Whenever I read news of a church imploding, some sort of scandal arising involving sexual abuse, or any other scandal really, I can’t help but think, “I wonder what it would have been like to live during a time when the entire world wasn’t at my fingertips?”
Now, obviously, I’ve never been one to entirely avoid controversial issues (or people). And when we see a celebrity pastor lose his mind, or when patterns of abuse are revealed that affect anyone, man, woman or child, it is hard to ignore. But at the same time, though we should grieve these things—and if a crime has been committed, we should report them—we can only give so much mental bandwidth to these things. Here are a few reasons why I believe this is so, at least from my perspective:
1. Because I really can’t do much to help. Without (I hope) sounding callous toward those who’ve experienced abuse (sexual, physical, or emotional), there’s not a lot I can do to help in a specific situation happening in Florida, Texas, or, honestly, even in a different town 30 minutes down the road. I can pray and, if the issue warrants, I can say something where I feel compelled to, but that’s about it.
2. Because I have people close by who need my attention more. What I am responsible for is not so much what happens out there, but what happens in my local church and within the various communities I associate with. I am required to love and serve those whom I am closest with differently than those who are far off. So if there is someone in need within my local congregation, or within one of the groups I’m a part of (our homeschool co-op, for example), I have a greater sense of obligation to address that need. If I become aware of a pattern of behavior that is concerning, I need to say something in the appropriate way. If I’m aware of a crime being committed, I am obligated to report it.
3. Because it can lead me to despair. There is no shortage of bad news out there—no shortage of controversies, abuses of authority, violence and all the other evidences of humanity’s desperately wicked state. Knowing about the ugly things that are happening in other congregations, other communities and other nations doesn’t add a sense of urgency to the call to love and serve others, or tell me anything I didn’t already know. It’s just more.
4. Because it tempts me to become even more distrustful. Many who report on abuse issues within the church have been severely harmed by an experience in a local congregation they were once a part of. And my fear is that for some, confusion has found a foothold, and authority exercised by a godly individual is seen as authoritarianism.
I’ve got to be honest: I’m already distrustful of some of the leaders God has placed over me, some with more reason than others. But what I find myself needing to do more and more is praying for those leaders, rather than trying to parse the meaning of every word they use, attempting to find some hidden meaning or a message between the lines. I want to be lead by people that are worth following, and the only way for that to happen is for God to be at work in them. And if I am not praying for them, what does it say about what I think about them?
5. It tempts me to put myself in the place of God. The truth is, none of us know the full story of what goes on in any given scandal. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care, but it does mean we need to be cautious. When I judge too quickly, I often find myself thinking as though I am standing in for God, and therefore capable of rendering a sound and infallible judgment. And a lot of the time, I’m completely and totally wrong. That isn’t to say that wrong isn’t wrong or sin isn’t sin (far from it!)—it’s just that we ought to be very careful about what we put out there in our outrage. There are certain things you say that you can never come back from. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in this regard, and I’m not eager to repeat them.
So getting back to the question at hand: how much mental bandwidth should we give controversy that doesn’t directly affect us? Speaking only for myself, only as much as my conscience allows—and only in so far as it doesn’t become a distraction to loving and serving those with whom I am in relationship. For most, that means almost none. For some, it means a great deal of attention. But for all, it means learning when to say “when” so that I don’t neglect the things that are most important.