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Monday, August 28, 2017

Poking the Bear

“A soft answer turns away wrath”, says the writer of Proverbs. I learned that as a child, though I didn’t always use it to my advantage. Still, it’s a good bit of wisdom to have up your sleeve in a confrontation, and too few people today know much about how to de-escalate a conflict.

But what if it’s not your objective to defuse anger? What if you’re looking to provoke a strong emotional reaction?

Not Quarrelsome

There will almost surely be readers whose gut response is that Christians should ALWAYS be looking to de-escalate conflicts. “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness,” they might point out, as if that puts paid to the question once and for all. And perhaps it does.

Still, the same apostle who counseled Timothy to stay out of “foolish, ignorant controversies” in the church (which is, after all, the context of Paul’s statement) had no problem being deliberately provocative in other situations. As he tells the Romans:
“I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.”
That’s deliberate provocation, isn’t it? Was Paul being inconsistent?

Uncircumcised Hearts and Ears

I don’t think so, because Paul wasn’t the only one who played the provocation card against his fellow Jews. I think he learned that trick from Stephen, who, as far as we can tell, only got to use it once.

Just tell me if you think Stephen might have been poking the bear here:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
That’s quite the way to end an address, and he set up his audience for it beautifully with more than forty verses of history, the implication of which might have remained forever obscure to them if he had neglected to pick up the metaphorical two-by-four and whale away in the last two verses.

Would we call that “correcting with gentleness”? I’m not sure I would.

Dissension in the Ranks

Again, we see Paul playing the provocation card against his fellow Jews in Jerusalem:
“Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.’ ”
Luke’s account makes it clear that Paul’s choice of words was entirely calculated to produce dissension, and he succeeded.

I’m not trying to be difficult here, but I think we need to distinguish between good and bad kinds of provocation. You don’t want to poke the bear unnecessarily, do you?

Unnecessary Provocation

King Ahasuerus poked the bear unnecessarily, and it became a major deal. We read about it in the book of Esther.

Much has been made of Queen Vashti’s refusal to obey her husband’s drunken command to come show off her beauty in front of the peoples and the princes of the Medes and Persians. Was the king asking her to parade naked before his drunken guests? Was she right to refuse? Is she somehow a role model for Christian women? The answer to the latter question is a resounding No, as I have detailed here, and I don’t think there’s enough in the passage to enable us to be sure about the first two.

What we do know from the book of Esther is that Vashti’s refusal resulted in the humiliation of her husband, the loss of her throne, and the issuance of a royal order across 127 provinces of the Persian kingdom. It was a big deal.

But Vashti’s refusal would never have happened without Ahasuerus’s provocation.

The Ego and the Bear

That’s the bad kind of provocation. It’s the kind that doesn’t matter, that doesn’t produce anything good, and that leads nowhere but to grief for everybody concerned (except Esther and the Jews, I suppose, but that’s another story). There was no need to give such an order. None of the king’s guests appeared to be asking for it, and nobody would have missed it if it hadn’t been given. It was the classic “foolish, ignorant controversy”. But once the words were uttered, there was no going back. The die was cast, and the story played out the only way it could.

I believe it’s this same sort of pointless, ego-driven bear-poking Paul is counseling Christian fathers against when he tells them, “Do not provoke your children to anger.” He contrasts this sort of parental provocation with the “discipline and instruction of the Lord”.

Discipline and instruction are methodical and purpose-driven, not random and selfish. They have a positive end in view even if that end is opaque to the child. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “All discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” It takes a consistent, long-term strategy to produce the “peaceful fruit of righteousness”.

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but Ahasuerus’ example would suggest that ego-driven, thoughtless provocations are just as destructive to marriages as they are to parent/child relationships.

The Great Benefits of Provocation

But Paul’s and Stephen’s calculated efforts to wind up unsaved Jews are not like the thoughtless provocation of King Ahasuerus at all. They may LOOK like it to outsiders, but the goal in each case was a loving one and the provocation was carefully calculated, not the random product of fired-up emotions. Paul stirred up jealousy to “save some of them”. He knew that the hardened Jewish heart could not be reached apart from an intense emotional experience, so he used the word “Gentile” whenever he could, knowing full well it was a red flag to a bull. The Lord provoked the people of Nazareth the same way. And Stephen may have viewed his impending martyrdom as a necessary step in producing faith in the hearts of some of those expressing their hatred toward him. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” he cried out as he died. That’s love, not just some guy venting to make a point.

Consider the positive results of Stephen’s bear-poking. The chapter in question ends with the words “he fell asleep”, and Luke goes directly on to describe Saul’s reaction: he “approved of his execution” and “he was ravaging the church”. Stephen’s provocation and the resulting backlash from the angry mob are causally linked to the “great persecution” that arose on the same day (of which Saul was the foremost proponent). That backlash had the beneficial effect of scattering the Jewish church in Jerusalem and spreading the gospel far and wide just as the Lord had commanded his disciples. Furthermore, Stephen’s words had a tremendous personal effect on Saul’s conscience, such that the Lord could say to him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

Tactics vs. Strategy

In itself, poking the bear is neither good nor bad. Provocation is merely a tactic; no more, no less. It’s a tool that may be used or misused depending on circumstances, target and state of mind. Like many other things done by Christians, the question of provocation’s eternal value is buried in the heart of the provocateur.

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