When I was in my late teens, I wore a T-shirt that my dad considered to be obscene.
Emblazoned on its front was a graphic that looked a lot like the picture on the right.
Confused yet? So was I.
But what was very clearly a Batman logo to me was the yellow silhouette of unflatteringly drawn ‘boobs and bums‘, according to my Pop, back in 1989 or so. He was only peripherally aware of the Tim Burton Batman flick that was sweeping North America at the time, so his photoreceptors didn’t connect with the plain-as-the-bat-on-my-chest bat. Instead, he focused on the yellow bumps dangling from the top and protruding up from the bottom and was mildly scandalized. (I wonder what Dr. Rorschach would make of that.)
That’s an amusing example of accidentally paying too much attention to the ‘negative space’ in a graphic. I doubt that Batman creator Bob Kane intended to subliminally titillate(?) us with cleverly hidden-in-plain-sight raunchy images when he designed that logo, but there are plenty of nifty intentional examples of these optical tricks out there:
OK, these are kinda cool. But, Baldy, what does any of this have to do with Disciplehood?
Glad you asked, Reader(s).
I’ve found myself in a ‘negative space’ emotionally, a few times lately, and I’ve felt compelled to indulge and express that negativity in private, in order to ‘get it out of my system’. Suppressing frustration, it seems, is not healthy, so I should express it, safely and privately, I’ve reasoned – usually by having heated arguments with my steering wheel.
Trouble is, I often end up feeling worse, not better, when I do this. I find myself focusing more on the empty tenth of the glass, and ignoring the fact that it’s 90% full, and that I really have a heckuva lot more to be thankful for than to be crabby about.
In light of its ineffectiveness in actually helping me to cope with life’s challenges, I’ve wondered lately if my ‘express, don’t repress’ approach was biblical or not.
When I asked that question, it didn’t take me long to remember (all by myself, to be sure) what the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
That passage doesn’t say anything specifically about negativity, or tell us what not to do. But in the ‘negative space’ around the verse, I think it’s implied: ‘Whatever is ignoble, wrong, impure, ugly or detestable – if anything is horrible or curseworthy – don’t waste your time, energy or spirit thinking about such things.’
I’ve found this verse, and the negative space around it, to be extremely helpful when doom and gloom come into the room. Not that ignoring problems makes them go away, but neither does dwelling on, and whining about, things you can’t control.
I’ve discovered that, for me, the best way to get something bad ‘off my chest’ is often not to express it, but to focus on something else that’s good, like prayer. One technique I’ve found quite helpful is to pray for people who have real problems – the sick, the poor, the lonely, the oppressed. The Negative Space in my life begins to look pretty positive when I see it in that light.
In the days since I was struck by this little epiphany, I was also reminded of another bit of wisdom in another famous passage from one of Paul’s letters:
‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.’ – Galatians 5:22-23
We can and should read all of Galatians 5 to get the full context of what he’s talking about, but for a moment, let’s exclude the rest of the chapter and see what gold we can mine from this often-quoted passage, on its own.
What I love most about these verses is the ridiculous obviousness of last sentence. Really, Paul? There’s no law against love, joy, peace, etc.? Thanks for that bit of insight. (Eye roll).
But maybe by stating it this way, he’s not pointing to the self-evident permissibility of these virtues, he’s subtly emphasizing The Negative Space around his statement: ‘But the anti-fruit of the Spirit is hate, sorrow, strife, intolerance, indifference, badness, faithlessness, brutality and self-indulgence. Such things are against the law.’
The New Testament isn’t known for ‘laying down the law’, is it? One of the things Jesus came to do is to free us from legalism (manifested in His time as an over-emphasis of the letter, rather than the spirit, of the Old Testament Law), and it’s largely through Paul’s writing that we can begin to wrap our heads around this reality.
And yet, Paul himself drops the L-bomb here. Clearly, he wants us to pay attention.
I think some of us would categorize the intangible concepts I’ve listed in the Negative Space re-imagining of Galatians 5:22-23 above, as emotions. And since many of us view emotions as neutral – neither good nor bad – we see no need to deal with them.
I think there’s merit in the understanding that it is not a sin to feel anger, example. It’s good to feel angry when we encounter injustice, and it’s not sinful to be angry for other, less noble, reasons. It’s what we do (or choose not to do) with the anger, in both cases, that counts as either sinful or saintly. While our understanding of God is that He sees things in black and white, emotions seem to be a rare grey area that’s neither good nor bad.
But the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 (and my imperfect Thesaurusized antonyms for them) aren’t mere emotions, are they? They’re attributes; characteristics. Flames in our hearts that we choose, a thousand times a day, to either fan or fight.
I think Paul is emphasizing – in Galatians 5 overall and in the Negative Space around Verses 22 and 23 – that Jesus may not be anti-anger, but He is anti-brutality, and anti-indifference. Maybe He’s not fazed by our selfish urges, but He does hate self-indulgence. He can (and does) redeem the brutal and the self-indulgent, but make no mistake that our brutality and our self-indulgence are part of the reason we need redemption.
I think Satan doesn’t want us to connect these dots. I think he wants us to continue to regard these habits and attributes as ‘grey areas’ that God has no particular opinion on.
I think Paul, being Godly and astute, realized this, and that’s why he used the L-word here. He wants us to be very clear on the fact that God is not indifferent to strife and indifference. Strife and indifference are against God’s law.
If we follow the devil’s plans on this, it doesn’t put us beyond Jesus’ redemption, of course. But it can keep us stuck in a Negative Space that can prevent us from experiencing some of the Positive Spaces He has prepared for us.
Peace be with you.