In my life, I’ve found conviction can become confused with passion pretty easily.
My church’s motto is, “In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty; In All Things, Charity” (Origin: Rupertus Meldenius, theologian, 17th Century). I treat conviction similarly to the “essentials” of Christianity; in other words, only the established, authoritative truth of God’s word should fuel my conviction on any topic. My passion, however, is tied more directly to my unique design, the gifts and character God has given me, and my experience and wisdom (or lack thereof). As such, my passion is more like a “non-essential” that, while valid and full of potential to bring glory to God, is still vulnerable to error and must be subject to correction. Any contention of mine I present as a conviction I also ought to be able to demonstrate outside myself with sound interpretation of God’s word; otherwise, my contention slides into the passion category – no less valuable, just less authoritative.
Many arguments between true followers of the Lord Jesus result in fracturing unity because the parties fail to observe these distinctions. I have certainly fallen to this error many times, allowing my passion-based position to overwhelm my wisdom, particularly when I sense I am losing the argument. Can you identify? At some point, when the tide shifts and I lack a suitably decisive retort to a challenge, the temptation to leap from passion to conviction dangles appealingly. It’s almost irresistable. I go for it, display either anger or arrogance, feel my breathing quicken and take an emotional swing or two at my opponent with whatever doctrinal bat is handy. What has happened?
The fuel for this outcome was actually ignited earlier, before the debate began. If I am passionate about a position, it’s almost always because I’ve walked through a process of experience and discovery which has made me so. The sense of ownership of my argument is extremely high, its tenets nearly inextricably intertwined with my grasp of my own identity. Consequently, any contrary response, perceived or actual, presents a potential threat to my identity. Any latent fear in our spiritual and emotional backpacks chafes and weakens our ability and willingness to listen to the Spirit’s warning. Whether we decide the threat is real or reject it is a measure of our own maturity and confidence in our relationship with God in that particular moment.
The contrast with true conviction is dramatic. With real conviction, fear is absent, no threat is felt, and authority is readily available. Fear and threats are no-shows because the sense of ownership is representative instead of personal. The authority for the conviction comes not from our personal experience or desires, but from the Bible. Consequently, and even more powerfully, there can be no loss of unity: If those opposed come to see the truth and soundness of the application, unity is increased; if the response is rejection of truth, then the other’s position has been exposed as misguided passion vs. conviction, and the engagement transitions from debate to correction, still serving unity.
Of course, while God’s word is the authority and speaks clearly to many topics, there are some issues where liberty is called for (“In non-essentials, liberty”). Again, in the instance where these passionate positions are debated in a healthy way, unity is preserved because neither party’s identity is threatened; neither approaches the other with their belief’s validity tied tightly to “victory.” In some ways, this can actually “supercharge” unity because the discovery that honor and disagreement are not mutually exclusive brings tremendous peace.
As Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13 described, God’s love is the greatest power, the oxygen to our actions and relationships (“In all things, charity”). Without love, our arguments fail, even if we “win.” That’s why we sense such synergy within God’s living word, between the meaning of faith in God, hope, peace, and unity. They are God’s character, the products of pursuing his glory and pleasure. Conversely, fear, despair, hatred and murder (see Matthew 5:21-22) lead to and are born from pursuing solely my glory and pleasure without the Lord. It’s the familiar war: New creation or old; love or selfishness; grace or judgment; Spirit or flesh.
So where do we go from here? First, figure out which you want to be. Do you want to be in the stream of life, giving refreshment to others and breathing deeply of the glory of Jesus together? Or do you want to lie in the slough of death, never getting clean and pulling others in to keep you company in misery? Seems like an obvious decision put that way, but it really is that simple. This isn’t a game, and that is the spiritual reality each one of us faces. It’s time to decide. This world and this perpetual moment of choice won’t last forever – God’s word is definitely clear on that.
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