While sitting in a too-small seat, not paying attention to a class I’m almost failing

In my defense, I’m only almost failing because I missed an assignment while out of town to attend a wedding. Most weeks, we do nothing, but that particular week we had to put on a play with a group. I wasn’t here, couldn’t do the play, and subsequently missed the points.

It wasn’t as big a deal before, but I just checked grades online and the professor magically doubled how much that assignment was worth, which has dropped me by 10%. Hooray.

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The Danger of Devil’s Advocate

I am the type of person who likes to challenge people’s knowledge, pushing them to answer questions and defend their stances. It’s part Socratic method and part Devil’s Advocate, with the goal of learning more about the person and asking them to learn more about themselves. I suppose on principle this is OK, but in the last few years I have been withdrawing from these methods. The more I practiced or experienced them, the less effective they seemed to be to me.

The problem with playing Devil’s Advocate, where you take the opposite stance of someone even though you may not personally agree with that stance, is rooted in cognitive dissonance. There are two ways in which this comes out, both usually at the same time, that I believe make the model ultimately unfeasible. I will relate these methods by way of example, because that’s easiest.

My first example is in conveying theological precepts, perhaps from pastor to congregation. I have seen several church leaders play Devil’s Advocate to try and stir up their congregation, to push them to deeper thought and committment to study. On the surface, it makes sense: your congregation believes X, but they can’t exactly say why. So, you question their belief and challenge them to dig deeper, to study more, and to find the answers. You don’t necessarily want them to just believe everything you say, so the ideal is that they’ll go out and learn on their own.

The problem with employing the Devil’s Advocate style in this situation is that it is deeply confusing. A person in a position of authority and trust is challenging without providing answers, and what’s more, they are taking a stance opposite what one might expect. When a pastor brings a can of beer to the service and says, “What’s wrong with drinking this?” then gives lots of examples of how it’s not wrong without any example of how it is… not only is it unBiblical, it’s also emotionally confusing. The hope is there, on the part of the pastor, that the congregation will think for themselves and challenge him/her, but they are listening out of a relationship built on trust, and Devil’s Advocate undermines that trust.

Second, and similar, is the relationship between a manager and his/her employees. I used to see this a lot more, where the manager would oppose the employees to make them think more about their stances or requests. The manager’s goal was to represent all the questions and challenges the employees might encounter from upper management, but the method had an unintended consequence. It communicated to the employees that the manager was their enemy, and since the manager was already in a position of power/authority, it upset the balance between them. The manager can more easily exert their authority, so the employees feel like they have been placed in an even greater position of weakness. They have no allies left but one another.

The more I see the Devil’s Advocate method used, the more I am convinced there are simply better ways to teach or get a point across. In a very limited form, I think the same questions can be asked to challenge people, but the next step should be to answer and solve them collaboratively, to engage people in discussion, and to make sure they know they are not alone. It is not Me vs. You when I ask you a challenging question. Rather, my desire would be that I ask You the question, and We solve it together. Between us, we can perhaps come up with a more complete answer than either of us could have on our own.

Its basic undesirableness is built into its name. Don’t play Devil’s Advocate to the full, for it will completely undermine trust and relationships and leave your students/employees/etc. uncertain of you. Rather, pose the questions, but do it in a collaborative sense. By solving these problems together, you will build an even greater level of trust and likely learn something yourself, rather than just trying to pass knowledge one way.

Religious Compatibilty

A few years ago, some friends of mine had decided that I needed to start dating again (I think I had been single for a couple of years, with a few flings here and there), and introduced me to a number of potential girlfriends. Unfortunately, my friends weren’t Christian, and neither were these girls.

It was the first time I’d really had to confront the question of dating a non-Christian. After converting to Christianity, I had generally accepted that you shouldn’t date a non-Christian, but I had never considered the matter theologically. Beyond the facts of being told not to date a non-Christian, were there other reasons why we shouldn’t? Practical, rather than philosophical reasons?

There are, of course. No long term relationship will work without religious congruity. This was no clearer than in the consideration of having children.

Let’s say you’re Christian, and you date a non-Christian. You get serious, you get married, and kids come along. Important questions arise about how to raise them, what to teach them, questions of morality, what institutions will be involved in their education…

You can’t just take them to church on Sunday morning, because the two of you disagree on more than just denomination, you disagree on core beliefs. You can’t ground morality in the concept of sin and forgiveness. When those awkward teenage years come, you can’t talk about sex in the context of the Bible and explain chastity Biblically, because your mate may (and probably will) disagree with you. Even if they do agree, their reasoning will be different.

At the least, it’d be mixed messages and signals to the kid, leaving them with an ambiguous and likely shifting set of moral instructions. At the worst, they might reject both for lack of a firm foundation. Of course, that’s their choice, and you’d love them anyways, but it goes beyond the kid’s formation.

Such disagreements will cause strain on your relationship with your partner. Even before all this happens, the kids and the education and whatnot, you won’t be able to discuss a variety of topics. When a crisis happens, you won’t be able to pray with your mate about it. You won’t be able to worship together, and if you do, it will always be on your mind that you’re not worshiping the same god. You will know, provided you’re an orthodox Christian, that your mate won’t be in heaven when you get there.

It just doesn’t work in the long run. Being friends with unbelievers is one thing, and I think it’s important and invaluable. A lot of my friends aren’t Christian, and that’s totally OK. But when I looked down the road of dating a non-Christian, it just didn’t seem feasible.

To my mind, you can only truly love when you have been truly loved, and the only One who truly and unconditionally loves is Jesus. If they don’t know him, they can never really know me. I don’t want to be with someone who not only doesn’t, but seriously cannot, know me.

Why would you want to live your life that way?

God’s Patience

It is difficult for me to come at this subject from a non-Christian perspective. When I think about the topic of God’s patience, my initial reaction is, “Well, duh. Obviously he’s patient. Otherwise, why would he put up with us?” That’s what it really comes down to: we screw up on a regular basis, and he continues to not smite us.

I define sin as that which separates us from God. We are plagued by both the original sin we carry from the actions of our forefathers and the habitual sins we commit due to our weakness, ignorance, or willfulness, but God is unwilling to leave us in this state. Next week, I’ll write more on the topic of God choosing us and predestination, but in short, we wouldn’t be Christian if God hadn’t first offered salvation to us. We wouldn’t have chosen God if he hadn’t first chosen us, if for no other reason than that we wouldn’t have realized how good life is with him just on our own. But from the outside looking in, Christianity simply doesn’t make sense.

God’s faithfulness and patience leads us into grace we wouldn’t have otherwise known. And what’s wild is that, even after we have accepted his son Jesus into our lives, we continue to sin against him. We still lust and covet, we lie, we break laws and gossip and avoid anything that might be a burden to us. To varying degrees, we are still separated from him, yet his patience persists.

It is a testament to his love, and greatly encouraging to me. I love him all the more for it, and abide in the comfort of his Church. It is a great mystery to me, why he would put up with someone like me. But he does, and I’m not going to question it too loudly. Instead, I will worship his name and praise his patience. Blessed be the name of the LORD.