Addressing Lightning-Rod Issues, Part II: How Must I Address Lightning-Rod Issues?
If you’re not yet convinced that you, as a leader of God’s people, must address lightning-rod issues (e.g., sex, abortion, politics, race, and homosexuality) in the first place, then this post won’t help you. It’ll be like swimming lessons for someone who’s still afraid of the water. If that’s you, then please stop and read part 1 of this two-part series: “Why Must I Address Lightning-Rod Issues?” If, however, you are convinced (as I hope you are) that you must address lightning-rod issues, then let’s commence with some swimming lessons.
Enjoy Jesus in the Gospel
Continually enjoying Jesus in the gospel is the single most important thing we can do to prepare to address lightning-rod issues. Without this blessed ongoing experience, we’ll only be whitewashing our words and serving God with our lips but not with our hearts. And we all know how such things dishonor God and hurt his people.
Enjoying Jesus in the gospel is absolutely essential because our mouths speak from the overflow of our hearts (Luke 6:45). This principle puts the premium for preparation on our hearts. And the key to possessing a heart that overflows with godly grace and truth is to continually enjoy Jesus as he is revealed in the gospel. The late Henri Nouwen ponders the beauty of this movement:
Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance. . . . Dealing with burning issues easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject. But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible but not relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle, and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative. (Quoted in Abba’s Child, by Brennan Manning [Navpress, 1994/2002], 127.)
To enjoy Jesus means that we ask the Holy Spirit to astonish us daily with a few essential gospel truths. We ask him to remind us of our own sinful wretchedness, and the furious, righteous rage it provoked from God. We ask him to help us feel the soul-crushing weight of our complete inability to rescue ourselves from that peril. We ask him to help us marvel deeply at the God who gladly became a man so he could live, die, and rise again to save our condemned souls. And we ask him to help us celebrate the free gift of salvation so lavishly offered to us by our incomprehensibly gracious God.
As the Holy Spirit revives our hearts in these supreme gospel truths, we’re being prepared from the inside out to address lightning-rod issues. That’s because a person who’s enjoying Jesus in the gospel is beautifully dominated both inside and outside in at least two ways.
Humility. Because the gospel reminds us of our own depravity and peril, we’re apt to be humble with our words and delivery. That’s a good thing because discussions about lightning-rod issues tend to make everyone’s blood pressure rise. But it’s hard to throw rocks at others when we’re flat-faced in awe and wonder over the God who rescued us despite our sin. Gospel-fired humility compels us to drop all the rocks we’re ready to hurl at people regarding even the hardest topics. Read John 8:1–11 for a well-known example of this movement.
Confidence. Because the gospel reminds us that we are irrevocably adopted and beloved children of God, our humility is permeated with confidence. It’s a confidence which prepares us to think, “I already have what I need and value the most: God’s forgiveness and love. He’s my Abba! He loves me! He’s enough! I’m now free from my typical neediness to have others respond well to my leadership. I’m free to love them by humbly speaking the truth to them about these tough topics.”
This humble confidence marked the early Christian martyrs who continued to speak grace and truth as their persecutors raged against them. We see this in Stephen as he was being stoned to death for continuing to speak God’s truth about the lightning-rod issue of the day: Is Jesus the Messiah? Only a man whose heart was captivated with Jesus in the gospel could say, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” as the stones rained down upon him (Acts 7:60). This is the humble confidence that we get, too, when we focus on enjoying Jesus in the gospel.
By “incarnate” we mean “fitting our words and delivery to our audience.” Our Lord embodied this principle, literally, as “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). He lived it out on a day-to-day, practical level, too: “With many stories like these, Jesus presented His message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. When He was alone with His disciples, He went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots” (Mark 4:33–34, The Message).
We mirror Jesus’ incarnation when we fit our words and delivery style to our audience. Of course, this does not mean that we become entertainers or spineless chameleons. It means that we understand our audience and search for the very best ways to tell them God’s truth in love. This search must lead us to specific content (Scriptures, words, transitions, illustrations, etc.) and specific delivery mannerisms (inflection, pace, timing, volume, etc.).
Consider, for example, the phrase “pro-life.” When addressing abortion or the sanctity of human life, is that the best incarnation of our/God’s position? In my extensive experience as a coach to churches in the life arena, I can say that it is not. For many people (including Christians) the phrase “pro-life” arouses unhelpful thoughts of bombed abortion clinics, angry and judgmental people/protesters, and political (i.e., Republican) activism. It focuses people only on abortion to the exclusion of other important life issues. For this reason, I often coach people to think of a better incarnation of the honorable “pro-life” concepts espoused by God in Scripture. I suggest words like “champion of life” and “life arena.” These phrases are received more handily and allow the speaker to define concepts more effectively.
Other examples of the need to incarnate come in the debate about when, where, how, or if we identify someone as “African American,” “black,” or as a “person of color.” It shows up in the debate over someone being “gay,” “queer,” “homosexual,” or someone who “struggles with sexual orientation.” Our decisions about what words we choose is an incarnational decision. And it is essential to how we address lightning-rod issues.
Before moving on, let’s revisit our hearts for a moment. How do we grow our hearts as incarnational springs for incarnational words? We do it by marveling at Jesus’ incarnation on our behalf. Pondering the fact that God became a man to save us “while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5:8) is enough to melt our hearts in joyous praise. We can also contemplate how God stoops on a daily basis to show us his kindness and to provide for our needs. He is still the God who “goes over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots” (Matt. 4:34). Experiencing God this way tends to captivate our hearts and cause them to overflow with incarnational desires, words, and mannerisms.
Speak God’s Words
When our hearts are captivated with Jesus in the gospel, and when we’re astonished at his incarnation, we’re most prepared to actually speak God’s words regarding lightning-rod issues. As we consider our actual speaking, there are at least two things we must keep in mind.
Speak God’s Words. To address lightning-rod issues means that we actually have to talk. We have to say something. I bring this up because I’ve frequently found that the most faithful Christian speakers sometimes strangely resort to their lifestyle and non-verbal indicators to tell God’s truth when it comes to sensitive topics. The logic goes, “I don’t need to actually preach about abortion. I just need to let people see how we love people in crisis pregnancies.” It is easy to show how this mindset is completely contrary to Scripture, especially for those called to speaking offices in the church. While our lifestyle and non-verbals must adorn our words, they don’t replace our words. Our (verbally) prophetic role is not suspended for lightning-rod issues!
Our hesitation to actually speak may mirror the editor’s hesitation to publish an article on AIDS in the 1980s comic strip Bloom County. Here is the dialogue between the editor and his copy boy. As you read it, remember that AIDS was a huge lightning-rod issue at the time.
EDITOR [with a look of fear in his eyes]: Copy boy! Copy boy! Here’s the “AIDS and Public Health” story. I . . . I tried to be as explicit as possible.
COPY BOY [reading the editor’s story]: “It’s wise to avoid (the ‘I’ word) or (the ‘A’ word) with (the ‘H’ word) in either his or her (the ‘A’ word II) after (the ‘L’ word) without a brand-name (‘C’ word).”
EDITOR: Am I waffling?
COPY BOY [handing the article back to the editor]: You’re waffling.
(From Billy and the Boingers Bootleg, by Berke Breathed [Little, Brown and Company, 1987], 101–02.)
Where do we find the courage to speak God’s words? In relationship with Jesus. When we are enjoying Jesus in the gospel – Jesus, who was the most courageous Speaker of God’s words in the universe – we will well up with courage to do likewise. We will find ourselves speaking when, how, and where he did. So, once again, we come back to the foundation: enjoying Jesus in the gospel.
Speak God’s Words. Accurate exegesis of appropriate Scriptures is at a premium when dealing with lightning-rod issues. I say this because I’ve frequently found that the most faithful expositors sometimes strangely resort to stats and stories when it comes to sensitive topics. Of course, stats and stories can be helpful to illustrate God’s words. But we must not replace God’s words with illustrations about God’s words.
As we learned at Covenant Seminary, our verbal delivery flows from exposition to illustration to application. We explain God’s point, then we illustrate God’s point, then we apply God’s point. This is always wise, and it is essential when talking about lightning-rod issues. We must speak God’s words clearly, plainly, accurately, passionately, unapologetically, and humbly from a gospel-astonished heart. This is where everything starts.
Jesus actually demonstrated this basic movement. He spoke and did what his Father revealed to him (John 14). This required an ongoing love-relationship between Jesus and his Abba. And it works the same for us. In that relationship, the Holy Spirit illumines the Scriptures (i.e., God’s words) in our hearts and minds, gives us the courage to share God’s words, and even shapes our personalities, circumstances, and gifts to deliver God’s words. And it all happens from the inside out. Which brings us full circle, back to our need to continually enjoy Jesus in the gospel. As we do this, we experience his lavish grace and truth in our hearts causing our mouths to gush with godly grace and truth as we address lightning-rod issues.
Douglas Merkey (MDiv ’00) is an assistant pastor at Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis, Missouri, and is founder and president of Churches for Life, which, since 2008 has been nourishing churches as gospel-driven champions of the sanctity of human life. Find out more about this ministry at www.getintolife.org, or contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org.