Frailty and Fickleness
Despite our preferred impression that we are strong, resolute individuals who think things out for ourselves, act logically, don’t follow the crowd… the reality is that we are but human, and there is a strong tendency within human nature to be fickle and follow the crowd. Is. 53:6 describes our sinfulness like this: “We each like sheep have gone astray [sheep go astray because of their visible tendency to follow the flock they are in]; we have turned every one to his own way”. We each sin in our own unique and personal ways; but we do so because we follow the flock. And the context of Isaiah 53 is that the crucifixion of the Lord was necessary exactly because of this. He was the ultimate strong man psychologically, who ultimately went the Father’s way when no other human ever did.
Biblical history is full of examples of people following the crowd and thereby ending up doing sinful things which their better judgment would tell them not to do:
- At least two of Joseph’s brothers were against throwing him into the pit, and their comments to each other when they later meet him in Egypt suggest that hardly any of them really wanted to do what they did. But the power of groupthink was greater than that of their individual conscience; a whole group ended up doing something unthinkable, when the majority knew it was wrong.
- A study of “the princes” of Judah at the time of the final Babylonian invasion shows that they were not against Jeremiah nor responding to God’s word (Jer. 26:16; 36:14,19); indeed at one stage they pulled back from their path of refusing to respond (Jer. 34:10). But “the princes” were the ones whom Zedekiah feared (Jer. 38:25), and that fear led him to reject God’s word. And “the princes” were finally condemned for their weakness (Jer. 32:32); it was they who imprisoned and sought to kill Jeremiah because ultimately they could not abide his word (Jer. 37:15; 38:14).
- One person can easily lead a whole group, even of believers, into sin. It was specifically Judas who criticized the extravagant anointing of the Lord (Jn. 12:4,5); but all the disciples actually said it (Mt. 26:8; Mk. 14:4).
And so it is that whole groups of people- even God’s people- can be very fickle. The history of David’s final years shows this. “The people” were totally loyal to David; then to Absalom; then back to David; then to Adonijah and other pretenders to the throne; then back to David. “The crowd” were initially loyal to John the Baptist and then to Jesus- “the world has gone after him”, was the Jewish leadership’s frustrated comment. But the same crowd who cried “Hosanna!” were soon screaming “Crucify Him!” just days later. And the same “crowd” were just two months later deeply moved by Peter’s preaching, so that the Jewish authorities were again frustrated by the widespread support for the Jesus movement.
Searching our own lives and reflecting upon the lives of those known to us reveals the same tendency- heights of devotion one day compared to miserable failure the next. Those who once sacrificed all for the sake of the Truth- now indifferent, or even atheist or agnostic. People who would die for each other in love and care, cooling off over months and years into apathy. Brethren who once seemed so strong in faith suddenly come out on internet forums admitting they no longer really believe in God nor even desire to be in His Kingdom. Human beings are fickle and psychologically weak and frail. The frailty or weakness of humanity is a major Bible theme; and the weakness in view is not so much physical as moral and mental. We tend to assume better of ourselves and of others. A hard word or email, a rejection… may do deep damage to another person, although that damage may not be immediately apparent. Recognizing the frailty of others will bring us to a sensitivity towards them which requires constant self-control and self-analysis of our words and unspoken messages. And to live sensitively in this increasingly desensitized world is not only very hard, it is part of picking up the cross of our Lord and following Him to the same painful death.
Focus Upon The Cross
The Bible abounds with images of stability. God is presented as a rock, and we are to build our house upon the rock of obedience to His word. We are to have the unwavering faith which is not “like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed” (James 1:6). The image of being blown around is also used in Eph. 4:14: “Henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, carried about with every wind of doctrine [teaching]”. There are those who read something on the internet, hear an idea compellingly presented by a teacher somewhere, and they are shaken by it, “carried about of winds” (Jude 12; Heb. 13:9). In those passages, the same Greek word for “carried about” is used; and the only other time Paul uses it is in speaking of how he “always carried about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10). And here we begin to see one antidote for such instability: A conscious, daily commitment to share in something of the crucifixion sufferings of Jesus, in hope and even present experience of His resurrection life breaking forth into our personal experience. We are asked to pick up His cross, to make His death our own. A firm commitment to this will enable us to stand firm against the various ‘winds’ which buffet us- especially in this internet generation, where information which we’re unable (if we’re honest) to really process assails us from all sides. How does that suggested teaching, that possible way of living and being, square with my solid, once-for-all commitment to follow my Lord to His cross and beyond?
Back To The Bible
The man who built his house on the rock was able to ultimately withstand the winds. But his building was slow, because it was a ‘hearing of [Christ’s] words and doing them’ (Lk. 6:47,48). Spiritual progress will be slow- if it is real progress. This is not only a comfort to us, as our self-examination reveals pathetically slow progress. It also inspires us to patience with the slow spiritual progress of our brethren, whose failures and slowness to develop are so much more obvious to us than are our own similar frailties. The Lord’s parable opens to us another way of being firm rather than easily swayed- to hear the Lord’s words and do them. Daily Bible reading may seem a call from conservative yesteryear; but it is a necessary call. It is a daily familiarity with the basic text of Scripture and a daily, conscious commitment in prayer to follow God’s word which will give us stability. When “It was told the house of David, saying, Syria is allied with Ephraim! His heart trembled, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the forest tremble with the wind. Then said the Lord…” (Is. 7:2,3). The antidote to hearts shaking back and forth was to pay serious attention to God’s word.
This is the difference which the Bible makes in human life. An acceptance that finally, in that volume, we have the expressed will of God for us, gives us a basis upon which to firmly decide our principles and positions- “For the Bible tells me so”. This is a feature of the seed sown on good ground- that is has a “root” (Mt. 13:6). But the interpretation of the sower parable adds the significant detail- that he who withers away “has not root in himself” (Mt. 13:21). Our root is in God’s word, and in the things of the crucified Christ, the smitten rock. And yet it is ‘in ourselves’ in the sense that God’s word and the things of Christ are deep within us. This, then, is the intention of regular, daily, habitual reading and meditation upon God’s word, both as it is in the Bible and as it is in the character and personality of the Lord Jesus, who should likewise be our daily meditation. It is “the root of the trees” which will be judged (Lk. 3:9; Mk. 11:20); it is who we are and what we have deep within us which is so crucial, and which withstands every wind. There is a colossal emptiness within the hearts of so many, an emptiness willingly filled with the meaningless words of popular music, entertainment and a life focused upon the cosmetic rather than the essential. We have so much more to fill our minds with- let us do so. Carry a pocket Bible with you. Dip into it in the course of the day. “Gird up the loins of your mind”, Peter says- gather together our thoughts instead of letting them flow and drift everywhere, thus hampering our movement. Focus them upon the Lord Jesus. Have Him as Lord and Master of your heart. Be spiritually minded. And as we inevitably reflect that all this is so much easier read than done- pray that the rock of Israel, and the smitten rock of His Son, shall fill our minds with their spirit, so that really it shall be possible for us.
Establishing The Heart With Grace
The New Testament has a major theme of the believer being ‘established’ by God (1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Cor. 1:21; Col. 2:7). The Greek word implies that we will be made stable, having a foundation that will not be swayed; and God will do this to us if we allow Him to. Heb. 13:9 teaches that we will not be carried or blow about if our heart, our core being, is “established with grace”. If we really accept that gift, believing and feeling that in spite of our works we will be saved should Jesus return right now- then nothing will blow us off course. The wonder of that will be our stability, both now and eternally.
We live in a world which is becoming desensitized and almost dehumanized. From the hard looks of chic women to the indifference of an old man dropping a candy wrapper on the street, this world is hard and getting harder. We who have the spirit of Jesus, the mind of Christ, are not to live as the world, who sin because they are “past feeling”, a-pathetic, without pathos, without sensitivity (Eph. 4:19), with a blind mind (another figure for insensitivity), with a vain heart, and who have therefore given themselves over to the life of selfish greediness and petty materialism. The lack of true emotion, pathos and passion in our postmodern world is all a reflection of this chronic insensitivity. Paul’s comment is that “you have not so learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20). To have His mind, His spirit, is to be sensitive both to God and man; and to thereby live with feeling and passion. Like Paul we will rejoice with those who rejoice, and feel so connected with our brethren that if one of them stumbles, we as it were ourselves feel the fire of their future condemnation spreading over us right now (2 Cor. 11:29).
Our inspiration to live soft in this hard world comes from the spirit, the way of being, the pattern, the essence, of the Father and His Son. The way the Lord healed people reflects His sensitivity- He commanded food to be brought for a girl who had been dead and was therefore hungry (Lk. 8:55). And on an even higher level, He is given the title “The Spirit” because His spirit / mind is at one with both God and us; hence, Romans 8 explains, He is such a matchless mediator. He is simply so sensitive to our thinking as well as God’s.
The Sensitive Lord
The sensitivity of both God and the Bible writers is indicated by the way in which the inspired writers often sense the likely response to what they have just written, and engage with that response ahead of time. Thus after having written of the resurrection, Paul foresees the response, and goes on: “But someone will say, How are the dead raised up?” (1 Cor. 15:35). Your homework can be to look for other examples of this kind of thing, especially in Romans. What we are to learn in practice is that we should anticipate the likely response of others to our words, actions and positions- rather than bluntly present “truth” (as we perceive it) without any care for their response to it. For we aren’t simply ‘witnessing truth’ to people in an in-your-face manner; but seeking to win them for Christ, to walk at one with them in the same steps and same spirit.
The way the Lord speaks with Peter in Jn. 21:15-17 is an essay in His sensitivity and having thought about how Peter would be feeling, the assurances he would need, the questions he was likely asking himself, the challenge he would be facing, the encouragement he would need on the path to salvation. We need to engage with others in this same way. Jesus had already met Peter twice since His resurrection, but hadn’t raised the obvious issue of Peter’s denials. And now He does it only after He has first eaten with Peter. We must bear in mind that to eat together, especially to take bread and give it to others, implied acceptance and religious fellowship (Jn. 21:13- reminiscent of the breaking of bread, the same words for ‘bread’, ‘take’ and ‘give’ are found in Mt. 26:26). The Lord firstly fellowshipped with Peter and only then moved on to probe the issue of his disloyalty, after having first affirmed His abiding love for Peter. He had tried to arrange circumstance to provoke Peter to himself engage with the issue- for the triple questioning, the triple invitation to work for Him, all took place by a fire of coals- just as Peter’s triple denials had. We see clearly portrayed here the gentle, seeking spirit of the Lord
“You know that I love you” was met by the Lord with the comment that Peter must feed His sheep. This wasn’t so much a commandment / commission, as the Lord explaining that Peter’s love for Him personally would be reflected in the degree to which Peter loved the Lord’s sheep. John grasped this clearly, when he underlines throughout his letters that we cannot have love for God without loving our brethren. The Father and Son are to be identified with their people. “Lovest thou me?” was a question for Peter’s benefit, not in order to give the Lord information which He didn’t then have. His great sensitivity to Peter led Him to foresee the obvious question in Peter’s mind: ‘Has He forgiven me?’. And the Lord is saying that Peter knows the answer insofar as Peter knows how much he loves Jesus, on the principle that whoever loves much has been forgiven much (Lk. 7:47).The allusion back to that incident in Luke 7 is confirmed by the way that the phrase ‘to love more’ occurs elsewhere only there, in Lk. 7:42: “Which of them will love him [Jesus] most [s.w. “more”]?”. Jesus had already forgiven Peter; the answer to Peter’s concern about whether he had been forgiven was really ‘Yes you have, if you believe it; and if you believe it, you will love me, and according to how much you love me, you will know how much forgiveness you have received’. In all this, we see the careful sensitivity of the Lord Jesus to His people, foreseeing and feeling our doubts and fears, our questions; and responding to them in a profound way.
The Lord Jesus is the same today as He was yesterday. The Gospel records are the history of only what He began to do and teach people (Acts 1:1). He didn’t interact with a few people for 33 years and then speed off to Heaven, to get on with other things until He returns to earth. No. He is as active in your life and mine as He was in that of Peter.
Our Sensitivity To God
I suspect we all tend to read the Bible subconsciously searching for more evidence for our own pre-conceived ideas, be they doctrinal issues or practical. Yet if this book and these words are truly God's words, and we feel this, than we can actually be nothing other than truly sensitive and open hearted to whatever He is going to teach us through them. We will not seek, therefore, to induce our own conclusions from Scripture, but will rather come seeking to simply be taught, whatever the cost, whatever the surprise. We need to clear our minds as far as we can before we begin our Bible reading, and pray earnestly that what we read there will be for us "the truth"; that we will not read those words to just find our own preconceived ideas there. We are up against this problem continually, when we ask, e.g., a Catholic to read the Biblical record about Mary with a clean, child-like mind, with no expectations as to what we expect to find there. And actually it's still just as hard for us to read Scripture with that same pure mind, as the years pass by after our baptism. Israel 'heard' the word, and yet they did not ''hearken" to it (Rom. 10:16,18)- we can hear but not hear. Yet if we really believed that Scripture is inspired, we wouldn't be like this. It is awesome to reflect how those Hebrew letters, those Greek ciphers written on parchment 1950 years ago, were actually the very words of God Almighty. But this is the real import of our understanding of inspiration. Israel literally 'heard' the words of Ezekiel, knowing that a prophet had been among them- but they wouldn’t engage with those words. We too can pay such lip service to the doctrine of inspiration- and yet not be truly sensitive to the word we know to be inspired.
In PracticeThe command not to murder has its basis in the fact that human life is not for us to use as we will (Ex. 20:13; Lev. 17:11; Gen. 9:6). It is God's life within those other people around us. Others, therefore, are not for us to use as we will. Gentleness and sensitivity to the life of others, in family life, the workplace, on the road... is therefore an outcome of our belief that the 'other' person likewise has been created by God and has life from Him. To drive in an unkind way, to act in a thoughtless way to others’ detriment, is therefore the same basic error as taking human life in murder. When it comes to our brethren, we have in them a unique, God-arranged opportunity to express His sensitivity to us, and our love for Him, through our sensitivity to them. How will they feel if I write this, what are their needs, concerns, fears, questions, insecurities... how will my action, my words, help them towards God’s Kingdom? It all seems too great a challenge, for life passes too quickly for us to be able to work out a sensitive response to every situation we enter, every phone call we take. But this is where the concept of the spirit / mind / disposition of Jesus comes so powerfully into play. If we make Him our daily study and meditation, then we can have the mind / spirit of Christ, and somehow we will naturally respond as He would. For “the knowledge of Him” gives us the spirit of wisdom, that we may know how to respond to every man (Eph. 1:17; Col. 4:6).