When Communication Breaks Down

A recent incident upset me considerably. I’ll describe it later, but first I want to talk about some of the thoughts that came to me as I analysed what had happened. I still find it hard to understand how two people with good intentions can become so incensed by a conversation that they agree not to speak to each other again, but it happened. And neither of those people did anything wrong. What happened was all about misunderstanding and miscommunication. I’ve seen the issues before, in my life, in church, and in society. There are many ways that communication can break down. Here are three that I see most often. I know I’ve discussed them with friends before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve written about them too, in other contexts.

Simple v Complicated

I’ve been frustrated so many times when I see people consider a simple thing as complicated, or a very complicated thing as simple. I do it myself, especially the first of those, as I have a strong tendency to overthink. It becomes a problem when a “simplifier” and a “complicator” can’t see the validity of each other’s perspective.

There are a couple of Biblical examples to illustrate the point. Actually you could probably use just about any scriptural extract for this purpose, but these are my go-to examples.

First, Genesis, and specifically creation. The simple view is that God created the heavens and the earth, and everything in them, in six twenty-four hour days, and we know this because the Bible – the Word of God – tells us so. A more complicated interpretation is that this is a poetic representation of creation, written to explain our place in the universe, and the thought and design that went into it. The complicated view says that we can use scientific tools and methods to explore the physical nature of the universe and its origin, but that scripture tells us the meaning behind it, and its spiritual nature.

I subscribe to the “complicated” view. I don’t believe God has allowed us to be so fooled by false evidence or assumptions that everything science has explained so far is wrong. On the other hand, I accept that none of us were here at the point of creation, and there can always be room for doubt, so I wouldn’t mock anyone for having a “simple” literal view, but I would expect them to respect my opinion, and appreciate our common ground – our understanding that “In the beginning, God…”

Second, there is the whole notion of “Christian living.” Here, the complicated view is what you hear in churches across the world for 20-60 minutes every week. It’s what you read in the thousands of Christian books published every year, of which I’ve bought plenty. It’s everywhere, all the time, explaining how we should respond to the difficult moments in our lives, or the beautiful moments, or the big issues in a changing world. It’s what I’ve written about in most, if not all, of my blog posts.

The simple view is Matthew 22:37-40 – Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I haven’t always done so, but I now subscribe to the “simple” view. Why should I tie myself in knots wondering what God thinks of every decision I make, or whether I’m saved, or what happens after I die, or why there is evil? The best I can do, in fact all I can really do, is to try to love God and people. That’s hard enough sometimes! And I fail often, but I’ll keep trying, because in my heart I know it’s right. The other questions interest me, obviously, or I wouldn’t keep writing about them, but if I devote too much time to studying them in hope of finding a complete answer, I’ll be losing the opportunity to live the abundant life Jesus promised me. Some people find the very meaning of their lives in studying the hard questions, and that’s fine, but sometimes apparently “thoughtful” interpretations of the Bible lead to “simplistic” and dangerous outcomes where I have to question just what some people think it means to love your neighbour. That’s a topic for several other posts.

You don’t need a faith to struggle with simple v complicated. In the political world it happens all the time, particularly when complex interconnected socio-economic issues are reduced into politically convenient soundbites. In community life I feel that the opposite is more common, as we make simplistic judgements and assumptions about people without regard to the complicated difficulties they may be facing behind closed doors.

God (and the devil) v Humanity

Is the heading too controversial? I don’t think so, because I think many people have peculiar and irrational ideas about the balance of natural and supernatural input to our lives.

On the one hand, I’m bound to say that an atheist, or really anyone who lives as if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, is storing up trouble for themselves. I don’t want to fall into a simple/complicated trap and suggest that I or anyone can be sure of the consequences. I just believe that God is real, and does care, and so I think it’s wise to live with that in mind. But people can go too far the other way.

I’ve said many times in this blog that God is not a puppet-master. We are free agents who can make any choice we wish – including the choice to submit ourselves completely and become “slaves of Christ.” I do believe that God will sometimes open doors – but we choose whether to walk through them. He sometimes stirs our spirits in a particular direction, but we choose whether to acknowledge those stirrings or to go our own way. I’ve no doubt that occasionally God will make a direct intervention, and put someone in a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose. But His plan for His creation doesn’t depend on any one of us, nor does He hand us each the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and expect us to put the pieces together. I’ve seen people waste years of their lives waiting for God to speak or act, or trying to work out what God’s purpose is for them. If only He would whisper in their ears, “Matthew 22:37-40. Now get on with it!”

Equally, I’ve heard too many people blame the devil for every bad thing that happens to them. Ironically this belief actually does the devil’s job for him, because it is a lie that plants seeds of doubt and fear, suggesting he is more powerful than he actually is. I believe that the vast majority of bad breaks come down to bad decisions by human beings, whether it’s ourselves, those around us, or those that govern us. Blaming the devil gets human beings off the hook and stops us trying to make better decisions.

Trust v Suspicion

People make bad decisions, but I believe we are all made in the image of God, and fundamentally that means we are good rather than evil. We have self-interest, certainly, but we also have compassion for others, and rarely act or speak with bad intentions. We may be misguided. We may be emotional. We may be mistaken. Any of these or other reasons could lead us to make those bad decisions and treat people wrongly.

Circumstances are important. Someone may be completely honourable in their personal life, but in their profession their self-interest becomes an overriding factor and leads them to act deceptively.

But in general, unless circumstances or experience says different, I would choose to trust people. I’ve heard church leaders say the opposite, and that is very worrying.

When Communication Broke Down

As I usually try to do, I’ll keep this very vague. The details aren’t important, the process is. So the second person in the story is unidentifiable, although if they read this post they’ll recognise themselves immediately. The first person is me.

I met a friend and had a long and rewarding conversation. A couple of days later they wrote something online, and because of the timing of the statement it seemed feasible that it could be referring to me. I honestly thought it was unlikely, and an embarrassing topic to bring up, but at the same time, if it was about me it would have been wrong, and possibly cruel, to ignore.

So, as gently as I could, I asked. And unsurprisingly I was wrong. I thought that was the end of the matter, but the subsequent text exchange proved it was just the beginning.

After a few more days they asked why I’d thought what I did? I said it was the curious timing and circumstances, and I was sorry for jumping to conclusions. This wasn’t enough, it made no sense to them, they needed to know why. So I tried to unpick and describe step by step what my thought process had been, acknowledging again when those thoughts had been wrong.

This didn’t satisfy my friend either. Other friends haven’t had the same thought, so why had I? What was going on?

Eventually I couldn’t see any good way out of the situation. None of my reassurances were being accepted. First my friend was turning a simple mistake into something far more complicated. And then they took the approach of treating me with suspicion instead of trust. I said we should call it a day and they agreed.

Well I thought that really was the end, but there was a sting in the tail. After a few days my old friend wrote something else online, referencing the different ways the devil was attacking them. It was clear that not everything was about me, but I was in there somewhere. It appeared that they had many issues that I would have liked to help with but I’m not the right person, so I hope and pray that they get what they need.

It’s no great revelation to see that when communication breaks down, so do relationships. It’s also clear to see that they can only be mended when both parties want it to happen and can get themselves on the same wavelength. And it’s just a sad fact of life that this can’t always be the case.

I, Robot?

I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov, particularly his short stories, many of which were based around robots and robotics. He famously created his “three laws of robotics” which were “the three rules that are built most deeply into a robot’s positronic brain.” These laws are:

  1. a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Asimov wrote plots that played on the unintended consequences of applying these rules, or of the potential conflicts between them. And both he and others played around with these ‘laws’, adding, taking away and modifying them for various creative purposes. But beyond the world of science fiction, scientists have looked at Asimov’s laws as a potential starting point for instilling ‘moral’ values into real-world robots, and their uses in human society.

While it’s clearly a bit simplistic and misguided to directly compare God’s creation of man with man’s creation of robots, I think there’s value in looking at faith for a few minutes through Asimov’s eyes.

Before looking at similarities, I need to repeat what I’ve said previously, and frequently, whether in this blog or in conversations. God did not create us to be robots. God gave us free will, autonomy, and this is perhaps the most fundamental concept in my whole understanding of existence. Because if we don’t have free will then, in my opinion, our lives as conscious beings are essentially meaningless. I might as well be a hammer, built solely for the task of hitting a nail.

So we have free will. We can do what we want. Why then don’t we live in a world of utter chaos, of anarchy? Why is there a general semblance of order in the world around us? Why do we notice and dislike the times when people act in a way that is contrary to our social norms?

Well, on the surface, there are laws and conventions that have been constructed by human beings over the centuries. They have been designed, amongst other purposes, to control our excesses, to limit individual freedoms for the benefit of society as a whole. We are born into this set of rules, we grow up with them, and with a few exceptions we come to think of them as normal, rational and good, so we accept and live by them.

On a deeper level we have instincts which are designed to keep us alive and thriving as individuals and as a species. Depending on your worldview, these instincts come from God’s purpose, from evolution, or from some combination of the two.

But as Christians there is another level to be considered, and that is the level of scripture. This is where I find the comparison with Asimov’s laws fascinating.

Your mind may immediately jump to the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). These are possibly the most obvious direct comparison the the three laws, and are sometimes described as “the moral law.” There are more details, naturally enough considering the difference between human and robot motivations. But although they are listed, and when described they may be numbered, there isn’t an obvious hierarchy like Asimov explicitly stated. You could argue that the first is the most important, because if we have other gods than God, we have less reason to obey any of God’s commandments. But scanning down the list, should we prioritise the honour of our parents (abiding by the fifth) even if that leads us to murder someone (contravening the sixth)?

The Bible has been described by some Christians as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” And almost all teaching I’ve heard in many different churches refers back to scripture as the base point from which all good decisions should be made. I understand why. This is the physical evidence of what God has said to us. It’s the absolute truth to counter the danger of moral relativism. It’s real. You can hold it in your hands and you can show it to someone.

I can imagine the Bible as the equivalent of the software that is programmed into the positronic brains of Asimov’s robots. In fact, David points us in that direction when he says “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11)

I can imagine that when faced with any decision or dilemma a “good Christian” will refer back to the source code, comparing options against the relevant words of God in scripture to come to the right conclusion.

But do the rules to be followed comprise the 10 commandments? Or the 613 commandments? Or does a Christian ignore the Old Testament and base their rules on the instructions they read in the Gospels and Epistles?

How do we handle situations when there is a conflict between laws, or between written laws and our innate sense of moral good? And there will be conflicts. There are classic philosophical scenarios that can demonstrate this. For example, Kant’s dilemma of the murderer at the door or the trolley problem.

Even if we can find ways to satisfy ourselves that we can resolve any such dilemma, I see a bigger problem, which is that if we live our lives completely according to what we read in the Bible, we are running the computer program, and we effectively become robots after all. What then has happened to our free will?

Maybe you could say that if you have made a free choice to follow the rules, you are not a robot. Maybe.

I am coming to the conclusion though, that God does not intend the Bible to be a rigid rule book, or an operating system designed to direct our every action. I believe it should be taken seriously and that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) It provides guidance, and describes principles. It shows the consequences when certain rules are followed or ignored. But it does not give an answer to every question raised in a person’s life. It never has, or we wouldn’t need to pray, because the answers to our prayers too would be in the good book.

I think that knowing the Bible as thoroughly as possible gives a wonderful foundation of knowledge and wisdom. But when we get to the real basics there are not 3 laws of humanity. There are not 613. There are not 10. There are 2.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

If we can just do our best to live our lives according to those two rules, I don’t think we need to tie ourselves in knots or rack ourselves with guilt about the ways we have inevitably fallen short. Let us breathe the spirit of the law. We are imperfect and God made us that way, and He loves us. He is love. Let us try to emulate that to whatever extent we’re capable.

My Redeemer

Oh, that my words were written!
Oh, that they were inscribed in a book!
That they were engraved on a rock
With an iron pen and lead, forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
And He shall stand at last on the earth;
And after my skin is destroyed, this I know,
That in my flesh I shall see God,
Whom I shall see for myself,
And my eyes shall behold, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!

Job 19:23-27

Today we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, Christ Jesus. What would His crucifixion have meant without His resurrection? I don’t know. This is what I know: the grave couldn’t hold Him, He conquered death, and proved that we too can enjoy an everlasting life, free from death’s curse.

God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

Matthew 22:32

Separation from God is death, and eternal separation from God is Hell. When you understand that disobedience of God’s commandments is what separates you from Him; and when you understand that as hard as you try you can never obey Him as completely as you want, or need, to; then you might lose all hope.

You reject all those who stray from Your statutes,
For their deceit is falsehood.

Psalm 119:118

But God knows our weakness, and provides the means of salvation for all of us.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

John 3:16

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6

The meaning of Easter is so profound and so broad that I simply can’t do it justice here. It is the essence of the Christian faith, and it is the real source of the Christian’s hope.

Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

Mark 15:38

There is no longer any separation between man and God. Man only has to reach out and he finds God’s hand is there, grasping his tightly. Safe, solid, loving, healing hands.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

John 14:6

Only Jesus can pay my debt, heal my wounds and give me life. Thank you Jesus.