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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Defending the Faith...with Gentleness and Respect (the Role of Idolatry)

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:13-17 ESV)

Like most Christians, I have been encouraged many times by pastors, teachers, accountability partners and the like to heed the message of 1 Peter 3:15 to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Yet I find it interesting that the second part of the sentence is often omitted from such encouragement, “do it with gentleness and respect.” Certainly Peter’s primary emphasis here is to ensure that believers put the “best foot forward” in our interaction with others as we defend the faith, but how do we do that?

I believe there are two underlying truths behind Peter’s teaching that are fundamental to our success in being able to give a ready defense with gentleness and respect – trusting God and distinguishing between God and objects God has given us.  The former is overtly given as a means of maintaining gentleness through Peter’s instruction to “honor Christ the Lord as holy.” That is, when we realize Christ’s position and power, this allows us to see that since He is so magnificent and holy, we can trust the outcome of the offender to Him, we can trust in our own outcome and therefore have “no fear,” and we can trust in the outcome of truth because as the Sovereign Lord, Christ will be vindicated in history. Such confidence breeds contentment and therefore gentleness.  This is true because the source of much irritation and harsh expressions is fear and uncertainty.

Distinguishing God from objects He has given us is not overtly stated in the passage but I believe it is a guiding principle throughout Scripture and is especially important in the measured defense of our faith.  More than a few times my own defense of certain beliefs has become more heated than they should. In reflecting on these times it occurs to me that the reason for this heat is that I am giving position to things that really can’t support them and so an uneasiness or fear kicks in that leads to anger.

I believe the recent reaction of Muslims to the video that mocked Mohammed illustrates this truth very well. As has been well documented, the response was hardly a novel expression. Over the last few decades, we have seen numerous protests concerning cartoons, books, and drawings of the “prophet.” In each case the same two reasons for the protests are given. One reason is the “official” line of argument that says that the protests grow out of a deep desire to avoid the potential idolatry that might arise involving images of the “prophet.” CNN had a piece on this a few days after the attacks explaining this rationale:
Violence over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed may mystify many non-Muslims, but it speaks to a central tenet of Islam: that the Prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah.
“It's all rooted in the notion of idol worship,” says Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic Studies department at American University. “In Islam, the notion of God versus any depiction of God or any sacred figure is very strong."
“The Prophet himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him,” Ahmed says. “So he himself spoke against such images, saying ‘I’m just a man.’”[i]
The other reason given for the protests is found in the words and actions of the common Muslim participating in them. This reason given is that it is blasphemous to insult the prophet Mohammed. For instance, several news agencies reported that recently in Dhaka, Bangladesh signs were carried saying, “Kill us, but don’t insult our Prophet Mohammed.” Indeed, this rationale seems to be more likely the cause of the protests since it is hard to imagine anyone being tempted to worship Mohammed following a viewing of the video “Innocence of Muslims.”

What I find interesting (and relevant to the discussion at hand) is that these two rationales for protest are directly contradictory to each other. The anger, bitterness, and wrath that has been directed over the years at those who would ridicule the prophet and especially use of the term “blasphemy” in describing this ridicule elevates him  to a position on par with whatever god the Muslims say they are worshiping. Based on the contextual use of the word “blasphemy” I assume they have in mind a definition something akin to the following: Blasphemy is “an irreverent or impious act, attitude, or utterance in regard to something considered inviolable or sacrosanct.”[ii] Raising Mohammed to the level of inviolable or sacrosanct raises him to the level of God and so makes him an idol – something revered to the level of worship.  Furthermore, I believe a major cause of the irrational anger is the faulty elevation of Mohammed to such levels when he can’t sustain such a position logically. As a Christian, this fact is confirmed even more to me when I read defenses online asking me to replace Mohammed with Jesus and see how I feel – since I believe Jesus is God and not just a prophet.

I don’t use these events except to illustrate a reality that I believe sometimes finds expression in true believers lives as well – though on a much smaller scale. The Bible itself is full of accounts where followers of God have replaced Him with something He had given them. The worship of the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 4 (esp. 4:3), the bronze serpent in 2 Kings 18:4, the Temple in Jeremiah 7, or sexual relations in Colossians 3:5 all demonstrate we have a tendency to take beautiful gifts that God has given us and twist them to our own ends. In my own life I have witnessed this tendency find expression as believers seek to “defend our faith,” but do so by elevating some secondary reality to the first tier status that ought to be reserved for God alone.

Over the next few weeks I am going to take up some examples this activity in the hopes of challenging myself and others to avoid such practices, which are in fact IDOLATRY! In doing so, I will use three questions to draw distinctions between proper responses and idolatrous defense. Three questions I believe we should all use as a means of analyzing the propriety of our positions:

What is the object of my faith? Is it God or something other than God?
Obviously, this is the core of the issue so it is the first question we should ask. It is important for us to keep certain distinctions in mind about the tool given and the One to whom the tool points.

Am I more driven by anger or compassion?
The motivation in the New Testament for a ready defense is the transformation of the non-believer.  Anger is a secondary emotion that arises from fear or frustration.  With these two truths in mind, whether I approach a challenger with anger or compassion says much about my view of God and what role I play in communicating His truth. Another way to ask this, therefore, might be “Am I driven more by fear or faith?”

Does the truth I have discovered/expressed lead me to humility or pride?
Idolatry will inevitably lead to pride. This is true because when we elevate an object or truth to the level of God it stands there based upon our ingenuity and ability to defend it. Whereas, when we are pointing to God Himself, all we can do is feel humility that He allows for our participation in it at all.

What I hope to accomplish is personal growth in this area of discernment, to learn from the mistakes of my predecessors and contemporaries in the beliefs we espouse that go beyond an appropriate level of expression, and to provide a better way to give a defense of our faith that is both gentle and respectful.

[i] http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/12/ambassadors-killing-shines-light-on-muslim-sensitivities-around-prophet-mohammed/comment-page-63/
[ii] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/blasphemy