The prolific Evangelical writer Adrian Plass, best known for his gentle satires of Christian foibles, invents in one of his books a short ditty:
Freely I confess my sins,
For God has poured his grace in.
But when another lists my faults,
I want to smash his face in.
Many a true word spoke in jest, and all that. However hard it may be for me to kneel in the confessional and state my worst weaknesses, to have my flaws pointed out to me by someone else, especially someone close to me or someone whose good opinion matters to me, can be agonising. It shouldn’t be, of course. “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,” reads Proverbs 12:1, “but he who hates reproof is stupid.”
Elsewhere in Proverbs — that extraordinary and often uncomfortable storehouse of wisdom and instruction — we are told: “Reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” That is to say, being able to listen carefully when you are challenged, and appreciating your challenger, is a proof of wisdom.
I’ve often thought that one of the great challenges in life is to work out whose opinion we should bother about, and in what circumstances. Well-meaning people sometimes encourage others with phrases, like: “Don’t mind what anyone else thinks,” or, “Go your own way, don’t follow the crowd.”
This is not terrible advice on the whole, but it risks making people unable or unwilling to accept and recognise their need for guidance, advice and criticism, to adopt a mindset where we refuse to accept a perfectly good explanation or answer that is given to us.
If I don’t pay any attention to what my wife thinks about my behaviour, or what my boss says about my work, then I am neglecting important duties, even if I justify it by claiming to be some kind of freethinking maverick who won’t be told how to live. It’s good to be independent-minded, but only up to a point.
As I used to say to school pupils when I did talks for a pro-life charity, it’s all very well asking difficult questions, as long as you’re actually willing to listen to the answers. GK Chesterton puts it this way: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Honesty and clarity about our own failings, and intellectual honesty about what we do and do not know, are closely linked.
Social media, which have become such a dominant means of public discourse during the last decade and a half, militate strongly against genuine self-knowledge. They also encourage an ultimately nihilistic and irrational search for people who offend against fast-changing social codes.
This often goes under the rubric of “cancel culture” and it is striking that it has arisen at the same time as the sharp decline in Christian faith in Western countries.
“When public morality becomes a ghost town, anyone can ride in and declare himself sheriff,” to use the colourful metaphor adopted by writer Ed West.
We have abandoned the self-examination and self-accusation demanded by traditional Christian faith, but are unable to escape the awareness of sin; so, instead of turning the moral searchlight on ourselves, we constantly seek for others who are committing real or imaginary infractions to satisfy our sense of justice without compromising our own self-image as A Good Person.
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