The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Culture (page 1 of 10)

Self-Denial in a Self-Discovery World

One of the advantages of being a youth minister is that I have the opportunity to read and hear a lot of good teaching from a variety of different sources. Some of these are basically available to anyone (books, sermons, podcasts), while others I gain access to by traveling to different youth events and hearing gifted and thoughtful speakers.

A while back, I was blessed to listen to my friend Shannon Cooper, who made the point that we live in a society that is obsessed with self-discovery: for many, the central goal of life is to “find out who we are” so we can “be true to ourselves.” Self-help books constitute a lucrative industry. Discussions related to sexual and gender identity become issues of the utmost importance. We seek to define ourselves by our hobbies, or the music we listen to, or our peer groups.

There is a problem with this, though: self-discovery leaves us with no point of reference beyond ourselves. Fundamentally, it is limited, subjective, and, ultimately…selfish.

It is also not Christian. A more Christian way of thinking about identity is not based on self-discovery, but on self-denial and the imitation of Jesus.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

(Matthew 10.38-39)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”

(Matthew 16.24)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

(1 Corinthians 11.1)

 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

As Christians, we cannot force our worldview on nonbelievers (nor should we try to), but we should certainly hold ourselves and one another to that worldview. And the way of Christ is not about finding purpose and meaning through discovering “who we really are,” which is another way of saying “doing what we want to do.” Rather, it is about denying the urge to do what we want to do and instead to prioritize what Jesus wants us to do in partnering in His work to reconcile the world to Himself. This is where purpose and meaning is found.

Jeroboam and the Lure of Political Power

The Story of Jeroboam

Jeroboam is one of the Bible’s incredibly tragic characters. He was a man who God granted an amazing opportunity, and he squandered it away. 

Jeroboam’s story begins with King Solomon, who himself was a tragic character: a man who was given wisdom, power, and great wealth by God, but who turned away from God and began to worship other gods (1 Kings 11.1-8). Because of this, God ultimately determines to divide the kingdom of Israel in the days of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. Rehoboam remains king over two tribes in the south (creating the Southern Kingdom of Judah), while Jeroboam is established as king over the remaining ten tribes (creating the Northern Kingdom of Israel).

The story is absolutely clear that God, in His grace, has offered a covenant agreement to Jeroboam: God will bless him, make him king over Israel, and give Him all that he desires if he will listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways like David did. And moreover, God promises to build Jeroboam a house or a dynasty like He did for David. 

Jeroboam’s rise to power was the work of God’s providential hand, and Jeroboam knew this. And yet, as soon as he sits down on the throne, Jeroboam’s thinking seems to shift from providential to pragmatic: the question Jeroboam asks himself is, “What do I need to do to stay in power?” 

Ironically, Jeroboam already had the answer—God had told him he simply needed to listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways as David did, but Jeroboam ignores that answer and pursues his own plans instead.

After some initial efforts to fortify some of his cities, Jeroboam makes his big mistake. He reasons that if the citizens of the Northern Kingdom return to the Jerusalem Temple (in the Southern Kingdom) to offer sacrifices as they are supposed to, it will draw their hearts back to Rehoboam king of Judah, and then they won’t want to follow Jeroboam anymore, and will overthrow him and return to Rehoboam and Judah. So Jeroboam gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea, and he makes two golden calves; he sets one up in Dan and another in Bethel, representing the northern and southern borders of the territory of the Northern Kingdom.

Scholars debate whether Jeroboam is trying to get the Israelites to worship another god by doing this, or, rather, if he is simply introducing an innovation in the way in which they worship Jehovah/Yahweh. I tend to think it is the latter, but calves are so closely related with Canaanite pagan religion that it is hard to be sure.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Even if Jeroboam was not setting up worship of a new god (and thus not violating the first commandment),  he was still guilty of creating an image to serve as a symbol of God (which violates the second commandment). So at the very least, he perverted the worship of the true God. Jeroboam’s disregard for the religious statues that God had set up did not stop there, as he also created alternate worship sites on high places at Dan and Bethel, put in place non-Levitical priests, and instituted his own feast day. These actions broke God’s commandments, and also revealed Jeroboam’s feelings that civil matters were more important than religious conviction.

Jeroboam has not been on the throne for long, but already he has dramatically departed from God’s instruction to walk in all His ways as David did. Instead, Jeroboam seems to have forgotten Who placed him on the throne in the first place, and rather than obey the real Power behind the throne, takes matters into his own hands to secure his position by his own power.

In 1 Kings 13, a prophet comes from God and condemns what Jeroboam has done, also predicting that judgment will come upon him because of it:

O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: “Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.” And he gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign that the LORD has spoken: ‘Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.’”

(1 Kings 13.2-3)

Not surprisingly, Jeroboam isn’t a big fan of this message and stretches out his hand: “Seize him!” But as soon as this happens, his hand “dried up, so that he could not draw it back to himself” (1 Kings 13.4). Ironically, in this very act, Jeroboam actually gives credibility to the prophecy—clearly, there is some power behind it because Jeroboam’s hand shrivels up, and furthermore, the altar was torn down as the prophecy said. Jeroboam asks the prophet to entreat God for him that his hand might be restored, and the prophet does so, and Jeroboam is healed.

Jeroboam is probably grateful to the man of God for his healing, and invites him to dine with him, but the prophet refuses because God had commanded him to return directly after his mission was completed. It is possible that dining with the king would have made the prophet appear to approve of the religious apostasy that Jeroboam was promoting.

Here, the narrative takes leave of Jeroboam and follows the young prophet and his strange interaction with an old prophet from Bethel. Since our focus is on Jeroboam we won’t dwell on this, but it is a tragic story of the young prophet from Judah being deceived by the older prophet from Israel, disobeying God, and dying as a result. This may seem like strange information to include in an extended narrative on the reign of Jeroboam, but it reinforces the idea that God expects to be obeyed, and severe consequences fall upon those who refuse to do so.

Regardless of this cautionary tale, 1 Kings 13 ends by saying:

After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places. And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.

(1 Kings 13.33-34)

So this story also shows us that Jeroboam remains unrepentant—he is determined to continue his disobedience to God. 

The rest of Jeroboam’s reign isn’t very happy. His son grows sick, and when he enquires of a prophet of God to determine if his sone will recover, he learns that not only will his son die, but because Jeroboam had incited the wrath of heaven by leading the Northern Kingdom into idolatry instead of being faithful to the covenant God had offered him, judgment had been pronounced not just on Jeroboam, but on every male from his house—the line of Jeroboam will be wiped out.

We also know that he was a man of war, and that he warred constantly with Rehoboam, and also fought against Rehoboam’s son, Abijam/Abijah and was defeated by him (2 Chronicles 13) and never recovered the level of power he had previously had. 

And that is basically what we know about Jeroboam.

Sacrificing Principle for Political Gain

Jeroboam is one of the truly tragic characters of Scripture. His legacy is that he is the man who “made Israel to sin”—this lamentable epitaph is mentioned over 20 times in Scripture, and his sinfulness really summarizes the entire period of the Divided Kingdom. I think there are a lot of things we can learn from the sad story of Jeroboam, but I want to focus on just one that I believe is particularly relevant for a lot of people today.

Jeroboam’s blessing, security, and power rested in his obedience to God. Instead of trusting in God, however, he chose to do the pragmatic thing. He made religious changes for political reasons, thinking that this would ensure his longevity as king. Instead, it led to the downfall of his kingdom. Jeroboam’s power and position rested on his faithfulness, not his politics. 

If there is a lesson that I think American Christians need to hear in 2019—a time of rampant political division and rabid political devotion—it might be this one: political power is not the means by which Christians are called to change the world. 

As most of my readers know, I am a part of Churches of Christ, which find historical roots in the American Restoration Movement. Our heritage has an interesting and diverse relationship with politics. Some Restorationist voices were highly involved in politics: Alexander Campbell, one of the key early leaders in the movement, served as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829-30. James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States, was a Restoration Movement preacher. 

Others had a much different view of politics. David Lipscomb, the longtime Gospel Advocate editor and a major leader in Churches of Christ in the decades following the Civil War, was avowedly apolitical. He was a pacifist who didn’t think Christians should serve in the military or even vote. J.N. Armstrong, the first President of Harding College, was strongly influenced by Lipscomb and had similar views.

 

I take this brief historical detour as a way of saying that I think that, in the spirit of Romans 14, the Christian’s relationship to politics is one of those areas where we are to do our best to follow the teachings and ethics of Jesus and be careful not to judge the scruples of others. 

Having said that, when it comes to politics, let us never sacrifice principle for political expediency.

In the crisis of the moment, it might seem like a good thing to do, but as Jeroboam learned, it never pays off. I think Jeroboam’s disobedience was largely motivated by fear—he was afraid of what would happen if he let the people go to Judah to worship, so out of his fear, he made a politically expedient decision. 

We live in an environment where political fervor always seems to be at a fever pitch. If we aren’t focused on a current or coming election, we are enamored with the latest political scandal or partisan feud.

In the last Presidential election, I heard a lot of fear from Christians (regardless of their political views) about what was going to happen. Speaking for myself (again, in the spirit of Romans 14, I am not placing judgment on those who disagree), I found myself unable to vote for either major party candidate. Both candidates had been in the public eye for a long time, and I knew plenty about the kind of people they were and the sort of character they had, and I didn’t feel like I could vote for either one. What really bothered me, though, was how often I was told or read from other Christians who supported one candidate or the other (because I got this from both sides of the aisle), that I basically needed to ignore my principles and vote for the “lesser of two evils” (whoever that may have been depending on the person I was talking to at the time), with the implication being that if I didn’t, our next President would likely bring about the end of the world.

You know, I don’t care who you vote for, but it does bother me:

  • When Christians encourage others to choose the lesser evil…because we aren’t supposed to choose evil in greater or lesser varieties!
  • When Christians encourage others to ignore their principles…because we aren’t supposed to ignore our principles!
  • When Christians suggest that the future hinges upon some human ruler…because God is the one who is in charge! When Pharaoh ruled the world, God freed His people from Egypt! When Nebuchadnezzar ruled the world, God saved three Hebrew teenagers from a fiery death! When Nero ruled the world, God orchestrated the greatest growth in the history of the church!

It is up to you to choose what your relationship with politics will be, and in my personal opinion, our political voice is an opportunity that we have to glorify God. However, let us never make the mistake of thinking that political power is the means by which Christians are called to change the world, or that it is acceptable for us to sacrifice our principles for the sake of political expediency.

The lure of political power is strong, and it can easily deceive us into thinking that the ends justify the means. But as Jeroboam learned, they do not. 

Gifts & Contentment: A Thanksgiving Message from Ecclesiastes

This is an adapted version of a sermon a preached this past Sunday. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. I enjoy spending time with family, and I enjoy the good food that you get to eat at Thanksgiving. I’m also a big fan of Christmas, and to me, Thanksgiving always kicks off the Christmas season, so I like that about it too.

But most of all, as a Christian and a minister, I really appreciate that we have this time built into our yearly rhythm where we are encouraged to stop, reflect, and give thanks for what we have. That is an incredibly biblical thing to do. Thanksgiving is the basic response that God’s people should have in light of what God has done, and although this may be something that we lose sight of at times, this holiday, anchored on our calendars, helps remind us of this action which is central to our lives as followers of Jesus.

This particular Thanksgiving meditation comes from a somewhat unusual source: the Book of Ecclesiastes. I say “somewhat unusual” because the Book of Ecclesiastes is not something we focus on too much. Many people have a quotation from Ecclesiastes that they like, but they don’t really study the book in detail. A big part of this, I think, is that a lot of people think that the Book of Ecclesiastes is really depressing! Many people (including biblical scholars) suggest that Ecclesiastes has a very pessimistic view on life.

I disagree with that, though; I don’t think Ecclesiastes is pessimistic, I just think that it is very realistic. My wife would laugh to hear me say this, because all the time she tells me that I am a pessimist, and I disagree and say that I am a realist. I am just very aware that the world is broken, that people are deeply flawed, that we tend to get let down a lot, and that there is a lot of disappointment in life. I don’t always walk around with a scowl on my face or imagine the worst possible outcome of every situation, but I acknowledge that there are a lot of things that happen in life that are out of our control, that we don’t understand, and that we wish didn’t happen. And I think that is exactly how the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the world. I love Ecclesiastes.

And in this very realistic book, I think we are given a great perspective on Thanksgiving.

Real Talk About Money

I want to look specifically at the last half of Ecclesiastes 5, but to give a little bit of context, Ecclesiastes starts off with the author (who calls himself the Teacher or Preacher depending on your translation) saying that life is vanity, like chasing after the wind. And what he means by this is not that life has no meaning, but that life is brief and it’s hard to grasp, both literally and metaphorically—we don’t get to determine how long our lives are, and there are things about life that we simply can’t understand. It’s like trying to catch the wind or smoke.

And then the Teacher talks about all of these things in life that he sought after to find meaning, and he says that none of it lasts. We could say more, but that’s sufficient to give us an idea of what is going on in Ecclesiastes. Picking up in Ecclesiastes 5.10-17:

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

The Teacher begins by talking about money, and he has some important things to say about it. The harshest feedback I ever got from a sermon came once when I preached about money, but here’s the deal: the Bible talks about money all the time! The Law of Moses discusses it in detail, it is addressed repeatedly in wisdom literature (like Ecclesiastes), the prophets deal with the (mis)use of money, Jesus talks about it frequently, etc. If we want to be biblical, we will talk about money a lot—not because we worship it, but because we want to make sure that we don’t!

From earlier chapters in Ecclesiastes, we know that the Teacher was incredibly wealthy. He knew all about what money could buy, and he said it was vanity—vapor, smoke. It doesn’t last, and therefore doesn’t provide real significance. Here he goes on to list some of the problems that can come with money: addiction (v.10), it attracts the greedy (v.11), it promotes worry and lack of sleep (v.12), it leads to hoarding (v.13), it can easily be lost (v.14), and it cannot follow us after death (vv.15-17).[1]

Here I am, thinking that things would be a lot better if I just made a little bit more, but the Teacher doesn’t seem to agree. What a downer!

I should be clear here that money is not inherently a bad thing, but Scripture has a lot to say about wealth that should make us very careful in how we view it. Money can very easily become bad for us. It can compete with God for our devotion, twist our hearts, and destroy our lives.

To combat that, we should consider our money and indeed, all of our material possessions, as being a loan from God. All that we have belongs to God, but He gives us our possessions so that we can use them for His glory. Therefore, we should take care of our money and be good stewards of it, but we should always remember that it isn’t really ours. This perspective will help us to not get too attached to our money, and also to look for ways we can use it which will glorify God.

Everything Is A Gift

If this sounds pessimistic (first, it’s not; it’s realistic!), keep reading in Ecclesiastes 5.18-20:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5 ends with a summary statement emphasizing the importance of enjoying the blessings that God has given us (cf. Ecclesiastes 2.24-26).

Work is a good thing; we were created to be workers. When God created Adam, He placed him in the garden and told him to tend and cultivate it. From the beginning, we were intended to be workers. Think about those who are disabled and cannot work, or those who need jobs to provide for their families but can’t find them; those are unfortunate situations. If you are able to work and have a job, that is a blessing. If you enjoy your work and enjoy the people you work with, that is an even greater blessing.

In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher doesn’t understand everything about life (and if you go through the book, he is very clear about the parts of life that don’t make sense to him), but he does know that work, food, and family are blessings—gifts—from the Lord and should be enjoyed as such.[2] It is incredibly important that we view these things as gifts rather than achievements; if we do so, it completely changes our perspective.

Gifts are not something that we deserve. They are something that we receive because of the gracious nature of the giver. When you think about things in terms of gifts, it really changes your perspective. And here’s the secret, according to the Teacher of Ecclesiastes: everything is a gift! Life—as confusing as it is, as filled with heartache as it can be—is a gift. Work is a gift. Our food, our families…all of it: gift. If we look at the things that we have as gifts, it changes everything.

These are blessings God bestows on us to enjoy, not objectives for us to obsessively strive after. There is a lot of joy to be found in living a simple life that is satisfied with meaningful work, sufficient food, and edifying relationships.[3]

Content No Matter What?

This is all tied very closely to the idea of contentment, and if you’ll allow me, I want to jump to the New Testament for a minute to say a few words about that idea.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a favorite for a lot of people; it is one of his more positive letters, despite the fact that he wrote it from prison. He begins it by sharing his thankfulness for the Christians at Philippi. As Paul contemplates the possibility of his impending execution, He speaks of his great concern for spreading the Gospel and how Christ is at the very center of his work and identity regardless of what happens to him. He talks about the humility of Jesus and how He serves as an example to us, how as followers of Christ we are to be lights in the world and seek the standard of Jesus.

And then as Paul is closing the letter and encouraging the Philippian Christians, he says this in 4.10-13:

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

I think contentment is less about what you have and more about your attitude of thankfulness toward what you have. Paul says that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstance he finds himself. That confirms to me that contentment is an internal quality rather than an external one; it does not depend on what is going on around us. Paul had a lot of difficulty in his life (he was beaten, imprisoned, scourged, left for dead, shipwrecked, etc.), but he was able to find contentment regardless.

This also helps us better understand what Paul means in his famous “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” quote. This verse gets taken out of context and abused a lot, but Paul isn’t talking here about passing an algebra test or getting a job promotion or winning a basketball game. Instead, what he means is that Jesus Christ empowers him to find contentment in all situations.

And to me (and to tie this back to Ecclesiastes), one of the simplest and most powerful ways of finding contentment in all situations is to remember that our blessings are a gift from God.

Our world is filled with people who are chasing after the standards and achievements of the world in some obsessive quest for significance. As Christians, though, we are not to live lives of hopeless desperation; we find our significance and our meaning in the God who gives us all things. Our identity and purpose is not based on achievement; it is based on gift from our Creator.

And that is a cause for great Thanksgiving.


[1]See Chad Landman, Wisdom for Life: 6 Weeks in Ecclesiastes (Hashtag Media, 2013), 18.

[2]Phillip McMillion, Wisdom Literature Class Lecture Notes (Memphis: Harding University Graduate School of Religion, Fall 2010).

[3]William P. Brown, Character In Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 136.

Radical Conversion(?)

I recently finished reading Radical Restoration by F. LaGard Smith, and found it to be an endearing combination of brilliant insights and prolonged axe-grinding. However, one quotation in particular really struck me:

The pernicious effects of a spiritual body composed mostly of second-generation Christians whose early-youth baptisms were, in the main, more convention than conversion are more spiritually devastating than we might ever imagine. Why are we not more evangelistic? Because we ourselves were never radically converted. Why do spiritual matters not hold center place in our busy, work-a-day lives? Because a merely “mentalized” faith can too easily become a compartmentalized faith. Why are we just as materialistic, worldly, and secular as our irreligious (or religious!) next-door neighbors? Because we have been duly initiated into a worldly church, but never properly introduced to an other-worldly Kingdom.

(p.42)

I have had discussions before about how adult converts perceive a lot of things differently than those who have “grown up in the church,” but never before had I really considered the effect of having churches comprised largely of second (or third, or fourth) generation Christians who became Christians largely as a matter of convention: it was just what they were raised to do.

Before I go any further, I should point out what a tremendous blessing it is to be raised in the church, and to have Christian parents who are devoted to the idea of passing faith on to their kids. So please do not hear me as saying that it is a bad thing to be raised in the church. It is not. But at the same time, I think there is a lot of validity to what Smith suggests above. In biblical examples of conversion (think, for example, of Saul of Tarsus), we see a radical change in people when they come to know Jesus. Their lives are very different than they were previously.

When I look at my own life, I see a very different story. I can never remember a time when I didn’t know Jesus. I was a good kid who tried to do good things. To be sure, I had sin in my life, but becoming a Christian didn’t entail a massive lifestyle change. In fact, the main difference in my life that I can remember is that following my baptism and commitment to Christ, I began taking Communion on Sundays! The point that I’m trying to make here is not that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is not important (it is), but rather, to underscore that my life was not significantly different than it had been previously: my life course was not radically altered by my decision to become a Christian.

Last fall, I attended a youth conference where the speaker did an excellent job of making the point that before you are prepared to share the Story of Jesus, you need to understand and be able to articulate how the Story has impacted your own life. A helpful way to verbalize this is simply by completing the statement, “Before Jesus, I was ____________; now I am ____________.” The problem is, based on my conversations with a lot of students raised in the church, they are unable to determine any difference! They can’t tell how their lives changed after they became Christians. This is a big problem.

This problem is further underscored by my conversations with young people prior to their baptism. Especially with younger kids, I always want to ask something like, “How will your life change once you are a Christian?” Generally, they have no idea!

Truly, I think Smith has hit upon a major issue, and I think the implications of this issue are, perhaps, as significant as he makes them out to be. The reality of “Christians” who look entirely too much like the world is pervasive in American Christianity, and maybe this is the root of the problem: people are not truly being converted.

That necessarily leads to the question, what should we do about it? Honestly, I am not sure, but here are three tentative suggestions:

Talk to kids about the cost of discipleship before they make a commitment to Christ. Becoming a Christian is not about joining a social club, or slightly cleaning up your spiritual self. It constitutes a radical change of dying to self and following Jesus instead. Increasingly, I try to have these sorts of conversations with children and teens who express a desire to be baptized in an order to get them to see (even in a limited way) the magnitude of the commitment they are making.

As the Church, do a better job of embodying the radical expectations of Jesus. How are young people going to figure out how to live as salt and light in the world if older Christians are not modeling this sort of lifestyle for them? If we have long-time Christians…and elders…and ministers who are markedly worldly in their thinking and practice, how will our children move beyond that. Read the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus demands radical living. Isn’t it about time that we hold ourselves up to the standards that Jesus sets for following Him?

Make the conversion experience more of an event. If becoming a Christian is the most important decision that one makes (and I absolutely believe it is), shouldn’t we make a really big deal about it? People go through great time and expense planning weddings, birthday parties, retirement parties, etc., because we recognize that these are significant milestones that deserve to be celebrated. I realize that because of the nature of conversion (people make a commitment in the moment), the same sort of upfront planning might not be possible, but couldn’t churches plan celebrations after the fact? Couldn’t we eat together and sing and talk and laugh and celebrate the new birth that has happened, and talk about the reality that everything has now changed? Couldn’t we, at least within our church fellowships, pay more attention to celebrating baptismal birthdays than physical birthdays?

Perhaps these are helpful suggestions; perhaps not. For my part, I am convinced that Smith has struck upon a legitimate problem, so certainly something needs to be done.

Glorifying God in Conflict

Introduction

Last summer and fall, I spent six months teaching through the Sermon on the Mount in a couple of different classes at church; at the same time, I also took a graduate school class called “Managing Conflict in Ministry.” Together, these two sources caused me to re-think the way I look at conflict.

By nature, I’m not someone who enjoys conflict. I basically hate it, and my natural inclination is to go out of my way to avoid it. But really, I don’t think it’s possible to always avoid conflict, nor is it healthy to do so. In reality, conflict is inevitable, and this is true in the world, and it’s true in the church as well:

(1) God created us as unique individuals who are meant to live in community. We each have our own thoughts, desires, and preferences. We each think that certain things should happen in certain ways. We have differences of opinions. Combine that with the fact that God does not expect us to live our lives as hermits; we are to live in community. God calls us to live as the church with our different personalities and perspectives, and it’s inevitable that those  things are going to bring us into disagreement and conflict with one another at some point.

(2) We live in very anxious times. There was a famous psychiatrist named Dr. Murray Bowen, who suggested that societies go through periods of regression where the amount of anxiety in the culture spikes upward. When these spikes of anxiety occur, the symptoms in society include a rise in crime, violence, terrorism, high divorce rate, willingness to take people to court, racial division, less principled decision-making by leaders, and a focus on rights over responsibilities.[1]

Now, Dr. Bowen proposed his theory in the 1960s, but it’s almost prophetic in describing our own time: if you look around at our world, I don’t think you need me to convince you that we live in anxious times! And when you have a lot of anxious people who are worried and uptight about things, it naturally follows that you’re going to have a lot of conflict to deal with.

So I really do believe that conflict is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently a bad thing. In fact, I think we could benefit greatly from changing the way we look at conflict, and viewing it as an opportunity to glorify God. A lot of time conflict happens not because anyone has done anything wrong, but simply because, as we mentioned above, we have differences of opinion about things, and when that occurs, we have an opportunity to glorify God by dealing with the conflict in a way that shows love for one another and honors the things that Jesus has commanded us to do. Now, sometimes we are brought into conflict with one another because one party has sinned, and I’ll refer to that below, but even in those instances, we have the opportunity to address the sin in a way that glorifies God.

When it comes to addressing conflict, there are four different steps or ideas that I would like to suggest. Sometimes only one of these ideas will be necessary, while other times, more of a combination will be needed.[2]

Get Over It

We should begin by noting that not everything is a big deal, and sometimes we just need to get over things.

Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.

(Proverbs 19.11)

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

(Matthew 5.5)

The proverb is probably straightforward enough, but this beatitude has an Old Testament background in Psalm 37.11, and refers to those who don’t worry about what others do to them because they put their trust in God instead. Meekness describes those who are able to remain patient and composed in the face of insult and injury. It is not the surrender of our rights, but it is the ability to overlook slights, knowing that God is sovereign and will ultimately vindicate us.

I hinted at this in the introduction, but we live in a society that is highly anxious, where everyone seems to be constantly offended by everything, and that naturally leads to a lot of conflict. In such a climate, it may seem a brave thing to constantly shout about how everyone is annoying you, but really, it is a very weak position: you are admitting that other people have constant control over your emotions and responses. Those who are meek, on the other hand, boldly refuse to give others control over their responses.

Now, there are times that we shouldn’t overlook things: if someone does something that seriously dishonors God, or hurts another person, or harms themselves…not everything should be overlooked. But I submit to you that a lot of conflict happens or, at least, is escalated, because we get involved in situations when we really should just get over it instead.

I want to emphasize that this is not what the world suggests. The way of the world is about retaliation, about getting what we are owed, getting satisfaction. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to sometimes just get over it. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.

Get The Log Out Of Your Own Eye

This second principle comes from Matthew 7.1-5:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

In context, Jesus is limiting the way we are to judge one another. In 21st century America, Matthew 7.1 might be the most well-known verse in all of Scripture. Since our society values tolerance so highly, it is no wonder that a verse which at first glance seems to indicate that Christians have no place telling other people how to live would be very popular.

However, it is clear that in context, Jesus doesn’t mean for this to be an absolute statement: later on He will talk about how we are to judge people by the fruits they bear, and even here He says that we will be judged in the same way we judge others, and that argument assumes that we will, in fact, judge other people in certain ways. The point of what Jesus is saying here is that we should be gentle and grace-filled in our judgments of others (because that’s how we want God to judge us!) and that we should always begin by looking at ourselves first. And Jesus illustrates that with a humorous picture of a guy who has a massive log sticking out of his eye but who has the audacity to try to remove a splinter from a friend’s eye.

I think this is a really important idea for conflict situations as well.

When we have an issue with someone, maybe they hurt our feelings or we just have a disagreement about something, it’s so easy to focus only on what the other person is doing, and to ignore our own contribution to the problem. But a key first step in conflict is to give ourselves a hard look in the mirror to make sure we don’t have any logs sticking out of our own eyes: how much of the conflict comes from our own stubbornness, poor attitude, or unwillingness to work toward reconciliation?

It’s always easy and tempting to blame any conflict on the other person, but the reality is that we ourselves are almost never as innocent as we’d like to think. It’s essential that you get the log out of your own eye first.

I want to emphasize that this is not what the world suggests. The way of the world doesn’t really call for a lot of careful self evaluation, and it assumes the problem is with someone else rather than ourselves. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to get the log out of our own eye. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.

Go And Be Reconciled

The next principle for glorifying God in conflict comes from Matthew 5.23-24:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

This comes in a section of the Sermon on the Mount that deals with our relationships with other people and it is very important that we notice how strongly Jesus emphasizes that when we become aware of a problem we have with another brother or sister, another believer, we stop what we are doing and go to seek reconciliation with that person. Consider this—Jesus places the urgency of reconciliation before even worship! He says to leave your offering at the altar and first go and seek reconciliation.

That’s how important Jesus sees the resolution of conflict to be, and yet, I wonder if we view things the same way. When you have a problem with a brother or sister in Christ—some disagreement or hard feelings over something—do you stop what you’re doing immediately to go and work things out with that person, or do you hold a grudge and develop a long-lasting feud?

Jesus instills an urgency in a need to be reconciled with others. He also instructs a directness. Later in Matthew 18.15-17, He says:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Here, Jesus outlines the process for how we should deal with sin within the community of faith. We could probably spend quite a bit of time dealing with this, but I really want to focus on the first part. What is the first thing Jesus tells us to do when a fellow Christian sins against us? “Go to your brother, just you and he alone.” We are supposed to go directly to the offending party.

Just like we struggle to appreciate the urgency of reconciliation, we also struggle with the directness. Be honest: when you are upset with someone or feel like they are in the wrong about something, what is your natural reaction? Do you go directly to the person? Or do you go talk to about the situation to someone else?

I’ve had people at church come to me before to complain about the wrong they feel someone else has done to them. When that happens, I try to encourage them to go directly to the person, as Matthew 18 teaches, and to be honest with you, that advice is rarely appreciated!

Again, I want to emphasize that this is not what the world suggests. The way of the world is to hold grudges against people and to talk about people who have wronged us and make them look bad. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to go directly to the person, immediately, and seek reconciliation. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.

Grant Forgiveness

In Matthew 6.14-15, at the end of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, either will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The implication here is clear: if we want God to be forgiving toward us, we need to have an attitude of forgiveness toward others. In fact, our willingness to forgive others should be only natural in light of the forgiveness that God offers us.

Jesus teaches a parable on that specific idea in Matthew 18.21-35. It starts with Peter trying to figure out the limit of forgiveness: Lord, how many times do I have to forgive my brother? Up to seven times? And Jesus sets about to describe the limitless nature of forgiveness. He tells the story of a king who had a servant who owed him 10,000 talents, which is an amount of money that he would never be able to repay. The servant asks the king to take pity on him, and the king forgives the debt. But then that same servant goes out to a fellow servant who owes him a relatively insignificant amount, and mercilessly throws him into prison because he can’t pay. And the king finds out and is furious and throws the first servant into prison, because how dare he not offer forgiveness when such amazing forgiveness had been offered to him?

The expectation of Jesus for those who would be His followers is clear: since God has forgiven us for so much, how dare we not extend forgiveness to others? Here are, perhaps, the hardest words of this post: it doesn’t matter what the conflict is, it doesn’t matter what the source of disagreement is, it doesn’t matter what sin a brother or sister has committed against you. Jesus makes no exceptions; forgiveness is the only answer.

And when I say forgiveness, I mean real forgiveness. Sometimes you’ll hear people say things like, “I’ve forgiven, but I haven’t forgotten.” Guess what? That’s not forgiveness. Or you might hear someone say, “I forgave her, but I don’t speak to her anymore.” That’s not forgiveness either!

Forgiveness means that you don’t dwell on the incident. It means that you don’t bring it up again to use against the other person. It means that you don’t talk about the conflict with other people. And it means that you won’t let the incident stand between you and the other person moving forward.

Something I heard the other day that I thought was really good: a good indication of whether or not you have forgiven someone is whether or not you would be willing to accept that same level of forgiveness from God. If you’re not comfortable with that level of forgiveness from God, then you still have work to do.

Forgiveness is not what the world suggests; it’s not something the world even understands. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to forgive, no matter what. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.

Conclusion

Whether or not you or I like it, conflict is inevitable. We don’t really have a choice about whether or not we will ever have to face it. We do have a choice, however, about how we will face it. Conflict can be an environment for sin; it can lead to destroyed relationships, and hard feelings.

But it can also be an opportunity for glorifying God:

  • We glorify God when we just get over things that don’t really matter.
  • We glorify God when we look at ourselves in conflict situations and see how we are contributing to them, and get the log out of our own eye before we try to correct other people.
  • We glorify God when we go to the other party to seek reconciliation and when we do this with urgency and directness.
  • We glorify God when we grant forgiveness to the other person, no matter what.

These are not easy things to do, but they are what Jesus commands. And if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, He’s the one who gets to tells us what that looks like.


[1] I was introduced to Bowen’s theory of Societal Regression by Dr. Carlus Gupton in Managing Conflict in Ministry. 

[2] These points were partially informed by Ken Sande and Ted Kober, Guiding People Through Conflict (Peacemaker Ministries, 2005), 9-13.

« Older posts

© 2019 The Doc File

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑