Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Killing the Prophets


So it turns out we humans don't like being told when we're wrong. As a rule, we mostly don't enjoy having our deeply held beliefs and preconceptions challenged or even questioned either. We actually hate it—like “gnashing of teeth” hate it. Enter the prophet. These are folks who God has assigned the never-dull task of poking the hornet's nest of human insecurities and exposing the depths of our deeply entrenched rebellion against God. The prophet relentlessly advocates for the heart of God when his heart is being overlooked or ignored. The prophet unapologetic preaches repentance and reformation against the oncoming traffic of popular culture, even popular Christian culture. The prophet is ultimately more concerned with what God thinks than what people think. As a result, prophets are often seen as abrupt, stubborn, malcontents and agitators. As you can imagine, it usually doesn't go well for the prophet.

Prophets are a special breed. When we think of these men and women, we usually think of someone foretelling the future. While they are known to do that, the prophet primarily repeats what God has already said and has been saying for generations. The prophet reminds people of who God is and what he prioritizes and then points them back to what they should already know. When God gives the prophet a peek into the future it's usually just to establish their credibility (Isaiah 45:21) and not the primary message they are charged with delivering. Jeremiah explains the prophet's visceral motivation, “...his word burns in my heart like a fire. It’s like a fire in my bones! I am worn out trying to hold it in! I can’t do it!" (Jeremiah 20:9b NLT).

Prophets are on the fringe. They're usually a little off, as they march to a different drum. It's not unheard of for them to exhibit oddities like wild hair and crazy clothing choices or unexplainable behavior (John the Baptizer ate grasshoppers and as an object lesson Isaiah preached buck-naked for awhile... just saying). Don't write them off because they're out of step. It's often this wilderness-dwelling, outsider lifestyle that makes them the ideal candidates to deeply commune with the heart of God and quickly identify our collective blind spots. Not to mention that you've gotta be a certain kind of crazy to look a king in the eye and rebuke him to his face.

As mentioned, prophets are against the status quo. When everyone else says “yes,” the prophet says “no.” They don't say what we want to hear. They say what we need to hear. They're definitely not winning any popularity contests. Nor would they care to. There's a funny story in 1 Kings chapter 22 where King Ahab of Israel is seeking affirmation from a group of faux-prophets for his proposed war with the nation of Aram. They all enthusiastically give him the thumbs up and tell him “full speed ahead.” But Ahab's ally, Jehoshaphat of Judah, wants to hear from a prophet of YHWH before they head out. Ahab's response cracks me up and is typical of our fallen, corrupted flesh. He says, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad.” Ahab apparently subscribes to the time-honored “what I don't know can't hurt me” philosophy. It reminds me of the guy who doesn't want to go to the dentist because they always find a cavity. So at Jehoshaphat's insistence, they bring the Debbie-Downer into the war room. After some coaxing, Micaiah delivers the word from God, and, just as Ahab predicted, it's bad news—like really bad news. He tells them that the military campaign will be a complete failure and will result in Ahab's death. Ahab has him promptly thrown in prison and orders that he be fed nothing but bread and water. Gee, thanks for your word from the LORD, Micaiah. Actually he got off pretty easy compared to many of his forebearers. Jeremiah is another guy who had an unpopular message. During the final years of Judah's sovereignty, when all the other prophets were predicting peace, prosperity, and liberation from their Babylonian oppressors, Jeremiah was encouraging the people to—get this—lay down their arms and surrender to Nebuchadnezzar, a guy who would undoubtedly knock their wall down, disrespect their king, desecrate their holy city, and probably castrate more than a few of the guys (just for good measure) before he relocated most of them to some far off foreign land. God had made it clear that his mind was made up, punishment was immanent, and the people of Judah were being instructed to obediently receive their well-earned whupping. For his unpatriotic suggestion Jeremiah was labeled a cowardly traitor and thrown in a dank hole. It could have been worse.

It should be noted that we don't so much mind when the prophets are speaking to someone else. In fact, it's in these instances that we're likely to encourage them to “bring the heat.” It's when they direct their rebuke to us that we take “offense” and become combative, feverishly scrambling for our favorite snippets of verses that instantly render their criticisms invalid to our particular case. We fancy ourselves as the ones who listen to the prophets, but I often wonder if we give ourselves too much credit. Would I have heeded the voice of the one crazy looking guy saying to go this direction or would I have followed the masses headed off the other way? I find that it's easy enough to sort things out once the dust has settled. We typically put ourselves on the side of the historical prophets, but do we stand with the contemporary prophets who are challenging us with the unpopular, but timeless, truths of God's word today? Jesus, who was—among other things—a prophet, points out this inconsistency in his detractors. “Woe to you,” he says, “because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them” (Luke 11:47). These Johnny-come-lately fanboys of the prophets were building monuments to the individuals their own parents murdered due to the inconvenience of the message they faithfully delivered. You see it's easy to pay lip service to a message from another time and to another people. We can interpret it in a way that's palatable and safe. It's an entirely different matter, however, when the messenger is standing before us with an uncompromising call to repentance, which inevitably will entail—gasp!—a reconsideration of our dearly held position and a drastic change in our current direction.

Let's be honest, throughout history the prophets have largely stood alone. Most abolitionists, for example, were Christian prophets, persistently calling the Church to repentance, pointing the people of God to the heart of God, and stubbornly demanding that they live out what they claimed they believed. While the American Church now widely praises these reformers, it was many of our Christian ancestors who made their lives a living hell and actively worked against them (in some cases murdered them). It was not uncommon to have sermons preached on the virtues of slavery and how it's one's Christian duty to know one's place and so on. Manifest destiny and all that. Others were just silent in the face of evil. Similar struggles, opposition, and indifference were faced by the relative few who fought for justice during the early days of the civil rights movement. Everyone is at the victory celebration when the war is won, and the “troublemakers” of today are often the heroes of tomorrow. Call them “bull-headed” and “arrogant” if you must, but thank God that the prophets have the grit and internal conviction to stay the course through the heaviest of the fray with little to no human backup.

I believe God has hard-wired the prophet this way for this express purpose. I love what God tells Ezekiel when he is prepping him for his prophetic mission. "You must give them my messages whether they listen or not." He goes on to say, "I have made you as obstinate and hard-hearted as they are.” And the super important part, “...let all my words sink deep into your own heart first. Listen to them carefully for yourself. Then go to your people in exile and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says!’" (from Ezekiel 2:7a, 8b, 10b-11a NLT). Noting that these brasher traits are useful, maybe even essential, to the prophet is not to broadly excuse poor behavior. The Apostle Paul points out that even if he has prophetic revelations and understands all mysteries, but lacks love, he has accomplished nothing (1 Corinthians 13). That is to say there is a thin line between unyielding conviction and blind arrogance, refreshing frankness and an uncalled for verbal assault. It is true that untempered strengths often become destructive weaknesses.

Not all change is good change, and not every “reformer” is to be followed. This should be obvious, but I'll say it just in case. For every prophet who is faithfully advocating for the heart of God, there's probably a hundred who are misrepresenting him. God spends as much or more time denouncing the false prophets throughout Scripture as he does endorsing the ones he has commissioned to carry his message. It is imperative that the people of God know his voice, his word, in order to accurately identify the prophets he is speaking through. And we don't want to “know” his word like a Pharisee or a pro-slavery clergyman with an arsenal of proof-texts at the ready, the sort who can describe in great detail the bark on every tree but has never once seen the lush forest that they collectively and beautifully compose. We don't want to be like the guys who could quote the Pentateuch verbatim but failed to recognize the Creator of the universe when he stood spitting distance from their pedantic faces. We want to truly KNOW the Word of God which/who effectively describes the heart of a glorious Being who desires mercy over sacrifice—a pulsating Gospel over dead religion.

I don't want to paint a one-dimensional picture of the prophet. Their message is not always negative, critical, sackcloth, and ashes. They can cast a captivating vision of the way things could be, the way God wants things to be. The prophets gave us glimpses of the Savior, for example, centuries before he walked among us. Seeing that this post is an attempt to understand our hostility toward the prophet, however, I am naturally focusing on the stuff they say and do that gets our dander up.

I thank God for the modern prophets who are challenging me to rethink treasured aspects of the American Dream in light of my Savior's better invitation to take up my cross and follow him. I need my idols of safety and security exposed so I can repent and whole-heartily pursue his kingdom. I know a guy who has been faithfully challenging his friends and family on social media to pursue God's heart for the marginalized, immigrant, and refugee by welcoming war-torn Syrians in the name of Jesus. “Well, I'm fine with the nice ones coming,” I hear the objectors say, “but we can't risk terrorists coming in as well.” “It's just not safe, is all.” “Plus, I've seen on the news how many of them don't really appreciate the help they're being offered anyway.” My Jesus says, “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35). It's clear that the American Church needs to be reminded of God's heart for immigrants and mercy when we consider how Evangelical voters have been flocking to anti-immigrant presidential candidates as of late. We need prophets who point us back to what we should already know. I for one appreciate those who faithfully remind me of the beautiful and scary commands of Christ.

Prophets are a gift from God. We actually need the prophets in our midst. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul explains how “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (chapter 4:11-13). Jesus is the perfect apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. All these traits, or archetypes, must be collectively present in his Body if we are to accurately portray him. We're usually comfortable with the apostles (“sent ones” or missionaries), evangelists, pastors, and teachers. But when the music stops, it's often the prophet who is left without a chair. The prophet is good in theory but often unpleasant and inconvenient in reality. Unless we're masochists, we aren't so fond of having them around. They push us out of our comfort zone and consistently expose our idols. They're often perfectionists because they have their eyes fixed on the Perfect, and they won't let us settle for anything less. If all the Church were prophets, we could probably call it “hell” and not be too far off. But just like the other members of the Body, the prophet performs a unique and irreplaceable function. Let's not assume that they're “just not good team players” and as a result are constantly slowing the pace of the ministry machine. Like Ahab, we're not always concerned with whether or not we're headed in the right direction so long as we're getting there fast. Also, let's not forget that how well we can receive a rebuke is ultimately a measure of our maturity. So how 'bout it folks? Can we agree to stop killing the prophets?