To Act or React?

Wednesday, 07 July 2004 00:00
God’s people were a mess. Many were divided into distinct groups that distrusted, disliked or condemned each other. You could identify them by the leaders they followed, the writings they read and the meetings they attended. Some thought holding to the traditions of the past was the answer to all their problems. Others wanted a more practical faith and others were sure that a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures and the traditions were the way to freedom. Some just wanted to be more politically active and make their homeland God’s country again.

What was the Father to do with this mess in the first century? Pagans ruled the Promised Land. Many of his own people who praised him with their lips didn’t love him with their hearts and many others even doubted his very word. They had eyes to see, but would not see and ears to hear but would not listen. Every parent has felt this dilemma. How tempting it would have been to react. But the Father of all chose not to react. He decided to act. In fact, he had been acting for centuries to prepare all of his children for this moment. He sent his only natural Son to live, love and die for the rest of us.

What was Jesus to do with this mess? Many were lukewarm and just living culturally as God’s people. Others were trying so hard to live by the law that they condemned everyone who didn’t agree with their own opinions and patterns. Some were so turned off by the legalism they looked down on the strict people and were looking for loopholes. Others were trying to be saved through their poverty while their brothers were trying to be saved in spite of their riches. The followers of Jesus ranged the gamut from Simon the Zealot to Nicodemus of the Sanhedrin to Zaccheus the tax collector to Peter the burly fisherman to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, friends, etc.. Only God could get this group to get along.

What if the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit had reacted to the world and to our sin instead of acting out of conviction and love? No doubt, we would not be having this conversation. God could have reacted with fear and rage or with gloom and despair. But he didn’t react. He acted.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Reactions In Our Day

At a Christian college lectureship I was very encouraged by the loving spirit that I encountered by so many people. I was excited about attending two classes that caught my attention – one on Jesus and the other on baptism. In each of the hour long classes, the teachers used only one Scripture passage and lots of narrative. Also, one teacher in each class stated, "I wrote this book in reaction to . . ." They readily admitted their view of Jesus and baptism was a view that was in reaction to a teaching they considered harmful (which it was).

My question is: Do we arrive at the truth about anything by reacting against a falsehood? Or by reacting against a different opinion?

I grew up in a church that diligently taught the Bible with respect and sincerity. I will always be grateful for the thorough teaching of the Old and New Testament that I received. But often our walk didn’t match our talk. Sadly, these churches that proclaimed themselves to be God’s unity movement became one of the most fragmented movements in history. I don’t remember ever hearing an elder or minister apologize or admit sin. The impression I received was that changing the world and reconciling people to God through the gospel was not nearly as important as figuring out who was right and who was wrong. How could such a group of churches so committed to the Bible with such good intentions end up in such a dilemma?

My perception is that one of the common threads of this church culture was its roots in the theology of reaction. The Protestant Movement was exactly what the name describes: a reaction of protest. The Restoration Movement was founded as a reaction to the denominations of the Protestants. It took up the banner of "Restoring New Testament Christianity" but many of the doctrines were created in reaction to the denominations reactions. This thinking created a culture of reaction. Every time someone thought the church had lost its way, or they wanted to start a new group they could lead, they would react to some wrong in the existing group and go the opposite direction – each group claiming it had found the truth and restored New Testament Christianity.

By the time I was knocking doors in the Northeast US as a college student, asking people to study the Bible, I was pretty well versed in the extensive reasoning required to rationalize some of these reactions. The biggest stretch for me was the one about how using a musical instrument in worship would prove you were not a Christian and condemn you to hell. The people I met who were struggling to know God and be saved were confused by this. The people who knew more Bible than I did were often amused.

After college, when I was serving as youth minister for a rich church in Texas, the only time the preacher studied the Bible with me was to try to convince me that the Holy Spirit does not dwell in you personally, but only through your knowledge of the Bible. This was openly acknowledged to be in reaction to the threat of Pentecostalism attacking the churches. Why, the rumors said, even brother so-and-so turned down the lights in a devotional and raised a cat from the dead. The problem was: I knew brother so-and-so personally and he was one of the most spiritual men I had known – even if he did turn the lights down. Reactions usually are motivated by fear – not faith. Reactions often spawn rumors that lead to ridiculous conclusions and sad results of anger and division. Faith produces love and hope.

Response to the Gospel

When the bus ministry, campus ministry and "Total Commitment" movements started among our churches in the 1970s, many were in response to a conviction that God was calling us to take the gospel to our neighborhoods, cities, and states of our country. Parts of those movements were in reaction to the deadness, racism and legalism of many existing churches. When the Boston Movement started, I saw it truly as a response to the call of God to love and seek him first above all else, to be sold-out disciples of Jesus and to have the love of God that would move us to take the gospel to the entire world, not just the campuses of the USA and not just to our own race and culture. As the movement grew in momentum, acting on faith was the order of the day. Numerous people gladly chose to give up their jobs, homes, families and possessions to go wherever God could use them to do whatever it would take to reach the world with the gospel.

Those actions of faith spawned a loving spiritual family as we band of brothers and sisters stepped out ready for God to show us where to go. God blessed those actions of faith. Those brothers and sisters can tell you of how grateful they are for how their lives have changed, they found their spouses, healed their marriages, baptized their family, friends and neighbors, and started churches in countries they couldn’t pronounce. The grace of God truly spread around the world through these weak vessels.

We responded to God by choosing to submit to the truth of the inerrancy of the Scriptures. That was good. We chose to affirm the fact that God wants a relationship with every person and has called each of us to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. That was powerful. We chose to accept the Great Commission of Jesus for all disciples: go make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them. That was challenging and inspiring all at the same time. We chose to be the family God intended, involved in each other’s lives building a net of relationships that covered the world.

Reactions in the Boston Movement

But with our responses, we also brought reactions into the Boston Movement. I am not sure that I fully understand to this day how much of the old culture of reaction we brought into our discipling movement. In our reaction to the hidden sin, hypocrisy and lack of spiritual relationships in many existing churches, we too often tried to monitor every disciple to be sure he or she was being held accountable and had a close relationship. In reaction to the lack of evangelism in the churches we had seen, we at first set up ways for "the committed" to evangelize in Bible study groups. Then in reaction to the size of the task and the dependence on our own efforts, we continued defining and quantifying evangelism for the members to the point that some soft-conscience disciples weren’t sure if they had been personally fruitful even after they had helped teach and baptize someone into Christ.

In reaction to the lack of sacrifice among most people who call themselves Christians, we too often structured the giving of disciples to the point that people were giving more and enjoying it less. In reaction to the stranglehold many elderships held over evangelists and members in many of the dead churches, we stressed the evangelist’s role to the point that evangelists came to hold the same stranglehold over the churches and did not raise up elders and teachers and deacons to share the ministry. In reaction to those who would not take Jesus’ Great Commission seriously, we launched a campaign that caused us to stretch our family too thin too soon. We exasperated too many of our children.

Perhaps the biggest reaction of all that we carried with us from those we were reacting against was the teaching that we were the only Christians. Ironically, we became our parents in ways we swore we never would. (Don’t we all?) When the older churches began to slow down, the reaction was too often to treat them as though they were young churches. When we react we fall back on what we know. Tried and true campus ministry thinking and technique was used to turn these churches around and inspire them. But these former campus conversions now had families of their own they were starting to send to college. Neither parents nor children respond to disrespect very well. They react.

Then, how did these older churches react? When members began to realize that this great family God had made had become more of an organization than a family, reactions began to intensify. Christians of 20 years or more had grown up and were still being treated like children. Many had a faith with deep roots, but many had been growing in rocks and thorns. Eventually spontaneous combustion took over. Although many disciples fought to remain righteous, too many disciples reacted in kind to what they were opposing. Sadly, too many of those who were hurt chose to hurt back. Many who felt betrayed reacted in betrayal. Lack of respect was too often returned with intense lack of respect -- and even hatred.

Now we see the fruit of reaction theology among us: people reacting to an ungodly accountability by using their freedom to sin; groups reacting to strong leadership with weak leadership; churches reacting to evangelists’ excess authority by giving all the authority to the elders; a few churches and disciples separating themselves from other churches because they are too "liberal" or "conservative," – saying either "Everyone is a Christian," or "I’m not sure any church but ours is right." Where does it say that our commitment to one another relationships is only in our own congregation, region, sector, Bible Talk, Quiet Time?

Another crucial matter of the moment is the question of how we should now build. Since we were a movement built on truth and commitment, should we now react and build only on grace? Churches have been built for centuries out of reaction to truth and reaction to grace. Whatever we do, will people be reacting to our mistakes and claiming the opposite reaction is the path to righteousness? Generally, our children or grandchildren react and the cycle continues.

Questions of Action for Disciples Today

1. Will we really learn from history? Will we now react to the mistakes of our movement to make more old mistakes? Will we reconcile with those in other fellowships we previously looked down on and now refuse to reconcile with each other? Have we really learned from God’s discipline? Wouldn’t it be great if we would just make new mistakes?

In my view, our movement started in love with God and a deep desire to please him. Then too often our focus turned to pleasing the leaders. When everything broke loose, the reaction was that we should please the members. Power can corrupt the leaders. Power can also corrupt the members. We will never be happy or act righteously until we are totally focused again on pleasing God. When we do that, we will naturally please those who want to please God – as a harvest of righteousness, not as our purpose in life.

2. Can we still be disciples today? Of course. But our hope is not in trusting our own reactions. Our hope is in God’s leading us to respond to the cross. The old apostle John told us that God was the one who initiated love with us. Then he tells us our intended response – our action, not our reaction:

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us -- 1 John 4:11:12

3. What did Paul do when some discounted his authority? Did he try to overpower them with his own spirit of forceful eloquence? Did he lose heart and courage? Or did he let the Spirit speak truth with grace.

When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence of superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power -- 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

4. How did Paul respond to his brothers who opposed him? Did he react or respond in the truth and grace of the cross when he said:

I speak the truth in Christ – I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel -- Romans 9:1-3

5. Do I accept brothers and sisters the way Jesus does? If a disciple differs with me, can I be mature enough to accept him as a brother without looking down on him or judging him? Does it matter if he is a leader or not? (Romans 14)

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God -- Romans 15:10

6. If I react to God’s grace with complacency, unrighteousness or lost zeal, what did I miss?

For I am least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the churches of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me -- 1 Corinthians 15:9-11

7. How have I responded to God’s discipline? Have I reacted like a child or responded like an adult? Am I more mature, more in love with God and my spiritual family? Do I have more love for the lost? Am I more at peace?

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it -- Hebrews 12:11

Choosing Grace and Truth

The actions and attitudes we see in these passages are not deeds. They are choices that lead to deeds. Years ago I learned for the first time that we cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we handle it. And God keeps giving me opportunities to reinforce the lesson. I will never forget May 12, 1981 when Marcia and I heard the dreaded diagnosis from a room full of doctors and nurses, "Your son Michael has leukemia." He was six years old and his best friend, our next-door neighbor’s son, had died nine months before of leukemia. The diagnosis revived a fresh memory of that little body in a casket.

After the doctors left us alone to catch our breath, cry and pray, the verse popped into my mind, "Rejoice in your suffering." I will never forget the empty pain of realization that I had absolutely no idea what that meant. That week and many times after, Marcia and I made a choice of action instead of reaction: We would seek God until we understood and rejoiced. Two cancers, seven cities, 12 houses and multitudes of illnesses, hurts and traumas later, I am so thankful he challenged us to learn these lessons. The main reason: We know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings in ways that we never understood before. We can relate the gospel to far more people than we ever thought possible.

Merely reacting to life doesn’t bring us clearly to truth or grace. Choosing to accept God’s truth in faith always lets God’s grace loose on us – "full of grace and truth."

See also:
Grace and Truth
Grace and Truth: How Far for the Pendulum Now?

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