The last few posts from my out of print book, “When God Gives a Time Out” have focused on doing things to be esteemed by others. Chapter 9 continues on that theme by looking at how we deal with disagreement. I hope you find this chapter helpful in our hyper partisan time. (If you want to start with chapter 1 click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs”)
Managing Esteem Instead of Performance
Performing for esteem can be very draining. There is another (equally draining) way to cope in a performance based esteem system. Instead of just altering what is done (performance), one can work on the other side of the equation (esteem). If a certain group is not giving esteem for performance one can carve out or gather a new group that will. This is a rather normal human action –“ birds of a feather flock together” goes the saying. People who think and act like we do always give us more esteem than people who don’t. In fact, people who are not like us can really challenge our self- esteem if we are caught in the performance based esteem model. Instead of our thoughts, actions, or beliefs bringing affirmation by someone who agrees that we are right, our thoughts, actions, or beliefs are questioned. This dissonance is an esteem anti-rush or downer. We don’t like people who bring us down so we either try to change them or run away from them to a more agreeable person. In either case, we are not allowing an intimate relationship with God to be the steady rock that supports our faith and self-image. We are relying on social proof.
What is “social proof”? Social proof is the affirmation or proof that we receive from people who agree with us. Social proof is the reason we are so interested in polls. If 4 out of 5 people prefer peanuts to walnuts then this is proof that peanuts are better. I happen to like walnuts, so despite the fact that the prevailing social proof in society is pro-peanut, I can convince myself that walnuts are better if I just surround myself with the 20% of the population who likes walnuts. In my walnut subculture I receive plenty of performance (in this case my liking for walnuts) based esteem and affirmation that I am right.
Instead of withdrawing into the walnut subculture, I could take another approach. I could seek to convert people to liking walnuts. I could always make sure I had a dish of walnuts on my desk at work so people could try them. I could wear T-shirts that declare the supremacy of the walnut. At the work place and market place I could argue that peanuts are not really nuts at all – they are legumes. With every walnut convert I receive social proof that my position is right. If someone is so convinced that they switch from peanuts to walnuts then I must be right!
With this silly example I am by no means suggesting that our belief in God is simply a matter of personal taste. I am arguing that our actions can convey that message when our motivation for sharing our faith is more about a need for social proof than a need to do the will of the Father. When we are doing, thinking, or saying things because we desire social proof, people tend to discern that. You can probably discern the difference between someone who must be right as opposed to someone who is genuinely seeking truth. The person who needs to be right will not allow for disagreement or challenge to their position, it is too hurtful to their self-image. A person reacts this way because their position has not been arrived at through an honest seeking of truth but by an accumulation of social proof. Unfortunately, this reaction also can exist in Christians. If someone’s family and social group all believe in Jesus, it is possible that a person “believes” because of the social proof and not because they have actually encountered the living God. When that person’s faith is challenged they usually lash out and try to use deceptive arguments in order to win the discussion and feel right. Unfortunately, this is why many non-believers think of Christians as ignorant and hypocritical.
In Christianity, many people need a time out because they are doing things as a result of social proof instead of the voice of our Heavenly Father. This need for social proof doesn’t just impact evangelism; it is one of the great causes of church splits. As Christians, our commonality in Christ is supposed to supercede all differences. Galatians 3:26-28 says,
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Our commonality in Christ makes all of our differences seem insignificant. In contrast, esteem seeking through social proof demands that differences be changed or withdrawn from. Lack of social proof is too much of a drain on our esteem. While churches should be unified in the core elements of the faith, they should also be examples of how to deal with differences. Unfortunately, many churches collect people of the same political ideology, the same ethnic or racial make up, and the same socio-economic situation. Unintentionally, churches create a culture that reflects the culture of the church’s majority. Differences are not talked through and understood, they are swept under the rug or ignored. Anything else would threaten the social proof that reinforces that we are right and good. As Christians who understand the sinful human heart, we should be the most open to the possibility that we are wrong or misinformed. Instead, the need for social proof can keep our hearts closed.
I first learned about social proof in a social psychology class. Certain apocalyptic cults have become case studies for social proof. One particular cult proclaimed that the world would be destroyed on a certain day. The cult was fairly reclusive but did warn a few people about the up-coming apocalypse. When the day for the world to end came – and went – a strange thing happened. Instead of disbanding, saying, “Oops” and returning to society, the cult members started evangelizing! The cult prophet received a new message explaining why the world didn’t end and instructions to go tell the world this new message.
This pattern of apocalyptic misses followed by an increase in evangelism is not uncommon. The theory is that in the face of proof that challenges our deeply held beliefs (in this case the proof that the world didn’t end when predicted) we will turn to social proof to anchor our beliefs. When measurable evidence indicates our beliefs are misguided, we try to convert people. We reason that if people convert there must be more to our beliefs than the proof suggests.
If you are not a member of an apocalyptic cult you may still employ social proof. There are many Christians, Jehovah’s witnesses, and Mormons who do evangelism based more on their lack of faith, than their faith. Subconsciously they feel compelled to convert people because it makes them feel more sure about their faith. Biblical evangelism, however, is an outflow of one’s love relationship with God.
The so-called, “holy huddle” is also an expression of social proof. The holy huddle is when a church isolates itself from the world so that it can beat its drum unquestioned. Without outside ideas everyone can be 100% convinced since there is 100% agreement in this little subculture. In contrast, Biblical faith penetrates the surrounding culture and in the midst of questions, contempt, and persecution, the faith remains strong. Biblical faith is resolute because it is based on a relationship with God and not popular opinion.
For most Christians this reliance on social proof exhibits itself mostly as a feeling in response to disagreement. This disagreement can come either from a skeptic or just a fellow believer with some doctrinal or political differences. In either case we get that feeling to go on the offensive. The feeling is not based on truth or love for that other person. It is an uneasy feeling that we are wrong. When our beliefs are more grounded in social proof than in a relationship with God, we are more prone to be uneasy with disagreement because it is social proof in the other direction. I am not speaking about valid arguments that prompt us to revisit an issue to make sure we have it straight – that is healthy and open minded. I have in mind the gut reaction to disagreement itself, regardless of the content. This gut feeling, if acted upon, compels us to argue in a way to defeat a person more than guide them. This feeling causes people in the church to take up sides as the disagreeing people scurry to shore up some social proof from within the church. This feeling causes us to be cold to people who are different in the church because we are uncomfortable with the social proof against us.
We don’t like being uncomfortable; we don’t like being deprived of our esteem rush from those who disagree. Our seeking of social proof, and the pleasure that goes with it, causes many rifts in the church. James, in his epistle, wrote,
“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. . . . Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:1-8)
The principles in the letter of James apply to the rifts that develop as a result of our need for esteem. The source of these quarrels is our pleasures: the pleasure we receive from esteem. When we don’t receive esteem, we gather people that agree with us and bolster our social proof. Of course, those who disagree do the same and then rifts develop in the church. But the source of the rifts is our need for pleasure. We need to feel good about ourselves and if our beliefs are based on social proof, then when our social proof is undermined we have that gut reaction to defeat the naysayers. James points out that sometimes we will even ask God to intervene in the affair. But we ask only so that the other person will be shown to be wrong. We “ask with wrong motives, so that we may spend it on our pleasures.” We are not really looking for unity, or reconciliation. We are looking for our pleasure to be restored. The irony is that the only way for true pleasure and unity to be restored is to stop seeking pleasure (social proof esteem) and “draw near to God . . .cleanse hands, and purify hearts.” A time out to draw near to God is the best way to resolve conflict. We must seek God instead of social proof and our hearts will be purified as we begin to interact with one another in a Christ-like manner. When conflict arises due to seeking the pleasure of social proof we must take a time out to draw near to God.
Social proof and performance based esteem are two sides of the same coin. That coin is the system that is fueled by esteem rush. Choosing to perform certain tasks based on the esteem rush it brings or gathering a group of yes-men to esteem what you already do are both attempts to get an esteem rush. Whenever we choose our actions based on the esteem it brings, we are ignoring the voice of God. We are, in essence, children in a classroom doing silly things to get the attention of our peers. Hopefully, our classroom teachers aren’t going to put up with such behavior. Maybe they will give the kids a time out in the principal’s office.) Unfortunately all too many churches are classrooms that teach and acculturate us into the performance based esteem system.
Questions to Ponder
How does social proof and polling affect the decision making process on an individual, church and societal level?
How comfortable are you in the face of disagreement? Is your knee jerk reaction to defeat those who disagree with you?
What face of social proof are you most familiar with: compulsion to convert or the “holy huddle”?
How would you describe the differences between a biblical faith and a faith that is based on social proof? Can you think of actual examples from your life?
Have you ever been in a situation where people were in conflict and trying to muster social proof? How did that impact the situation and the relationships involved?