Those who believe themselves to be hep to my tricksy ways might have surmised that I orchestrated this entire recent flap about Steven Sitler because Randy Booth and I recently put out a book entitled A Justice Primer. But whether you are disposed to believe me or not, that was a total coincidence. In this book we address biblical principles for evaluating charges that are brought against someone, anyone. The book is, I believe, quite a necessary resource for good-hearted Christians everywhere — who regularly see defamatory information scrolling by in their Facebook feed. There is even a chapter entitled “Trial by Internet,” which concludes with this sage advice: “Never get into a braying contest with donkeys” (p. 160).
Nancy and I have been quite blessed by all the believers who have checked in with us to see if we are doing okay, and who have let us know they are praying for us. We really appreciate it, and are doing quite well, thank you. This is not our first rodeo, and we have previously had numerous occasions to see how God uses this kind of situation for blessing in our lives.
I thought I would put together a short list of seven ways this kind of thing can be used for good. Of course, the real list is much bigger than seven, but this is what I thought of this morning. Here are a few ways we see blessing, and look for more blessing to follow. These points come in no particular order.
1. This kind of controversy gives me opportunity to hold up A Justice Primer and say, “Did you know that we have this new book out?” Have I already mentioned the book? I forget. Either one of my girls could have had a big country hit if they had wanted — Colporter’s Daughter.
2. This kind of controversy has a winnowing effect. “For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor. 11:19, ESV). When something like this happens, it really is revelatory. People come out of the woodwork in very interesting ways, and often they don’t seem to be aware that they are doing so. They “like” articles and posts they shouldn’t, and don’t seem to be aware that what they are doing is quite visible and consequential. Perhaps you knew someone was bitter, but not that bitter, or ungrateful, but not that ungrateful. Or perhaps you had no idea. But uproars like this give people an opportunity to declare themselves, which they then do. When you run your little flag up the flag pole, it turns out other people can see it.
3. This kind of controversy reveals those who have true wisdom also. In line with that winnowing effect, it is a joy to see parishioners and friends who “get it,” and who articulate the truth with grace and verve. They know, for example, the difference between assertions and demonstrations, between yelling and proof. As one of our more astute parishioners illustrated for us, they know when there is a real problem and when the Internet is just throwing poo into the ceiling fan. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for the community of saints we have here.
4. This kind of controversy reveals to young men who are preparing for ministry the true nature of gospel ministry. From a distance, certain kinds of “mercy ministry” look wonderful, appealing, and, if you are a hipster, sexy. Everybody likes mercy ministry, and everybody detests those white bread churches that won’t do mercy ministry. Everybody is all about mercy ministry until the meth heads and sex offenders start showing up at church.
“Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12–14).
These people Jesus was thinking of . . . I wonder what they smelled like. I wonder what their sexual histories were like. I wonder if any of them would be invited to fill out a golf foursome that a well-connected minister had arranged with some Chamber of Commerce leaders. No, this passage is talking about low-lifes, and you can’t minister to them without risking being lumped in with them. You glutton. You drunkard. You protector of pedophiles.
But make no mistake — Jesus also hung out with well-connected sinners (Luke 5:29) — Marine colonels, IRS men, and beautiful courtesans in gold lamé dresses. But that is a different issue for a different kind of moralistic fusser. We can deal with that another time.
5. This kind of controversy gives me an opportunity to extend an unacknowledged good to certain of my adversaries. Jesus says to bless them, and this is one way to do it. In this last round of poo-throwing, quite a sinister construction was placed on a comment I made a number of years ago — “I am a pastor. I cover up sin for a living.” But some of the disgruntled people who are out there yelling about this are some of the very people I would refuse to tell stories on. And despite their current animus, they don’t need to worry about it; this is not a veiled threat. I would rather die than use information gleaned in the course of pastoral ministry against them in the course of a public fight (1 Cor. 9:15). But I can go so far as to say that among those who are going after me for “protecting” Steven Sitler are some people who are receiving far more protection from me than he is. In the nature of the case, his sins were criminal and therefore public, and have to be discussed publicly. But when certain folks join forces with those who hate the fact that I “cover up sins for a living,” I do want to catch their eye, nod slightly, and enjoy with them a moment of shared irony.
6. This kind of controversy gives fuller meaning to the communion of opprobrium that faithful ministers of every age share. Jesus says that we are to rejoice when people revile us, in part because of the company it puts us in.
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12).
And Jesus doesn’t say we are to be a little bit glad. He says exceeding glad. He says that we are to go around the corner, get out of their sight, and do a little jig. In this case, Nancy — a Puritan jewel — celebrated by buying me a nice bottle of Laphroaig.
Spurgeon once put it this way: “The more prominent you are in Christ’s service, the more certain are you to be the butt of calumny. I have long ago said farewell to my character. I lost it in the early days of my ministry by being a little more zealous than suited a slumbering age. And I have never been able to regain it except in the sight of Him who judges all the earth, and in the hearts of those who love me for my work’s sake.”
And as another Puritan once put it, he had learned the art of living in the high mountain air of public calumny.
7. This kind of controversy gives us an opportunity to anticipate the next wave of blessing in store for us. As mentioned above, this kind of thing has happened before, and every time it has happened, it was right on the threshold of great blessings for our church and community. This is how God gives His gifts to us. This is the kind of gift wrap He uses, and we recognize it by now. We know the shape of the box and know what’s coming. In one of our previous uproars, a package full of scurrilous charges against me was delivered to our front door, hundreds of pages, and these charges were every bit as energetic as they were erratic. As Nancy and I were talking about it, I said to her, “This is my big promotion.” And it was.