I love idealists. The gospel calls us to be holy, gospel-centred, loving, missional people and to be holy, gospel-centred, loving, missional communities. Given the choice, I’ll always take an idealist over a pragmatist.
But ideals can be misused. People can use ideals as a means to criticize other people. They become a stick to beat people up.
Too often people use talk of ideals to hide a critical spirit or even to portray a critical spirit as a godly attitude of uncompromised integrity.
Here’s a man who sees himself as a man with ideals. He has a clear vision of how church should be. But he does not nothing about it except stand on the sidelines and criticize what others are doing. He feels good about himself because he’s uncompromised, but the reason he’s uncompromised is because he never does anything.
Here’s a man who is an assistant pastor. Among his peers he rolls his eyes as he talks about his traditional, backward church. He’s quick to express his frustration with the way things are. This critical spirit enables him to position himself as an idealist without having the courage to start something new. He portrays himself as a victim of other people’s compromises.
Here’s a man who once did some innovative gospel ministry. Now he’s a consultant or in a parachurch ministry. He goes around teaching a set of ideals and critiquing other people. This critical spirit enables him perpetually to look cool and edgy.
Ideals are not a stick to criticize others. Instead, we should use our ideals to define our direction of travel. We are sinners living in a sinful world so we know we will never completely arrive. We live by grace. But our ideals keep us pointing in the right direction. There will be compromises and failures, but we know what we’re aiming for.
And ideals should make us bold as we work for Christ. If you want to keep your ideals pristine and unsullied by real life then do nothing. That way nothing is ever tarnished because nothing is ever risked. But a true idealist pushes forward towards their ideals even if along the way there are failures and disappointments.