Spiritualizing Cowardice: The Christian Bystander Effect

posted in: Theology | 0

How easy it is spiritualizing cowardice, imitating King Saul and the armies of Israel passively sitting in their camp and listening to giants and Philistines taunting our God.

I’m actually a little surprised we don’t hear sermons about how David wasn’t being very spiritual or a good witness to fight Goliath, acting as he was like a physical threat was the most pressing problem Israel was facing.

Surely both David and Israel had enough sins of their own to worry about without going out to chastise the Philistines or their champion. There’s nothing in the text to indicate that David prayed about taking up their challenge before approaching King Saul and offering to fight. He really should have just gone home like his brothers told him to, devoting himself to prayer and fasting until God changed his heart from being so haughty and self-impressed.

I’m actually surprised we don’t hear sermons about how David was being wicked and carnal to take matters into his own hands when he should have had more faith in God to take care of Goliath and the Philistines for him.

God doesn’t need us to defend Him. If God wanted Goliath and the Philistines defeated, He could have sent down fire from heaven or opened the ground beneath their feet. After all, He did those sorts of things at other times. God surely could have done something similar here. Real faith on David’s part would have caused him to wait for God to act so he didn’t have to.

I’m surprised we don’t hear sermons about how David should have been more focused on being a soul-winner to Goliath and the Philistines than on defeating them in battle.

Why didn’t David ask the host assembled against Israel to go bowling with him? Why didn’t he hand them some gospel tracts? We don’t see any evidence David tried to befriend them. Perhaps if he had just offered to “do life together” they could have avoided the battle entirely.

David could’ve invited them to his small group, or maybe even a Wednesday night church service. Instead he chooses to fight them? How very disappointing! David was really being rather presumptuous and divisive, entangling himself in Israeli-Philistia politics and implying that Goliath or the Philistines were wrong and needing to be defeated. That’s hardly the way to go about making friends or winning hearts and minds.

I’m surprised we don’t hear sermons about how David should have been more respectful of the authority of his older brothers or of King Saul, God’s anointed.

David wasn’t ordained – not yet, anyway. He wasn’t Israel’s king. For that matter, he wasn’t even in the army. For that matter, his older brothers who were in the army counseled him strongly to mind his own business and go home. There’s 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’s worse, David was embarrassing his family by presuming to take King Saul’s rightful place – as both the anointed ruler and the biggest, most impressive man in Israel. 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.

Spiritualizing Cowardice

Why do we never hear pastors chiding David for fighting Goliath?

Put simply, we never hear those messages because such sermons would be absurd. They would totally miss the point of the story of David and Goliath, as well as so many other similar Bible stories. Such messages from a pulpit would be an effort at spiritualizing cowardice and would bear no resemblance to the Biblical narrative except in the wishful imaginations of a coward.

What we nevertheless do hear too often, unfortunately, is pastors preaching sermons and laypeople offering up niceties and platitudes about how we shouldn’t make too big a deal out of cultural and political issues, heresy, immorality, injustice, and wickedness. The general attitude is that the most spiritual thing we can do is shrug that stuff off when we see it. We should hate the sin and love the sinner. 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. Focus on making people want to know about Jesus because of how happy and cheerful you are. Eventually they’ll hit a low point in their life where they’re tired of being bitter and depressed, and that’s when they’ll remember how you smile all the time and are 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 isn’t even true about you, addressing those issues repeatedly is going to give people who don’t know Jesus the false impression that stuff like that is all Christians care about.

And if you give lost sinners that false impression, you’re going to hurt not only your own testimony but the reputation of the entire Church, and perhaps even of Jesus himself. In short, in the interest of not upsetting the world you need to 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!

Again, we could never make sense of Bible stories like David courageously and faithfully fighting Goliath, or of 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 and age. We could never come away from reading of David, a humble and lowly shepherd ignoring the dismissals and scorn of his brothers in the army of Israel, 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 home to their father Jesse and the flocks.

David is the exemplary one precisely because he ignored both the taunting of the enemy and the chorus of his embarrassed brothers telling him the battle wasn’t worth fighting, or that he wasn’t worthy to fight it.

David is the exemplary one precisely because he turned down King Saul’s offer of armor too big and cumbersome for him, choosing instead to fight Goliath using the humble sling and stones with which he was accustomed to defending his father’s sheep.

David is the exemplary one precisely because he was not Israel’s king, nor even in the army at all for that matter, but was far more concerned with honoring God than receiving the hollow, meaningless honors of men.

The temptation to “err on the side of caution” is compelling, but it’s also dead wrong.

We don’t want to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We don’t want to make mountains out of molehills. We don’t want to lose sight of the gospel or the Great Commission while tackling mere symptoms of the sin problem.

That’s all very well and good.

But erring on the side of caution is still erring. Rather than err at all, we should prefer to strike exactly the right balance and honor God through boldness and faithfulness. We should choose to strike that balance both personally and in our interactions with the people and culture around us.

Yes, there’s a fine line between serious engagement and taking personal responsibility to remedy injustices and untruths on the one hand, and then on the other hand suggesting or believing that all of that is the ultimate goal, or that all is lost if we don’t get people to wake up and mobilize. Distinguishing between these two is especially trying when activism of any sort whatsoever necessitates striving to influence and persuade others that problems are:

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

Convincing someone of points 1) and 2) is relatively easy. Yet people will despair if you can’t also persuade them of 3). And convincing them of 3) is especially challenging when moral relativism, subjectivism, selfishness, and apathy have such a powerful death grip on the hearts and minds of so many. And 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 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.

Get off the bandwagon, stop going with the flow, and fight the Christian bystander effect.

Many hold the view that, “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.”

But this is just the bystander effect and diffusion of social responsibility writ large, and dressing it up in spiritual language doesn’t make it any more Christian or 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 is why we routinely hear and read news stories 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.

Consistently, each individual in the group feeds off the passivity of all those around them. 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. Not only this, but each individual feels they will be less to blame for the injury or death of a stranger for whom they feel no personal responsibility the more fellow bystanders there are with which to share the guilt and shame of negligence.

Sadly it gets worse, particularly with abstract or complex 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 from them return 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’re just one person going the other direction amid hundreds, thousands, or even millions who are perceived as going the other direction, you’re asking 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 like you’re challenging them to, 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, Christians!

The long and short of it is that spiritualizing cowardice is too easy. Though we would almost certainly never hear it preached directly in a sermon, rationalizing the passivity and inaction of King Saul and the armies of Israel cowering in their camp as Goliath and the Philistines mocked our God is exactly what we’re being asked to do when pastors and laypeople urge us to stop rebuking the increasingly brazen wickedness and folly of our culture. And not only is it too easy, it represents a compromise fatal to our faith, a preference for comfort over confrontation and appeasement over facing persecution which runs directly counter to the Biblical narrative and what God has called us to.

The hard thing, the thing that takes genuine faith and courage, is being like David.

The hard thing is being one who steps up and volunteers to fight the giant even at great personal and national risk, for no other reason than that it’s the right thing to do and because the honor of Yahweh God whom we serve is being spat on both by the actions of evil men and the inaction of the supposedly righteous.

The hard thing is not just recognizing that your older brothers and nation and the king they place their trust in are passively cowering in their tents rather than confronting evil and folly, but then choosing to step into that gap yourself while they hang back or actively work to dissuade and obstruct you.

Yet the hard thing here is not worth doing merely because it’s hard, but because it’s good and right and honorable. The reason we should stop spiritualizing cowardice as Christians is because God has called us to live boldly, in courage and faithfulness. The reason we should stop spiritualizing cowardice is that truth and goodness absolutely 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.