“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.” Matthew 7:12 (The Message)
Oh, how we need to see from the viewpoint of “The Other” these days, even the others from the other party or the other ethnicity or the other country or from the other side of tracks! To project ourselves into their situation, pains, sorrows, and difficulties is what Jesus requires in his Rule worth more than gold.
But how does this square with playing our role as prophetic witness in the culture?
When Ezekiel went to the captives by the river, he went “in the heat and bitterness” of his spirit. He was on his way to lay down the law and judgment of God and bellow out the prophetic word he’d been given by the Spirit. His message was right, but his spirit all wrong.
The Spirit then lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the Lord on me. 15 I came to the exiles who lived at Tel Aviv near the Kebar River. And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days—deeply distressed.” Ezekiel 3:14-15 (NIV)
So God said to him, “No, my young prophet, not yet. Take some time to sit with the people you’ll be reproving. Walk in their shoes a minute. Yes, they’re off the rails, but sit with them before rebuking them.” His venom over their immorality was so deep that it took a whole week for him to cool off so he could speak in the spirit of the Spirit.
For seven days he learned sympathy. He already had the word of the Lord, what he lacked was the right spirit in which to deliver it. In our season of great chaos and confusion about who is right and who is wrong about theology, politics, morality, and social mores we need to sit with those with whom we disagree so vehemently. Though what is right and what is wrong is important, right up there in importance is that we communicate our convictions in a spirit of humility and civility.
At the close of the seven days God said to him, “Now, you’re ready to speak.” He was ready to prophesy because he knew more than the word of the Lord; he knew the people who needed it. They were now more than a faceless and impersonal blob of humanity, they were humans that God loved, loved them enough to send them a truth-teller.
We must sit still in the Presence of God and in the presence of those he puts in our path. If for once we could put ourselves in the place of Other, what a difference it would make in how we speak to them. We would speak to them more than about them. We would speak with the heart of God rather than in the heat of the moment.
Jesus sat where we sit, subjected himself to our limitations, our temptations, our sufferings. Our God knows because our God came. He put himself in our place and treats people as he would like to be treated if he were a person and we were God.
What a difference it would make in our economic system if the employer would treat every employee as he would like to be treated as an employee, if he would give every girl the wage he would like his daughter to have were she an employee; in our race relationships if we treated the “Other” as we would like to be treated if we were them.
“Be angry,” said Paul, “but don’t sin!” I am angry at injustice and the sin destroys people. I’m angry at hate and at cancer and at sexual harassers and at abusers of women and children. When the powerful use their power to take advantage of the weak I get angry. It’s not Christian to be otherwise. But when I’m exasperated, vexed, and enraged at people with whom I disagree over politics or religion I’m not operating under the influence of the Spirit of Christ.
Lest we think that the compassion God prescribes takes the sharp edge off of our truth message, go ahead and read the rest of Ezekiel’s message. His new-found compassion didn’t turn to compromise or to politically correct language. He was as straight forward a preacher as they come, full of passion, yet tempered by the compassion of God. But had he not first sat where they sat he would’ve gone off half-cocked and dulled the sharp blade of the message of God.
“Different perspectives and viewpoints are treated with even less respect and courtesy than in the past,” wrote Tim Keller.
“The agenda has become not to engage, but to marginalize and silence… It is much harder to caricature, insult, and denounce people as evil fools when you are three feet away. But today fewer and fewer of our relationships are face-to-face.”
Jesus prescribed an even closer proximity than three feet away when he taught his posse to wash one another’s feet! That’s a little too close for my taste––and smell. Hygiene wasn’t what was on his mind that day. If anything, he was pushing them to get close enough to one another so they could smell, see, and feel where they’ve been and how it affected them. Washing another’s feet, as unpleasant as it is, is not only practical, it’s spiritual. With their feet in your soapy hands you ascertain places they’ve been that has influenced them toward where they are. When you see what is caked on their “souls” from their past you gain some insight about what brought them to their less than pristine present.
Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” So, in whatever way we treat one another, that’s how we treat the Lord. E. Stanley Jones said, “The Son of man is identified with the sons of men in the perpetual incarnation of human need.”
What we need today are prophets who sit where the “Other” sits and who afterward can boom with a strong prophetic voice tempered by the Golden Rule. We need spokespersons of compassion who treat others the way they want to be treated.
“Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
FYI, my book on evangelism, Reaching Rahab: Joining God In His Quest For Friends is near publication. Keep an eye out for it…