One phenomenon that that I have witnessed in nearly every field of human endeavor is what I call the “Gap Trap”. It occurs in science, politics, philosophy, religion, and practically everywhere else. In this article, I’ll explain the phenomenon in terms of religion—Christianity, to be exact. Here’s the scenario:
Joe Christian learns something new from the Bible and realizes that he and his peers have been in error. Joe diligently embraces his new learning and begins to redefine his life in terms of the “before and after” of this new epiphany, but then Joe gets stuck in this new “place” and goes for years without any new epiphanies, although there are loads of opportunity for new learning. He is now caught in the “Gap Trap”—stuck in the gap between where he once was, and where he could be.
Let me give a few realistic examples to make my point (hopefully) clearer:
- Joe comes up with an understanding about salvation and the requirements thereof that differs significantly from what his church has traditionally taught. Or;
- Joe perceives some particular evil at work in certain leaders in his church and actively opposes it. Or;
- Joe comes to a firm conviction that something in the arrangement of his church’s practices is unbiblical and ought to be rearranged. Let’s say, for example, that he comes to opine that having a separate teen ministry is just not a spiritually good idea.
Perhaps to his surprise, Joe encounters some resistance from his peers who do not accept his new epiphany as valid. He eventually bemoans their low state and develops a me-versus-them attitude, in which he is naturally the superior by nature of the fact that he understands the new epiphany and “they” don’t. He certainly doesn’t intend any conceit or arrogance, and he diligently avoids hatred and bitterness toward them. It is, after all, simply a matter of fact that his position is better than their position.
Why can’t they see, he wonders, that their position is sorely in need of reform? How can they be sincere believers and yet not understand this obvious fact? They’re just being stubborn, he concludes. And at this point, whether he leaves their fellowship altogether, or simply seeks to operate within it in a way different from before, his church life is certainly changed. Indeed, some level of animosity or aggravation, whether small or great, is to be expected when competing paradigms are simultaneously in play in a fellowship.
Joe spends years of his life in this somewhat-aggravated status. Let us assume that like so many other reformers, Joe is right about his epiphany, and that the others are indeed wrong. Whether he leaves their fellowship or not, things will never go back to the way they were before Joe had his epiphany.
Meanwhile, however, Joe does not realize that he himself has been largely distracted from further epiphanies. He is caught in the wide gap between where he once was in his understanding and where he would be if he rightly understood everything about his religion. Indeed, just as he had the one epiphany years before, many, many other discoveries naturally await him. He has lost sight of this, however, having now invested years of his life in defending and reaffirming his position on that singular issue from so long ago. He has devised proof after proof and argument after argument about how his epiphany is right and how the traditional view is wrong.
In these years, Joe was even faced with the assertions of a few other reformers who had had epiphanies contrary to some of the other beliefs he has traditionally held. Sadly, Joe’s mindset was in no position to give proper consideration to these new challenges because he was still busy churning through his previous epiphany and the proofs thereof—or because he was still emotionally distracted by the strife resulting from the difference between his position and that of those with whom he once agreed.
Joe doesn’t realize, therefore, that he has probably appeared to the other reformers exactly the way his original peers appear to him: insincere and stubborn. Rather than progressing courageously and freely through a series of one meaningful epiphany after another, along the way to the fullest-possible level of knowledge, Joe has (without even realizing it) devoted years of his life to but a single differentiation between himself and his original peer group. Thus is he stuck along the pathway, and what should have been a journey for him has become a permanent dwelling place. He is trapped in the gap between where he was and where he really ought to be heading with good speed.
How he got here is altogether understandable, and we need not thrust harsh condemnations upon him for having been distracted by all the controversy. It is perhaps more appropriate merely to pity his anguish and then to remind him that with subsequent epiphanies comes increased freedom and joy.
It is probably a very good assumption that all of us are wrong about some substantial number of our beliefs and/or practices. It is the observable nature of mankind not only to be fairly careless about the facts, but to promote similar behaviors in our peers and our children. People being not only rational animals, but also emotional ones, are apt to lulled into a state of relative rational inactivity by the positive stimulation of their emotions.
Let us continue, therefore, in our consideration of Joe, whom we shall assume, has left his original fellowship after deciding that it just wasn’t going to be possible to get along when they shared such different paradigms. The upheaval was both intellectually and emotionally exhausting to Joe. He decided to seek out another church and was thrilled in short order to find one whose members were sympathetic with his earlier epiphany and who supported his decision to leave his former fellowship.
Joe, if he is like so many others that I have witnessed over the years, may very likely take a bit of a break on the intellectual side and decide instead to enjoy the emotional respite afforded by his new fellowship. Meanwhile, there is a bit of a “honeymoon” period as he gets accustomed to his new fellowship. He takes an interest in the new friends, and they take an interest in him. These new relationships take time to form, and that process is a welcome distraction to the Joe’s previous turmoil.
Joe is now part of a new “we”, in which he enjoys some personal sense of satisfaction and vindication. He may even have a new epiphany or two in his new surroundings, by virtue of comparing it with the old fellowship. In these epiphanies, however, there is no disagreement, since he is fitting into the new group, as opposed to contradicting his old group.
In time, however, as Joe continues to read the Bible, it is inevitable that he will have some new discovery that argues against some certain practice or belief of his new fellowship—whether minor or major. This might naturally bring to Joe’s mind the strife that accompanied his initial epiphany, and he might just be tempted to “go along to get along” this time. That is, to “agree to disagree”, or to “not rock the boat”. Joe might even consider the issue at length this time, whereas he immediately started talking about it the last time this happened. Perhaps he’ll search out a “wiser” way to handle it this time. Indeed, his new fellowship is important to him and these people were very nice to take him in. He will likely experience the temptation, therefore, to “let it slide” this time, rather than to push the issue as before.
What will Joe decide? How will he handle it this time? Is it still as important as before to him that he understands and promotes the truth and nothing but? Does he still consider it a basic mission in his Christian life to gently correct other believers when they are in error? Or will he come to see it as do some others, that “grace” will sometimes let the truth alone in search of something even more important?
While Joe deals with all these considerations, something else is happening: the clock is ticking and irreplaceable time is being lost.
Joe has opted to invest himself in some fellowships along the way. The merits of these investments can perhaps be calculated later. The costs of these investments, however, can at least begin to appear when we consider how Joe has been stuck in the gap trap more than once. Rather than being an avid learner who soaks up one new lesson after another and who easily drops disproved beliefs and practices for sound ones, Joe has in these years learned relatively little, having only a few epiphanies to show for all his investment.
Is there a dilemma at work here? Must one choose between fellowship/membership and active, regular learning? We can certainly imagine fellowships where learning and reforming are not valued paradigms, just as we can imagine those in which they are important.
Or could it be that the notion of such a dilemma between fellowship and learning is a false one? Imagine, for instance, that Joe had found a fellowship that valued truth and reform so much that they would readily embrace Joe’s discovery that one of their practices was in need of reform. In that case, Joe’s drive for truth and correction would be an asset to the organization, and not a liability.
Regardless of whatever Joe might encounter…whether he might ever find such a healthy fellowship or not…the issue that concerns me in this present article is whether Joe decides to compromise his particular discoveries for the sake of getting along. Naturally, the question of the judgment is relevant to each believer, and we can only imagine what God might ask or say when each of us stands face to face with him. If Joe compromises the truth in order to fit in, would God congratulate him on that or would God take offense that Joe has ultimately neglected a truth he discovered in the Bible in order to be accepted amongst his peers?
Who could say for sure but God himself? Yet we are perhaps not without some useful information in guessing accurately ahead of time what God would say. What will Joe’s decision be, and will it please God or disappoint him?
While we continue to ruminate on that question, let us simultaneously consider, by way of contrast, another believer named Ted. Early in his life, Ted keyed in on the fact that a great number of Bible passages seem to laud things like truth, understanding, knowledge, wisdom, and diligence. Ted also gleaned from the scriptures that these virtues seemed to be the proper basis upon which beneficial relationships were built, as well as upon which other relationships were shunned (when those parties were found to reject these virtues). Ted, therefore, has never in his life felt the pressure of any dilemma between belonging to a church and seeking, embracing, and implementing the truth. He would no sooner consider joining a compromised church than he would join a street gang, for neither shares the weightier paradigms that he has gleaned from the Bible.
Ted spends his life, therefore, overturning one error after another and discovering a continual string of new and better understandings of the Bible and the topics it addresses. Like Joe, Ted is not perfect, yet Ted’s track record in learning is quite impressive, while Joe is still, more or less, caught in the gap trap. Joe can count his epiphanies on one hand, while Ted has long since lost count and laughs at how many times he has discovered (or been shown) that he was in error on some point or other.
Like Joe’s, Ted’s mission is neither vindictive nor bitter. He is not competitive, nor is he seeking glory. And when such a thought or temptation arises in his mind, he squelches it immediately. Where Joe and Ted differ primarily is that for Ted, the discovery and implementation of the truth is its own reward, where Joe finds that reward somewhat lacking and seeks to supplement it with the emotional satisfaction of “fitting in” and “belonging” to a group. Joe, however, has got himself snagged, where Ted is relatively free from entangling alliances of “membership”. Ted rarely faces peer pressure to conform to that which he understands to be less-than-best. He is not plagued with false dilemmas, such as “Being unified is more important than being right“, and “If you can’t say something nice (and uncontroversial), say nothing at all“. Nor is he impressed with excuses such as “No church is perfect” and “Change takes time“.
Both Joe and Ted have a few deep friendships, and lots of shallower ones. Both try to live righteously and to be accountable for their actions. In the final analysis, however, Joe practically lives to be a member, where Ted lives to learn and to implement the truth as much as possible.
Joe is not wholly unaware of his own slow pace. Indeed, he often senses some frustration that he ought to be somehow doing better, learning more, or achieving greater things. Still he is thankful that he is not in error as he once was. Having learned a few things since the beginning of his journey, he’s rightfully appreciative of the distance he has come.
When Joe meets Ted, however, he is quite ill-equipped to discuss all the things that Ted has learned, because Joe simply hasn’t taken the time to “do the math” on as many scriptural issues as has Ted. Indeed, much of what Ted has learned was made possible by a steady string of paradigm shifts that Joe has not yet even discovered there is a need for. To Joe, Ted may well appear to be “off in the weeds” somewhere, instead of in what Joe wrongly considers to be the proper mainstream of Bible understanding.
Joe considers himself to be one of the enlightened believers. Indeed, he has “paid his dues” and he has “taken a stand”, and he has even been “persecuted” for it. All this is true. Yet there is so much more that Joe could be learning. In fact, his life has become something of a drudgery, albeit an ostensible practice in responsibility. Joe bears more the trudging “be a good trooper” mentality than the regular excitement and glory of an explorer, discoverer, or liberator.
Perhaps Joe doesn’t even realize that he regularly reads and speaks of such lofty things as truth, glory, reform, knowledge, freedom, zeal, courage, understanding, maturity, achievement, overcoming, success, and blessings, and yet neither his general emotional disposition nor his observable track record matches appropriately the positive nature of the things about which he reads. Our friend Joe is caught in the gap trap, as are so many of us, and as have been so many who came before us.
Rare are few are those like Ted, who get things on straight early in the journey and who effectively resist the hindrances to substantial learning that snag the rest, more or less. Perhaps the exact nature of those hindrances isn’t ultimately as important as whether we learn to remove them from our lives. I’m reminded of the great scene in the movie, Sergeant York, in which the following dialog occurs between Pastor Pyle and Alvin York, who is plowing in the field in which several generations of his family had plowed before him. Pyle has come to influence Alvin to “get religion”:
Pyle: See that rock, Alvin? (He points to a large boulder in the field.) You been plowing around that rock a heap of years.
York: Sure have.
Pyle: Did you ever think when you start plowing your furrows crooked, it’s mighty hard to get ’em straight again?
York: I never thought on it much.
Pyle: Well, it’s that way, I reckon—with other things besides plowin’.
Indeed, it is that way with other things besides plowing—and religion, too. Not only are millions hindered from regular religious progress like Joe, but a great many are similarly snagged in other fields human endeavor, such as politics, science, history, parenting, education, and healthy eating. They are proud to be plowing in their own fields, but they fail to recognize the irony that they are still plowing around boulders that generations before them have also plowed around. They don’t seem to see the hindrances as such, but perhaps simply as “just how it is”. They have boulder blindness!
In a later scene, we see that Pyle’s message was successful, even in it’s literal sense; Alvin and his younger brother manage to break up that boulder and to remove it finally from the field. In a simple act of hard labor, perhaps one of the most glorious of human capabilities was displayed: the solving of problems. Even so, perhaps the greater wonder is the number of generations who had previously settled for leaving the problem unsolved!
I hope at the end of my days to marvel at how many things I managed to learn and to achieve, rather than at how many opportunities I squandered in order to do something less meaningful instead. I have at least perceived the gap trap at this point in my life and am working hard to escape and/or avoid its clutches in every respect. And whaddya know? It’s starting to get fun!