“It’s just not practical.” How many times have we heard or used that phrase to describe a situation or task set before us? Too many, probably. We constantly evaluate our life decisions based on their usefulness – but this isn’t an intrinsically bad thing. Shopping for clothes on sale or choosing a school offering more scholarship money aren’t cold-hearted dismissals of humanity, just sensible choices helping us to be responsible stewards of our resources. However, pragmatism runs afoul when it distorts our capacity to love, and as Christians it detracts from our witness when it places self-interest over love of our Creator or His creations.
Pragmatism is Not God’s Heart
In his book The Conservative Heart, Arthur C. Brooks addresses the oft-troubled intersection of material goods and human relationships, writing:
The thirst for admiration, the hunger for material things, and the habit of objectifying others – this very cycle of grasping and craving – follows a formula of the world that is elegant, simple, and deadly: Love things and use people . . . It is the snake oil peddled by culture makers from Hollywood to Madison Avenue. But we know in our hearts that it is morally disordered and a road to misery. We want to be free of the sticky cravings. We want to find a formula that actually reduces unhappiness. How about this: Love people and use things (Brooks 41).
Brooks’s simple inversion of the relationship between people and things appropriately restores the dignity of the human person over his or her possessions. As Christians, we understand this mantra through words written in the Old Testament and repeated in the New:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:34-36, ESV).
To God, our existence is not in the least pragmatic – in fact, it’s probably the farthest thing from it. The humans He had created in His image to abide with Him forever in paradise turned their backs on Him, breaking His heart and inviting their own banishment from His presence. Their sin required an inexplicably painful sacrifice, the sending of His Son Jesus into a fallen world to live a perfect life and die an innocent man.
Even with Christ’s atoning work, however, we humans continue to run far from the heart of God. The easiest thing in the world would be for Him to cut the cord once and for all, to rescind the offer of salvation, to “cut costs” by leaving us to flounder in the mess we’ve created or simply eliminate us from His sight. Yet He doesn’t cast us away, but ever reaches down in love towards us. He isn’t finished with us.
Pragmatism Isn’t our Purpose
If God created us in His image and He constantly demonstrates His love for us, then shouldn’t that necessarily lead us to also choose love over pragmatism, generosity over stinginess, culture engagement over cynical withdrawal from society? The Apostle Paul answers the question succinctly: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). Following the way of Christ means a decision to go the extra mile for the purpose of building up each other on the journey towards being more like our Savior.
The way of Christ doesn’t reject the practice of thinking pragmatically altogether, of course, but simply directs away from a worldview of calculating worth based on functionality. Should companies find practical ways to effectively increase employee productivity or exercise corporate social responsibility? Yes. Can scientists research better methods for sending astronauts into space or treating leukemia? Yes. What if churches want to find more cost-effective transportation for missions partners overseas? That’s fine, too. God doesn’t want us to abandon our rational, innovative abilities for relentless idealism. If we threw away all pragmatism, the world would likely be home to greater waste, chaos, and destruction.
The Current Plague of
The problem in the Church today (and when I say “the Church,” I’m thinking particularly of the American Church) is not a rejection of pragmatism, however. Today, we’re seeing hordes of Christians place political practicalities far and above theological truth. Republican governors of the Christian faith have decisively opposed admitting any Middle Eastern refugees into the United States on the grounds that some might be terrorists. Numerous Christians continue in their unquestioning support of local police forces who have been proven guilty of lawless brutality and overt racial discrimination. And a horde of young and old voters alike will be turning out to vote for Donald Trump in November on the grounds that “anyone is better than Hillary Clinton” or that “Trump can fix the economy,” notwithstanding the presumptive Republican nominee’s insulting remarks towards immigrants and American minorities, his vulgar attitude towards women, and his support for pro-choice ethics and anti-Christian morals. And these are just a few of the areas in which Christians have justified their views based on a desire for order, safety, or prosperity.
The truth is, many Christians in today’s America don’t know what to do in the face of overwhelming national and global change. Rapid developments in areas ranging from economics and politics to sexual and medical ethics are leaving many paralyzed. In the search for answers, most people simply want to react. But pure reaction isn’t the way of Christ. As we seek a solution to the challenges raised by a changing world, we must turn to an unchanging Word. God has promised that His Word is eternal and His love for us is unending (Matt 24:35, Jer. 31:3). With His help, there is a way forward. It may not be the pragmatic way, but we know it will be the perfect way.