Bearing good fruit amidst the rage

As a Christian, I believe the Holy Spirit lives in my heart to provide comfort, correction and conviction. It’s the divine process that changes us as we live out our days so we are more Christ-like as we mature. Sometimes that process is disrupting, as it should be because we still battle our flesh, which is firmly ensconced in the world and finds its satisfaction and comfort in worldly things. The more serious we are about giving up our desires and asking God to replace them with His, the more disruptive the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts. What I just described won’t make sense to non-believers, but it is definitely what I’ve been experiencing over the past few months as I’ve found myself troubled and unable to do many of the things I used to do with ease.

A few months ago, as a series of accidents and ailments afflicted me and knocked me out of the arena of political commentary for a time, I started to feel uneasy about the tone of the discourse in our culture, and more specifically the conversation I was facilitating online through my articles and my social media presence. I persuaded myself that I was keeping things respectful, gracious and high-minded, but the responses were not always so, and that observation, applicable to people on both sides of the political divide, bothered me to the point I had to pull away:

“Folks, I think I've hit a wall. I don't know if it's my post-operative state or an increase in the intensity of the debate, but my sense is that the respect, comity and grace that I've always tried to promote in this community seems to have flown out the window.

“While I have a definitive worldview, I post items to stimulate discussion, learning and networking in the arena of politics, culture and society. I try to show kindness and speak respectfully to anyone who dissents, and in all discourse, I try to follow Romans 12:18, ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’

“It's not working, and I'm as frustrated as I've ever been. I apologize for my weakness, but I'm not handling Thomas Jefferson's ‘boisterous sea of liberty’ very well at the moment. I'm tired, and there's still so much left to do.

“I don't know if anyone else out there feels this way, but as for me, I'm going to pray. I need some quiet time with my Lord and Savior to get my mind and heart right, and I worship Him, not these mini-potentates in politics that we all seem to put on pedestals, as if they were our betters. They are our equals, not our idols.

“Rant over - sorry to burden you with my personal thoughts.”

I wrote those words before I landed in the hospital a few weeks later with internal bleeding and pneumonia, and that episode left me even more drained and discouraged. The love and encouragement of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances has been a blessing to me, and I’ve gradually found my voice again, but my passion is different than before. It’s difficult for me to explain, but I will try.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, English Standard Version)

Before this “timeout,” I gave no real consideration to how others would respond to many of the news and opinion articles I posted. If I was interested in it, I posted it.

I now find myself thinking, “What do you hope to accomplish by sharing this with others?” The difference is subtle, but I have refrained from posting a lot of articles because I’ve concluded they will only inflame passions without purpose.

Proverbs 15:18 says, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” I want to encourage spirited discussion and debate, but I don’t want it to descend into mean-spiritedness, and God has convicted me that I have a primary role in either encouraging or quelling strife.

Don’t read into my statement, however, that we are to refrain from speaking Biblical truth. We are still called to obedience, not to score points to get into heaven, but rather out of gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice for us while we were still sinners. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

There are certain issues for which I fully intend to expose those with whom I disagree, because their words or actions come into direct conflict with a Christian worldview. I will try to do so with a gentle spirit, but there are eternal and divine principles that are irreconcilable with the ways of the world. My first obligation is to revere and follow the commandments of God and honor the way in which He designed the world and all who live in it. If that causes someone to respond in anger despite my best attempts to speak quietly and respectfully, then the burden of responsibility does not rest with me.

There are other circumstances, however, where sharing more information would just be pouring gasoline on a fire.

The Trayvon Martin murder case is the catalyst for perhaps one of the most racially charged periods in our nation’s recent history.  It grieves me because everything that has happened in our country in the decades since the modern civil rights movement began, culminating with the election of a black man to the presidency, should be leading us to the abatement, rather than the escalation, of racial hostilities.

Only the most bitter or most manipulative of hearts could look at where we were in the 1950s regarding race relations compared to where we are today, and conclude that little has changed.

Yet to hear the dialogue today, you would think we were still in the midst of the reign of terror experienced by blacks, especially black men, in the days leading up the civil rights movement. That was when, according to progressive writer Hamden Rice, white people “occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them” and “also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.”

Today, the hands that are most likely to take my life suddenly and violently are black, not white. While white-on-black crime makes national news headlines, the rivers of blood flowing in black communities are fed by self-inflicted wounds.

The irrational position that we are no better off today when it comes to race than we were a few generations ago provokes a powerful backlash from those who perceive themselves as the accused in this drama. To counter the cries for justice from one side, the other side produces crime stories and other evidence to disprove the notion of continued racial animus, and we find ourselves engaging in a tit-for-tat war of words that leads to  - what?

I see nothing constructive to be gained from posting articles about black-on-white crimes, however horrific they may be, or playing judge, jury or executioner in the court of public opinion. If asked, I will give my most measured and informed opinion, but it’s bound to be overcome by events the very next day as new or previously unreleased evidence surfaces.

The role of a Christian in this situation is clearly spelled out by the apostle James – “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Christian author and speaker Joyce Meyer once said that “angry Christian” is an oxymoron, and I would add “offended Christian” and “fearful Christian” to that list. To twist an old saying a bit, I think we're so wrapped up in our earthly selves that we aren't of any heavenly good.

We who have been redeemed and given not only the promise of eternal life, but also the promise that God will prevail, have nothing to fear, and when we are angry, quick to take offense, or fretful about the world around us, it calls into question the legitimacy of our faith. As Christian author Andrée Seu Peterson puts it, “…[W]orrying is nothing but faith in the devil.”

Therefore, I am attempting to be more deliberate and purposeful in my communications on the culture, while continuing to converse with a generous spirit, and remain faithful to a God’s-eye view of the world. Even so, the ruling class still needs to look over their shoulders, because I’m not giving them a pass!

“Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.” (Psalm 146:3-4)

Some of us longtime policy wonks like to refer to election time as “the silly season,” which sounds cute but does not convey the extent of the stupidity that occurs in and around political campaigns.

I haven’t commented at all on the current election in recent months, nor am I wringing my hands over the outcome. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a preference, or that I’m not concerned about the implications of a victory by one candidate or the other. It just means that I’m putting these human beings in their proper positional relationship with me, and with God.

At some point, the deification or demonization of political figures simply became too for me much to bear. Some of our affection for our favorite politicians borders on worship, which is inconsistent with the fact that they are no better or no worse than us. “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (Romans 3:10). We are all equal in the eyes of God, meaning we are all sinners and all of us should be humbled in His presence.

It’s wrong to put any man or woman so high on a pedestal that they block our view of heaven. These men and women in the ruling class are not our betters, nor are they our messiahs.

That said, those in authority over us are appointed by God, and we are commanded to show them respect. Romans 13:1 says, “Let every personbe subject to the governing authorities. Forthere is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

Respect, however, is not blind obedience because, as Peter and the apostles said to the governing authorities in Jerusalem, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Moreover, leaders are held to a higher standard.

In Ezekiel 34:4, the Lord criticizes “the shepherds of Israel,” declaring, “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed,the injured you have not bound up,the strayed you have not brought back,the lost you have not sought, and with force andharshness you have ruled them.” James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Therefore, even as we show respect for the elites of this world, the ones upon whom God has bestowed power, influence or authority, we must also hold them accountable, with the commands of God as our standard of measure.

We must also pray for them, because the considerable power they have been given also brings with it great temptation, and they are ultimately no better than any of us when it comes to the scourge of sin.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

One of the great stories in early Christian history involved the response of the Christian community during the plagues that afflicted the Roman Empire. While the Romans abandoned their sick and dying out of fear for their own lives, Christians not only cared for themselves but took in those the Romans had rejected, even if it meant certain death. Their compassion was a source of irritation for Emperor Julian, who carped, "The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us." Their unconditional love for others, even their enemies, resulted in many converts to the fledgling faith.

I have two observations of the early Christians that don’t hold true for American Christians today, particularly Christians on both sides of the racial divide.

The early Christians were comprised of people from various nations, and of different socioeconomic backgrounds, races, customs and more. They were a heterogeneous group, but they were so bound together by their devotion to Christ that all else was irrelevant.

Slaves and women, among the lowest classes of people in the Roman Empire, found dignity and worth in the Christian community. Christians cared for one another and met each other’s needs, and the Roman writer Tertullian, a convert to Christianity, wrote that the non-believers were so astonished by their generosity they proclaimed aloud, “See how they love one another!”

The other noteworthy observation is that the early Christians showed compassion and care even for those who despised and persecuted them, even if it meant contracting illnesses and losing their own lives. Bishop John Chrysostom, an early church father, wrote:

Every day the Church here feeds 3,000 people. Besides this, the church daily helps provide food and clothes for prisoners, the hospitalized, pilgrims, cripples, churchmen and others. When epidemics broke out in Carthage and Alexandria, Christians rushed to aid all in need. . .

Jesus declared, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The early church understood and lived His words, not only to love the Lord and each other, but also to love their neighbor as themselves. If these simple people of ancient times could grasp how following these two commands set them apart from the world in which they lived, helped them transcend the strife of their time, and drew people to the faith by the thousands, surely we who are more erudite can do the same.

So what has happened to us? Black and white Christians are on opposite sides, each accusing the other of apostasy and declaring themselves to be more “Christian” than the other. At a time when America resembles Rome in decline, and people are desperately seeking hope that isn’t packaged in a superficial and ultimately meaningless political campaign slogan, we Christians are neither set apart, transcendent, nor attractive to others. The hard truth is that Christ is not truly first in our lives, because He doesn’t bring forth such rotten fruit.

Racial or ethnic identity, class, gender, ideology, political preferences and other worldly labels are counterfeit gods, and if any of these are preventing Christians from coming together as one, then we are guilty of idolatry. The Lord commands, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), but that is just another of His commands which seems to have fallen on deaf ears and hardened hearts.

And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (Exodus 33:15).

These are the things which trouble me, and leave me questioning what I am to do. I don’t want to get ahead of God, nor do I want to lag behind Him. I want to go when He says to go, and speak when He says to speak, and I want my actions and my words to be His, not mine. Even when I am speaking truth to power, or calling out liars and their lies, I want to speak not with my authority, but His.

Why dothe nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against hisAnointed, saying, “Let usburst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He whosits in the heavenslaughs; the Lord holds them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4)

In these days of rage, it is up to us, who are called according to His purpose, to bear good fruit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Jesus said in Matthew 7:16, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”

If we who call ourselves Christians engage in serious self-evaluation, it won’t be hard forus to figure out whether our fruit is sweet and fragrant, or putrid and rotting on the vine.