In Praise of Simple-Mindedness

Simplicity

 

I’m becoming simple-minded.

 

And it’s a good thing.

 

Well, mostly. Some of my simple-mindedness is just old-fashioned stupidity, a failure to grasp the obvious. I spent, for instance, considerable time on the phone last Saturday morning with a con artist posing as a Microsoft rep. It took me almost an hour to confirm my initial hunch that he was the modern equivalent of a highway robber. When I finally hung up, I promised myself to be shrewder next round.

 

To be less simple-minded.

 

But there is a simple-mindedness I desire, and need, and can’t get enough of. It’s singleness of heart. It’s purity of devotion. It’s uncomplicated affection. It’s giving myself wholly and freely, without calculation or manipulation, to the One who gives himself wholly and freely to me, and it’s loving others without agenda or ulterior motive.

 

Let’s call it simplicity, and let’s name its opposite: duplicity. Duplicity is double-dealing. It’s being two things – a pretend self, polite and pious, parading in the spotlight, and the real you, devious and spiteful, crouching in the shadows. Duplicity is treachery. It is posing.

 

An example, from the gospel of Luke.

 

Keeping a close watch on him (that is, on Jesus), they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?”

He saw through their duplicity and said to them,  “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent (Luke 20:20-26; my emphasis).

This is such a great story, not least because it serves up such a clear distinction between shrewdness and duplicity. Jesus is shrewd. The spies are duplicitous. Shrewdness sees through, duplicity hides behind. Shrewdness exposes, duplicity evades. The duplicitous sets traps, and the shrewd catch them in them. I wish I’d had such shrewdness with the fake Microsoft rep. Such shrewdness is a virtue.

Not so duplicity, and this story is also great because it gives us a vivid portrait of duplicity in action. Duplicity’s hallmark is the contrast, comical if not so tragic, between words and thoughts. Note the gushing flattery from these men’s lips, and yet the treachery in their hearts. They’re spies pretending to be students, betrayers posing as believers, stoolies acting as seekers.

And the key symptom of that is this abyss-wide gap between their words and their thoughts. Their words hide rather than reveal their intent. Their words mislead rather than disclose. Their mouths speak love while their hearts plot destruction. What is said and what is thought bear zero resemblance to each other.

Jesus sees through it. He knows their duplicity. The word in the Greek for duplicity – panourgian (literally “all act”) – indicates Gollum-like trickery. The outward bearing is all façade. It’s utter sham. It’s all act.

Which is the exact opposite of simplicity, where what you see is what you get, and what is said is what is meant.

Add love to this, and a revolution is underway.

There is too wide a gap, for most of us, between what we say and what we mean. Between our words and our thoughts. The first thing the Prophet Isaiah said when he saw the living and exalted God was, “Woe is me, I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah was one of the most godly men who ever walked the earth. But seeing God, he sees also, abrupt and stark and grief-making, his own duplicity. Then God does what only God can do: he sears his lips clean (Isaiah 6:6-7).

 

And herein lies our hope: truly seeing God, we truly see ourselves, in all our woe-begotten duplicity; but crying out to God, we are truly and greatly helped.

 

So how then shall we live? The Apostle Paul, urging the church to attain to “the measure of the fullness of Christ” and to no longer be “tossed back and forth and blown here and there… by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” lays out a basic condition: “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:14-16).

 

It’s a lofty vision: being a people whose every word conveys truth and love in equal measure, one never diminishing the other. It’s a vision of a people free of duplicity, within and without, neither practicing it nor falling prey to it. A people whose words and thoughts exactly align, and the whole thing steeped in love.

 

I long to be part of a church like that.

 

All it will take is all of us being gloriously simple-minded.

Are You Stoning Your Prophets?

 

It’s folly to stone your prophets.

Yet I see it all the time: people (I include myself here) who deal with unwelcome truth by rejecting the truth-teller. The child who denounces his mother for telling him his behavior is unacceptable. The employee who grouses about her boss for giving her a less than sterling review. The wife who harangues her husband for asking her to cease her gossip, or the husband who berates his wife for asking him to be kinder.

You know the beat.

There is some device in us that resists truth and resents those who bring it. The device is very active in my own brain. I can feel my hackles rising, my breath shortening, my jaw clenching, and my mind racing as soon as I see the slightest criticism coming my way. I start thinking up excuses before I even know what I’m excusing.

One of the best disciplines I’m learning is to turn off the device. Or at least ignore it. I’m teaching myself, not just to not resist honest criticism: I’m teaching myself to actively seek it and wholeheartedly welcome it. A question I’m asking people more and more: “Is there anything about me you wish I’d change?”

And then I take a breath.

And then I get an earful.

It’s rarely as bad as I dreaded. It’s always better than I hoped. It’s usually fair and accurate. In the end, it’s always life-giving – which the Bible says is a sign of true rebuke.

So far, I’ve been talking about criticism from people who love you. From those who want your best.

But let me push this even further. What do you do with harsh criticism? With the snipes of the cranky, self-appointed prophet – the accuser in the guise of a prophet? With the attacks of your enemy? With the barbs of the one who wants the worst for you?

Here’s a hard truth: they may be right. The day King David fled Jerusalem at the advance of his son Absolom’s revolt, an old embittered enemy – Shimei – followed him and taunted him all the way. He hurled rocks and dirt at David. He unleashed a brutal litany of curses and accusations.

David’s response? I think God is telling me something here.

God sometimes uses the mouth of an enemy to tell us what we refused to hear from the mouth of a friend. When we stone our prophets, it’s actually grace when God sends a foe to take his place.

Next week. I’ll to write about responding to criticism. But I wonder if you have a story of when God has used a friend, or maybe an enemy, to tell you a hard truth?