They See What They Want to See

When I was at one of my graduate schools, I attended a lecture on Genesis 3. I was talking with a Korean Christian after the lecture, and I was complaining to her about how it did not conform to the typical Christian interpretation. “Genesis 3 is about the fall of man and a Messiah who would come and smash the head of Satan,” I said. “How can he not see that?” Since that time, I have learned that there is more than one way to interpret the text. But the response of that Korean Christian in that conversation has stayed with me until this day, even though I have applied her comment to a variety of different contexts: “He sees what he wants to see.”

Today, I want to discuss how that is true of a lot of evangelicals: they see what they want to see.

Over the past few days, I’ve been talking about a comment that I heard in a college Bible study group that I once attended. The leader said that he was a Christian because he didn’t want to be like non-Christians. For him, non-Christians were bitter, whereas Christians had inner peace.

As I said in my last two posts, there is some value to his statement. But there is also something about it that rubs me the wrong way. Essentially, he was seeing what he wanted to see. If he encounters a non-Christian with the presupposition that all non-Christians are deficient, then he will find deficiency in that person. No one is perfect, after all. He may have some of the same deficiencies himself. Stronger Christians than him may have them as well. But, in his judgment of people, he will find what he wants to find, since he believes that the glasses through which he views life is the God-given truth.

The fact is that there are atheists who are pretty much satisfied with life. And, conversely, there are Christians who can get bitter and disappointed because of the way things are going. Most of us, I’d venture to say, are a mixture of the two emotions. I can find inner peace, kindness, anger, and unforgiveness among both Christians and non-Christians. If I want to place anyone from these two groups in the best or the worst possible light, then I can find enough material to do so.

Plus, who says that all Christians have inner peace? Do all Christians have to wear the same phony, superficial, plastic smile? One thing I like about the Bible is that its authors and characters are real, something that I don’t always find in the Christian world, where many people hide who they really are. For example, the Psalmist doesn’t always walk around with a peaceful, easy feeling. He gets mad with God because of his experiences and the bad world around him. A psychologist would probably prescribe some medication to him if he were alive today. But, ironically, the same person who is honest about his despair can also display pure, genuine, enthusiastic joy. And he does so because he truly loves God and is thankful to him, not because some other Yahwist self-righteously tells him that despair is a sin.

Here’s another area in which a lot of evangelicals see what they want to see: Whenever non-Christians get mad at Christians or Christianity, many evangelicals argue that their anger is rooted in their deeply-held conviction that Christianity is actually right. For example, I know a Christian who told us about a conversation he had with two homosexuals. The homosexuals were angrily putting down Christians and Christianity, and the Christian concluded that they did so because they knew deep-down that the penalty for their lifestyle was death (Romans 1:32). For him, the homosexuals were mad because they knew God’s truth and were thus insecure. So, if a non-Christian agrees with a Christian, then that shows that the Christian is right. And, if the non-Christian angrily disagrees with the Christian, then that also shows that the Christian is right. How can you argue with that?

Also, Christians can get pretty angry too. And, ironically, atheists contend that Christians get mad because they are insecure in their faith, so this sort of argument appears to pop up on both sides. But many Christians justify their anger as righteous indignation. They are like Phinehas, who was so zealous for the glory of God that he angrily killed a few idolaters. So, in the eyes of many Christians, when non-believers are angry, that is because they are insecure. When Christians are angry, that’s because they have righteous indignation. But who’s to say that the non-Christians don’t have righteous indignation of their own? Again, the evangelical who made his judgment about the homosexuals was seeing what he wanted to see.

So those are my observations. And maybe my perceptions themselves are colored with bias. Are there any lessons that one can derive from what I said?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to They See What They Want to See

  1. FT says:

    I think your observations are pretty sound. They are worth holding on to.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hey, hey, I see you have a post-WCG web site. Did you know that I grew up in that tradition? My experience was good and bad, though I know people whose experiences were mostly bad.


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