I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately. It’s a short, punchy word that gets straight to the point, and I think it’s an important point to consider. You can put almost any descriptor in front of "jerk" and it retains its meaning. Beautiful jerk. Correct jerk. Polite jerk. Brilliant jerk. The possibilities are endless, and here’s the point: it is quite possible to be great things and a jerk at the same time. It’s possible to make a sound point in a conversation as a jerk. It’s possible to have sound theology as a jerk. It’s possible to be a high-scoring seminarian-jerk.
As I’ve meditated on this strange phenomenon, I’ve reached the conclusion that one of the most overlooked spiritual disciplines—especially for seminarians and those who are more theologically-minded—is the conscious effort to not be a jerk. “Pursue humility” is another way of saying it, but I think “don’t be a jerk” cuts to the heart in a way jerks need (speaking from experience as a recovering jerk).
Man-Fearing or Neighbor-Loving?
Let me illustrate my point with an example from the world of comedy. Now, stand-up comedy is becoming an increasingly difficult entertainment space to occupy as a Christian. My wife and I lose our minds when we see “TV-14” or “TV-PG” next to a comedy special on Netflix. But there are still comedians out there who can be consistently depended upon to make you laugh with an intact conscience. Jim Gaffigan does that for me. Once a comedian has gained your trust as a consistently funny performer, your expectations correspond with that trust. So, when you see him stroll across the platform, you gear up in preparation to laugh. You expect to be tickled.
This happens in all relationships, not merely in distant ones like those between professional comedians and their fans. Your habitual behavior towards others produces expectations. For better or worse, others develop impressions of you that are largely, though not always, informed by your consistent patterns of verbal and non-verbal communication. My expectation when I see Jim Gaffigan is to laugh. And I think it’s important, from time to time, to ask ourselves what people expect from us, and how those expectations are informed by our consistent behaviors.
What do I elicit from others? Flinching? Dread? The expectation to be belittled or cut down or insulted or railed at or lectured?
Now, there is a danger if this exercise is taken too far. Ear-tickling, people-pleasing, man-fearing, truth-compromising, and all that. But I think it’s entirely possible (necessary for faithfulness, in fact) to be absolutely unwavering on convictional truth matters and still give people the expectation to receive love and compassion from you.
Ray Ortlund is a great example. What Jim Gaffigan does for my expectation to laugh, Ray Ortlund does for my expectation to be encouraged. And anyone who knows the preaching ministry of Ray will know that the accusation of ear-tickling won’t stick—he is a faithful preacher, which means he preaches hard, convicting, sin-naming, rebuking words because those are the Bible’s words. But you never have to guess whether or not he preaches those difficult words as a lover of his audience. He loves people. He has compassion for people, even while offending them with the gospel. I want to be like that. I want for people to consistently expect compassion and care from me because that’s what they consistently and genuinely receive from me.
On the Spiritual Discipline of Not Being a Jerk
The problem is our convictions, in and of themselves, often do offend others. That’s okay. Occasionally, it's even good. If no one ever finds offense by your words and beliefs, it’s because you’re either dishonest or a jellyfish, neither of which are commendable. This notwithstanding, we should not just assume that if people dread interacting with us it is because the truth in our words sting. That might be the case. Or maybe people dread interacting with us because we are jerks. Faithfulness isn’t merely a matter of what we believe and communicate, but how we communicate what we believe.
This is a perennial concern for me because I routinely find myself sympathizing with positions that are often associated with jerks. Allow me to catalogue for you my greatest hits of controversial positions.
- I am a Calvinist. And not just the under-the-breath, kind-of-embarrassed-to-say-it-out-loud kind of Calvinist. I’m a black-coffee Calvinist who happens to think that “L” is one of the tulip’s loveliest peddles.
- I’m a complementarian.
- I still believe in penal substitutionary atonement.
- I am persuaded by the arguments of family integrated worship on Sunday mornings.
- I am sympathetic to the arguments for classical Christian education, and in all likelihood, my wife and I will educate our children according to that model.
- As if all that wasn’t “asking for it” enough, my position on divorce and remarriage is the one everybody thinks is too mean—it's that “no-remarriage” position that you thought only John Piper held with a straight face.
Now, if you found yourself hooting and hollering as you read any of the above, read these words carefully: don’t be a jerk. Seriously.
The camps represented by all of the topics I just described are stereotypically characterized as mean for a reason. Our people hurt people. We are the ones who often fail to care for the human beings we talk to more than we care about proving them wrong. It should bother us that the fruit of our pet-theologies are consistently hard, unkind, abrasive people who demonstrate zero compassion for those who disagree.
Hold your position with grace and humility, and never let it become more precious to you than the person you’re talking to about it. Love people. I mean really love them. Be compassionate. Be empathetic. And maintain proportion, because, believe it or not, you can worship alongside a person who disagrees with you about the doctrines of grace, or education, or gender roles in the home, without compromising. Furthermore, you can communicate your position to that same person without belittling or bullying them. On the flipside, it’s possible to hold the correct position in an argument and yet be the one in the wrong simply by communicating the right thing as a jerk.
Of course, it never feel this way, especially for the budding theologians who fill our seminaries. New discoveries of theological topics abound, and the process of developing conviction is intoxicating. When we go down a rabbit hole that opens us up to a whole new exciting conversation, we throw ourselves into the study. That’s good. Studying should be exciting, and it’s right for research topics to enjoy a large portion of our thoughts for a time. The problem is, after having thought little of anything besides the topic in question for months, our conviction on that topic begins to overshadow everything else. We feel justified beating every person over the head with our position because “It’s the truth, and truth matters!” Every hill begins to look like a good spot to die. In other words, we begin thinking that if we are correct jerks, our correctness will outweigh our jerkiness. Our conviction begins to resemble a hammer, and people begin to resemble nails. But people are not nails.
If we aren’t careful, church unity will be sacrificed for pet-theologies, and the bar for what constitutes as a church-splitting-worthy issue will take a nose dive into a valley that only other seminarians know even exists. That is worse than being wrong about *insert your theological hobby horse.* Calvinists are not the only ones who need cages. And even though the seminary classroom is a cage-free farm, seminarian, remember to get back into your cage before you go to church. The Body of Christ will thank you for it.