I have watched with interest the response of several well-known evangelical figures to the recent tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. Some have responded with great compassion to the suffering of the people. Others have taken the opportunity to express doctrinal truth in the moment of crisis. The responses have been as varied as the leaders themselves. There is room for variation. After all, the words you use to express condolence may differ from mine, but our hearts both mean the same thing, right?
What has struck me, however, is the surprising tweets and blog posts written by several of the better-known Christian leaders. In those cases (and I need not mention names), tweets or blogs were posted which many readers interpreted as insensitive, callous, or even judgmental. Regardless of what the spiritual leader intended to convey with his/her sharp or cryptic posts, many readers interpreted the posts as wildly insensitive. For leaders who earn their bread via clear communication, that is a problem.
We’ve all been here before. 9/11. New Orleans. The New Jersey Shore. Newtown. Boston. And yet, despite the practice we all get in responding to disasters, several Christian leaders seem to keep getting it wrong. They appear to respond with cerebral detachment, serene self-confidence, and theological panaceas. In the midst of suffering, I question the appropriateness of such responses. And yet these are well-known, often revered, Christian spokespersons.
Such responses are inappropriate, and border on spiritual abuse. I confess these tweets and posts reminded me of my former pastor and the way he responded to national disasters. But you expect that from a cult leader.
While I want to give the benefit of the doubt to these particular leaders, their responses help to illustrate how scripture can be mishandled to actually hurt people who in fact need comfort.
Here are 6 reasons why spiritual leaders may respond inappropriately to disaster:
1.) Misguided View of God – Our theology guides our tongue and our feet. “The most portentous fact about any [person] is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.” – A.W. Tozer. If we believe that God sits in heaven untroubled by human tragedy while reveling in his own redemptive plan, we believe wrongly. The Bible often reports God listening to the groans of his people and moving to comfort or help them. Indeed, Jesus Christ incarnate was God’s greatest movement toward suffering, not away from it. Even God’s theology has arms and legs. Christian leaders who opt first to give a theological answer to suffering people misunderstand their God and his active involvement in the world. They truncate the grief process and abort the healthy question of “Why?”
2.) Lopsided Theology – Some Christian leaders subscribe to particular theological systems which simplify the raw complexity of God’s working in the world. These systems offer a comfortable human framework constructed by the minds of men and women who wish to shield themselves from the full blazing mystery and complexity of God. While these systems offer some helpful interpretations and explanations of God’s working, they are finite and thus inadequate. In the case of a disaster, such leaders lean heavily on their interpretive framework to provide prefabricated solutions to a truly monumental problem. This can strike people outside their theological tribe as simplistic and callous.
3.) Doctrine over Person – Leaders with a cerebral bent sometimes feel more comfortable handling doctrine rather than involving themselves in the pain and mess of people. Leaders like this may offer incredible gifts to build up the body of Christ. They write amazing commentaries, churn out dozens of books, and preach impactful sermons. But such leaders should know that they veer in a doctrinal direction and should assertively seek to develop empathy, compassion, and involved love. They also need to monitor and filter their comments, especially when they observe other people crying. While their first response may be to quote a verse of scripture—calling to mind for them the entire context and all of the theological nuances—they are better off extending a helping hand and a kind and sympathetic word. People listen better to sermons when they are safe, clothed and fed.
4.) Penchant for the Prophetic – Leaders who respond inappropriately to disasters often perceive themselves as prophetic voices in a society much in need of truth. Such leaders have a difficult time divorcing themselves from their assumed role of prophet when bad things happen to other people. People with prophetic gifts (I am told by friends who have such gifts) often think of what’s wrong with someone else—and how they can correct it—rather than how they can encourage and support a person in crisis. Prophetic leaders need to proactively surround themselves with peers (not just followers) who balance their giftings, confront them, and hold them accountable to obey the law of love.
5.) Serene Self-Confidence – Whether it’s the result of narcissistic personality disorder or simple hubris, leaders who respond inappropriately to tragedy frequently believe that their first response is the right response. This is because so often their first response has appeared to be the right response, apparently validated by hundreds of thousands of grateful followers. They may have already written dozens of successful books, spoken at hundreds of conferences to rooms of dewey-eyed believers, and appeared in all of the top Christian magazines. Can any of us say that in similar circumstances we would filter our mouth impeccably? Yet when they slip and say something that is hurtful—as we all have—they should take responsibility, apologize, accept grace, and move forward with greater caution and humility. I will follow a limping leader with greater trust than a leader who sweeps mistakes under an already bulging rug.
6.) Lack of Empathy – All of the above traits lead to a lack of empathy for suffering people. Empathy means to recognize that someone else is suffering and to attribute your own feelings of sadness and loss to them. This allows you to then feel compassion and sympathy for them—to enter into their sadness and to be moved to do something about it. Leaders who respond inappropriately to tragedies skip this step and jump right into trying to fix the problem theologically. They delve deeply into their theological system in order to remove the messiness. After all, if you can say “God is sovereign and we should worship him no matter what happens,” then perhaps you can avoid the smoke and blood on the ground. But we should remember that even Job—after affirming God’s sovereignty—spent 30+ chapters weeping, doubting, and expressing anger.
Christian leaders who respond inappropriately to tragedies often struggle with the six points listed above. Any of us—if we served as a spokesperson for a church or movement—would also likely misspeak or say the wrong thing from time to time, too. But spiritual leaders who enjoy a national platform and yet continue to say the wrong thing at the wrong time—thus hurting people—need to step back for a moment and evaluate their fitness to speak.
Anything less is a tragedy.