Sunday, January 15, 2023

God’s Man of the Hour

The people through whom God accomplishes his purposes are not always the guys at the top of your list or mine.

Sure, once in a while there’s a Moses or a David that comes on the scene and is almost singularly responsible for changing the course of a nation, reshaping popular opinion, or in some measure reversing a seriously destructive spiritual trend. From the safety of ample historical distance, it seems to us like God made a couple of good calls there — as he did with Joshua, Nehemiah, Hezekiah (for the most part), and many more.

But in the Old Testament, for every one of those obvious-in-hindsight choices, there’s a Jehu, a Samson or a Joab running around stabbing, pummeling, dropping houses on people or feeding evil queens to the neighborhood canines.

God’s man of the hour gets the job done, sure, but occasionally with a side-helping of collateral damage, mayhem and the wrong sort of women.

Why would God use people like that, we wonder?

Sons of Thunder

How about the people chosen by the Lord to follow him and do his work once he had risen from the dead and ascended into glory? What was with those Boanerges anyway? The “Sons of Thunder”, as the Lord named them. Encountering inhospitable Samaritans, James and John are all set to break out the brimstone: “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Perhaps the NASB is right and the Lord replies, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of.” In any case, we can be sure he rebuked them: all English translations tell us that.

The John of much later years was of a different spirit. Some have called him the “apostle of love”. He wrote things about the Lord Jesus that I would argue are higher and more beautiful than anything written by the other disciples.

Something changed, for sure. But he started as a flamethrower, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that everything John did as a young firebrand was useless to God. He was immature, sure, and maybe overly judgmental. But there was something about him that made the Lord love him very deeply notwithstanding his early shortcomings.

Give Me Chastity

We might equally wonder why God uses certain people today, particularly Christians who are regularly accused of “embarrassing” their fellow believers.

Church history does not lack for significant figures with a propensity for ruffling feathers or having questionable personal lives. Martin Luther was said to be anti-Semitic; to have believed Jewish homes should be destroyed, synagogues burned and their money confiscated. John Wesley had what has been characterized as a catastrophic love life. Augustine was said to be obsessed with sex and is famous for his prayer, “Give me chastity ... but not yet.” Yet all were God’s men at their particular hour in history.

One never wants to give the enemies of God cause to blaspheme or to trivialize sin, especially when bad public examples cause weaker Christians to follow suit. But it happens. Regularly. And, rationalize it as we may, at some point we have to concede that even if God’s choices in the people he uses are often mysterious, the value of such men to the kingdom of God remains, notwithstanding their well-documented flaws.

An Embarrassment to His Fellow Believers

I notice the sorts of Christians that attract the most criticism from their fellow believers are the ones actually getting something done, usually something visible. On the Internet, when you read things like, “He’s a really bad testimony” and “an embarrassment to his fellow Christians”, usually he’s attracting followers in droves. Rarely do we see significant critical huffing and puffing about somebody whose name we don’t recognize.

Hey, it’s not impossible that some of the criticisms spring out of jealousy or arise from misunderstandings. Other times the naysayers are spot-on.

Now, I won’t suggest Christians in the limelight are untouchables, or that we should never draw attention to the shortcomings of our fellow believers. Far from it. Public unity that only slips the lid over a pot full of simmering resentment is no great pleasure to the Lord.

Still, we need to watch HOW we go about criticizing fellow Christians.

Judgmental, Hypocritical, Insensitive …

Adam Hamilton says, “When Christians are judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive and mean-spirited, they are acting in ways that are unchristian.” These are just the sorts of accusations most often leveled at Christian public figures.

Hamilton’s statement is true but not particularly helpful. The problem is that words like “judgmental”, “hypocritical”, “insensitive” and “mean-spirited” are almost entirely in the eye of the beholder. Each of these adjectives, you will note, is general rather than specific. All are very much subjective calls. They are characterizations of particular behaviors by onlookers who cannot possibly be privy to all relevant information.

The language of the Lord Jesus, John the Baptist and the apostles is often rather intense: things like “brood of vipers”, “blind fools”, “dogs”, “swine”, “whitewashed tombs”, “murderers”, “children of the devil”, etc. This sort of language might easily have been characterized as “judgmental”, “insensitive” or “mean-spirited” even in the first century, let alone today.

Criticism with Content

A Christian public figure using similar language today might be intense, sincere, faithful and honest. Equally, he might be judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive and mean-spirited. How could we tell? To criticize him with any moral legitimacy, we’d really need to know: (i) whom he was addressing, since some people require a different tone than others; (ii) the circumstances; (iii) his motive; and (iv) his evidence. Very few of us are ever in a position to weigh all that information.

Coming from anyone without the prophetic gift, I suspect adjectives like “judgmental”, “hypocritical” and “insensitive” are often a cheap shortcut; an easy way to express unhappiness with a fellow believer without actually providing any hard evidence for the critique.

We might note that the Lord was never vague or general in taking on the shortcomings of public figures. He didn’t do innuendo. He didn’t start rumors. When he had something to say, he was quite specific. Accusing the Pharisees of hypocrisy, he provides nearly 30 verses of hard evidence.

Stand or Fall

I am increasingly disinclined to pass judgment on my fellow believers for the way they go about God’s business. That was not always the case. But I have come to realize that it is to their own Master that they stand or fall — and I hear God is able to make them stand.

Oh, I’m happy to judge their words when they write them down for the world to see. Bad doctrine is always fair game: if you want to immortalize your errors in print or online, everybody’s entitled to a shot — or at least to provide alternative interpretations. Have a go at mine if you like.

But the way they serve? How aggressively they attack the minions of the evil one? The strategic mistakes they make along the way? The opinions they hold that are out of sync with the zeitgeist? Their interpersonal conflicts? The weird personality quirks that make them brave and crazy enough to do things I wouldn’t dare, even if they do seem to have a tendency to go off half-cocked?

Such details are not unimportant, but they do not invalidate lifetimes of service, provoking paradigm shifts in Christian thinking or the God-given ability to shine genuine light on murky areas of theology. Moreover, most of them are hearsay, and almost none of them are my business.

I think I’ll just zip my trap and watch.

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