


Are Government Bans on Religious Worship Services Morally Appropriate?

During the Covid-19 pandemic many state governments across the country have banned church worship services. Some states have prohibited religious services altogether, while others have placed severe restrictions on the number of people who may gather to worship. While the constitutionality of this unprecedented move is certainly open to debate, one may question whether such bans are morally appropriate. Thus, we may ask, do religious practitioners have a moral obligation to abide by these mandates even if they are constitutional?

Here is an argument which challenges the moral appropriateness of the bans on religious services:

  1. Civil government has a moral duty to permit what is essential to human flourishing.
  2. The corporate worship of God is essential to human flourishing.
  3. Therefore, civil government mandates which forbid corporate worship are immoral.
  4. Christians do not have a duty to abide by immoral government mandates, particularly those which proscribe fundamental aspects of their religious practice.
  5. Therefore, Christians do not have a moral duty to abide by a government mandate to abstain from corporate worship.

What follows from the conclusion here is that congregants at local Christian churches don’t have an obligation to abide by the government mandate to avoid meeting for corporate worship.

This is a logically valid and, I believe, sound argument. That is, the conclusion follows from the premises and, it seems to me, each of the premises is true. I assume most Christians will grant the first and fourth premises, as would all Christian ethicists and theologians I know of. So that leaves the critic with the burden of demonstrating that the second premise is false. Presumably, many atheists and religious skeptics will reject this premise, in some cases because they believe that religious practice of any kind is actually harmful. That’s fine. My main audience with this argument is fellow religious practitioners.

But is the Covid-19 pandemic somehow serious enough to justify a qualification to the second premise and thus warrant certain bans on worship services? In other words, might this pandemic provide a special exception to the general truth that corporate worship services enhance human flourishing? This question naturally leads us into a discussion of a whole nest of issues that are epidemiological, immunological, microbiological, economic, and statistical in nature. This is why we must pay close attention to recent reports and scientific studies showing the mortality rate of the Coronavirus is much lower than previously thought. Several recent studies suggest that the mortality rate of this virus is comparable to that of common strains of flu. Other reports suggest a higher mortality rate than seasonal flu, though still no more than .08%. But is this difference significant enough to warrant a general ban on religious services? It’s difficult to see how it could be when other options are available. For example, why not rather encourage high risk people (i.e., the elderly and those with pre-existing medical problems) to stay at home while allowing others to resume practice of corporate worship?

If Covid-19 mortality rate data is inconclusive in terms of justifying general bans on corporate worship services, then the social harms caused by the shutdowns should give us further pause as regards warranting an exception to the general good of corporate worship. There is also the economic dimension of shutdowns, which some economists believe could trigger a depression. Furthermore, the shutdowns are taking a serious public mental health toll in our country.

All things considered, there is evidence to suggest that the shutdowns, not just of worship services but other sectors of society, are more harmful than helpful, potentially more devastating to American society than any flu virus could be. This creates strong supplemental support for my argument’s second premise, which given any reasonable Christian view of government already enjoys a strong presumption in its favor. Therefore, only very strong empirical evidence could nullify it’s applicability to our current situation. And that, I submit, no one has provided, despite what our political leaders and the American mainstream media have been telling us.


Contaminate the World

In our current circumstance, I’m sure you, like me, are thinking a great deal about the people around you. Especially in high traffic areas like the grocery store and . . . the grocery store, since that’s really the only place to go anymore. Not the passing thought of “Oh, I wonder where she bought those cute shoes.” But zeroed in like the Secret Service on high alert, assessing each aisle like a motorcade route in Dallas 1963. “Is it possible for me to reach the Ovaltine without coming within six feet of the woman with the mask whose been pondering the nutritional value of Nesquik for the last five minutes?” When I saw pictures like this one my initial response was “You have got to be kidding me.” But now I think I get it. This guy just wants a little clarity, clearly defined boundaries, no guesswork.

View image on Twitter All of this was going through my mind yesterday while shopping and recovering from a most unpleasant encounter with a member “at work”. I deal with a lot of unpleasantness as a part of my job, so it takes a special kind of rude to make me mad or cry. This guy did both. This guy was clearly a distant cousin of Hitler himself and destined to a special ring of Dante’s Inferno reserved for mass murderers, people who leave their grocery cart in the parking lot, and guys who yell at people over the phone who are just trying to do their job. But by the time I got to the store, I was considering the fact that I was forming a firm, and perhaps overly-dramatic, opinion of this guy based on a fifteen minute interaction. Surely there were times when I had been on less than my best behavior and left a bad taste in someone’s mouth. Did I really want people cherry picking when it comes to making assessments of the full measure of my character?
So as I navigated the minefield of contamination, I thought about the people I could touch. Not reach out and touch physically. Pretty sure that would get me arrested at this point. But touch with a smile or a kind word or a moment of patience. Pre-Coronavirus, after talking all day, the temptation for me to stick in my earbuds and get lost in my own podcast world would have been strong indeed. But with a heightened awareness of those around me and the power I have to spread “germs” of good or ill, I am going to try to contaminate as many people with kindness and love as I can. I don’t want to be judged on the briefest of encounters and certainly want to resist the temptation to do so to others. But at the same time, I want to be mindful of the power of those encounters. If our bodies can be put into crisis through exposure to the tiniest of contaminations, maybe the world can be made better through exposure to the smallest acts of kindness. We may not be able to heal those suffering or reopen the economy, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless. Let’s infect the world with light and love. Surely that is ultimately the cure for what ails us all.

Dealing with Anxiety about the Suffering of Others

Recently a student shared with me her struggle to concentrate on her school work due to the COVID-19 pandemic:

I know that suffering is always going on in the world, and if we let that get to us we’ll never live at all and we can’t help at all. However, for me to be expected to sit from the comfort of my own home and continue my education like normal when I know that there are people that do not share the same simple luxuries as I do seems almost blasphemous. I’ve always known that God has made me have my heart broken for the sake of others and right now it is shattered from all of the hurt in the world and I feel like we’re not addressing any of it. I feel completely helpless and like this is not how we should be responding. And I don’t know what to do. . . . How do I find motivation when all of this is going on?

Can you identify with this? This is a common struggle for people who are especially sensitive to suffering in this world. And it’s to be expected that the pandemic would heighten the difficulty for some folks. So what can one say in response?

If you share this struggle, the first thing I would do is affirm your sensitivity to the suffering of others. This sort of empathy is a gift, and God can use it mightily to motivate you to help and serve others. However, as with all gifts and special talents, it also presents certain challenges and temptations, and the temptation to anxiety and becoming overburdened by others’ sufferings is one of these. So you will need to address this head-on with some relevant biblical truths. One of these is Jesus’ command in John 14:1, “Do not let your heart be troubled.” The fact that he issues this directive as a command indicates that we bear some responsibility in keeping ourselves from indulging anxious thoughts. Because, as Kant says, “ought implies can,” this means we are capable of resisting the temptation to anxiety and a troubled heart.

So this raises the question, how does one do that? The answer is apparent in the following verses of John 14, where Jesus says, “You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” In short, we must exercise faith in Christ and specifically remember the eschatological promise that he will make all things well for his people in the next world. Jesus addresses anxiety also in Matthew 6:31-34 and Luke 12:22-31. In these passages, too, he reminds us that we should trust God, and know that he will take care of us. So worry and anxiety are basically a lack of faith. Now this applies to everyone, so when you are worrying about other people, some of whom perhaps you’ve never met, who are experiencing hardships that you have been spared, this is no less a lack of faith. You need to trust that God is taking care of them as well.

It might be helpful to consider how Jesus conducted himself during his time on earth. Note that he was not anxious about the millions of people around the world who were suffering in all sorts of ways, even though he could have brought all of that suffering to an end with just a snap of his fingers. Ponder that for a moment. In fact, he often enjoyed himself and lived in relative comfort. He even participated in a wedding banquet, and his first miracle was to create a luxurious item—wine out of water (John 2). So if we are to follow Jesus’ example, then we must recognize that it is appropriate to enjoy certain comforts and luxuries—in moderation of course. I would add that this, too, is one of our duties as God’s children—to thankfully enjoy the bounty that God may grant us at various times in our lives.

Furthermore, consider the Golden Rule in this context. When you are suffering in some way, is it your preference or desire that all sorts of other people whom you may or may not know become sorrowful and downtrodden because of your pain? Or would you rather just a few people close to you comfort you in your time of need? For me, it is definitely the latter. I certainly don’t want lots of people to be burdened by my pain. So the Golden Rule would seem to recommend that I be particularly concerned to help, assist, and comfort those whom I personally know to be in need and whom I am able to help or comfort in some way. To be extremely burdened by the suffering of countless people whom I have never met is a failure to abide by the Golden Rule. Moreover, it cannot help anyway and can be paralyzing, as my student seems to have experienced. So even though your anxiety might be prompted by a concern for other people, it actually makes you less helpful to others, so it is self-defeating.

So there are multiple biblical reasons (i.e., Jesus’ command, the example of Jesus, and the Golden Rule) not to be constantly troubled or anxious about the suffering of others out there whom you haven’t even met but to be productive and focus on blessing and serving others with whom you make contact in the course of your day. This is the best we can do as mortal, finite people. And we must trust God to take care of others all over the world. Remember that they are his children, and he loves them infinitely more than you do, and even if they suffer tragedies in this life (as the Kennedy family recently did, yet again) we must trust that God will comfort them, whether in this life or in the next world.

Again, the key is faith and trust in God. But now what can we do to build that faith and trust in God? The most effective step is prayer. See, for example, Ps. 34:4, Phil. 4:6-7, 1 Pet. 5:6-7, and Rom. 8:26-28. And if you struggle with this sort of anxiety, here is something you can do as a spiritual discipline. Whenever you feel that unease welling up within you, pray for one minute for the people about whom you are concerned. Or, if there is no one in particular who is the object of your anxiety, then pick some person, family, community, city, or nation and pray for them. And be sure to commit them into God’s good care and declare your trust in God regarding their welfare. If you make that a regular practice, I expect that will go a long way in resolving your struggles with anxiety. Give it a try. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). And that power and effectiveness pertains not just to the persons and situations about which one prays, but also one’s own soul.


The Penitent Thief: Why His faith Was Great

One of the most remarkable passages in the Holy Week Gospel narratives regards the responses to Jesus on the part of the two criminals crucified on either side of him. Luke gives us this account:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:39-43)

It is clear from Jesus’ response to the second criminal that this man has been forgiven and will not be condemned in the afterlife. Some people might find this disturbing, since this man has demonstrated relatively little faith and repentance, which are crucial to a biblical concept of salvation. But there are several things to note about the faith of this penitent thief on the cross.

For one thing, he declares his faith in Christ publicly, and as Jesus said in one of his earlier discourses, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven” (Mt. 10:32). Secondly, the thief demonstrates genuine repentance, acknowledging his life of sin when he says “we are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” As is clear from Scripture, there is no salvation without repentance (cf. Acts 2:38), so it is crucial that this man demonstrate true penitence. Although his remaining time on earth was very short at this point, he repented to the extent that he was still capable of doing so.

Thirdly, the penitent thief declares his faith in opposition to his fellow thief, who
“hurled insults” at Jesus. Apparently, the penitent thief himself had also verbally abused Jesus, given Matthew’s crucifixion account, where we read that just as the chief priests and teaches of the law mocked Jesus, “in the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (Mt. 27:44). So after initially joining his fellow thief in mocking Jesus, the penitent thief had a change of heart, culminating in his plea to Jesus to remember him in the next world.

Fourthly, the penitent thief declares his faith that Jesus is indeed a king, citing Jesus’ coming “kingdom.” This he does despite Jesus’ extreme humiliation, having been beaten to a bloody pulp, and now writhing on a cross with a sign above his head mocking the very idea regarding which this thief is testifying sincere belief. Perhaps at this time even Jesus’ own disciples, who, with the exception of John, had by this time scrambled into hiding, would have been rather skeptical of Jesus’ messianic kingship. But not this penitent thief. He believed despite all appearances to the contrary. Now that is faith.


Some Observations Regarding the COVID-19 Crisis

Here are some of my thoughts on the Coronavirus crisis or, perhaps more accurately, thoughts on how some people have been responding to the crisis.

    1. During the past several weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, I’m sure we have all heard and read some interesting claims about the virus and its likely consequences. One of the more hyperbolic claims I’ve seen was made two weeks ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Paul Friga, who said, “there is no doubt we are in one of the most turbulent and challenging times in American, and world, history.” That’s a strong claim. I suppose it depends on what he means by “one of the most.” If death toll is a key indicator of a turbulent and challenging time, then it is worth noting that throughout history there have been about forty wars, forty famines, twenty plagues, and seven genocides that have produced more than one million fatalities each. And the fatalities of more than a hundred of other wars, plagues, famines, genocides, and natural disasters have each exceeded half a million. Compare these figures to the COVID-19 crisis where worldwide fatalities total less than 80,000 to date. This number will surely continue to climb, but just how many will die from this virus is difficult to estimate at this point. Death toll prognostications vary wildly. So Friga’s claim is actually quite uncertain, notwithstanding his confidence. The lesson here is that, tempting as it might be to make strong (even world historical) assertions about the severity of our current crisis, it is probably best to refrain until we have sufficient data to warrant doing so. Otherwise, one risks exacerbating public fear and anxiety, which, for all we know, might already be out of proportion with the actual danger posed by COVID-19.
    2. By advising severe social distancing in the form of lockdowns and limited travel, the U.S. federal government is widely represented as taking the “safe” approach. After all, by doing so, we slow the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve” of infections so that our health care system is not overwhelmed. This is surely a laudable concern, but it is only one factor in an overall equation. In fact, strong social distancing is not unequivocally the “safe” approach, because this risks a national economic depression (not to mention a potential epidemic of clinical depression) and perhaps even a global economic catastrophe, which also would mean massive loss of life. So the curve-flattening social-distancing strategy is not obviously the “safe” option but itself is a significant gamble. Another potential risk pertains to how this approach could backfire and actually exacerbate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As one Ivy League physician has argued, there could be more fatalities in the long run due to severe social distancing, since this diminishes the development of “herd immunity” within the population. This is a controversial suggestion, of course, since it runs against the current of popular wisdom about the pandemic (which explains why this author chose to remain anonymous). But, given all of the uncertainty at this stage, this possibility should not be ruled out.
    3. Much of the ostensibly empathetic concern on the part of institutional leaders and, especially, politicians and media personalities (I’ll resist the temptation to name names) strikes me as insincere moral grandstanding. Some of what I have seen on social media during this time falls into this category as well. Just as my awareness of the reality of this trend was beginning to gel in my mind, a colleague of mine shared with me his own thoughts along these lines:

Sometimes it seems like individuals and institutions in our culture are so conscious of the history that they’re making while they’re making it that it affects history itself. It’s like every historical event becomes one great big cultural selfie, as our primary concern in the midst of any event is to document our feelings and “stories” as we make and experience them. I wonder if all the historical testimony that we leave like that for posterity will do little more than convince later historians how unreliable our own historical testimony about ourselves really is, except for its reliability in showing clearly what a bunch [of] narcissists we all really were. For that our testimony will be utterly reliable. And who can blame those later historians if they conclude that we were a generation who was so busy turning everything into our own historical selfies that we never actually really lived in history.

This strikes me as a profound, if disturbing, insight about our culture. It has been said that adversity doesn’t build character so much as it reveals it. Perhaps our current crisis will be valuable for what it teaches us about ourselves, however painful those lessons might be


Some Additional Benefits of Social Distancing

The last week of shut-downs, cancellations, and other social distancing measures due to the COVID-19 virus have been dizzying and surreal for many folks. Surely the days ahead will bring more confusion, frustration, and opportunities for criticism. So it might be helpful to dwell on some of the positive aspects of the current situation. After all, we can be confident that, as Scripture says, God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11) and that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). So, aside from the obvious end of “flattening the curve” in the spread of the COVID-19 virus, what good could possibly come from the radical social distancing mandates that we must now observe? Here are some possibilities.

One benefit regards our relationships. As we spend more time at home we will have more opportunities to connect with family members and close friends. Even in families where parents are committed to “quality time” with one another, the busyness of daily life can make such times hard to come by. With school shut-downs and fewer events to take us out of our homes, that means we will have a lot more such time—perhaps more such time than we ever wanted. But using this time to really reconnect with one another can be a blessing.

Another benefit is time to read! Like many folks, I am continually frustrated with my lack of time to read as much as I would like. Well, the social distancing policies are going to change that! I’ve already made a list of some books that I want to plow through which under ordinary circumstances I would have no time for until Summer break. Love it. I recommend that you do the same.

A third benefit is that the social distancing policies invite us, or perhaps even force us, to reassess our values and identify potential idols in our lives, especially as regards the emphasis we place on social engagements, shopping, entertainment, and personal freedom. We live in a hyperactive society, and all of the additional down time could serve as a valuable corrective. Blaise Pascal famously remarked that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Well, now we have a chance to develop this discipline of solitude, a rarity in American culture.

Finally, social distancing provides us an opportunity to contemplate our own mortality and finitude. For all of our power and ingenuity, human life nevertheless remains fragile and tenuous. Our astounding technological achievements can create a false sense of control and invulnerability. The COVID-19 virus shatters that illusion. To consider how something so small that it is invisible to the naked eye is crippling our technologically advanced civilization is quite humbling. Such a global lesson in humility is immensely valuable, reinforcing the biblical perspective that “the Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples” (Ps. 33:10).


Should Christians be Winsome?

During these days of division and discord one often hears admonitions that Christians be “winsome” in their speaking, writing, and interaction with others. For example, look here, here, and here. In some cases I have heard fellow Christians advocate for winsomeness as if it were a fruit of the Spirit or even a cardinal virtue.

It is important to achieve clarity about what it means to be winsome and when it is appropriate, because calls to winsomeness are increasingly common and often function as conversation killers. Such admonitions can be disingenuous, content-dodging tactics as opposed to sincere pleas for virtue. In a post-truth culture—as some have described contemporary American society—the substance of an assertion may be deemed less important than how it is said. A focus on process may stand in the way of actual communication about content and real insights about issues and solutions to problems.

So what does it mean to be winsome? The American Heritage Dictionary defines winsome as “charming, often in a childlike or naïve way.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, to be winsome is to be “charming and attractive in a simple way.” And the Oxford Dictionary says a winsome person is “attractive and pleasing with simple qualities.” Other lexicographical accounts associate winsomeness with such qualities as sweetness, gentility, or an engaging presence. Let’s keep these traits in mind as we consider whether we should consider winsomeness to be a Christian virtue.

 

Was Jesus Winsome?

When considering the appropriateness of any character trait for Christians, perhaps the first question to ask is whether Jesus Christ himself displayed the trait. After all, Christians are called to emulate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). He is our moral exemplar. But when we search the Gospel narratives, what do we find? Surely, Jesus was often winsome in his interactions with some people, especially the humble, needy, and disabled. You might say that with those who were humble, meek, and repentant, he showed himself to be humble and meek, from his interactions with children (Mark 10) to his healings of the sick (Luke 4-5; Mt. 8-9) to the mercy he showed the adulterous woman (John 8) and the humble thief on the cross (Luke 23). But the traits he displayed in his interactions with the proud, haughty, and deceitful were quite a different matter. On these and other occasions Jesus often proved to be harsh, confusing, cryptic, and judgmental—in short, rather unwinsome. To illustrate with some examples, Jesus was not particularly winsome when:

  • he cleared the temple court with a whip and overturned tables (John 2)
  • he pronounced woes on the rich, well fed, and jubilant (Luke 6);
  • he invited people to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6);
  • he called the Pharisees harsh names such as “fools,” “liars,” “snakes,” “vipers,” “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” and “hypocrites” and declared that they were greedy, self-indulgent, and wicked sons of the devil who “do not belong to God” (John 8; Mt. 23);
  • he said, “whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them” (Luke 8);
  • he pronounced woes on the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (Mt. 11);
  • he called the people an “unbelieving and perverse generation” (Luke 9);
  • he said to one of his followers, whose father had recently died, “let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9);
  • he said he came to bring fire on earth and to bring not peace but division, even within families (Luke 12);
  • he referred to Canaanite people as “dogs” (Mt. 15);
  • he said to Peter, “get behind me, Satan” (Mt. 16);
  • he repeatedly preached on and warned of hell for the unrepentant, unforgiving and even the wealthy (Mt. 18, etc.)
  • he cursed a fig tree (Mt. 21); and
  • he pronounced woes on the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Luke 11; Mt. 23), and when one of the Pharisees said he felt insulted by what Jesus was saying (Luke 11:45), Jesus doubled down with more woes, culminating in the assertion that that generation would be held responsible for all of the murders of prophets in all previous generations (Luke 11:50).

This is not exactly the stuff of winsomeness.

 

The Apostles

Next, we may ask whether the apostles and biblical writers were winsome. Starting with the Apostle Paul, clearly he was winsome in many of his writings, particularly in the salutations and closing remarks of his epistles, as well as, for example, in his beautiful discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13 and throughout much of the book of Ephesians. In many other places, however, his tone is stunningly harsh, particularly when correcting doctrinal errors and rebuking people for various sins. For instance, in the book of Titus, Paul condemns the legalism of “the circumcision group,” and about them he writes, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12-13). And in his letter to the Galatians he says about these same people, “I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12).

In several of his epistles, Paul strikes a very severe tone regarding believers who were either acting immorally or condoning sin. To believers in Corinth, he said, “you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” (1 Cor. 5:11). And in one of his letters to the church at Thessalonica, he gave a strong warning against idleness, recommending that if anyone is unwilling to work, then he should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10). In that same letter, Paul recommended a severe response to those who did not heed his instructions, saying “Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14).

As for Peter, his letters are also marked by stern instructions, strong rebukes, and harsh warnings. In one of his letters he castigates false teachers in the harshest terms, warning that they will be condemned (2 Pet. 2:3). He goes on to call them “slaves of depravity” who are “an accursed brood” that “are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed” (2 Pet. 2:12). James, too, sometimes strikes a severe tone. In his epistle he refers to his readers as “foolish” and “adulterous,” and he issues an especially harsh remonstration to wealthy people when he says, “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you” (James 5:4-6).

 

When to be Winsome?

This is just a sampling of instances in which Jesus and the Apostles are not winsome but, in fact, quite the opposite—stern, severe, harsh, judgmental, and even offensive to their hearers and readers. And we could enumerate myriad similar instances of unwinsome words and behaviors of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. Add to this the fact that nowhere in Scripture are we instructed to be attractive, charming, sweet, or genteel. Perhaps the closest we can come to finding a biblical endorsement of winsomeness is in Galatians 5:23, where Paul includes “gentleness” in his list of the “fruit of the Spirit” or moral virtues. But the fact that Paul himself is often quite the opposite of gentle—including in that very same epistle—shows that this trait is not, as Kant would say, a “perfect duty” for Christians—it is not the sort of moral virtue for which there are no appropriate exceptions. There is a time for gentleness, and there is a time for toughness and even severity.

Another biblical defense of winsomeness might be made based on the fact that Jesus strongly encourages childlikeness, a trait that is associated with winsomeness. In fact, Jesus says, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). So isn’t this essentially an endorsement of winsomeness? First, it is important to note the context of this passage. Here Jesus is responding to the disciples’ question about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In the parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:48), which suggests that his main point concerns the virtue of humility, as opposed to simplicity, much less the sort of charming naïvete that is often associated with winsomeness. Secondly, some commentators interpret Jesus’ idealization of children here as having mainly to do with the attitude of trust that we are to place in him, a readiness to believe and submit to the authority of God just as a child trusts her parents and naturally recognizes their authority. Other commentators, such as Johannes Weiss, have suggested that what Jesus had in mind when he set up children as a model in Matthew 18 is their directness, lack of self-consciousness, and their especially keen perception regarding certain matters which are often lost on adults. In any case, even if Jesus did mean to endorse winsomeness with this teaching, he cannot have intended this to be a perfect duty, admitting of no exceptions, since he himself was often quite unwinsome, as we have already seen.

So what are we to conclude from all of this? I would say that while winsomeness does seem to be an admirable trait in many contexts, it is not a trait that Scripture recognizes as a moral virtue. This is evidenced by several facts. First, there are no biblical commands to be winsome. Secondly, Jesus acts and speaks on many occasions in very unwinsome ways. Thirdly, many biblical writers, in both the Old and New Testaments, often write in very unwinsome ways. This suggests that, like so many human personality traits and modes of conduct, the appropriateness of a winsome manner or style crucially depends upon the social context or situation. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, it is indeed good to be winsome. But on certain occasions it is also appropriate not to be winsome. Sometimes it is good to be stern or severe rather than gentle and sweet. Sometimes it is appropriate to speak or write in cryptic or complicated terms rather than to be simple and childlike. And sometimes it is even okay to be harsh, offensive, or off-putting rather than charming or attractive.

Of course, this raises the critical question, when is it appropriate to be winsome and when is it appropriate not to be? Like any serious, substantive question regarding the moral life, this calls for wisdom and cannot be answered with a simple formula or algorithm. But we might be able to glean one general guideline from the psalmist who says of the Lord, “to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd” (Ps. 18:26). This passage is itself somewhat cryptic (and thus unwinsome!), but one thing we can gather from it is that God’s responses to people vary according to the purity of their own hearts. This might also explain Jesus’ own varying treatment of people, as he is typically direct and straightforward with those who approach him with pure, sincere, humble hearts. But those who are devious, presumptuous, and arrogant he treats very differently. Indeed, if we look back through the above list of instances in which Jesus behaves unwinsomely, it is usually in response to such people, especially the Pharisees and teachers of the law. So the lesson we might draw from this is that in our own dealings with people it is often appropriate and desirable to be winsome—perhaps usually so. But when dealing with the deceitful, insincere, presumptuous, or arrogant it might likewise be appropriate or even most advisable to be stern, severe, cryptic, off-putting, or even harsh—in a word, to be unwinsome. Indeed, such a response might constitute truly gracious speech, depending on the context.