Joe McKeever: The Abrasive Christian Shouldn’t Teach God’s Word

Joe-McKeever-smallThis week, in Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, I found this interesting depiction of Harold Ickes, a member of FDR’s cabinet during the Second World War:

“According to T. H. Watkins, Ickes’ biographer, ‘a world without something in it to make him angry would have been incomprehensible to him.’ A disgruntled Republican senator who had been the target of one of Ickes’ verbal assaults called him ‘a common scold puffed up by high office.’ To one cabinet colleague, Ickes was ‘Washington’s tough guy.’ To another, he was the ‘president’s attack dog.’”

Olsen tells how an assistant secretary of state once refused to shake hands with Mr. Ickes and described him in his diary as “fundamentally, a louse.”

Having such an irritating person in high government office is one thing; having them in church leadership is quite another.

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I remember my experience with a woman who had a reputation for being a strong witness for the Lord, even to the point of teaching classes on faith sharing. One day I called her office, following up on something her boss had told me. I was amazed by her reaction.

“He did not tell you that!” she said.

When I insisted gently that this is precisely what her employer had said, she grew stubborn and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was badly mistaken. The conversation ended quickly.

I never told her boss about that, but the memory lingers with me to this day.

The incident has remained as a reminder that sometimes the Lord’s children who have a reputation as strong and effective witnesses for Christ are driven less by His love than by an abrasive and domineering personality.

If such people were door-to-door salesmen, they would be brutalizing the customers, intimidating them into buying their stuff, taking no prisoners.

Look at how Paul describes the servants of the Lord who would be effective in serving Him:

  • Kind to everyone (not just the prospect in front of them). Has Jesus made you kind?
  • Patient when wronged (not pouncing on the transgressor to make their point). Has the Lord made you patient?
  • Gently correcting those in opposition. Has He gentled you?

The abrasive Christian has no business teaching God’s Word and sharing their faith.

They will be a hindrance instead of a blessing. They will injure the very souls they are trying to win, set terrible examples for younger Christians who study their ways and copy their methods, and repel honest inquirers who are not so prompt in buying their spiel.

The best thing the abrasive teacher/witness can do is to be quiet, go home, get on their knees and pray the Lord will break them down into parts that He can reassemble, fill and use. And until He does that, they should re-enroll in the new Christians’ class, for they have much to learn of basic Christianity.

Simon Peter had abrasive qualities. Often—not always, but frequently—his confidence resided in himself, and anyone blocking his way was a deterrent to the work of the Lord. Watch him here:

Matthew 16:22 — Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him. (You know you’re out of line when you start instructing Jesus!)

Matthew 17:4 — Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good to be here. If you wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (When a holy awe comes over you, it’s time to be quiet and worship, not to speak up and attempt to run the show.)

Matthew 19:27 — Peter said, “Lord, we’ve left everything and followed you; what will there be for us?” (When your main consideration is “What’s in it for me?” something is out of kilter.)

John 13:8 — Peter said, “You will never wash my feet!”  (To refuse the cleansing of the Lord is to disqualify ourselves from serving Him.)

John 18:10  — Peter drew his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his right ear. (Any time we use the world’s methods to do the Lord’s work, we are treading on dangerous ground.)

Admittedly, that’s not the whole story on Peter, for he was also inclined to be spiritual and responsive and filled with faith. But the abrasiveness undermined everything he did.

Jesus prayed that Peter would be converted (Luke 22:32), or “turned again.”

What changed him? The crucifixion of the Lord Jesus broke him (Luke 22:62); the resurrection reassembled him (Luke 24:12); and Pentecost empowered him (Acts 2). Thereafter, he was a new man, still zealous for the Lord, yes, but with a new peace and a lovely Christlikeness that had not been there before. To see the mature Simon Peter and the gentleness that came with that growth, check out 1 Peter 2:21-25.

For God to use this man effectively, He had to hone away the edginess that made him a terror to be around, a loose cannon in the mix of disciples, then gentle him and bring him along gradually to Christlikeness. And so with you and me.

The newly converted Saul of Tarsus was abrasive. Acts 9 tells the story: “But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. And ... the Jews plotted to do away with him. The disciples took him by night and let him [out of the city].

“And when he had come to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples, and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas [a sweet-spirited Christlike encourager!] took him and [vouched for him]. And he was with them moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death.”

Everywhere Saul went, he stirred up opposition. He had a strong grip on the truth, but very little love to sweeten it. Sometime later, he was to counsel the Lord’s people to “speak the truth in love”  (Eph. 4:15). But he had yet to learn that lesson.

How Saul of Tarsus made this transition—losing the abrasiveness and growing to the point where he could say, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace ... ”—is a great lesson for all of us who are called as the Lord’s disciples too.

The Lord put him on the shelf.

“When the brethren [in Jerusalem] learned of [the plot to kill Saul], they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus [his home town]. So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace” (Acts 9:30-31).

It doesn’t speak very highly of you if your leaving blesses the church.

Saul returned home for an indefinite period. That time period stretches from Acts 9:30-11:25, at which time Barnabas traveled to Tarsus in search of this one who had been called as a missionary to the Gentiles.

What was Saul doing during that period? We’re not told, but I think we know.

Since from the moment Barnabas located him and brought him to Antioch where God was doing a new thing with the Gentiles Saul was ready and sharp and effective, we may assume he had spent the Tarsus period in quiet study and prayer, in soul-searching and in humbling himself. He surely was faithful during this quiet period, waiting on the Lord. (However, can’t you just hear his parents? “We sent you to the School of Gamaliel in Jerusalem to become a rabbi. And you’re back here making tents. What’s going on, son? What kind of trouble did you get into this time?”)

There is a place for abrasive Christians in the church. It’s not in leadership positions, of course. They don’t need to be teaching the Word, leading classes on anything or occupying a decision-making role.

The place for them is at the altar.

They need to shelve themselves until the Lord has tamed them, gentled their nature, and begun quieting this willfulness that wants to run the show, put everyone in his place and tell God how to do His business.

And to say the obvious here, if the abrasive Christian will not take himself or herself out of the game and sit on the bench, someone has to do it for them. If you are the pastor or key church leader, you may be the one assigned this task.

Have fun with that. (Smiley face goes here.)

Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.

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