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Reactivity: A Ditch to the Left

And the Lord said:

​​​“Because this people draw near with their mouth ​​​​​​​and honor me with their lips, ​​​while their hearts are far from me, ​and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, ​​​​​​​​​​​therefore, behold, I will again ​​​​​​​do wonderful things with this people, ​​​​​​​with wonder upon wonder; ​​​​​​​and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, ​​​​​​​and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” ​​​Isaiah 29:13–14

The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” John 7:45–52

Nobility to Infamy

It started nobly enough as a courageous stand against the idolatry advancing among God’s people. Alexander the Great had swept through the holy land in a swift conquest of the known world, and his agenda soon followed his sword. Greek culture quickly percolated down into all aspects of society, wooing faithful Jews to learn the ways of the Gentiles. Before long, the Seleucid kings, heirs of Alexander’s eastern realm, banned Israel’s religion and ruthlessly persecuted all who defied their militant promotion of Greek ways.

In the midst of this tempest, devout men made difficult decisions and many became rightly esteemed for their courage and devotion. Among them were men who chose to separate themselves from any who would not hold faithfully to the Scripture. These Pharisaios (separatists)—a minority from the outset—were repeatedly and ruthlessly persecuted by both Jews and Greeks yet determined that they would hold to the Law of Moses no matter the cost. Tragically, in so doing, they perverted it and became no different than those they maligned as evildoers.

Reactivity: Reliance Squared

Spiritual blindness occurs whenever we choose our perspective over the insights that only God can give (Prov. 3:5–8). The condition may last a moment or several months depending on our awareness and readiness to repent (Ps. 73:22; 2 Sam. 5–7), An unresolved blindness can quickly multiply in the face of difficulty, bringing us into in a far worse condition: a state of reactivity.

Reactivity is more than a reliance on human thinking for though it consists of our limited human perspective, it also includes the sinister twist of a blinding, impassioned, self-righteousness. While reliance can take place in any circumstance, reactivity comes in response to the behavior of others. We can fall prey to unbelief in seclusion, but not to the same degree as when we are reacting to the actions of those around us (1 Sam. 27:1).

This does not mean that our sin is excusable because of the sins perpetrated against us. In fact, we can react against behavior that is not sinful at all. We may be challenged by the faith of another and respond in accusation instead of encouragement; the light of their belief has shone upon our unbelief, and we become upset and even resentful (1 Sam. 17:28). We could also take issue with a Christian who is enjoying true biblical liberty in an activity that we have not yet learned to understand from the perspective of God’s rich grace; their liberty highlights our bondage and we feel perturbed. Therefore, the common denominator of reactivity is not the sin of other people but the sin of our perspective on the actions of other people. When reliant upon our own thinking, we react to what we see in others and rapidly dig ourselves deeper into our pit of unbelief. Alarm and anger have embedded our unbelief deep into our heart, hardening our heart and further blinding us to our actual condition (Mt. 7:3–5).

The Power of Reactionary Thinking

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss reactivity as a simple overreaction. A tsunami is still only a wave, yet it has significantly more power and inflicts far greater destruction than most. In the same way, reactivity doesn’t simply regard its object as a chief part of the problem but as the problem itself. A compulsive occupation with “the crisis” has the power to lead people down life-long rabbit holes that condemn the innocent, sever valuable relationships, and eventually dead-end its devotees in the emptiness of cynicism. It leads people on crusades that progress not through any form of self-reflection or thought-out principles but rather to the prosecution of an evil that may not even exist. Reactivity says, “I am right because they are wrong,” eventually leading to an animosity devoid of understanding or purpose. Blinded by our angry agenda, we lose sight of the present and become increasingly radical and detached from those around us.

A Viper’s Den

A great many godly endeavors and committed believers fall prey to the dark vortex of reactivity. We see it in Elijah who became so preoccupied with his own sacrifice that he could no longer see the sacrifices of others (1 Ki. 18:22; 19:9–18). We see it in a prophet who was so wrapped up in his hatred of Assyria that he could no longer see God’s love for them (Jon. 4:9–11). And we see it in the Pharisees, who focused so much on defending the Law of Moses that they were unaware that they themselves were violating it (Jn 7:50–52). Tragically, the same pattern has followed in the Church, devolving once vibrant, powerful movements of the Spirit into stale instruments of human oppression. The histories of the Church Fathers and the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, the Puritan and Congregationalist movements, and American fundamentalism provide appalling examples of what happens when our understanding of faith deforms from knowing God to trying to become gods.

Doing good for goodness sake is a fool’s errand if we hold ourselves to be the definers of what is good. The dangerous trap of reactivity gives us reason to reexamine our thinking and thank God for those who disagree with us.

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