Possessing obsessions

Our obsessions are as varied as our possessions. They may consist of a favored doctrinal emphasis, a favored Church program, or even a “trademark” leadership style. Having pride in these things, we sometimes polish them carefully and stand especially ready to defend them. Sometimes, if only unconsciously, we even cultivate a cheering and reinforcing constituency which, perhaps unintentionally, encourages us in our obsessions. To us, sooner or later, it will be said, “One thing thou lackest” (Mark 10:21). It is possible to have illegitimate pride in a legitimate role or in a deserved reputation. Such pride must go, for we are servants of Him who lived His unique life as a person of “no reputation” (Philippians 2:7). Every obsession or preoccupation must give way in total submission. Only when we try to subdue our obsessions or preoccupations do we see how powerful they have become.

–          Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will But Thine

So much of the world functions based upon reputation—my medical practice could not long survive the death of my reputation among either peers or patients. Academic work or scientific research is assessed by peer review, by those best placed to know its value or see its flaws.

All commerce functions, ultimately, on a bedrock of trust, often unspoken but always present. And, there are some reputations we ought to seek and cultivate—I always admire people, for example, of whom it is said that their word is their bond. The decline of honor-based culture has many advantages, but the loss of the “word of honor” which a man would rather die than forsake is one of the unfortunate casualties.

The spiritual risks

Despite this, there is risk (as always) if we import these preoccupations or priorities into our spiritual life. Wanting to please others can lead us to avoid doing what we must. Or, we might do what we ought not.

Speaking the hard truths will not endear one to the cheering consistencies, especially when they learn that they have no leverage. “He is not one of us,” they will decide, and they ought to be right. But, being uncontrollable by the normal techniques is not something that those preoccupied by reputation understand or appreciate. (And, they will do what they can to destroy the reputation of any such—presumably because they cannot understand how anyone could not ultimately be motivated as they are. And, in the circles they move in, attacking reputation is always an effective tactic.)

Our obsessions can include a tendency to reduce everything to a single issue, to see any event through a particular lens. These lenses are typically ideological: we see everything through its implications for gender politics, or gay rights, or as Nietzschean power plays, or the Republican Party. None of these concerns is evil in and of itself, but they can quickly warp our perspective and worship if they become the matter to which all is ultimately reduced.

I worry about those for whom the Church must always change because of their politics, and for whom there is never a case in which their politics changes because of the Church.

The flip side

On the other hand, we can excuse our own rough edges or interpersonal incompetence by blaming the victims—just because the righteous are persecuted, it does not follow that if we are disliked that we are therefore righteous.

After all, jerks are not usually popular either.

How much more reason, then, to subject our motives and priorities to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We like to argue about whether motives or outcomes matter. The answer is simple: they both do.