Friday, September 03, 2010
Swords and Discernment
I can’t hear the phrase “sword of the Lord” without thinking back to an odd experience during my college years. For no apparent reason, I started to receive a newspaper in the mail. It was called The Sword of the Lord. It was jam-packed with articles representing very conservative Christianity. The founder of The Sword of the Lord was John R. Rice, a Baptist evangelist from Texas. An unabashed fundamentalist, Rice graciously shared his condemnation of the sinfulness and heresies of others. Not only did he judge the secular world, but also many prominent, theologically conservative Christian leaders. Rice and his fellow journalists were proud to wield the “sword of the Lord.”I find Mark's approach here fascinating. I am not entirely sure that theology, even really bad theology, is a sin or weakness requiring grace and/or judgment. While bad theology typically leads to bad action, I think it the action the requires grace/judgment, not the underlying thought. But let's grant the point for a minute.
Yet in their denouncements of the manifold sins of others, I failed to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. It was as if they had grasped the “sword of the Lord” in Jeremiah, forgetting how that sword is described in the New Testament book of Hebrews. There we read, “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable” (4:12-13). This passage would seem to invite a celebration of God’s judgment. Yet the next verses move in another direction: “So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (4:14-16). The sword of the Lord pierces us so that the mercy and grace might touch our innermost being. The judgment of God drives us, not to despair, but to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
You and I might never publish a newspaper filled with judgment and condemnation. But most of us do single out certain people for our wrath. They might be our political opponents. They may be those with whom we disagree theologically. But before we whip out the “sword of the Lord” in censure of others, may we remember that the “sword” prepares the way for the amazing grace and mercy of God.
One thing I know for sure is that we all suffer from bad theology at some point. The sword prepares the way for grace precisely because it cuts indiscriminately. If we dare to wield it, we must in fact fall on it. Who are we to pretend to know exactly the mind of the Lord?
I think there is a reason even those God chose to call as His prophets, those that proclaimed His wrath in the Old Testament lived such miserable lives that generally needed in such awful circumstances - they were themselves condemned by the words they declared.
That is when I will know I have encountered a true prophet - when his or her declarations result in personal humility. That I have yet to encounter - myself included.