Beware of cancelling yourself

Emma Wilkins has noticed a trend in how we approach our faith journey

It’s remarkable how quickly and completely a public hero can become a public enemy these days. Whether the catalyst is one shocking revelation or a series of them, cancel culture sees a chain reaction transform depictions of who a person is, and was, with devastating speed.

It’s easier, it seems, to view everything a person ever did through one new tainted lens, than to try and understand the true extent of their transgression and its reach. Disentangling truth from lies takes thought and time; incorporating new information into an existing story is hard work; scrapping the old to substitute the new can be faster and simpler.

I’ve noticed the tendency to replace one perspective with another, without pausing to consider more nuanced possibilities, in Christian circles too. In particular, I’ve observed some people dismantling their faith to start from scratch – when they could incorporate new perspectives into an existing framework. Others are speaking about the faith of their youth in a way that extolls the virtues of their perspective and perceptions now that it’s matured, as opposed to then when it was new, in a way that does a sad disservice to the past.

Maybe it’s just easier to pit naive optimism, evangelistic zeal and a passion for truth against a wiser, more loving approach, than to highlight both at once.

Don’t get me wrong. Stories that contrast then and now can be an inspiration. I love hearing about people gaining insight and knowledge, changing for the better and growing in grace; and I find honest takes on past mistakes winsome. But I start to feel uncomfortable when a Christian speaks about the faith of their youth as something they replaced rather than something that’s progressed. It’s as if they’ve sold a charming but dilapidated house when really they’ve kept the foundations and done some ‘repairs’, or added a level and knocked out a wall.

In a conversion story – where the plot’s nothing less than being born again, when many old and new ways of thinking are completely and genuinely antithetical – a dramatic contrast makes sense. It also makes for good story-telling: all-or-nothing, then-versus-now narratives have more drama than plodding tales of slow and steady sanctification.

But as Christians, we need to treat all truth carefully, and stories about how we’ve changed our minds on how to best evangelise (for example) shouldn’t be framed simply as ‘good versus bad’ — or ‘ignorant versus enlightened’, or ‘head versus heart’ — if doing so warps the truth or patronises fellow believers who are at a different stage.

It’s ironic when an older Christian appears to have far greater awareness of complexity and nuance now, only by simplifying and reducing a then which was really quite wondrous; and it’s worrying if the take-home point becomes less about how God uses and grows us at every stage of our lives, and more about how much wiser and more winsome we are now.

Even if it’s far from our intention, we can still give that impression — especially in divisive times.

Let’s not imply that when we were zealous and idealistic but lacked tact, God was less able to work in and through us …

I thought and operated differently in my early 20s than I do in my late 30s, but not all aspects were worse or are better; some are just different. Some were appropriate then but aren’t now, and some lessons couldn’t be taken as advice; they had to be learned through first-hand experience and first-hand mistakes.

Karen Swallow Prior, a Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the US, says the problem of attributing too much agency to ourselves is all too common in the modern church. She urges us to resist over-emphasising individual moments in favour of appreciating an “accumulation of moments”.

Whether we’re talking about our initial conversion or a way in which God has changed us since, let’s beware of giving ourselves too much agency. Let’s be open and honest about past mistakes, but let’s not imply that when we were zealous and idealistic but lacked tact, God was less able to work in and through us than he is now we’re older and (a little bit, we hope) wiser.

God has used us in the past, despite numerous faults and limitations, and is using us now, despite numerous faults and limitations. He’s sovereign over every triumph and every mistake. He was sanctifying us when we were first saved and he sanctifies us now. The work is his, not ours, because our faith isn’t merely an outworking of our intellect or experience or emotions, it’s a gift.

Emma Wilkins is a Tasmanian journalist and freelance writer.