Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Politeness vs. Goodness, and Other Observations

A few unasked-for observations triggered by watching Christians attempt to edify one another on social media:

Observation 1: The frequency with which the words “That’s not very Christ-like” are employed is inversely proportional to the speaker’s grasp of what being like Christ actually involves.

Hey, I’m all for the occasional stern rebuke, having benefited from quite a few of them over the years, but for a word of correction to carry real moral authority, it kinda has to, well ... ring true. Lies, misrepresentations and insults don’t prick the conscience; the Holy Spirit does.

If you have never read the Gospels or have only managed to commit to memory the well-known bits about love and forgiveness, drawing an unfavorable comparison to Someone you don’t actually know very much about is probably not your best go-to line.

Observation 2: The spiritual condition of the recipient of a word of exhortation has more to do with its effectiveness than the actual content.

As the writer of Proverbs ably put it:

“Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.”

A soundly biblical verbal thrashing, even if delivered with imperfect Christian charity, can be a bracing and effective incentive to growth — provided the person being corrected is humble and teachable.

On the other hand, the merest suggestion delivered in the sweetest and gentlest of tones reliably raises the hackles of the chronically resistant and sets their teeth on edge: “Are you trying to imply something about ME?”

Observation 3: Politeness and goodness are easily confused.

Elijah was generally good, but not always polite. That whole “Cry aloud, for he is a god” speech to the prophets of Baal is sarcastic to the point of serious snark: “Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Um, yes, but Elijah, wouldn’t those prophets of Baal be more inclined to worship Jehovah if you modeled sweet reasonability for them?

Okay, probably not.

Now we must concede that Elijah was not a Christian; he was an Israelite prophet operating under Old Testament rules of engagement. Further, he was dealing with the acolytes of a false god, not with fellow believers. Still, a similar tone to Elijah’s is discernible in those apostles who confronted New Testament hypocrisy, not to mention in the way the Lord Jesus dealt with religious hypocrites. The “whitewashed” dig was not originally Pauline, and the apostle was not the first to direct it at the presumptive Jewish religious authorities. Further, the problem with his use of the insult was not that it was impolite, but that he inadvertently publicly cursed God’s high priest.

And as to correcting even genuine believers with a bit of acid, let’s not forget “Get behind me, Satan.” When their offense is major and the correction is absolutely vital to drive home for their own good, a bracing dismissal can be a tonic, and not evidence of an uncharitable spirit.

Observation 4: Despite our society’s obsessive cultivation of self-esteem, making someone feel bad about themselves is not a sin.

In fact, sometimes shame is critical to our learning curve.

When Job declares, “Now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes,” his self-abasement is quite appropriate. Though God later commends him for speaking of God “what is right” and restores his fortunes, he does not pause on this occasion to reassure Job that since he’s had a really bad week or two, faultfinding and contending with God are perfectly understandable, and no harm done.

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