On “Being Triggered” and the War for Your Soul

Some say that Jesus always “responded” to people, but never “reacted” to them. For our purposes, I’ll take “being triggered” as a reaction. On this reading, most of us are frequently triggered in (at least) small ways. It is ironic that the term came into usage as one group’s description of another. But like all such projections, what is actually named is really just part of us. If you know enough people, you know that almost all people have some basic insecurities and fears. And if you have an eyeball on your inward parts, you know that you “react” all the time. The spontaneous cynicism, the reflexive judgment, the thoughtless interpretation, etc. It is the very stuff of sanctification to mortify our tendencies in this area (i.e. the reduction of others to a convenient slot in our myopic whole). 

Perhaps the most we can expect to master in this life, however, is the habituation of a gap between our internal reaction and our external response, the alternative being that the external state is a reactive extension of our internal state. Naturally, one concern is that too large a “gap” between internal and external can be pathological, such as the case of the hypocrite. At its worst, one can imagine scenarios that lead to psychological fracture (as in the case of the spy whose internal and external are so radically separated as to require two entire interior/exterior performances). But the devil can always attempt to derail righteousness. It remains the case that the path to holiness does require some care for the gap between our internal reactions and our external responses. Crucially, what mediates these is not to be mere regurgitation of a behavioral formula (i.e. “reactive” obedience from anxiety), even if sometimes that is better than nothing. Rather, what can mediate between these is a second internal act of repentance, of re-movement such that we shift from one internal state to another. When we “move outward” from this wisely modified space rather than from our default space, we rationally respond with the values of the whole self (and with a greater approximation of God’s values) rather than from the self-reduction that screams in our initial reaction. The crucial thing to cultivate in the life of a Christian is to “move from” that repentant and full-personed space when we respond to others, rather than from the “reactive” space that reduces both them and (what is easy to miss!) you as well. The fruit of this habit is that it gets easier precisely as it is a movement from freedom. This is because it is ultimately easier and more tranquil to move from the whole image of God in its redeemed alignment than to move from the reduced and misaligned self that the world, the flesh, and the devil subsist upon. In Christ really is rest. His yoke really is light. The difference between Christ and ourselves is that He is the Aligned, the Straight One, the Way. We are crooked, disjointed, Picasso-selves reducing others to our own self-reduction. 

This is especially relevant when considering an emotion like “anger.” There is most certainly such a thing as righteous anger. But as in the case of Christ, it should not be read as a controlling reaction, but a profoundly sober state of mind. Most of the time when we are angry, we feel a sort of “immediate” heat in the chest as a reflex. And indeed, one would be forgiven for the impression that a habitually angry or cynical person is unlikely to be truly sober. Again, Christ is the Straight One, and while He has moments of each, neither are the most prominent characterizations we would associate with Him relative to His encounters with others. Christ is self-possessed, and that makes the full deployment of His anger at the end of Matthew all the more striking.

It seems to me that the gap between reaction and response could be called “Public Health Crisis #1” in our time. It is not an overstatement to say that it is both spiritually urgent for us to cultivate this gap, and that almost every message in our culture tells us otherwise. To live in our moment is almost inevitably to feel a deep moral tension between very basic statements in the New Testament and the increasingly unanimous default settings that are labeled as necessary for the current situation. We are told to get mad, that anything else is complacency, and we are actively encouraged to circumvent the critical process (seemingly because this puts us in a good position to be “vibed” into whatever kingdom is being advertised). Those bent on war have always accepted the cost of dehumanization. But we should not. We should especially not assume that we (irreducibly expressive individualists) know the moral difference between courage and recklessness by instinct. Our civilization is falling apart at national, state, and local levels. No church is not fraught with deep civil tensions. And anyone who thinks we’ve seen the worst of it is kidding themselves. Our information universes are increasingly separating, and the stubborn and self-assured narratives of each side show no sign of abating. It sounds, in fact, something like the peculiar world of the New Testament. Perhaps we would be wise to suspect that Jesus remains the relevant sage. Tocqueville long ago claimed that America must be a moral and competent nation not to become a mob of special interests, mutual distrust, and therefore mutual consumption. On his premises, it would not be surprising if the most urgent message of the moment is that we all need to grow up, quite literally. We are, most of us, immature and unfitted to the task. Re-reading the New Testament is perhaps the place to begin.

My own recommendation would be to read the entire New Testament, and then to read The Apostolic Fathers (Michael Holmes’ edition is nice). Ask the New Testament to tell you what its largest moral emphases are, and listen to what it says. My guess is that any “composite” drawn from this exercise would be quite unlike our own emphases, and in fact spiritually opposed to them. There are plenty of examples of righteous anger in the New Testament, but there are likewise many negative examples and warnings. There is a reason for this. Distinguishing the monthly from the weekly reminder is crucial. (Hint: It’s not about the gays. That’s the zeitgeist) What is constantly and very strikingly emphasized over and over again in the New Testament is the enormous significance of every encounter between any two faces. The whole can be summarized as love. But love can be described in a thousand negations (do not be bitter, etc). Love can likewise be broken down into affirmation after affirmation that the wise soul synoptically integrates. The Bible’s interest in the space between humans is a concern especially for the reputation of God. We do not choose whether we image God. Every action of every human in every circumstance matters eternally because a human is always – in the very grammar of living – lying or telling the truth about God. And this is why the New Testament is not only concerned with overt evangelism, but is in fact an entire program for the evangelization of the world. The formation of the church is the formation of a community of love via whom Christ is represented (by “observing all that I have commanded you”). It is not whether the church represents Christ or whether the reputation of Christ is distorted through her actions. This is assumed. It is basic. A mild skim of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers would produce abundant concern with the “representation of God” to one’s neighbor, Christ’s reputation through your reputation. Indeed, Peter even writes as though godliness “hastens the day” of Christ’s coming (2 Peter 3:11-12). It is a profoundly comforting truth that the success of the gospel does not depend upon the righteousness of the church. But it is also God’s design to use the love of His people and to (at least in part) work the task of persuasion through the redeemed reign of His representatives – who live in their neighbor as Christ lives in them (as Luther loved to say). A fine emphasis for the other guy, it might seem, but let us get back to the point.

Speaking for myself, I am increasingly skeptical that our civilization will survive without revival – unless (that is) many people repent and, in the words of Lewis, feel the “burden of their neighbor’s glory.” What if each person asked this of each Facebook comment? “Am I moving from a space of reaction, of spontaneous and strong feeling unfiltered through a state of mental/emotional sobriety and self-reflection? Should I trust myself in this? What would my friends tell me if I asked them? Is it possible for me to use this encounter to show the love of Christ, to (even in the correction of error) be compelling, open-hearted, and magnanimous enough that perhaps they might repent of their error? Alternatively, whatever the other’s motive or deeper understanding, is God in His providence trying to get me to hear something through the portal of precisely this distorted (but still divine!) image speaking just these words? Should I withhold judgment, be humble, and listen to this person?” To take dominion well in the social sphere is precisely to become wiser in what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. It is likewise to know when to listen, and when (which is not the same thing!) to say nothing. This is irreducible. We all participate in all of this, even if we all “speak” in our own way and according to our own competencies. But simply insisting that the “how” is not so important after all is only to commit yourself to taking up a very crucial aspect of your dominion poorly. Evangelism is both a particular and a general endeavor. To be a Christian is to be a walking approximation of the good news, to be a story in which the form of Christ is produced in the story of a man. A crucial step in this is to learn to pause when you react, to move into the fullness of God’s own heart, and to respond from there. Everything in our civilization is against the development of this habit. But we will have no future without it. Whatever the ideological battle is, without this, we have already lost because we have ceded the basics and made of our special interests what will only amount, sans radical love, to a tyranny. We will either bite and devour one another into oblivion, or we will summon others into being midwives of a groaning cosmos through being such ourselves. Perhaps we cannot avoid our politics of mutual recognition, and perhaps this will be redeemed to the extent that we recognize free co-rulers when we see a human. This does not prevent correction and persuasion, but is rather its perfect ground. It is precisely through caring about our fellow rulers and our negotiated co-rule with them that we learn to endure their sneers for their own sake. If we can learn to endure being triggered, we can learn to soberly see whole persons. And then we can take up the task of dominion which acts not for my self-protection, but for the redemption of their reign. 


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