The Limitations of Balance

“Balance” is a common answer among our generation. What’s the best way to eat healthily? “It’s all about balance.” How much time should I spend on my job? “Find the right work-life balance.” Should churches sing old or new songs? “We need to find the right balance.”

In some of these situations, balance is a good way of describing the ideal and our goal. A healthy amount of exercise is somewhere between laziness and obsession, a right amount that could be described as the balance between the two extremes. Yet, in my experience, the term has largely shifted from a description of wise choices to an inadequate prescription for decision making.

Consider three limitations of balance-ism:

1. Balance is rarely 50/50

Because our generation is relatively good at recognizing and accepting “the grey,” we often use the word “balance” to explain our equal participation in activities that appear to be at odds. Sometimes this is the right course of action, but simply invoking the word “balance” does not make it so, nor does it tell us where the balance is. The metaphor itself is much more complex than it first seems–hammers, tubs of water, and cats do not balance in the middle, for various reasons. Just because two extremes exist does not mean that the balance is equidistant between them.

In Proverbs 30, Agur talks about the balance between poverty and wealth for the people of God: “Give me neither poverty nor riches…lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” Christians should aim for the right appetite, like Agur, and the right choices, when entrusted with disposable income. Yet, the “balance” between poverty and wealth is not as simple as the mean or median income of one’s community. Given the shifting circumstances, the transcendence of God, and the fickleness of a human heart, it is as complex as any of the examples above, but the guess-and-check process involves major life decisions and the search for “balance” takes months and years.

Perhaps “combination” is a more appropriate image. We don’t expect cookie recipes or chemistry labs to reflect any sort of 50/50 proclivity; rather, we’re open to the right combination being a 3:1 ratio or a very weak solution. We make inaccurate assumptions based on the word “balance,” believing that right decisions are both harder and easier than they need to be. Maybe you don’t need to discover the right work-life balance for all humankind; you just need to live out the best work-life combination for this season of your life.

2. Balance is not a substitute for wisdom

Right decisions are also not as easy as “I think it’s all about finding the right balance” often makes them seem. It doesn’t get us much further than saying, “I think it’s all about making the right decisions.”

Simply appreciating balance is insufficient. We also need to adopt the right moral values and develop sufficient wisdom to apply them. Take, for example, a trip to the grocery store. This single shopping trip is actually a composite of many small decisions, each influenced by a number of factors. Hopefully you value health, but not compulsively. Hopefully you value thrift, but not solely. Hopefully you value efficiency, but not selfishly. Hopefully you value hospitality, but not for vanity. All these values should be settled in our hearts as we stand in front of the chicken, the vegetarian-fed chicken, the vegetarian-fed free-range chicken, the vegetarian-fed free-range organic chicken, and the tofu. It’s going to take wisdom, the right application of these values, to make the right decision in that moment.

We will need the same wisdom, and more, when people ask us for money on the street, when we encounter spirituality that makes us uncomfortable in church, or learn of tragic injustice around the world. We may need to balance values in tension, such as giving and saving, or our families and the poor, but simply speaking the word rarely helps us do so. We would do better to develop wisdom, by engaging in those moral discussions, acting rightly, and exercising perseverance.

3. Balance is not a substitute for conviction

Finally, there are some situations where “balance” is actually the wrong approach, precluding progress. We often fall back on the term because we are afraid to contend for or hold controversial views. Yet, “balance” can sometimes be the worst possible approach.

In my leadership class with Dr. Rick McKinley at Multnomah Seminary, we read Two Views on Women in Ministry from the Counterpoints series. Four authors contributed essays and responded to one another, debating the nature of church leadership roles in Scripture and whether any of them are reserved for men. Our ensuing discussion taught me more about the need for conviction than either conclusion.

When church leaders decide whether to have female elders, balance is not an appropriate ideal or goal. If the church decides not to have female elders and they’re wrong, many men and women will be embittered and the church will miss out on female leaders who are gifted and sent by God. If the church decides to have female elders and they’re wrong, the leaders have disobeyed God and misled their congregation on how to understand the Bible. If the church tries to find the balance between the two, all of the above will happen. Furthermore, rather than giving clear vision that lets people choose whether to submit or depart in healthy ways, the leadership will just come across as vaguely misogynistic.

Sometimes we come to a fork in the road, where conviction becomes urgent and “balance” will simply get us lost in the brush. The American church has arrived at just such a crossroads concerning gay marriage and gay pastors.

The implications of acting against God’s intention are terrifying, but that does not free us from the necessity of conviction. Setting our sights on balance in such cases will simply guarantee our disobedience.

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