The Foreign Policy of the Personality

God and Adam“The foreign policy of the personality.” The late John Peck, British theologian par excellence, used this fascinating play on words in a class he taught about the fruit of the Spirit. As far as I know, he originated it. But anyone who has heard him teach will not be surprised at his ability to turn a phrase to give us fresh ideas for thinking about old truths. So what’s with this strangely clever idea?

After talking about love and joy, John had come to the third fruit in the list, peace (Galatians 5:22). He reminded the class that the great Old Testament word for “peace” is shalom, adding that it was the special task of the king to establish shalom (peace; well being) in the forms of political and economic justice, including, and especially, for the poor, the needy, and the afflicted – as they often have no advocate. (For a fuller look at the word shalom in the OT, see this.)

“In the individual,” John then said, “the equivalent of justice in shalom is a balanced personality, one that doesn’t give undue weight to one thing over another. It is an ordered makeup in which priorities find their due place. The economy of the personality is neither inflated or deflated. In external relationships – the foreign policy of the personality, as it were – is secure.”

I heard that word play through the lens of someone who has written much about foreign policy over many years (on this blog and elsewhere), so my mind immediately began making all sorts of associations and analogies between what goes on in the field of international relations and the relationships that can, and do, exist between individuals.

For instance, as with bilateral international relations, relations between two individuals can be tense or relaxed, threatened or secure, unjust or just, adversarial or allied, broken or repaired, distrustful or trustful, unfriendly or friendly, uncooperative or cooperative, intolerant or respectful, and much more besides. But as everyone knows, human relationships are never that cut and dried. They always evidence some mixture of these features. And in some cases, for some periods, they may indeed be mostly friendly or trustful or cooperative, but it doesn’t take much to turn them unfriendly or untrustworthy or uncooperative.

For we are not only sinners privately in the sight of God. Like soil contaminated with sewage or water with lead, our relationships with one another are also befouled by our sinfulness. No bilateral (or multilateral) relationship is going to be perfectly secure, just, or respectful.

“If only it were all so simple!” Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

But there is also twisdom traditionhis. No relationship need stay adversarial or broken or unjust if the redeeming and renewing grace of God is at work in it. So with all these associations and analogies rattling ‘round my brain, I challenged myself: What kind of shape is the foreign policy of my personality in these days? Am I increasingly walking in the redeeming, renewing grace of God with every passing year? I’ve been thinking about this. And there are so many contexts in which to think about it, and to do something about, or not. Husband – wife; parent – child; sibling – sibling; employer – employee; pastor – congregant; congregant – congregant; board member – CEO; neighbor – neighbor – the contexts seem endless.

Perhaps I am getting lazy about this transformative process, or making excuses, or unconcerned about it, or even going backward?

One unnoticed way of going backward is by subtly absorbing into our DNA the anti-graces that can be heard in the unbalanced and disordered personalities of any number of public voices, and over time picking up unredemptive attitudes and actions toward others as a result. Be careful what you hear, Jesus said.

In international relations, adversarial or broken or unjust relations are changed through negotiations, persistently pursued. Likewise, achieving the kind of “balanced” and “ordered” personalities of shalom in our relations with others is possible through “negotiations,” persistently pursued. Therefore, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).

Of course, getting to shalom takes time, concerted effort, and skill. And it may entail, as in international relations, bringing in a mediator. And in this world, some relationships may never reach the heights of shalom that we might like them to achieve. But apart from working at it, what other option did the Prince of Peace, Sar Shalom, leave us?

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images permission of Creative Commons.

Note from Charles: For the next several weeks, I’ll be blogging somewhat less than my customary once/twice-a-week in order to concentrate on meeting a writing deadline for a large project I’m on and also to finish work on a very special Web project, which you will hear about in the near future. Meantime, you many want to catch up on any reading you’ve been wanting to do in one of the topic categories: see on the main page, left column. Thank you very much for your interest in this blog.

The Rest of the Square Inch

square inch with heartMany years ago when starting out as a public Christian, I had visions of changing the world. It didn’t seem like a ridiculous hope, if only because my first book had sold well in the U.S. and the U.K. and had been translated into six languages. So I was riding high, on the road to changing the world for God.

But soon I realized I couldn’t change the world. So I took a more humble stance: I’ll just change my nation instead. But then I realized that I couldn’t change America, so, wise guy that I am, I lowered my sights further: I can change my state. But then I realized I couldn’t change Michigan. So I wised up a little more: if I can’t change my state, I’ll change my city, Detroit. After all, we’ve got a ton of problems here.

Failing to get any traction down that road, I was getting desperate. After all, I was a called to the work of a public Christian and I had lowered my sights considerably. God was trying to tell me something, but what that was, I didn’t know.

Then it hit me: I’ve got it! If I can’t change the city, I can change my church. Of course that didn’t work either. So I said: well, at least I can change my family. Right. That didn’t work either. So I said: I can change my wife. (When you’re done laughing, read on.) After I got over that painful mistake, I wondered how much smaller I could shrink my vision of change. If I couldn’t change the world or the nation or the state or the city or my church or my family or my friends or my wife, what else was there? So I said, well at least I can change myself. But then that also proved to be futile.

What could I do? Apparently, I couldn’t be the public or even the private Christian that I had hoped to be. Yet this disillusionment was what God had been driving for. I remember praying: God, I can’t change the world or the nation or even my family, friends, or wife. Or even myself. I don’t have a vision of change any more. It’s hopeless. What’s going on?

You can change your square inch. That’s the answer that immediately popped into my spirit, and I knew what it meant. I saw all the varied and diverse relationships that I had, near and far, with people I knew and did not know, and I saw that they were my square inches, the realms of relationships, where God would give me grace and wisdom to change things for the better – whatever realm I happened to be in at any given moment and wherever in the world it was. This insight about what could actually be changed revolutionized my understanding of Christian life and ministry. It is fundamentally about relationships.

What does this mean in practice? Each of us have our own square inches, large or small, near or far, with persons we know or don’t know, depending on where God has placed us. And those realms of relationships are not static. They are dynamic and their perimeters differ; they are not the same size, depending on our callings. Some relationships are public; some are not. Some callings are to the city, the state, the nation, or even to the world; some are not.

Tolstoy quoteFor example, like millions of other people, my square inches include my relationship with my wife, my family, my friends, my church, and my work. But particular to my calling, my square inch at any given time could also include relationships (which I don’t know about) with readers of my books, articles, or blog posts, or with a congregation listening to me preach or teach, or with people listening to me being interviewed on the radio. So at any given moment I might find myself in a square inch that includes just one other person or a square inch as big as the world, where I can reach millions. But no matter the size of the square inch, or whoever it’s with, or wherever it is, or whether I know the person, my responsibility, simply stated, is to have prayed for grace and wisdom to change things for the better in that realm.

Faced with the frequency and extent of suffering and injustice in the world, we can get overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness. It seems futile to attempt to do anything about it – even though as responsible citizens and individuals we would like to change the world. The square inch rule, however, offers us rest from trying to change the world. We can’t change it. Christ has already changed it.

We can have a hand in changing one life at a time. We all know what our square inches are. No one needs to tell us that. And we know, or at least we have a pretty good idea of, what square inches may be on the horizon, at least in the near future. So instead of feeling disillusioned by a vision that is too big for us to handle, here’s an idea. Let’s focus on bringing God’s grace and wisdom into our existing realms of relationships so that we can partner with what Jesus is already doing in those relationships to change them for the better. And let’s start with our own square inch with Jesus.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Top images by istvanberta (permission via Creative Commons).