We are living in times when many are being as “stubborn as mules” about things that may or may not be critical. Anyone with a passing thought can post it on social media and, if it is provocative enough, garner the support of international miscreants. We have learned how the more controversial thoughts get more reactions, so we opine without expertise, post without wisdom. Yet there is something winsome about combing grace and truth. Truth on its own can be harsh; grace without truth can be sloppy. The combination, however, builds up and infuses courage. When grace and truth are backed up by action the outcome can be nothing short of splendid.
We remember the unusual story about a mode of transportation being co-opted for a historic ride into town. More specifically, it was someone’s means of income or income-producing ass, that was conscripted into greater service. If this happened today the story might read:
“Go to the town ahead of you. When you enter it, you will find a new taxi that has never been used parked in front of Starbucks. The keys will be in the ignition. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you taking my taxi?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
The message today is the same: God wants to use your business as a vehicle to go into the marketplace and further his purposes.
“Go to the village ahead of you. When you enter it, you will find a colt tied there that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
And that is exactly what happened. They found the four-legged beast of burden, took it, were asked what they were doing, and their answer sufficed: “The Lord needs it.” Your work can be a four-wheeled car, a four-legged donkey that carries glory.
The donkey has four legs
One of the men who spent lots of time with Jesus reflected back and said, “So the word of God became a human being and lived among us. We saw his splendor (the splendor as of a father’s only son), full of grace and truth.” Think of grace and truth as the front legs of the donkey.
The next sighting we have of Jesus is at a wedding. You know the story about his support for the hospitality industry when he turned water into wine. “This act in Cana of Galilee was the first sign Jesus gave, the first glimpse of his glory.” Leg #3 of glory is the miraculous, or “signs and wonders.” A while later Jesus makes this appeal: “If I don’t do the things my Father does, well and good; don’t believe me. But if I am doing them, put aside for a moment what you hear me say about myself and just take the evidence of the actions that are right before your eyes. Then perhaps things will come together for you, and you’ll see that not only are we doing the same thing, we are the same—Father and Son.” Leg #4 of the donkey is doing the works of God.
Pin a tail on the donkey
Let's say for a moment that you have a life or a business that exhibits grace, truth, miracles, and the works of God. You are kind, you hold to high principles, you even see God do miracles through you, and you do practical things that serve others, whether through your work or through your personal life. I have found of late that all of this can be ruined if the donkey is covered in flies. In my opening statement, I said we live in a time when people can say things and spread them widely, whether they are true or not. When we hear contrary views it is easy to get offended. Pardon the pun, but we get on our high horse and label what we hear “fake news” and “misinformation” and “that’s not science.” When anyone says anything we disagree with we categorize them as left-wing radicals or deplorables or unintelligent or conspiracy theorists. Perhaps Big Tech thinks they are doing society a favor when they institutionalize offense-taking, but if they didn’t do it offense would still be taken. We have become an offense-prone society and we need to start by taking personal action: pin a tail on your donkey.
A donkey’s tail keeps the flies away. In our analogy, the donkey has four legs: grace, truth, miracles, and works. Even if these are all present a fly-covered colt is not a pretty thing. The tail constantly keeps the flies of offense off the donkey. If you have been offended because someone voted or did not vote for a particular politician, a fly landed. If you took umbrage when someone wore a mask or didn’t… another fly landed. If you labeled the other vaccination camp (the one you’re not in) as being “them” – a few more flies started getting free rent on your back. If you are thinking, “But I am right…” a small offense swarm just landed.
“But I am right”
You might feel you are entitled to be offended or to hold a particular position because you are a person of principle and believe truth should be upheld. As a luminary, I concur that truth is important. As a human being, I have learned, however, it is generally better to be good than right. Truth lived out in goodness is far more appealing than postulations propped up by self-righteousness. Some of my biggest regrets come from saying things out of principle while harming a relationship. I have occasionally let business opportunities go because of my principles and then lost the relationships as well. Being right is seldom a justification for being difficult. I can be right and still be wrong.
In all things, love
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) said,
“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”
Think back on the things that have offended you in the last few years; I am sure I don’t need to stir your imagination. Ask yourself, “Were they essential?” I am not asking whether you have an opinion about them. As the editor of The Manchester Guardian once said, “Opinions are free; facts are sacred.” I am also not asking you whether you are right (in your own eyes). I am asking whether your hot-button issues are essentials of the Christian faith. Do they have to do with the virgin birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? If the issues used to classify the people in our lives into the “in” group and the “out” group are not “essentials” then we have taken a wrong stand. If we have unfriended, unfollowed, or un-anythinged someone because of a non-essential have we extended liberty?
Stronger sister, weaker brother
Food fads are not a new thing. There is evidence of veg and non-veg, pro-beef and anti-meat factions in the churches in Corinth and Rome. There were also divisions about which day of the week was holy. Paul had some advice: (Romans 14:13-16 The Message)
Forget about deciding what’s right for each other. Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is. I’m convinced—Jesus convinced me!—that everything, as it is in itself, is holy. We, of course, by the way we treat it or talk about it, can contaminate it.
If you confuse others by making a big issue over what they eat or don’t eat, you’re no longer a companion with them in love, are you? These, remember, are persons for whom Christ died. Would you risk sending them to hell over an item in their diet? Don’t you dare let a piece of God-blessed food become an occasion of soul-poisoning!
The old translations spoke (in Romans 14:21) about a “weak” person. Some have taken this to mean they are “strong” if they eat whatever they like and “weak” if they only have faith to eat the green stuff. 1 Corinthians 8:7 speaks about eating food offered to idols, which is not a problem for “strong” people but “since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” Let’s unpack this because it is relevant today. In his book, Decision making and the will of God, Garry Friesen describes who the weak brother/sister is NOT:
He is not just any new or immature believer. He is not any Christian who disagrees with me on some issue. Neither is he simply a brother who disagrees with me and gets upset because he thinks I am wrong. Such people may have weaknesses, but they do not fit Paul’s qualifications for “weaker brothers.”
A weaker brother (or sister) is a Christian who, because of the weakness of his faith, knowledge, conscience, and will, can be influenced to sin against his conscience by the example of a differing stronger brother.
So, I have strong opinions and I express them in blog posts, social media, or in books. I might even aspire to be “an influencer” and try to get the (small) crowds to see things my way. Even if I only post infrequently when, perhaps, I reach a boiling point over the collective stupidity of “them” – then I am acting like “a stronger brother.” A stronger person, in this biblical context, is someone who coerces someone else to go against their own consciences based on the “strong” person’s opinions.
Submit, don’t coerce
It is rather shocking that we need to remind ourselves that God never designed for any person to be under the control of any other person. The coerciveness of opinions or laws or public shaming have one source, and it is not God. Jesus came to usher in a new era of freedom. When I'm willing to get people to play by my rules through control, coercion, cutting off, and shaming I am playing for the wrong team. When we are commanded to “submit to each other out of reverence for Christ” we are not given a laundry list of exceptions: “…but I don't like their politics” or “I don't like their stance on the virus and the vaccine…” There are few free passes from staying in a relationship, preserving the unity that has been given us. Will we look back in history and find the polarization taking place over vax/non-vax is in the same camp as the veg/non- veg, Saturday/Sunday, food for all/food for idols contentions in New Testament times? Carefully read what Paul says in Romans 14:17-23
God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of what you put in your stomach, for goodness’ sake. It’s what God does with your life as he sets it right, puts it together, and completes it with joy. Your task is to single-mindedly serve Christ. Do that and you’ll kill two birds with one stone: pleasing the God above you and proving your worth to the people around you.
So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault.
Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others. You’re fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you’re not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe—some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them—then you know that you’re out of line. If the way you live isn’t consistent with what you believe, then it’s wrong.
What was I thinking?
When I think of the times when I pompously paraded principles above people, I am ashamed. I might have called it clear thinking or righteous anger, but I was probably riding on the twin rails of offense and arrogance: I was hurt by what was said or done, or I thought I knew better.
Nowadays everyone has watched enough two-minute news clips and “done research” to be experts on pandemics and identity politics and race and economics and Afghanistan. We have a point of view, but do we have love? The New Testament church leaders were very open to respectfully debate on the issues of the day and quite willing to venture into new territory as their perspectives grew. Differing opinions are not the problem; drawing lines in the sand because of non-essentials is something scripture does not support, particularly lines that cut out relationships with friends, people of the faith, and family. Jesus lived an inclusive life. The people he welcomed freaked his disciples out, but they learned. Will we learn before we are too divided to be of any use to God or humanity? Will we pin a tail on our ass and keep the flies of offense from clouding our glory?