When I graduated from high school, my eldest sister Christa gave me a copy of A. W. Pink’s Life of Elijah as a graduation present. Aside from including the customary congratulations inscribed on the title page, she also marked a passage in the book she thought had peculiar relevance to me:
At this point, we would say to any young man who is seriously contemplating entering the ministry, “Abandon such a prospect at once if you are not prepared to be treated with contempt and made ‘as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things’” (1Co 4:13). The public service of Christ is the last place for those who wish to be popular with their fellows. A young minister once complained to an older one, “my church is making a regular doormat of me,” to which he received the reply, “If the Son of God condescended to become the Door surely it is not beneath you to be made a doormat.” If you are not prepared for elders and deacons to wipe their feet on you, shun the ministry. And to those already in it we would say, Unless your preaching stirs up strife and brings down persecution and contumacy upon you, there is something seriously lacking in it. If your preaching is the enemy of hypocrisy, of carnality, of worldliness, of empty profession, of all that is contrary to vital godliness, then you must be regarded as the enemy of those you oppose.
I re-read this passage recently, and it troubles me. To be clear, I don’t disagree with the substance of Pink’s advice. I disagree with the fallacious way many pastors and Christians have chosen to apply it.
Any scoffer can stir up strife, persecution, and contumacy. I know I did. I once fully believed that people’s hatred for me evinced the purity of my doctrine, the intensity of my zeal, and the unmixed fire of my brutal honesty. I have seen many pastors, following Pink’s advice, who wear it like a badge of success that their churches continue to fragment over disagreements, that their opponents proliferate, or that most people consider them unpleasant.
When the majority of their young people apostatize and family after hurt family leave their churches, they defend their unwillingness to change by saying that Satan always most viciously attacks the church he sees as the biggest threat to his kingdom of darkness. Translation: it’s because we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing that we’re having absolutely no effect on the community and can’t even keep our own children within the church, so we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. Damn the torpedoes of apostasy, full speed ahead.
Again, I’m not saying I don’t technically agree with Pink. For all his gentle meekness, Jesus had many powerful enemies. In fact, we crucified our Prince of Peace.
The church has a terrible track record of persecuting and ostracizing its own prophets. So Pink probably tells the truth. But I don’t think most pastors and Christians have interpreted this truth correctly. I also question the prudence of delivering such advice particularly to young men, who traditionally make up for their lack of experience with an excess of zeal.
The bottom line for me is this: If you act like Jesus and speak his truth, you will likely have many enemies. But having many enemies does not necessarily prove that you’re acting like Jesus or speaking his truth. This boils down to simple logic actually. Consider these two syllogisms.
- If someone preaches and embodies the truth, that person will have many enemies.
I preach and embody the truth.
Therefore, I will have many enemies.
This syllogism is Pink’s advice in a nutshell. The logic here is valid (affirming the antecedent—modus ponens). And since the first premise here is true (not just because Pink says it—take a look at John 15:18ff), the argument is sound.
But now consider this other, much more common, syllogism:
- If someone preaches and embodies the truth, that person will have many enemies.
I have many enemies.
Therefore, I preach and embody the truth.
The logic here is invalid (fallacy of affirming the consequent). Even though what Pink says might be technically true, and his intention may have been merely to warn faithful ministers of the certain obstacles ahead of them, I’m afraid many Christians and pastors have fallaciously translated Pink’s true syllogism into a justification for being intractable, supercilious jerks. Most Christians have been far too concerned about whether or not they are persecuted and not concerned enough about whether or not they are being like Jesus.
Jesus makes it clear: his enemies hated him “without a cause” (John 15:25). So if you are going to be hated like Jesus, you need to do everything you can to make sure no one has any real cause for hating you. In other words, you need to be like Jesus. For more specific instructions on what that looks like, turn to Romans 12:14–21:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
It seems most people read this passage and come away with, “Burning coals on my enemies’ heads. Got it.” I must say that following Paul’s advice poses particular challenges for a blogger, or for anyone engaging in social media “discourse” (if it can justly be called that).
Most recently, this is how I’ve been interpreting Paul’s words for my own life:
Say kind and respectful things to those who call you names, insult you, and dismiss or even attack the things you hold most dear. Be kind and gentle and never return insult for insult.
Don’t be covetous of another person’s success or influence, but whole-heartedly rejoice in the successes and blessings of others.
Do not dismiss the sometimes annoying intrusions of other people’s complaints and struggles, but listen to them carefully and even enter into their troubles as much as you can.
Exercise a vulnerable empathy toward others, regularly putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Try your best to value the various contributions other people make to the world. Don’t force people to be like you before you will give them your enthusiastic approval or support.
Listen to and be kind especially to those you don’t think can do anything for you in return. If someone doesn’t have an audience or support, become that person’s audience and support as best you can.
Don’t think you know everything. You don’t. Act like it—listen to others like you don’t know everything.
Operating with gentleness will mean you get trampled on a lot. Resist the temptation to trample back, no matter how little you think you would lose to lash out.
Try to understand the opinions and tastes of others. Don’t dismiss something offhand merely because you don’t “get it.”
If there are broken relationships in your life, strive to make sure you have no part in keeping them broken. Rather, strive for peace with all people, even with really harsh people.
Trust that God will take care of justice in your life. Be just toward others, but don’t expect justice from anyone but God and be content with God’s justice in his time and on his terms.
Operate toward those who hate you with grace and mercy. Don’t fight fire with fire. Overcome the ways other people damage you by building them up in return.
Have I followed this advice perfectly in my life? Of course not. But I have gotten better at it over time. And I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: the more I have worked to be at peace with all people, the more people have been willing to despise, dismiss, and hate me. I know it seems strange, and perhaps it’s hard to believe. But it’s been my experience. It kind of makes sense. We are cruelest to those we believe cannot or will not retaliate. If you are kind, people will feel more free to hurt and hate you. It’s perverse, yes. But it’s also true.
Even the most outspoken proponents of tolerance tend to be disappointingly human in practice. We all feel more comfortable with those things that are like us. Birds of a feather and all that. Liberals hang out with liberals, they listen to liberal news, they go to liberal churches, they shop at liberal stores (whatever those are), they marry liberals, they have liberal children, etc. Conservatives generally stick to each other in a similar way. I have not noted that one group is less exclusionary, exclusivist, or tribalistic than the other. And this problem of polarization has only grown more pronounced in our curated, fragmented, targeted, and triggered world. The only real difference between all of our different warring tribes is who gets excluded and the sets of things that get affirmed.
But I refuse to allow myself to resolve into easy categories. I don’t want anyone to have to fit into easy categories. I try my best to deal with people as individuals worthy of individual attention.
And it’s exhausting. It really is. I have been dragged into many conversations where both opponents considered me an ally in their mutually exclusive causes. By the end of the conversation, I have disappointed both opponents by neither fully rejecting nor fully endorsing either position. My intention more than ever has been to act as a mediator in a polarized world. Usually that means getting shot at by both sides.
Pray for me if you think about it. I have been so exhausted recently trying to be peaceable that I have had numerous mostly private lapses into bitterness and anger. My wife and children have borne the brunt of this. I want so badly to be like Jesus. I know that doesn’t always mean holding my tongue or swallowing my criticisms. But I have been such a jerk for so long I think now I really need to focus on learning to be a gentle man of quiet peace. I have so much to learn.
And if I may be allowed one word of critique: Looking around at the world, I can see I’m not the only one.