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But . . . I need more nuance!!

I was having a Facebook discussion with a good friend this past weekend and I mentioned that sometimes I feel like I’m always the one saying “But . . . ” when I hear black-and-white statements. Anyone else ever have this problem? I immediately think of scenarios when Statement X wouldn’t apply or think about all the times when life just doesn’t play out that simply. It seems we’re naturally attracted to the binary. It’s beautiful, it’s clear and it gets rid of all those pesky nuances and ambiguities in real life.

My desire for more nuance happens most often in church. So often messages get simplified right when I want to see them spun out and examined from all angles. I know it’s often not practical or possible within the constraints of a short three point sermon. Wishing we could explore all the tangents and details that possibly relate is probably one of the consequences of being a non-linear thinker. And a Third Culture Kid. And a twin. I grew up in a world where there was always another side (or 3 or 5) to every issue, differing views that I had to acknowledge more often than I wanted to.

In our Sunday school class at church, we’re going through Ecclesiastes. It’s a fascinating book that has a lot to say about work and meaning in life. Our pastor’s doing a great job with it, so don’t take this as criticism. It’s just that Ecclesiastes is such a great example of the balance we never attain. You can take a blanket statement from one passage and find an exact opposite one in another passage. In one breath, the writer says all work is meaningless and in the next he says there is nothing better than for a man to find enjoyment in his work.

And that’s exactly where this gets so tricky. When we get to the application part, there often isn’t just one application for everyone. One half of the class might need to be told contentment is an attitude to be cultivated rather than thinking just getting a new job will solve your problems. But the other half might need to hear that their contentment is really complacency; an excuse that is keeping them from the action they should take. Maybe they’re supposed to be out there looking for new opportunities.

Speaking to the tension seems next to impossible. Speakers have to decide what to emphasize, based on what they think the audience needs. Their perception of the needs will come from their personal experience, background and personality. This is totally natural. It just means I’m often the one sitting in the audience saying, “But what about the other position?” Occasionally, speakers do acknowledge that “on the other hand, some of you might . . .” but it’s difficult to truly address all the nuances when you’re speaking to a large group of unique individuals. You don’t want to confuse people with conflicting messages right?

I think this is why small group settings and individual mentoring are so important. In a smaller group, we can take principles and discuss them in the context of particulars. We can discuss angles and perspectives in the midst of our real daily situations and wrestle with the fact that we’re all at different places facing different spiritual challenges.

While small group settings can do some good in balancing between extremes, I feel like it’s something we could spend more time acknowledging in the large group settings as well. So much of faith is about learning to hold two extremes in balance. The Lion and the Lamb. Grace and Truth. Mercy and Justice. Love and Judgment. Comfort and Call. Head and Heart. Being created “very good” in the image of God and being sinful with “hearts that are deceitful above all things.”

We all fluctuate, at one time needing one message, at another time the exact opposite. Sorting out which one we need to hear can be difficult – it’s so easy to only hear what we want to hear. That’s why we so desperately need a discerning community, one that can declare truth and then also explore all the nuances. One that can course-correct when we tip the scales too far in only one direction. Ecclesiastes 7:18 even says, “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.” Sometimes it feels like an agonizing tight-rope walk that we’ll never get right.

Do you relate? Have a story to share? What are your thoughts on this?

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  • JessicaSchafer

    Excellent post, Tash! I wholeheartedly agree that more time should be spent looking at the nuances in the large group. By not at least acknowledging the possibility of nuance and opposing experiences in a large group, pastors are actually doing their congregations a disservice. Unfortunately, the desire to not confuse people also means that people aren’t being taught how to recognize and hold their tensions or how to accept and not be threatened by the tensions of others. Even if nuance is being addressed in small groups and with mentors, it seems that the general message churches are too often receiving is that black and white thinking is best, one interpretation/application is right and if the message doesn’t match your experience, its probably your experience that’s abnormal rather than the message.

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