We just spent a whole quarter in one of our classes at the Folsom church discussing the importance of seeking to understand what people are saying and how they are acting before we react to them. We cited Paul’s words in Titus 3:2, “…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.”
We also emphasized Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
Then Colin Kaepernick, one of the 49ers’ quarterbacks, decides not to stand during the National Anthem. Let’s just say the reaction to this act of defiance from Christians was rapid and predictable.
I hasten to admit that my first reaction was identical to many of the things said by those who went public on social media. It was as knee-jerk as theirs. I’ll also say that I couldn’t disagree with his action more. I felt it was childish and unbecoming for a man who is making millions of dollars playing a game in a country that makes it possible. Not only that, there is no evidence that Mr. Kaepernick has used his riches to help alleviate the suffering of those he was protesting for. It reminds me of the video I saw of a black man asking a very good question during the flooding in Louisiana: “Where are the Black Lives Matter boats?” There were none to be found. (For the record, Colin Kaepernick came out ad day or two later and said he was giving a million dollars to “various organizations.” So, if he makes the team this year, that leaves him only $13 million this year to get by on).
See that? A little cynicism crept in there. It’s hard to avoid when people do things that irritate us. Yet, there’s that other verse — remember? “Love is not irritated” (I Cor. 13:5). Sometimes, truth is irritating, isn’t it?
I don’t agree with Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the National Anthem. But I do agree that he has a right not to, even if it bothers me.
But, then I ask, “why does it bother me?”
That’s a good question. His sitting there during the playing of our national song has no effect on me. None at all. It doesn’t affect my ability to stand when it’s played or my personal sense of patriotism.
So why should it bother me? Is it because so many fought and gave their lives under that flag? But does his not standing affect our appreciation for what others have done?
It may indicate that Colin Kaepernick doesn’t appreciate it, but how many really do? If we appreciate what others have done so much, why do we spend Memorial Day eating hot dogs or going sightseeing, sometimes without any thought of honoring those have died? If someone videoed all if our actions on Memorial Day or Veterans Day, would we come off any better than Colin Kaepernick? What I’m asking is: are we consistent?
The issue is that what Kaepernick did is just symbolism over substance; it’s meaningless. But that cuts two ways. When we put our hands over our hearts while someone is singing the National Anthem or while we pledge allegiance to the flag — is there any substance there? Are we concentrating on the words of the song or just admiring (or critiquing) the person singing it? Do we really “pledge allegiance” to the flag when we repeat the words?
Are we being consistent when we criticize others who seem to be less patriotic than we are? That is, are our acts of patriotism only symbolic or do they have substance?
(I imagine I’m really annoying you right now but that’s OK; I’m annoying myself).
Hitting closer to home, this symbolism over substance mentality can spill over into our worship. A few years ago, we visited a church in Florida and they sang “I Stand in Awe.” On cue, when they got to the the chorus (“I stand, I stand in awe of you”), the members in this large church got up from their pews and stood. Except, some didn’t; many of the college kids didn’t stand, including the student we were there to visit. I didn’t stand, either. The song is not about physically standing up. I can even argue that it detracts from the meaning of the song if you stand up. It’s like requiring everyone to stand when we sing “Standing on the Promises.” You can’t physically stand on God’s promises.
All that is just symbolism over substance, and sometimes, even the “symbol” is obscure. When our service to God is primarily for show — symbolism over substance — we are not pleasing God. God wants action; he wants fruit. In John 15:8, Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”
In Matthew 23:6-8, Jesus criticized those who make religion a hollow, symbolic show: “…and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.”
Paul also requires profitable, not just intellectual or symbolic, living, in Titus 3:8-9,
“The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.”
Notice, Paul says that good works are “profitable,” while controversies and arguments about the law are, at best, symbolic. They serve no useful purpose.
James says, “be doers of the word, not hearers only deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). “Hearers only” are those who symbolically serve a symbolic God for symbolic reasons; they don’t actually live for God; they do not put God’s word into practice, they just talk about God. As someone once said, “if there were two doors with signs above them, ‘Heaven’ and ‘A Lecture About Heaven,’ too many Christians would enter the second door.”
We might say that while God’s “anthem” is being played — an anthem that should cause them to rise to action — some sit on the pew, unmoved by it all. Why? Their commitment to Christ is a fiction, symbolism over substance.
Our reaction to things that happen in our culture betray our true spiritual condition. Some Christians get “up in arms” about abortion or same-sex marriage, but have never done anything but get mad about it. Their “righteous indignation” is merely symbolic.
In fact, some Christians who rail against same-sex marriage, are in horrible marriages themselves and some even get divorced. Their view of marriage is symbolic, not substantive.
Some Christians who wring their hands over all the abortions have never contributed a dime to pro-life causes or even spoken out publicly against it. It’s just a symbolic. No substance.
Some Christians can give you book, chapter and verse for why instrumental music is not authorized in the assembly, but couldn’t tell you the words to the songs that they sang in an assembly an hour before. Symbolism over substance.
Needless to say, the Lord’s Supper can become a symbol instead of a substantive reminder of what Christ has done for us. Paul scolded the Corinthians because they fell into that trap (I Cor. 11:17-34).
Merely symbolic actions are rarely useful in life, yet they are common. But Actions still speak louder than words. Hear James again (James 2:14-16), “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
This reminds me to ask: who have I actually helped lately? Or is my life about symbolism over substance?
We may rightly criticize politicians and celebrities who make symbolic gestures but don’t donate a dime of their millions to the cause. But don’t stop there. Remember Jesus’ analogy of the speck and the log (Mt. 7:3-5)? Let’s ask ourselves: is our commitment to Christ symbolic or is it real? Because, heaven and hell are real places, not symbolic. Keep that in mind.