Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Generalities and Specifics

A wise person once told me (and I literally can't remember which wise person, because I have had so many in my life) that:

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

What I think my wise friend was saying in this axiomatic phrase is that a lot of damaging things happen in life when people use generalizations, rather than giving specific details about a situation.

We see this a lot in politics today - on both sides of the isle.  Here are some gems from just this past week that came through cable news outlets: "Democrats are doing this country a lot of harm." "Republicans are all only interested money."  "Immigrants are all criminals."  "Billionaires are always selfish." "All news media is fake."  "Californians are all crazy." "New Yorkers are all cold hearted." "Southerners are all racist." "White people are all detached from reality." While it, of course, may be the case that some Democrats do harm, some Republicans are financially focussed, some immigrants take part in criminal activity, some billionaires are selfish, some news media fibs on the truth...(you get the picture), it cannot be said that anything happens all of the time.

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

This also happens on the interpersonal front.  Not long ago a couple came into my office for pastoral counseling.  They had been struggling in their marriage.  I began by asking the wife what her issues with her husband were.  She said, "He never gives me affection."  The husband retorted with, "She is always ragging on me."  After about half an hour of this, I asked the wife to see if she could remember any time in their marriage when her husband had been affectionate.  She paused, "when we were first married, he used to take me on dates."  I returned the question to the husband, "She used to tell me how many things I did well."  You could see from the looks on their faces that a breakthrough had been made.

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

A person stopped me at church recently and told me, after a worship service, "A lot of people are upset about...(the flowers arrangement, to use a hypothetical example)."  Concerned, I asked, "Who is upset?"  "I can't tell you that's confidential."  "How many people are upset about this?" "Lots", "But how many?"  "I can't tell you."  "What specifically are they upset about?" "They're just upset."  I could see I wasn't getting anywhere. The rest of the day I wondered to myself who it was that was upset, how many, what they were upset about?  The generality left me feeling enervated.  A specific would have helped me to work on the problem.

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

It turns out that this saying is actually true from a Biblical standpoint.  Think of the first encounter we have with the devil in the Bible in the garden of Eden.  The snake comes to Eve and encourages her to eat an apple from the tree of good and evil.  Eve thinks its a bad idea.  The snake gives Eve a generalized response; "Your eyes will be opened, you will be like God."  It's a generalization.  Eyes opened to what?  Like God how?  What qualities of life will Eve get from the apple that she doesn't already have in the perfect garden?

The corollary to this is that every angel we encounter in the Bible gives specific instructions and details.  When the angel announces the birth of Jesus, he is extremely specific; "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a [specific] sign to you - you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."  Specific details - time, place, name, sign.  Clarity.

Another pithy way of communicating this same principle is; "clarity reduces conflict," "generalizations are always pathologies."  But, of course, I just made a generalization about generalizations, so, I guess...count that one out.

So, today, try to be as specific as you can be today about whatever is happening in your life.  What you may find out is that the angels are closer to you than you think!

All For Now,