Spiritualizing Cowardice: The Christian Bystander Effect

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Spiritualizing cowardice has become du jour.

I am almost surprised we do not hear sermons about how David was being unspiritual, a poor witness, or uppity to fight Goliath.

Had David taken the plank out of his own eye? Surely both David and Israel had enough sins of their own to worry about without warring against the Philistines or their champion. What a hypocrite!

And what in the Biblical text indicates David prayed about taking up their challenge before approaching King Saul and offering to fight?

He should have just gone home like his brothers told him to, and there devoted himself to prayer and fasting until God changed his haughty heart.

Being More Spiritual

I am almost surprised we do not hear sermons about how David was being worldly and carnal to take matters into his own hands. If only he had possessed more faith, he would have just trusted God to take care of Goliath and the Philistines for him.

God does not need us to defend Him. Or at least that is what I have heard.

If God had wanted Goliath and the Philistines defeated, He would have sent down fire from heaven or opened the ground beneath their feet. God did that sort of thing at other times. He could surely have performed a similar feat here.

Therefore, real faith on the part of David would have caused him to wait for God to act so David did not have to.

Doing Life Together

I am almost surprised we do not hear sermons about how David should have been focused on being a soul-winner to Goliath and the Philistines rather than defeating them in battle.

Why did David not just ask the host assembled against Israel to go bowling or golfing? Why did he not hand them gospel tracts? The text offers no evidence David tried to befriend them. Perhaps if he had just offered to “do life together” they could have avoided the conflict entirely.

Had no more mature believer ever reminded David that we wrestle not against flesh and blood?

If only the Philistines had been invited to join a small group, or attend a Wednesday night church service. Instead David chose to fight them. How very disappointing. And what a poor testimony!

David was being rather presumptuous and divisive, really, entangling himself in Israeli-Philistia politics. And he was being judgmental, implying that Goliath or the Philistines were evil, a force to be defeated. That is hardly the way to go about winning friends and influencing people.

Respect for Authority

I am surprised we do not hear sermons about how David should have been more deferential toward the authority of his older brothers and of King Saul, God’s anointed.

David was not ordained – not yet, anyway. He was not the king.

For that matter, David was not even in the army.

For that matter, his older brothers who were in the army counseled David strongly to mind his own business and go home.

Everyone knows there is wisdom in the counsel of many advisers, so David was clearly in the wrong to ignore the counsel of his brothers. He was being reckless, arrogant, and foolhardy to charge in where angels fear to tread.

What is worse, David was embarrassing his family by presuming to take the rightful place of King Saul – as both the anointed ruler and the biggest, most impressive man in Israel.

And David’s older brothers were entirely right encouraging him to grow up, pursue some formal training, run for office, and leave the fighting – or not fighting, as was the case – to those who were older, more authoritative, and better equipped.

Was David Wrong to Fight Goliath?

I pray we never hear sermons like these because such sermons would be absurd. They would entirely miss the point of the story of David and Goliath, as well as so many other similar Biblical accounts.

If ever we hear such messages from a pulpit, they will represent the most explicit effort at spiritualizing cowardice, bearing no resemblance to the main thrust of the Biblical narrative except in the wishful thinking of cowards.

What we nevertheless do hear too often, unfortunately, is pastors preaching sermons and laypeople offering up niceties and platitudes about how we should not make too big a deal out of cultural and political issues, heresy, immorality, injustice, and wickedness.

The consensus view seems to be that the most spiritual thing we as Christians can do in a dilemma or controversy is shrug.

We should hate the sin and love the sinners.

All sin is sin, and the true mark of humility is for you to focus exclusively on your own sin and never rebuke evil outside your own thoughts and feelings.

Mind your own business and just stay out of all that. This is effectively what we are told, albeit never quite in those words.

The Supposed Power of Positive Thinking

Focus on making people want to know about Jesus because of how happy and cheerful you are.

Eventually the lost will hit a low point in their life where they grow tired of being bitter and depressed. That is when they will remember how you smiled all the time, and were always so positive about absolutely everything.

Stop getting bent out of shape about abortion, the LGBT agenda, Islamism, atheism, socialism, evolution, public education, etc. Even if it is not the actual truth, addressing those issues repeatedly is going to give the impression that those things are all Christians care about.

And if you give lost sinners that false impression, you are going to hurt not only your own testimony but the reputation of the entire Church, perhaps even of Jesus himself.

In short, in the interest of not upsetting the world Christians must fall silent and stop talking about sin and folly. Stop calling sinners and fools inside and outside the church to repentance. After all, that’s what Jesus would do. Right?

No, not by half! This too is spiritualizing cowardice.

Of Slings and Smooth Stones

Again, we could never make sense of Bible stories like David courageously and faithfully fighting Goliath, or King Saul leading Israel in cowardice to not fight, while looking through the lens too many American pastors and laypeople would persuade us is the spiritual ideal for our day.

Yet thinking clearly about the matter, we could never come away from reading of David, a humble and lowly shepherd ignoring the dismissive scorn of his brothers and conclude that the moral of the story is that David’s brothers were right and David was wrong when they told him to shut up and go back to tending their father’s sheep.

It seems self-evident that David in the Old Testament is the exemplary one precisely because he ignored both the taunting of the enemy and the chorus of his embarrassed brothers telling him this battle was not worth fighting, or that he at least was not worthy of fighting it.

Moreover, David is the exemplary one because he turned down King Saul’s offer of armor too big and cumbersome for him. An insecure man would have readily accepted the armor. Instead, David chose to fight Goliath using the humble sling and stones with which he was accustomed to defending his father’s sheep from wild animals.

And David is the exemplary one precisely because he was not Israel’s king, nor even in the army when he answered the taunts of Goliath. The primary concern for David was honoring God rather than receiving the hollow, meaningless honors of men.

Erring on the Side of Caution

We do not want to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, nor make mountains out of molehills. And we do not want to lose sight of the gospel or the Great Commission while tackling mere symptoms of the sin problem.

Such spiritual-sounding reminders are all very well and good. Yet they too can easily turn into efforts at spiritualizing cowardice.

To err on the side of caution is still error, however. Rather than err at all, we should prefer to strike exactly the right balance and honor God through boldness and faithfulness. And we should commit wholeheartedly to striking that balance not only in our private lives, but also in our public interactions with the people and culture around us.

Yes, there is a fine line between serious engagement and taking personal responsibility to remedy injustices and falsehoods on the one hand, and suggesting or believing that all of that is the only or ultimate goal, or that all is lost if people do not wake up and mobilize on the other hand.

To recognize that there is a fine line is critical, however.

As tempting as it is to opt for an easy out and avoid the dilemma by going all-in one direction or the other, we do not escape the peril this way. Instead, we become childish and tepid.

Apathy, Indifference, and Moral Relativism

Opposition to spiritualizing cowardice is especially difficult when activism of any sort whatsoever necessitates striving to influence and persuade others that problems identified are:

  1. Real, not imagined.
  2. Serious enough to deserve our focus and attention.
  3. Solvable by our both individually and collectively changing our thinking and actions.

Convincing someone of the first and second points is relatively easy. Yet people will despair if you cannot also persuade them of the third.

Convincing them of the third, meanwhile, is especially challenging when moral relativism, subjectivism, selfishness, and apathy have such a powerful death grip on the hearts and minds of so many.

Yet convincing people that moral relativism, subjectivism, selfishness, and apathy should be rejected as blinding, illusory, soul-crushing lies is especially difficult precisely because of the very nature of those falsehoods and how they stubbornly resist any argument or pleading which implies that truth and goodness are both universal and knowable.

But none of this difficulty is reason to give up and leave well enough alone.

Against the Christian Bystander Effect

Many today hold a view which can be summarized as follows:

‘Sure, I agree that something needs to be done, but I can’t do anything worthwhile on my own. And we’ll never be able to get enough other people on board to make a difference. All you’re going to do is get people upset to no benefit to yourself or anyone else if you keep pressing this issue. Just drop it.’

But this is just the bystander effect and diffusion of social responsibility writ large. Dressing it up in spiritual language does not make it any more Christian or any less cowardly.

Modern psychology has confirmed time and again through both controlled studies and observation of real-life situations that large groups of people are strongly inclined toward passivity in the face of an emergency.

This explains the news stories we hear and read about a man or woman being mugged or assaulted on a crowded street or other public place, in full view of dozens or even hundreds of other people, with nobody around them coming to their rescue.

The bystander effect is why a deranged homeless person can push an innocent man or woman onto the tracks of an oncoming train and a crowd of people will stand around watching or pull out their smartphones to take a video rather than intervene.

Each individual in a group feeds off the passivity of all those around them.

And the psychological urge to blend in to the crowd and stand idly by gets stronger the larger the group of bystanders gets, especially when there is no designated leader and everyone is more concerned with not presuming to lead strangers than they are with what will happen if the emergency continues to develop uninterrupted.

Diffusion of Social Responsibility

Each individual feels they will be less to blame for the injury or even death of another person the more fellow bystanders there are with which to share the guilt and shame of negligence.

Sadly, it gets worse, particularly with abstract or complicated issues like abortion, Global Warming, public education, Islamism, or the LGBT movement.

It gets worse when established authority figures like politicians, scientists, authors, celebrities, and teachers come out in support of things which are false or harmful.

Try rousing people from their passive stupor in these cases especially and you can expect time and again to draw fire both for yourself and your cause.

Expect those you’re trying to mobilize to grasp desperately for any excuse to not contradict or oppose the authority figures who hold their confidence, even when it’s apparent those authority figures are laying down on the job or misleading them.

If you are merely one person swimming upstream amid hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions who are perceived as going in the other direction, you ask quite a lot when you urge people to leave the majority opinion and come with you, even for just the duration of a conversation or thought exercise.

Rather than bucking the trend and hopping off the bandwagon, many if not most people will try to throw stones at you until you go away and stop embarrassing them. Or else they will simply ignore you until you give up and leave.

Stop Spiritualizing Cowardice!

We may never hear it preached directly in a sermon, but preferring the passivity and cowardice of King Saul and the armies of Israel over the boldness of David is what we are asked to do when leaders and laypeople alike urge us to stop rebuking the wickedness of our culture.

Such calls represent a compromise fatal to our faith, a preference for comfort to confrontation and appeasement to persecution. They run directly counter to the Biblical narrative and what God calls us to in Christ.

The thing that takes real and abiding faith and courage is being like David.

It is scary, stepping up to the giant, even at great personal danger, for no other reason than doing right. Yet the honor of Yahweh God whom we serve is held in contempt both by the actions of evil men and the inaction of those who are supposed to be righteous.

Yet God has called us to live boldly, in courage and fidelity. We must therefore stop spiritualizing cowardice.

Truth and goodness are both universal and knowable, and we as Christians are heirs of a high calling to not only know personally but proclaim to others and act on what is true and just and good.

“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

– 2 Timothy 1:6-7

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.