The Mountains That Divide Us

Don't let the beautiful doctrines of God separate you from brothers and sisters.

I recently started making time to read a chapter of some kind of “Christian living” book along with my morning time in God’s Word each day. Because I work in Christian publishing, spending most of my days talking and thinking about Christian living books, I don’t usually want to pick one up to read in my free time in the evenings when I have some free time. But adding a chapter of C. S. Lewis or A. W. Tozer or someone else as a sort of “dessert” to my morning meal of Scripture has been refreshing.

I just finished Andrew Murray’s work Absolute Surrender. Andrew Murray, if you aren’t aware, was a South African pastor and author who lived mostly in the 19th century and died in 1917. Murray’s Humility is probably the one book I have read more than any book ever. This is true not because I am a master of humility, but because it’s a short book that communicates deep truth about an area in which I could use much growth. I have probably read it almost a dozen times, I’m not sure. But a lot. Highly recommend.

But Absolute Surrender was the first book I’ve read by the 19th century South African Christian pastor and author outside of Humility and it was equal parts convicting and comforting—especially the chapter on Peter’s repentance after denying association with Jesus Christ.

While Murray was alive two centuries ago and obviously lived a very different life than most of us, his tenor and message isn’t much different from many pastors and Christian writers today, “We are falling short of what God has for us. This is what God has for us—so let us leave aside all that promises to be more than it can be and chase after God himself!” (This is my paraphrase of what I heard from Murray in my reading of him.)

The Mountains That Divide

Murray covers a handful of themes in Absolute Surrender, and one of the most striking to me was his convicting word about our lack of love for one another.

On page 31, Murray writes (bolding mine, italics his):

Think of the church at large. What divisions! Think of the different bodies. Take the question of holiness, take the question of cleansing blood, take the question of the baptism of the Spirit—what differences are caused among dear believers by such questions! That there are differences of opinion does not trouble me. We do not have the same constitution and temperament and mind. But how often hate, bitterness, contempt, separation, unlovingness are caused by the holiest truths of God’s Word!

Our doctrines, our creeds, have been more important than love. We often think we are valiant for the truth and we forget God’s command to speak the truth in love.

And it was so in the time of the Reformation between the Lutheran and Calvinistic churches. What bitterness there was than in regard to the Holy Supper, which was meant to be the bond of union among all believers!

And so, down the ages, the very dearest truths of God have become mountains that have separated us.

One would be forgiven for thinking Andrew Murray is actually a present-day pastor in North America writing those words. How relevant they are!

Throughout the social internet, but especially within the Christian neighborhood of the social internet, our doctrines and ideologies have been sources of division more than unity. Mountainous truths about who God is and what he wants for us have not been gathering places for like-minded followers of Jesus, but flash points for discord and backbiting.

Beautiful mountain ranges of doctrine that are meant to bring us together and point us to the glory of God have, as Murray says, separated us. This sad reality is clearer on social media than almost anywhere else.

We Are Incentivized to Fight

Why is it that beautiful doctrines of the Christian faith have become fodder for division on social media rather than common ground for celebration and worship? There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, but put simply: the rewards offered by the behavior modification experiments we call “social media” reward conflict more than community.

Our favorite social media platforms lead us through the most rudimentary behavior modification experimentation: post content, get notification reward, repeat.

Like a dog pushing a lever to get a treat, we post content to get our affirmation through a like, comment, share, or other kind of engagement.

But what if there are two levers for the dog to push and when he pushes one lever he gets a single treat and when he pushes the other lever he gets five treats? You better believe he will learn to push the five-treat lever a lot more often.

When we post content, our own version of pushing a lever, we have more than one lever at our disposal, too. We can push the “encouragement” lever, the “snark,” lever, the “look-how-smart-I-am” lever, or even the “conflict” lever. There are other levers, to be sure, and depending on our context, different levers may provide different numbers of treats each day. But the lever that provides the most number of notifications (treats) most consistently? That would be the conflict lever.

You and I probably don’t log on to social media each day with the goal of accruing as many notifications as we can, or at least we wouldn’t admit we do it, but social media companies themselves have said that the little red dots or other sort of notification symbols are the “reward” that keep users addicted, coming back each day to see what people are saying to them or about them.

So What?

You can’t begin to push back the darkness of social media if you don’t recognize how the cards are stacked against light to begin with. The systems that undergird social media are designed to incentivize conflict, because conflict generates engagement, engagement generates attention, and attention generates ad revenue. Facebook’s own scientists have said, “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” Facebook shelved that research report and didn’t tell anyone about it until the Wall Street Journal discovered it last year.

If we Christians have any hope of pointing people of Jesus through our love for one another on social media, we need to recognize that our beautiful, mountainous doctrines are being used as pawns in a war for attention and engagement online.

Murray suggests we all pray this prayer for ourselves, and I agree:

Lord, let love from Heaven flow down into my heart. I am giving up my life to pray and live as one who has given himself up for the everlasting love to dwell in and fill him.

Amen. Let us push back the darkness and shine the light of love and truth in the darkest corners of our social internet. And let’s encourage one another toward that end.