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Monday, July 20, 2009

The High Road is Love and Compassion

Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 2: 22-26 NIV)
Here is a passage that might get people thinking--and arguing--these days. What exactly is Paul saying here? What should modern Christians get out of this passage?

First, some background. If you've read first and second Timothy, you know that Timothy was a young man (I don't know how young) and that when Paul left him in the leadership of a church, it sparked some controversy in the congregation. The two letters from Paul to Timothy that have been preserved are basically instruction manuals for how a young person can overcome the disapproval of others and have a successful ministry for Christ. This particular passage summarizes some of Paul's main pieces of advice.

So, let's break the passage down. I see several pieces of advice, but there are three main points in the passage: (1) Show maturity by pursuing virtue instead of wicked or childish things which bring reproach on you, (2) show maturity and virtue by distancing yourself from arguments that call on you to take sides and hurt your brothers and sisters, and (3) show maturity and concern for others by gently reasoning with your enemies, instead of telling them off or talking down to them.

To boil that down further, Paul was instructing Timothy to strengthen his position by denying his opponents any sort of a weakness to latch onto and turn to their advantage. Meanwhile, Timothy was supposed to care enough about others to take the time to help them in their own relationships with God--despite how difficult they could be sometimes. As unflattering as it was, Paul was telling Timothy that he was supposed to be the unwavering example of a caring adult, even when his fellow church members were being children.

If there is one major difference between children and adults, it is that children are weaker than adults. They are not yet physically strong, and they are more easily tricked and overpowered in mind-games, as well, because they are both naive and ignorant of many things. They present an almost endless array of weaknesses and hand-holds to anyone trying to harm them. Because of this, it is an adult's responsibility to defend children and teach them how to defend themselves, but it is absolutely unacceptable (and positively disastrous) for an adult to act like a child.

That's a challenge for the best of us. In fact, I can honestly say that I haven't been able to follow it consistently. I know I'm in the danger zone, about to act more like a child than a mature adult, when my temper starts boiling and I hear myself beginning sentences with phrases like "She had no right," or "How dare he think he can get away with." In those moments of defensiveness and resentment, I am leaving myself open to attack. It's almost as if I get tunnel vision, and I can only see the petty disagreement in front of me, instead of the real players and the real issues.

This is precisely what Paul was trying to warn Timothy about. Too often, the cares and disputes of this world are so powerful that they distract us from the big picture. The big picture is that God is good and cares for our very souls, but Satan is bad and wants to draw us into sin and destruction apart from God. If we allow ourselves to get caught up in any dispute without remembering this, we can be led into resenting others instead of helping them defend themselves, and we can forget to raise our own shields against the enemy. Now is not the time to act like a petty, naive child! If we aren't careful, we will allow the Devil to use us to harm others, and throw us away, afterward.

What is the solution to dealing with people who just want to fight? Well, the adult solution that Paul prescribes is one of calm, loving, peaceful instruction. We should first conform our lifestyles to be virtuous, not only because that keeps us above blame, but also so that we are secure in the rightness of our judgment in the situation. What do I mean by that? Well, if we are familiar with God's requirements for our own lives, we are better able to judge whether we are being unreasonable with our requirements of others. We are in the wrong if we are asking more of others than we are asking of ourselves.

Next, we should decide whether the issue is worth fighting over. If it isn't, we shouldn't respond to others' attempts to bait us and lure us into a fight. Maybe, by our example, they will see that it's not worth fighting over, and change their behavior. What Paul meant by being "the Lord's servant" is that we should take Jesus' example in our behavior, letting Him lead us while leading others. This kind of leadership is not backed by force, but by the power of gentleness and kindness. It's not the way the world disciplines and leads, but it is God's way. "Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone" (Proverbs 25: 15 NIV).

The last step is understanding the responsibility of being the mature Christian. We are responsible for how we treat those who want to engage in petty disputes with us, and our actions in such situations have eternal consequences. If we are mean in the way we deal with the dispute, we aren't teaching them anything that could help them escape Satan. We very well may be leaving them vulnerable to ultimate destruction in their sin. With the proper perspective, we can easily see that we should have hearts overflowing with love and compassion for those who want to dispute with us--not anger, impatience, or any other childish and irresponsible emotion.
I'll leave you with another quote from the same letter to Timothy as the one I've been discussing. I'm anxious to hear your thoughts on this matter.
Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. (2 Timothy 2: 14-16 NIV)