Sunday, December 28, 2008

Truth, Delivery and Imperfect Ministers

"Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?" Saint Paul

Imagine a man caught in the act of adultery by his wife and then responding more severely to the manner in which she reacted to his infidelity than to his own guilt. Even if the wife’s knee-jerk reaction were not to have taken into account her own sinfulness - is there a place for a husband to turn the tables on his wife without first dealing with the wretchedness of his own premeditated behavior? If the husband were to deal with the plank in his own eye, wouldn’t any perceived speck in his wife’s eye disappear, at least from his sight? Now imagine people “caught” in sin through the ordained preaching of the word and then becoming more disturbed, even outraged, by the manner in which the pastor delivered the message than their personal guilt before God. It seems to me that what is at work in both such cases is an avoidance of truth through a conveniently cultivated seared conscience. When feeling good about oneself (or at least the desire not to feel bad about oneself) takes precedence over a longing to be sanctified, there can be little chance of experiencing true contrition, the sine qua non of God-sent repentance. I have found that all too often mortification through the gospel-means of heart-felt, Spirit-wrought remorse is replaced by focusing on perceived imperfections in the messenger. One must question whether the evangelical graces of repentance, spiritual cleansing and biblical restoration can be present in such cases.

When subjective self-esteem becomes more important than developing objective Christian character, the crucified life becomes purely theoretical, an abstraction if you will. After all, wouldn’t one with a conscience that was laid bare before God be exceedingly more consumed with dealing truthfully and biblically with his own objective guilt than making an issue of any perceived flaw in the messenger’s bedside manner? Should not our first and greatest desire be to deal with our own sin before contemplating the imperfect instrument God is so often pleased to use to point it out? Indeed, would the manner in which the message was delivered be of any consequence whatsoever if we were in agreement with God and saw ourselves as we truly are, guilty before him? Not to belabor the point, but if the judge in the courtroom were even rude in the manner in which he interrogated a serial rapist, would we say the rapist "deserved" better? And assuming he did in some horizontal sense (i.e. creature to creature), would it not be true that if he were truly contrite he would not even notice - let alone complain about (!), the civility of the judge’s address? Of course not! If the guilty party were even in close proximity to thinking rightly about his sin, which is to say if he were dealing in reality, would he even notice any harshness at all, and if he did, would he not receive it as a divinely appointed, providential tempering of the justice deserved? If there were God-sent sorrow, would there even be any chance that the guilty party would become the messenger’s accuser? Sadly, in the church today this sort of thing has become all too common. When the Christian cloaks his guilt in the face of correction, the concealment is usually accompanied by the guilty party going on the offensive against God’s anointed; all in an effort try to extricate one’s own shame.

As David Wells rightly observes:

“To feel embarrassed because we were caught… deceiving, or (shamelessly)
self-promoting is an entirely good and healthy emotion! To argue, then, that we
need to be liberated from these uncomfortable feelings, that the ultimate
liberation is to become entirely shameless, is to sever our connection with the
moral law entirely.”
Unfortunately, all too often Christians are more concerned – even consumed, with ridding themselves - apart from any semblance of gospel formulation - of feeling shame. The objective reality of guilt is something that Christians are often pleased to live with as long as they don’t feel soiled. When shame is due to being found out by others, as opposed to agreeing with God’s objective verdict with a contrite heart, the cause of shame in the mind of the sinner is indexed to the messenger rather than to the holy demands of the Law-Giver. When one feels embarrassed and cloaks his guilt, the simple and obviously less painful solution becomes “kill the messenger!” The goal is to rid oneself from feeling bad. Contrition, something that is too often wrongly perceived as more Catholic than Protestant, is missing - otherwise the messenger would not be in danger!

I am aware of a pastor who (merely) stopped congregational singing in order to admonish the saints to sing out more loudly unto the Lord, as they were to have been engaged in the worship of the triune God. Yet sadly, there were some within the congregation who took great umbrage with the pastoral admonishment. Why was that? For those who were singing out as they ought, the correction obviously did not apply to them (other than being organically part of the whole congregation). However, for those who were not singing out, the correction was indeed appropriate. (I suppose if you throw a rock at a pack of dogs, the one who yelps the loudest is the one who gets hit most squarely.) Any number of examples could be cited. The general point is shouldn’t the guilty party be more concerned with receiving correction (and in this casing repenting of apathetic worship) than with the manner in which the pastor discharges correction? If a minister of God’s word dares to dare to speak the unvarnished truth, he better sugar-coat it and make sure to put the accent on his own need for grace. For a minister to reprove, rebuke or exhort without ensuring both in word and demeanor an acute understanding that he is the chief sinner, the one standing in need of admonishment might very well conjure up vain images (and assert them as dogma) of how far short the messenger falls from Jesus’ manner of conduct. Offense taken ends up being equated with an offense given, a monstrosity indeed. However, the ultimate deception results when the tables get turned, wherein the dismissal of guilt is exchanged for an attack on the messenger.

May God be pleased to protect his ministers and not allow them to cave into the pressures that would keep them from that part of their job description that requires them to be ready in season and out of season.


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