Friday, January 31, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: The Discipline of Discipline

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: The only verse in the Bible that everyone today seems to know is “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Tom: Sounds about right.

IC: Okay, so that verse seems to people to be conveying something important. Maybe it needs some closer examination.

Tom: Fair enough. Well, it seems to me there’s an obvious incentive on the part of those who use it to rebut any potential critique of their own behaviors — or the behaviors of those for whom they choose to be advocates. I mean, quoting a verse to an unbeliever would carry no weight at all, so it’s clearly a device to disqualify dissenting Christian opinion and shut down any debate before it begins.

It’s saying to you and me, “Aha, see, you’re not allowed to have a view on this.”

IC: More than that: it’s usually employed as a kind of threat that if you do, you are going to get some terrible consequence yourself. People who use it are often trying to turn defense into offense, effectively declare any possible accusers hypocrites, and even to call for divine judgment upon all such.

The All-Encompassing Rule?

Tom: Indeed. When you read the Lord’s statement in Matthew, do you take it to be an all-encompassing rule? Do you understand it to mean that followers of Christ are to pass no judgments at all?

IC: Well, it’s funny how unaware these same quoters of Matthew are of all the injunctions TO judge, such as Christ’s command in John 7:24, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” That would be a bit hard to obey if you couldn’t judge at all, wouldn’t it? Or how about Luke 12:57, in which he asks, “And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?” It seems he finds some fault in the crowd’s failure to judge — surely a strange indictment, if judging of all kinds is just plain wrong. So something needs to be nuanced better here.

Looking for Examples

Tom: Well, yes. Whenever I come across a command of Christ (or the apostles for that matter) whose meaning is disputed, I look to see how the speaker modeled that command. What does not judging look like in action? For the Lord, it looks like calling a brood of vipers a brood of vipers and warning them they were headed to hell. For Jude it means calling false teachers “shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead.” For Paul and Peter, you pick the passage. There are tons. It is idle to say, “Well, that was Christ.” How do you explain the apostolic examples? They were men indwelt by Holy Spirit, as we are.

Clearly the injunction not to judge is limited in some way that the casual reader is not equipped to discern.

Finding an Audience

IC: I should add that my most recent exposure to this verse was when I was watching a philosophy film in which a felon was shown raging in his cell about how he would have his revenge on all of society. He was expatiating in minute detail on his plans for torturing the general public whenever he might get the chance. In the middle of all this, he threw in an off-the-cuff reference to this verse, before plowing ahead with his various graphic imaginings. And that seemed to me a very poor character reference for the sorts of people who have tended to limit their scriptural repertoire to that particular verse.

Tom: Indeed. And such people are not usually correctable. They’re not generally inclined to sit down and look at the New Testament with us. My concern is more for the Christian masses who feel muzzled by this sort of cynical retort; whose tender consciences are incorrectly calibrated to believe that speaking the truth plainly about sin and its consequences is going too far. If we’re going to go on the offensive from time to time as the apostles did, we need to be able to do so in confidence that we are acting according to the will of God.

IC: Yes, that’s the right focus of concern, I think. Christians sometimes do feel shut down by that sort of retort. Being aware of the importance of humility, and being also attuned to their own need of forgiveness, this sort of carte blanche condemnation of judgment makes them second-guess themselves, even on things they know to be evil. So they hesitate to condemn things like abortion, homosexuality or premarital sex, on the one hand, or “respectable” sins like gossip and greed on the other, not because the Bible is unclear in what it says, but because they feel personally vulnerable to judgment if they are too assertive. But if there is a clear limitation to the application and scope of that verse, and a clear contrary commandment to judge positively in other situations, that changes the whole game, doesn’t it?

Motives and Actions

Tom: Unfortunately, yes. But that requires discernment. I think we have to be careful about judging the motives of men’s hearts. It’s clear from scripture that people don’t always know why they do what they do and that sometimes deceivers are deceived themselves. So I think it’s wise to be careful about that. But when we judge actions by calling attention to what the Bible says — always provided that we are condemning conduct that we do not engage in ourselves — it seems to me that we are following a path well trodden by saints all throughout history.

IC: Yes, I think that’s a good distinction. We’re not called to judge other people’s worth, nor to judge their motives. But, as Christ said, “By their fruits you will know them.” When we look at actions, we not only can judge, we should. And if it turns out that we’re not able to do so, it’s not a sign we’re generous of spirit; rather, it’s a sign we’re deficient in discernment (if not disobedient in disposition). How’s that for alliteration?

Tom: Should I capitalize the ‘D’s? I think our readers are shrewd enough to pick it up.

A World Without Judgment

Crazy thought here: What happens if we can’t be bothered to call out the wicked in this world when they blatantly speak or act against God? Say we take the advice of the felon in your philosophy film and zip it. What are the consequences?

IC: The obvious one is that evil goes forward unquestioned. But there’s more. We also lose our own moral bearings, fail in our own moral duties, and become useless to ourselves and to the world in terms of our service as moral signposts to truth. In respect to our service, testimony and obedience, we simply become confused and toxic. What say you, Tom?

Tom: Very practically, there’s also the judgment of God. That’s a serious concern. I’m thinking here of Eli. His sons were said to be “blaspheming God” by the way they behaved as priests of Israel, and God condemns not just the sons but Eli, because their father “did not restrain them”. Now this is an old man with adult sons, so physical restraint is probably not an option. But it seems that while Eli asked his sons, “Why do you do such things?” and even warned them of the potential consequences of their actions, he did nothing effective to prevent them from continuing. As a result, the whole household of Eli was judged by God and replaced in the priesthood.

So we might ask the question “What COULD Eli have done?” Where was he derelict in his duties?

Lack of Correction Is Lack of Love

IC: Certainly. His failure to judge his sons’ actions and rein them in was no sign of open-mindedness, but rather a failure of nurture. Ultimately, his tolerance led to their judgment by God. It reminds me of something one of my students once said to me. She’d done a series of some rather anti-social things, been caught and reprimanded by the admin. When she came by to see me afterward, she suddenly said, “I don’t think my mother loves me.”

I was stunned. Since I knew her mother (a kind-hearted but rather indecisive sort), I defended her: “I think she does … why do you suppose that?”

She responded, “If she loved me, she’d stop me.”

See? She got it: lack of correction is a sign of lack of love. So then, what are we saying to the world when we declare that we are content to let them pursue their own self-destructive course to a lost eternity unimpeded by even a moral objection from us? Is there even a smattering of real love in that?

Kind To Be Cruel

Tom: I think that’s a good point. And sometimes as parents, it’s that we don’t want the fight, especially as we get older. Or it becomes more important to us to be liked than to do and say the things we know are right but that may get a very immediate and negative reaction. But I think we’re shortsighted in that: if I were to name the five people who have had the greatest impact on my Christian life and whom I respect the most, every one of them has had reason to dress me down or speak plainly to me at least once. It didn’t change my opinion of them, except to the extent that it may actually have risen. I don’t have the same respect for people who reinforced my delusions of adequacy.

IC: Right. Love intervenes when danger approaches. And love takes no thought for whether or not it’s hard to intervene. It’s too absorbed with doing the right thing for a person to care what it costs, or even whether or not that person is instantly understanding. It does the right thing anyway.

We need to be reminded of that, especially in our era of instant, easy ‘love’.

What Could Eli Have Done?

Tom: True. I’d like to go back to my earlier question though, because we never really explored it: What could Eli have done that he didn’t do?

I mean, as an older father with adult children he was limited, and he did everything he could in that context. He said, “Why are you doing this?” and warned them what would come of it and that God would be their judge. And God still calls Eli out for failing to “restrain” his boys.

My thought is that he did what he could as a father. He did NOT do all he could as a priest. As a senior priest, he could have called his sons out publicly. He could have drawn attention to their thefts and their threats and the fact that they were a disgrace to the name of the Lord. If everyone in Israel knew what they were up to, there would have been some public resistance to their behavior and some peer pressure exerted on them to dial back the predations a notch or two. They might have been restrained by that.

But he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t want to embarrass the family name.

IC: Maybe. Or maybe a feeble protest is all he was willing to risk. His boys were hard types, for sure; and if judged publicly, they might well have paid a very severe penalty. There was something he surely can have done — and we cannot speculate on precisely what that was, as scripture doesn’t say — but the Lord’s judgment on Eli was that he still had cards to play, and didn’t play them.

But if he had, and if he’d turned them, it’s possible his sons souls might have been saved. As it is, it looks like Eli let them pay the ultimate price. And that just cannot be what love does.

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