In debates, the goal is to convey one’s position on a topic and to rebut or defeat the position of the other debater. So the objective is to break down the argument the other is making and to attack the veracity or logic of the argument. Generally-speaking, it is less effective to make an ad hominem argument, that is, rather than directing an attack at the argument, the attack is directed at the arguer. To an extent, this tactic is performed when the opponent doesn’t have the ability to attack the argument. Thus, she or he has to resort to an ad hominem assault.
It’s probably safe to say that this is not just a debate issue, but a human issue. Certainly we all probably have dealt with people making attacks on us rather than on the statements we make or the behaviors we exhibit. I daresay that attacks like these are fairly common in our society right now. The paint brushes we all tend to use are pretty broad and so when someone says something stupid, we focus our battering on the person rather than the behavior. We say in an ad hominem manner, “so-and-so is a such-and-such,” rather than, “so-and-so did such-and-such.” There’s a difference.
But these reactions aren’t necessarily always outward-facing. Many of us have difficult pasts, and many of us struggle to leave those pasts behind. If you lied in the past, you may berate yourself for being a liar. If you have suffered addiction in the past, you may not be able to allow yourself to see yourself as anything other than an addict. If you have failed educationally, professionally or relationally in the past, you may not be able to have any other view for yourself than as a failure. In a sense, we direct the ad hominem attack against ourselves. I think there could be hopefulness in looking at how God sees it.
Many of us have a false impression that God see us in an ad hominem way. That is, once we screw up in life, God just tosses us into the “screw up” column on His list. Basically we fall victim to the thinking that God can’t see us as worthy of saving because of who we are, as an extrapolation of what we did. Fortunately, that’s not quite the case and I think the Bible conveys this abundantly. One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Matthew 9:9…
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.
Simple, straightforward, and powerful. In order to catch the significance, we need to understand that Matthew, as a tax collector, was despised by his fellow Jews. Why? Because he was complicit with the Roman infrastructure in not just taxing, but over-taxing and enslaving in many ways, the Jewish people. Moreover, it was common practice for the tax collectors to skim off-the-top of their collections. That is, they stole money for their own benefit and enrichment. In short, they were liars and thieves. Jesus could have not only walked along past Matthew, but could have berated him for being an evil, lying, thieving scumbag. Those adjectives have applied in all fairness. But Jesus was not one to focus on ad hominem notions and instead saw past the behaviors and into the person.
Now, I don’t want to get in trouble and have you think I am not being theologically-sound. The Bible is crystal clear that we have all sinned. More than that, it is clear that as a consequence, we are all sinners. So in a way, our nature combined with our behaviors, indeed indicate that when it comes to sin, we are what we do. But there is a bigger, more important and eternal truth I am trying to pass along.
That is, there is a way out. Our sin does define us as sinners … until Jesus went to the cross to take the full penalty upon Himself. Now, to the extent you have trusted in that saving sacrifice – trust meaning place your confidence in it and accepting the forgiveness – the Father looks at you and me and doesn’t see sin, He sees his Son. Now here’s something even better …
When Jesus took our penalty on our behalf, He also purchase for us freedom from the ad hominem nature of our past behaviors. While my lies may have made me a liar before, Jesus wiped that clean. While your previous addiction may have labeled you an addict to others (and yourself), Jesus has cleared the slate. God no longer sees our behaviors as our identities. He sees our identities as identical to His son, by his immense mercy and grace.
We see numerous examples of this in the Bible. Consider the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11). Or Jonah, a prophet of the Lord who decided to disobey and go to Tarshish rather than to pass along a message of salvation to the hated people at Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-3). The examples go on and on.
Again, please don’t misunderstand me. Addictions are real and serious, requiring real and serious treatment. But with the help of God, many have been freed. Lying, stealing, etc., have tangible and lasting consequences, and may derive from other psychological or experiential issues. Again, those are not to be diminished in severity. And yet … God is powerful above ALL things and can save us from ourselves and our afflictions. About that, Scripture is clear.
The takeaway … first, we shouldn’t persist in ad hominem attacks of others. The fact that Jesus died for them as well as us should allow us to separate the behavior from the behaver. The adage, “love the sinner, hate the sin,” comes to mind aptly. Maybe this orientation will allow us to truly love our neighbors as ourselves. Maybe those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ will act in a way that attracts others to become so.
Secondly, we should consider the fullness of His grace as extensible to ourselves. That is, let’s not attack ourselves ad hominem either. We have a sin nature, yes, but it’s freed if we call Jesus our Lord and Savior. That which we have done in the past no longer needs to define us. You and I don’t have to do anything. Jesus did it all already. All we have to do is acknowledge what is already true. We are no longer that which we have done in the past. We are free.
Finally, if you don’t know Jesus and have not accepted His salvation, I am sorry to report that you are stuck in an ad hominem existence. Not necessarily only by your prior behaviors, but also by your nature. So, for the moment, you are what you have done. But the good news is this … Jesus has already done all you need in order to uncouple your deeds from your destiny. You can be free of the ad hominem attacks on yourself and the ad hominem attacks of Satan, whose sole purpose it is to accuse and degrade you away from the freedom Jesus already bought. Ask Him, He is waiting eagerly to share His gift! He can forever drown out the ad hominem noise!
Soli Deo gloria!