Youth Pastor: Are You a Controversy Addict?
Just before Christmas I wrote a post discussing what we mean when we call our Bible a sword. As a postscript I added the thoughts below, but after further reflection—and as a recovering controversy addict myself—I think these thoughts are worth standing on their own and expanding, which is the point of this post.
That said, this is a scary post for two reasons: It boldly calls something out—which should always be done with gentleness and respect; and it includes some of the narrative of one of the biggest battles of my life—which is monumentally exposing. But God is good—and I hope this is helpful to someone.
Are you a controversy addict?
Do you desire the Bible to be a weapon? Do you try to justify rude, blunt, confrontational, quarrelsome disagreements among brothers and sisters using theological language? Why?
Is it a buzz?
Wait with that thought for a second…do you get the buzz from being involved in controversy?
The beginning of addiction
I spent a bit of time on debate teams when I was younger. We were taught to exploit every possible weakness, and to polarize views to their extremes in order to win. Neither conversational progress, nor the deepening of understanding, was the objective. Iron-sharpening-iron was not on the agenda. The objective was to win the argument—and I was very good at it.
The victories and the point-by-counterpoint take downs came with a surprising adrenaline rush that is hard to forget. I know exactly what it feels like to ’emerge supreme’ from a debate. It’s a buzz. A real physical and emotional rush.
After a while, this came with both a physiological release of dopamine and an existential sense of self worth. These two things made it incredibly addictive.
It felt good—and it made me feel good about me!
A growing issue fueled by discontentment
For some of us, this rush of ‘rightness’ and ‘winning’ can eventually change into a much healthier shape within the context of our faith. We grow more mature and nuanced, seeking goodness and edification over simply being right. For others of us though, it can subversively become the primary mover in our lives and as such becomes a true addiction.
As an addiction, it is fed by discontentment.
Things like bad church experiences, poor health, a sheltered or stymied upbringing, a consistent feeling of isolation, a sense that you are always misunderstood, or even an above average IQ mixed with social awkwardness—can all lead to a broad experience of discontentment.
This, when ‘treated’ by the balm of the rush of winning an argument, or trying to be always right, or constantly in the know, will turn that rush into an addictive defense mechanism. We become couch-commentators and pew-bound back seat pastors, stewing in our own hyper-logical, negative energy-soaked discontentment. And it goes unnoticed because we have dressed it up in the language of ‘holiness.’
This is probably the same thing that makes us want to pull people down rather than build them up. It’s the thing that makes us reach—sometimes desperately and wildly—for controversy over edification. It’s what makes us look for the problems with everywhere we go and every talk we hear. It makes us always need to have something to say, even if means slipping off to goggle, then pretending we just ‘knew’ it.
Subversively replacing ‘normal’ behavior
This need to be constantly right, smart and winning really can be genuinely addictive, and when it becomes so, it can easily replace ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ human behavior and it can surround us with a self-delusional air of justification. Let’s make no bones about it, it is self-delusional, and the only people who thinks it’s normal is us, or fellow addicts.
Some of us—myself included—love to poke holes in a position while building a watertight alternative. There can be some goodness in that when surrendered to God to be used in its right place. However, if this is not motivated by the great commission, moved foremost and uppermost by love for Jesus and people, and then delivered in gentleness and prudence, then it really counts for squat. It’s worse than nothing—it’s actually idolatry because we’re making ourselves out to be the thing most valued and praised.
Being right, even about Gospel truths, can become sinful and disconnected from God.
Is this you?
Think about it for a minute. Do you have fake debates in your head? Do you argue with strawman opponents when alone in the car ?
Do you feel primarily compassion or urgency when you hear something you think is incorrect?
Do you sum up huge swaths of people into tightly categorized and broadly reduced a-personal units?
Do you use social media platforms, younger audiences and impressionable people to try out your views where they are easy to defend, edit and impress?
Do you write people off quickly, or summarize them totally before you have a chance to be a brother or sister to them?
Bottom line: Are you on an adrenaline fueled, self-image-enhancing crusade for ‘rightness’ or a compassion-driven commission by Jesus for truth? What motivates your corrections and what focuses your criticisms? Is it Jesus, or is there something else going on?
So, what do I do?
I talk boldly here as an addict. I’ve been in the worst depths of these places and know exactly what it’s like to love ‘rightness’ more than I love righteousness. Or—frankly—more than I love Jesus. I know what it’s like to appear superior, rather than pursue humility—and I still struggle with these passions daily. I’ve been praying for God to change the shape of my heart in these areas for years—which is why I quit my debate team.
This is also why I don’t debate on Facebook, don’t post thoughtless provoking memes, don’t talk politics unless it’s face-to-face, try to hear each position for the first time when a new person shares it as their own, and try my best to ask more questions during a disagreement than just give answers. It’s flipping hard (especially that last one), but it allows me to surrender myself and others to Jesus much more readily. He really doesn’t need me to defend Him, after all. Just love Him, love others and pursue the great commission.
If your overwhelming passion—when you’re totally honest with yourself—is to be ‘right,’ then it might be that you need to take a personal inventory and rediscover your first love for Jesus.
Or—moment of truth—it might just be that this Christianity thing isn’t what you were looking for, and isn’t what you thought it was. Think about it, does your faith primarily ignite your heart or feed your addiction? If the latter, then it’s probably not the faith Jesus gave.
Maybe you need to let Christianity out of the ego-shaped box you’ve put it in and actually surrender to the living Christ afresh…or even for the first time.
I say this very carefully, but as someone who has gotten this wrong far more than he has gotten it right. I’ve decided, however, to follow Jesus—this means I have to want Him to be praised and loved more than I want to be right. Hopefully, under His grace and leading, I can be both, but I know which way I need the balance to tip. It’s a journey—but it’s the right one to walk.
I’ve been tackling this issue personally and directly for about 12 years now—since it was identified in me. I keep cutting off heads and finding new ones but the battle is well worth it and God is so good!
If this is you—please, look it in the face and seek more of God in your life and less of you. Talk to friends, seek community membership (not always leadership), listen more, speak less, slow down and ask God to melt your heart with His love. It will be so much better!
Thanks for reading. 🙂
This article originally appeared here.