Thursday, August 25, 2016

Don't Shoot the Messenger: The Art of Receiving a Rebuke (From Anyone)



I've written elsewhere about how difficult it is to receive a rebuke of any kind. Universal human pride often cripples us in this regard, rendering us impervious to many hard truths that we are in some cases desperately needing to hear. Now if we add to our natural resistance to criticism an unwelcome or “unqualified” messenger, we generally get a perfect storm of indignant rage and outright rejection. More often than not we'll dig our heels in, gnash our teeth, and look for the nearest proverbial stones to hurl at our “attacker.” This happened to Stephen, the 1st Century deacon who dared rebuke the religious establishment (only the stones were real), and it certainly happened to our fearless leader, a formally uneducated, penniless, backwoods, thirty-something, upstart Galilean who had the audacity to not only publicly deconstruct the prevailing cultural, political, and religious narratives but to also promote his own subversive counter-kingdom in their place. Jesus often accomplished this by telling stories, many of which intentionally featured the least likely of messengers (people of other religions, minorities, immigrants, collaborators, racial adversaries, oppressors, and women) to not only expose his audiences' preconceptions and prejudices but to also humble us to the necessary starting point of a gospel-centric, disciple who is finally ready to fall to our knees, beat our chest, and cry out “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

God regularly chooses unqualified agents to deliver his rebuke. The ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, for example, were overrun by nations that were more wicked than they. Receiving a rebuke from an enemy, or someone we think is “beneath us,” has to be the hardest pill to swallow. An ancient Israelite could reasonably respond to Assyria and Babylon with, “who are you to rebuke us for our idolatry, sexual misconduct, neglect for the poor, materialism, and numerous injustices?!” It would be like receiving a lecture on the destructive nature of lust from none other than Hugh Hefner.

When we're wrong, we're wrong. It doesn't really matter who points it out.

I once saw a conservative meme that said something like, “I don't listen to lectures about gun control from people who kill babies.” The sentiment “I will only receive advice or correction from a source that I deem worthy of my attention” is arrogant and almost certainly guarantees that God will send a messenger of the sort that we would hate to have knocking on our door. I'm certainly not saying that all criticism is true or helpful. Most criticism will be a mixture of truth and distortion. A good friend of mine often says we must “eat the meat, and spit out the bones.” I am reminded of King David’s humility as he was running for his life from his treasonous son Absalom (2 Samuel 16). A man named Shimei, who had obviously been holding a grudge, seized on this opportunity to pelt David with insults and stones as the king fled Jerusalem. David could have responded to Shimei’s attack with an explanation (though David was certainly a murderer and an adulterer, he wasn’t guilty of the false accusations that Shimei was hurling at him) or even retribution, but he instead chose to silently endure it, knowing that God may be using this unqualified messenger to deliver a rebuke. Say what you like about David, the man knew how to take a rebuke. It may take work to sort through criticism that's full of bones, but it is time well spent to hear the voice of God and to be humbly set back in step with his heart. Who will be the next to expose our blind spots, I wonder? Who will God use to shed light on our inconsistencies, the areas of our heart over which he intends to rule unrivaled? I think that largely depends on how “dull of hearing” we have become. Perhaps it will be a Muslim; a transgendered person; an atheist; a grizzly, old, foul-mouthed, racist neighbor; or a pretentious, tatted up, man-bun-wearing, hipster. Will we disregard the rebuke due to our low opinion of the source, or will we earnestly examine ourselves to see where we may be off course?

The multigenerational nature of the Church is truly a blessing from God. We must never be so proud as to reject Godly counsel or a rebuke from a messenger that we have deemed too young or too old to have anything helpful to convey. We are reminded throughout Scripture of the wisdom that often comes with many years and also warned against looking down or disregarding someone because of their youth (knowing that God amuses himself by frequently utilizing the unqualified and ill-equipped). Young and old followers of Christ need each other. The impetuousness of youth is tempered by the prudence of experience, and the stagnation of weathered pragmatism can be reinvigorated with youthful passion and reckless faith.

I have often received invaluable counsel and constructive criticism from older Christ-followers. In the interest of full disclosure, I was born in '81 (which generally makes me a young Gen Xer, but some estimations count me as an old Millennial). It is primarily Boomers (along with saints now deceased, like Towzer and Lewis) who have informed my worldview and led me to an understanding of God. We have benefited greatly from our spiritual mothers and fathers in the faith (from the Silent Generation and Boomers). They have largely made us what we now are. But I believe there are some sweeping generational blind spots that are being manifested throughout the American Church, things that we can no longer ignore, things that younger generations are in a unique position to expose. There are many ways in which the old guard (I'm of course speaking in a very general sense here) has apparently settled into arguably unbiblical trends toward safety, comfort, and pragmatism (at the expense of God's upside down kingdom and unavoidably dangerous agenda). I don't know that the generations have ever been so divided in their approach to local and world politics. The old guard is dumbfounded by the younger generation's perceived lack of patriotism and financial responsibility. Millennials are often seen as reckless and naive idealists. Their lack of interest in pursuing political solutions and legislation to achieve desired kingdom outcomes seems “irresponsible” and “lazy” to Boomers. Their growing disengagement from many of the established, Western, ecclesiological models is seen as a great apostasy. But I've got to hand it to Millennials. I think they are largely misunderstood by the old guard (and I'm sure the opposite is also true) but actually have some very helpful contributions to many of these pressing issues.

Before we proceed, I will state emphatically that I know many Boomers and Millennials that do not conform to these broad characterizations. This discussion merely highlights some overarching trends that noticeably vary by generation. Even with this preface, I’m sure I will still regrettably manage to offend those to whom these trends do not apply. If you find no meat, no sustenance—spit it out. And forgive me for offering you a plate of bones.

The Millennial rebuke to an older American generations' materialism, nationalism, closeted xenophobia, reliance on political power, and tendencies toward safety is mostly coming in the form of a largely silent yet powerful counter-example. Many Millennial Christ-followers are abandoning safe and practical career paths (often to the chagrin of their concerned parents) in favor of pursuing risky domestic and international kingdom endeavors: proclaiming freedom to those trapped in poverty, seeking justice for the exploited, sex trafficked, and hungry and hurting immigrants and refugees, declaring and demonstrating the good news of God's kingdom in costly and innovative ways. I believe Millennial Christ-followers have been doing more to address noticeable inconsistencies (“noticeable” to our ideological adversaries, anyway) in our shared “pro-life” position than past generations (recognizing that black lives, the LGBT community, undocumented immigrants and refugees, and even our enemies also and equally bear the Imago Dei, which is the basis for affirming and defending the sanctity of human life). Millennials are rejecting the brand of nationalism and exceptionalism that has characterized the old guard in favor of fearlessly embracing an increasingly interconnected world as a means to more effectively pursuing the Great Commission. They are serving the multicultural, global community of Christ in new and sacrificial ways, and they are recognizing and speaking up about the damage done when the American Church marries itself to political candidates who tout nativism and isolationism. They are less likely to grasp for political power and more likely to lay down their rights and accept “persecution” in an effort to obey Christ's command to willingly “go the extra mile.” Millennials are also more interested in pursuing authentic, incarnational ministry and organic church life outside the walls of church buildings and established programs and processes. I find their rejection of rote religion, spawned by their pure hunger for a living God and his better kingdom, admirable and refreshing.

If you’ve ever had your sin brought to your attention by your 5-year-old (I’m speaking hypothetically, of course), then you know how difficult it can be to acknowledge an error under less than ideal circumstances. Our knee-jerk reaction is to “explain,” excuse, retaliate, or change the subject. But the Spirit of God within us urges us to confess, repent, and move forward in his strength.

Do Christian Millennials have blind spots? Of course they do. And I've seen numerous articles and heard endless rants about what is “wrong” with them. I’m not suggesting that Boomers must fully embrace a Millennial reformation. My purpose here is not to demean or retire past generations or to drive a further wedge between young and old members of the family of God. My purpose is to encourage an atmosphere in which Spirit-led instruction, when appropriate, can potentially come from anywhere. We must regularly compare our personal and generational values and priorities to the values and priorities of Christ. If there is anything that doesn’t line up, we must let it go—no, we must crucify it! I would suggest to the Boomers that if they can get past their younger counterparts' inexplicable preoccupation with Pokémon GO, lumberjack beards, and covering every last inch of their bodies with tattoo art, they may see the image of Christ beautifully displayed through many of these upstart, whippersnappers. In spite of their harsher characterizations as suffering from “Peter Pan syndrome,” being “uninformed,” “over-sensitive,” and “self-important,” I am obviously very hopeful about Christian Millennials. In many ways they are boldly leading the way, but they are still in need of the acquired wisdom of older Christ-followers who were once regarded as “rebels” in their own right.

One of the greatest obstacles preventing Jesus' adversaries from accepting the LIFE he freely offered was that their proud hearts refused to receive instruction from such a humble source. Who did this young, uneducated and unemployed, outspoken, ragged, revolutionary from Nazareth of all places think he was that he could trample on their most deeply held traditions? And Jesus was not in any way gentle with their treasured and time-honored values and institutions either. He knew that their misconceptions about reality were keeping them from God. If we are of the sort that gets our feathers ruffled easily, we should not so quickly presume that we would be on the right side of the cultural, political, and religious clash between Jesus and many of his contemporaries. After all, coming around to Jesus’ way of thinking requires a miraculous Spirit-empowered act of suicide on our part—his new LIFE offered in exchange for our willing death. If we as broken human beings are set on becoming like Jesus, then we must be prepared for constant course adjustments, frequent death to ourselves in both small and large ways, as the Spirit leads. We must have pliable and humble hearts that are ready to receive his correction, rebukes, and instruction, channeled through even the most unwelcome and unlikely conduits. He may be sending a Samaritan, IRS agent, hooker, or a hipster your way.

Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding” (Proverbs 15:32).

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