The Joy and Pain of Proclamation

How does it feel to proclaim the word of God to the people around you? How should it feel? I think, if you get an honest answer from a faithful pastor, bitter-sweet will be the most likely answer. It is a joy to be used of God to speak truth. But it hurts. Truth is not always pretty. Some things that we must say in order to be faithful to the Lord are things that are uncomfortable, things we know will wound, things we know will be rejected.

If it seems strange that I would say this about the role of the preacher, or in fact the role of any believer speaking the word to family or friends, remember that this is the view seen in Scripture.

Revelation 10:8-11 – 8 Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” 9 So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” 10 And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11 And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”

The image of John eating a scroll in Revelation 10 is a picture that borrows from a similar picture in Ezekiel 2-3. In both instances, a man of God is given by God a scroll with the word of God for those around him. In both cases, the prophet is to eat the scroll and then prophesy. In both instances, the prophet acknowledges the sweetness of that scroll when he consumes it. And there is an accompanying bitterness in John’s case, a sourness to the stomach that the words cause. In Ezekiel, the Lord simply follows the eating of the scroll with a reminder that the people will not listen.

Let me suggest two things to learn here. First, the proclamation of the word of God will not be without joy or pain. There is joy in preaching. There is joy in the truth of the word. There is joy in the God whose word we proclaim. But there is also sorrow. There is sorrow in the ugliness of sin. There is sorrow in the judgment many face. There is sorrow in the rejection of the word of God by sinful people who will not hear. This is to be expected.

The other thing that I want to suggest that we need to learn is that this pairing of joy and sorrow should be for us a check of our hearts and attitudes. There are some among us who find no joy in the word. That should make you wonder if your heart is really open to the word and the working of God. There are some who find great joy in proclaiming the word, but who feel no sourness, no sorrow in the proclamation of the word. What would that mean? I fear that, for some, it means that the heart of the preacher or Internet expert is hard. If you love to proclaim with boldness where others are wrong, where others are failing, where others are destined for judgment, yet if you have no feeling of sorrow for the lost or for those in error, if you lack compassion, there is something dreadfully wrong with your heart.

Christians, here is truth. Proclaiming God’s word will carry with it sweetness and bitterness. There will be both blessing and judgment in the word you must proclaim. You will both encourage others and you will call others to repentance. Some will hear you and some will face the judgment of Almighty God. And I would suggest that, if your heart does not feel either the joy of the Lord or a heavy compassion for sinners, something is amiss. Examine yourself. Ask, which of the two emotions do you more lack when you proclaim truth? Do you lack joy? Do you not love the word? Or do you perhaps lack sorrow? Do you lack kindness and compassion toward those you must correct? Do you too easily want to run from proclaiming hard truth? Do you too easily run to judgment without sorrow, kindness, or understanding?

I think what John experienced when he ate the scroll is what we all should have in our mouths and in our bellies when we speak the word of God to a church in need of correction or to a world in need of a Savior. May our hearts feel sorrow for those who face judgment. May we not gloat in making others look foolish or in pronouncing their doom. And may we shine with the joy of the Lord and embrace the sweetness that the word of God is the true and loving revelation of the Lord for his glory and our good.

Suffering, Persecution, and Christian Kindness

Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world. He lets us know that we are commissioned to go and make disciples. Paul is clear that we are to live simply and quietly where God has planted us. And all who truly know Jesus want to see people saved.

In many instances, this desire to see people saved is expressed in Christian kindness toward our communities. And this is a good thing. It is good when Christians take action to push back the darkness, to overturn the effects of the fall, and to show the world around us a better way.

But I fear that many church members and church leaders are confused about what will be the results of Christian kindness. I fear that many who are designing programs for community kindness are expecting that this kindness will make a lost world treasure the presence of the church. I fear that many pastors think that, if we are just nice enough, if we give enough, if we care enough, the world will embrace the church as a valued and welcome neighbor.

Is it true? Is it true that the church, if we are nice enough, will be embraced by the world? I would say yes, for a time. But in the long run, Christians need to understand that our acts of kindness will not reconcile us to a world that is in rebellion against the Lord.

Look at what Peter said to the church in his day.

1 Peter 4:1-5 – 1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

In that passage, Peter tells us a few things. First, Peter tells us to be ready to suffer like Jesus. Then he reminds us that we may no longer behave like the world around us behaves. WE cannot treasure what they treasure. And Peter lets the church know that, when we do not join with the world in their evil practices, the world will malign us. And Peter finally reminds us that the rebellious world will face the judgment of God.

Nothing that Peter there says would indicate that we can make the world love us if we are nice enough. Eventually, even if it takes years, the world around us will see us valuing the things of God. The world will see that we cannot go with them down sinful paths. And when they see that we do not go with them, they will have anger and malice stirred against us. But we are willing to press on and endure, because Jesus also suffered the malice of an evil world for the glory of God.

What is the application of all this? Am I suggesting that we not be kind to the world? Not at all. We are to love our neighbors. We are to reach out with the gospel. We ought to be the most kind and loving people on the planet.

What then? I am suggesting that we not be so foolish as to think that our kindness will make the world embrace the church. It may work for a bit. We may gain a good reputation in the community through activities of kindness. But, there will come a day when the world finds us standing on the opposite side of a line from them on some sort of issue. At that point, our past kindness will not avail us as much as we think. The world we now live in is completely willing to bounce in our bounce-houses, to eat our free food, to accept our community service, and then to turn against us the moment we do not support an immoral view of their activities.

Christians, don’t ever stop being kind. But also do not think that your actions of sweetness will earn you a pass in a harsh, hashtag driven world. I would suggest that you be careful shaping the focus of the local church too much toward PR campaigns. Those campaigns may earn you some time and some freedom, but Peter is clear that they will not last. The world will see you not traveling down their paths eventually, and their first response, according to Scripture, will be to malign you, not to say, “But they are so nice otherwise.”

Christians, genuinely love. For the glory of God, do good in the world. Care for your community because caring is right and looks like Jesus. But do not think that activities of kindness will keep the world from turning on you when you stand firm on biblical morality.

Right Doctrine, Wrongly Applied

Have you ever heard a person say something that, for the most part is totally true, but which you know has some real wrong in it too? This happens when we try to comfort each other, explain mysteries, confront each other, and in a number of other places. If we are not careful, if we are not loving, we will say right things, or mostly right things, in a very wrong way.

In the book of Job, we know that Job’s 3 friends are not helping. The Lord strongly rebukes them for their useless counsel. But take a look at this 6 verse chapter, and think about how much Bildad said that was completely true.

Job 25

1 Then Bildad the Shuhite answered and said:
2 “Dominion and fear are with God;
he makes peace in his high heaven.
3 Is there any number to his armies?
Upon whom does his light not arise?
4 How then can man be in the right before God?
How can he who is born of woman be pure?
5 Behold, even the moon is not bright,
and the stars are not pure in his eyes;
6 how much less man, who is a maggot,
and the son of man, who is a worm!”

Bildad is talking, and I would suggest that most, if not all, of what he says here is technically true. For sure, he is correct in verses 1-4. Perhaps verses 5 and 6 are problematic, especially in the maggot imagery. But in truth, he, in those two verses, seems to be coming from proper theology. This chapter says that God is high, holy, and mighty. Sin-stained creation is not holy to him. Mankind in our sin cannot be holy to him, not without him granting us a holiness from outside ourselves. For the most part, Bildad is right.

So what is wrong? Bildad is speaking his true theology at a nasty time and with a nasty assumption. In his way, Bildad is arguing with Job. This really is not a good time to argue with Job. The poor man has lost everything and is deeply hurting. Is now really the time to straighten every part of him out? Job is making some mistakes, for sure, and they will be corrected. But maybe Bildad needs to be loving his friend more than fixing him.

IN his nasty assumption, Bildad is assuming that he knows the heart motivation of the Lord. Bildad is assuming that he can say with certainty that the reason that Job is suffering as he is stems from the sinfulness of Job. Bildad is rebuking Job because God is obviously, to Bildad, punishing Job for his sin. And when Job retorts that he has not sinned to earn this punishment, Bildad says that no person is sinless enough not to earn God’s punishment.

The problem with Bildad’s assumption is that, in that assumption, Bildad is wrong. God is not punishing Job for Job’s sinfulness in this experience. In chapters 1 and 2, God points out the righteousness of Job and the narrator of the story tells us that, in those chapters, Job did not sin with his lips. Now, as the argument with his friends progresses, Job does sin, which is why he repents at the end. But Job is not suffering for his own sin. Job is going through a hardship because this is the will of God to the glory of God.

We should recognize, dear Christian friends, that we, like Bildad, can say very true things in very wrong and unhelpful ways. If we apply a theological truth to a situation that we do not understand, we can speak truth and be dead wrong. And if we speak theological truth in a loveless, uncaring, nasty way, we do not honor the Lord. Instead, we do harm to people that we are supposed to love.

I’m not at all suggesting that we not correct those in need of correction. I’m totally for us challenging people when they are in sin or when they preach falsehoods. There are many who claim Christ and who have bought into big lies from the world. We want to stand strong on the word as we challenge those positions. But I would suggest that we begin these conversations with as much love and respect as we can muster. And even if the conversation gets heated on the other side, let us remember to be the people who do not have to lose our cool, because we are the people standing on the word of God.

But when you have a hurting, Christian friend, a friend in deep emotional distress that is obvious, perhaps that is not the best time to drop a theological bomb on them. Be a friend. Be a comfort. When they are able to think with you again, help them straighten out their doctrine. Never belittle the word of God. But also do not crush the hearts of people made in the image of God.

Who We Must Not Be

In the life of the church, there are a lot of things we want to get right. We want to be doctrinally sound. We must be biblical. We want to honor the Lord in our worship and with our lives. We certainly want to stand against error and sin.

But there is a failing that we can run into if we sharpen ourselves to oppose the wrong without also being made gentle by the grace of God. I think that error is something Jesus condemns the religious leadership of his day for in Matthew 23.

Matthew 23:4 – They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 

This is who we do not want to be. There are Christians who are great at burdening other people. Many of us are wonderful at telling you what you must not believe or what you must not do. Many of us are great at piling on other people guilt and man-made standards of righteousness. And when we do it, we often do so because we think we are helping the ministry by smacking others with the truth.

But the Savior does not seem to love the idea of loading people down with burdens if you are not also getting under that burden with them to help them move along. That kind of religion is not Christianity. True, biblical, Christ-honoring faith is a faith that will most certainly call people to faith and repentance and obedience to the word of God. But true Christianity is also a faith in which we love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and where we all know that we are in this life together on purpose.

Christianity should include a relationship of fellowship, mutual edification, and progressive sanctification. You most certainly should help me know when I’m messing up or missing the point. I most certainly should call you away from error and toward truth. But in our lives, we should also be walking together, side-by-side, helping each other toward that faithfulness. I do not help you if all I do is smack you with the truth and walk away from you without helping you. You do not help me if you tell me all that I should be that I am not, but then you do not actually come help me become what God wants me to be. This is why Christianity is lived out in the local church and not solely on the Internet. We need each other. We need to be in each other’s lives. May we learn to press forward with truth, but never to press without grace too.