Forerunner, "Ready Answer," March 2, 2009

"Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be defrauded?" —I Corinthians 6:7

Probably the most beloved peace officer in the entire state of North Carolina was the mythical Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, a soft-spoken big man with a big heart. He seldom wore his service revolver, and he would allow the town drunk, Otis, to have his own passkey to the jail cell, allowing him to let himself in and out of the jail to sleep off his intoxication. Sheriff Taylor, mindful of the town's blue laws, nevertheless would tolerate a couple of old maids to serve their special "recipe," obviously laced with potent moonshine. Even so, Sheriff Taylor always received the maximum respect from the citizenry of Mayberry and the surrounding county.

Juxtaposed to the easy-going Andy Taylor was the no-nonsense, bulgy-eyed, stoop-shouldered Barney Fife, an intense, by-the-book peace officer, who was the butt of jokes throughout the community. With great dispatch, Deputy Fife would round up a truant youngster for jaywalking, or with alacrity, he would write out a string of parking tickets. Though Barney sported a sidearm, Sheriff Taylor would not let him carry a loaded gun, but allowed him one bullet in his shirt pocket pending a real emergency. The harder Barney tried to act like a sheriff, the less respect he received from his constituents.

While The Andy Griffith Show was a popular TV sitcom in its middle-1960s heyday, I was commencing my first role as an English teacher in a small rural community in northern Minnesota. Because of my then-skinny physical features, stoop-shouldered appearance, and facial features quite similar to Don Knotts, the actor who played the bumbling deputy, my students would mockingly call me Barney Fife. Even more similar to his physical appearance, my operating procedure and philosophical approach were a lot closer to Barney Fife's than to Andy Taylor's.

About eight years later, as I began my college teaching career at Ambassador College, my modus operandi had not changed much. During my first semester, I remember boasting to my supervisor, Dr. Lynn Torrance, "These students are going to learn that they can't pull anything over me."

Dr. Torrance chuckled, "Someday you'll find it wiser to let them think they've pulled something over on you." It took me well over 33 years to learn the wisdom of his counsel.

A Life of Metamorphosis

The apostle Paul spent his entire life going through a metamorphosis from his initial behavior like that of a sheriff (not allowing anyone to pull anything over on him) to filling the role of a shepherd. He changed so much that he counseled the Corinthian church members that on certain occasions, it is better to be defrauded:

Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren. (I Corinthians 6:7-8)

In our hopelessly litigious society, Americans sue for trivial reasons, not realizing the bitter consequences of erecting adversarial barriers, even between heretofore close family members. In like manner, members in some of the splinter groups of the greater church of God, citing Ezekiel 34:1-6, blamed shepherds acting like sheriffs for scattering God's sheep.

Scripture is replete with commentary on God's patience and longsuffering. For instance, before the Flood, He did not retaliate on mankind's wickedness until "every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" and "the earth was filled with violence" (Genesis 6:5, 11). Later, the Lord revealed his longsuffering to Moses: "And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth . . .'" (Exodus 34:6; see Numbers 14:18; Psalm 103:8; 145:8). It is part of His perfect character.

Nehemiah emphasizes God's slow retaliation even in the midst of continuous stiff-necked rebellion on the part of His chosen people:

They refused to obey, and they were not mindful of Your wonders that You did among them. But they hardened their necks, and in their rebellion they appointed a leader to return to their bondage. But You are God, ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and did not forsake them. (Nehemiah 9:17; see Acts 13:18)

Similarly, the minor prophets repeatedly emphasize God's longsuffering, mercy, and patience:

» Joel 2:13 So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.

» Jonah 4:2 ". . . for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm."

Practice of the Patriarchs

God's traits of mercy and longsuffering have been faithfully demonstrated and practiced in the people He has called into His service. One of the classic examples of big-hearted tolerance and mercy is seen in Abraham's deference to his nephew Lot's choice of the grazing lands in Genesis 13:8-9:

Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me. If you take the left, then I will go to the right; or, if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.

Lot took what he believed to be the choicest, while Abraham allowed himself to be cheated or defrauded, refusing to pull rank on his presumptuous nephew. God blessed him for his gracious behavior. Abraham's godly trait of longsuffering and patience was passed on to Isaac, who would rather move than engage in endless, unproductive fighting.

And Isaac dug again the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father, for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham. He called them by the names which his father had called them. . . . But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen, saying, "The water is ours." So he called the name of the well Esek, because they quarreled with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that one also. So he called its name Sitnah. And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth, because he said, "For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land." (Genesis 26:18-22)

Like his father Abraham, Isaac instinctively trusted meekness and diplomacy over strife and conflict, and he was blessed for his peacemaking. By exercising godly tact and diplomacy, Isaac pleased God, and even his former enemies dwelt in peace next to him (Genesis 26:26-29).

In his sermon at Antioch, Paul reiterates God's appraisal of David as a man after His own heart, a man who would do God's will (Acts 13:22; I Samuel 13:13-14). One thing that God evidently found commendable in David, even though at times he took it to an unfortunate extreme, was his sense of compassion, mercy, longsuffering, and incredible tolerance for insult. In both the episodes of David and Nabal in I Samuel 25 and David and Shimei in II Samuel 16, David exercised an incredible sense of self-control.

In the first example, when David's overtures for peace with Nabal were met with jeers and mocking insult, David was initially provoked to revenge, but he was quickly assuaged to tolerance when entreated by Nabal's wife, Abigail. David's latent diplomacy and tact were re-ignited by her selfless request for tolerance for her husband's foolishness:

Then David said to Abigail: "Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! And blessed is your advice and blessed are you, because you have kept me this day from coming to bloodshed and from avenging myself with my own hand. For indeed, as the Lord God of Israel lives, who has kept me back from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, surely by morning light no males would have been left to Nabal!" (I Samuel 25:32-34)

In the second example, David, realizing that the anger expressed by Shimei may have had some basis in fact, put away his pride and acquiesced to what he ultimately considered to be a judgment from God:

But the king said, "What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? So let him curse, because the Lord has said to him, 'Curse David.' Who then shall say, 'Why have you done so?' . . . Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the Lord has ordered him. It may be that the Lord will look on my affliction, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing this day." (II Samuel 16:10-12)

David had thoroughly inculcated the godly principle that revenge belongs to God and not to man: "Vengeance is Mine, and recompense; their foot shall slip in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things to come hasten upon them" (Deuteronomy 32:35). In Romans 12:19, Paul repeats this instruction to Christians: "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord."

Sterling Examples

Though Saul of Tarsus started out as a zealous hothead, he ended his life a sterling example of forbearance. He was so transformed that his sense of territoriality was in no way offended when his detractors started to preach the gospel with the motive of humiliating him:

Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)

Evidently, he had no concerns about who would "get the credit." Occasionally internecine squabbles emerge within the greater church of God, resulting in needless "sheep wars" battling over who will "get the credit" for doing "the work." Over thirty years ago, I was playing the electric piano in our local church band. At one point, I plugged the amplifier cord into the amplifier. A super-deacon appeared seemingly from nowhere and yelled, "I'm in charge of the electronics!" promptly pulling the cord out of the amplifier and plugging it right back in! In protecting our spheres of "responsibility," we can become estranged from some of our fellow parts in the Body of Christ.

Of course, Jesus gave us the most focused example of meekness and slowness to anger. In I Peter 2:21-23, the apostle comments on His remarkable sense of self-control and His reluctance to retaliate:

For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: "Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth"; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously. . . .

Human nature, perpetually at enmity with God and His law, finds the idea of non-retaliation repulsive. Students in today's high schools and colleges do not like the idea of being "dissed" (disrespected) and will do everything in their power to "get even," leading to gang wars and homicides.

Avoiding Altercation

As a teacher in institutions where the reaction to "dissing" was quite intense, I mistakenly adopted the modus operandi of Deputy Barney Fife, desperately trying to maintain control at all costs, including my blood pressure and adrenals. I was determined that nothing would escape my attention. I wish that I had read the article by Dr. S. I. McMillen on "Getting Even," one abstracted from his 1962 book, None of These Diseases:

Have you ever observed the grizzly bear feeding area at Yellowstone Park? The park ranger dumps garbage into a clearing and it isn't long before a grizzly bear arrives. Soon he is joined by the one animal he allows to eat with him—a skunk. The grizzly is one of the strongest animals in the West and could easily win in any fight with a skunk. Yet the grizzly leaves the skunk alone. Surely the grizzly resents the skunk and yearns to get even with him for his brazen impudence. But he doesn't. Why? Because he knows there is a high cost in getting even. Smart grizzly! Certainly much smarter than many human beings who spend weary days and sleepless nights brooding over their resentments and trying to hatch ways to squelch someone. Man doesn't seem to learn that the high cost of getting even may be ulcers, colitis, toxic goiter, strokes or even fatal heart attacks. The moment I start hating a man, I become his slave. I cannot enjoy working anymore because he even controls my thoughts. My resentments produce too many stress hormones in my body, and I become fatigued after only a few hours of work.

When I was in undergraduate school, my violin instructor, Dr. John Shepard, suffered a massive heart attack. Before this episode, he had been a rather high-strung individual with fastidious attention to minute details and a low tolerance for his students' mistakes. Afterward, he developed a more easy-going personality, even tolerating mistakes. When I commented on the change, he replied, "Since I came so close to facing the ultimate, nothing bothers me anymore."

In the spring of 2006, excessive stress put some intense demands on my nervous system, causing a metaphorical "shutdown of the machinery." After this episode, I started to metamorphose from a type A (high-strung control freak) to a type B (tolerant, live-and-let-live) personality. Previously, I would react with a trigger-like response when students would talk, pass notes, or send text messages, raising my voice and pointing a threatening finger, inevitably leading to two or three altercations with a "debriefing" in the dean's office every year. One of my supervisors, Dr. Robert Watkins, a former high school principal, cautioned me that even a dog will respond with hostility to a pointed finger. As Proverbs 30:33 puts it, "For as the churning of milk produces butter, and wringing the nose produces blood, so the forcing of wrath produces strife."

Since the spring of 2006, I have had no altercations with students. I have used student aides, whom I have encouraged to occupy the lecture podium, while I sat in the classroom at eye-level, talking to the students in a conversational voice rather than as a stentorian, authoritative lecturer. When discipline is called for, I defer to my aides, who still use the Barney Fife approach, giving me the opportunity to come to the student's rescue when the aide becomes too harsh.

With this arrangement, I am able to practice our Elder Brother's formula for servant leadership found in Matthew 20:25-28:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.