Attentiveness: Holy Compromise and Community

Can’t we make decisions that make everyone happy? We long for simplicity and clarity, but that is found only in our perfect heavenly realm. In this fallen world our choices are imperfect and flawed because our knowledge is limited and sin is ubiquitous. Even good decisions are imperfect. And, even good decisions can make people unhappy.

This isn’t only the case with seminary presidents. Mothers and fathers face the same dilemma in making decisions for the family. We decide to travel to visit relatives for the holidays and this is good for the relatives and a few people in the family, but others may have preferred other plans. Not everyone is happy. Or we decide to put a crying child to bed. Are the cries the strong-will of a child testing a parent? Is it an earache? Is it a cry for love and affection? Did we make the right decision to let her cry?

As we think about New Year’s resolutions, we as a seminary community should resolve not to base our decisions on what makes everyone happy. We should instead resolve to make decisions that build holy community.

A couple of years ago, I was confronted by a friend who was very critical of some of my decisions. I responded saying, “All the decisions I make as a seminary president are a compromise. There are no perfect decisions.”[1] Like a parent or a teacher, I may make some carefully thought-out decisions based on prayer and advice from well-meaning and well-informed advisors. The decisions may make life better for many people and for the institution but still hurt or displease some people.

In this fallen world, sin has touched every one of us, every area of life, every institution and structure, and every decision we make. There is no perfect decision. Every decision is a compromise, a matter of give and take.

This brings me to our present situation in twenty-first-century societies. Whether it be out of insecurity, idolatry, or egoism, our leaders and the general population seem to think that every decision is either good or bad; right or wrong. But this is flawed reasoning and simply not true. People seem to have a hard time with nuances and compromises today, but our fallen world is filled with nuance and compromise. Decisions are better or worse, but seldom is a decision absolutely good (aside from deciding to follow Jesus).

The trap we have fallen into today makes it almost impossible to have a thriving democracy, happy families, or healthy cultures. Democracy is rooted in compromise: majority rule and minority rights. We seek to vote on what is best for the most people while still upholding the goal of human thriving for all. Most policies that are finally voted on are worked out as a compromise in order to get a majority of support for the policy/law/candidate.

When we can only see absolute good and evil in every decision, we run the risk of permanent social or political paralysis. Or we end up with perpetual conflict where one side, or one person, must win.

Holy compromise in this world is necessary for human thriving.

It is likewise true for us to thrive as a faith community. Without surrendering our core beliefs, we must nevertheless reach out to connect with others to find common ground, not my ground or your ground. All community in this fallen world must be based on holy compromise. It is holy because it recognizes the one who is above all, who knows all, and whose prodigal love makes our sinful community possible. It is compromise because that holy love makes it possible for me to give up or sacrifice some of my desires for a greater good: community.

In this new year, I will live into more holy compromises, seeking what is best for Jesus and his Kingdom, while giving up some of my own desires for others. Without holy compromise, there is no community. Without community, there can be no Kingdom.

“Thy Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”

[1] I wrote this two weeks ago, but just read the following today in Collin Hansen’s book Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023), p. 255: “The Gospel changes you…It makes you more able to cooperate with people…more willing to compromise, more willing to do things with people…” Hear from Collin at our Evangelism, Identity, and Culture conference in February.

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.

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