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Chapter Seventeen How Not to Handle Theological Conflict There were two events in my life during this trial that God used in a strange way. He used these events to shine His glorious light through the darkened glass of my mind and heart so that I could see just how much dirt was really on it. I’d like to share these events in this final section for two reasons. First, sharing them will illustrate how much theological and doctrinal controversies reveal more about our heart than our theology. Second, these events clearly teach you how not to handle theological conflict in your own heart and mind. In other words, do as I say, not as I did! It continues to astound me that I’ve put so much energy in the past on being right theologically, yet so little energy in being holy and Christ-like. By God’s grace I’ve identified that more clearly than ever throughout the course of this trial, and I’m making big changes and taking great strides to be theologically correct and more than anything else, like my Savior. 1. Don’t Let Anger Control Your Response to Your Theological Foes It’s been so long ago now that I don’t even recall when this first event happened. But I’m almost positive it happened before the lawsuit was initiated. I had gone to the school that morning to talk with Buddy, our school administrator, as I did every morning. Unfortunately, for both of us, there were still traces of self-pity that would evidence itself in sitting around and talking about the whole situation, analyzing it, criticizing others, etc. You know what I’m talking about; you’ve been there before. We were basically wasting our time, beating a dead horse. I don’t know what happened but something got under my skin that morning as I drove home. As I recall it had something to do with the fact that because of Alex’s shenanigans I was quite possibly going to lose my job at the church, and so would Buddy at the school. Further, his activity had caused such a major problem at the school that it seemed as if we were unable to move forward in terms of planning for the next school year, just a couple of months around the corner! I may not remember why I got so ticked off, but I definitely remember getting ticked off as I drove the two miles home from the school. Something happened to me inside. It was as if I was turning
into the Incredible Hulk, or something. I came inside, snapped at one of the kids, told them to go to their room, and then the Hulk came out. I entered my bedroom and sat down in the corner on plastic storage container. We had still not finished unpacking and dared not do so. That triggered more anger. My wife was in the bedroom sitting on the bed, folding laundry. I yelled at the kids for them to go to their rooms. I closed my bedroom door, and the tirade began. My first words were something like this. “Sherri, I want you to tell me what you are going to do to stop me from going over to Alex’s house and…” I can’t repeat the rest. This is a Christian book. I rolled out the red carpet for my flesh. I used a few swear words. I yelled, grew redfaced, veins popping out of my neck. I sinned greatly before the Lord and my wife. Secretly, as I was flailing about like a lost man I was praying that my kids weren’t hearing any of this. What made matters worse was my wife! She allowed a slight smile to form on her face, and snickered at me. And it was as if she was telepathically sending me the message, “You’re such a big baby!” That got me more angry. So I yelled at her, “This isn’t a laughing matter!” She evidently thought it was, and she was probably right! But instead of agreeing with her I slammed my fist against the bedroom door and went another round in my tirade. As is often the case with those who express their anger by ‘blowing up’ or ‘clamming up,’ an immense amount of energy is expended in a such a short period of time so that the body becomes quickly depressed. Add to that the fact that I had sinned greatly, and the guilt of it all immediately began to weigh heavily on me so as to bring about more depression. That’s how sin works, so beware of it and get control of your anger before it gets control of you. Long story short, I was physically, spiritually and severely depressed for the rest of the day. I pretty much stayed in my room, like a baby, away from the rest of civilization, moping, pouting and feeling sorry for myself all day long. As I look back on it, if this fight was about the doctrines of grace, I sure wasn’t showing any grace toward Alex in my heart! In fact, as Jesus taught in Matthew 5:21-23, I had in all actuality just murdered him right there in my bedroom. I made threats that I wanted to carry out, even though I didn’t have the guts to. I said evil things about him, destroying the image of God in him. I seriously sinned. My righteousness as a Christian and pastor at that moment had slumped to the level of Pharisaic righteousness. Jesus was talking about me when He preached,
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matt. 5:20-22). Yep, that’s me. I did everyone of those things. I was angry with him. I called him names. I don’t know Aramaic, but I would have called him ‘Raca’ and whatever else came to my mind at the time if I could have thought of it! And worse than that, I regarded him as a fool in my heart. That’s really what Jesus was talking about in this passage. He’s not after the words that we say about someone, for that is the righteousness which the scribes and Pharisees were concerned about. No, He is concerned about the heart. So when someone says, “You fool!” that is tantamount to hating them in our hearts, and thus in Jesus’ eyes, we have murdered them. I was guilty of court, supreme court, and indeed hell itself that day. That’s not the way pastors are supposed to act, is it? Hey, that’s not the way Christians are supposed to act. How could I expect the Holy Spirit to move in and among me and my ministry if I was acting this way? Paul said in Ephesians 4:29-31, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth…And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you along with all malice.” Instead, there was much unwholesomeness proceeding from my mouth. And in so doing I was definitely grieving the Spirit of God. I was rolling out the red carpet for my flesh instead of for the Spirit to help me in the midst of my frustration. This is exactly opposite of what Paul called the Galatians to do. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing
the things you want to do…Now the works of the flesh are evident:…strife…fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions…and things like these” (Gal. 5:16-21, ESV). I had not walked in the Spirit, and consequently I had grieved Him. The Holy Spirit was grieved in my bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. The sin of the Plaintiffs had become my own sin. I had forgotten James’ words to his congregation. “But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (1:19-20). To be sure, it is completely okay to be angry as long as two things are true. First, our anger must be motivated by an offense against God, not against us. It’s amazing how much we allow our own personal issues to get in the way of God’s business. And it’s even more astounding how we superimpose our personal issues on God, so as to make our issues His issues. That’s how we rationalize our anger and give justification to our sin. It’s so subtle and tricky. We’ve got to be on our toes constantly to avoid this diseased sort of thinking. Second, as Paul taught in Ephesians 4:26-27, “Be angry and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.” Here’s the point I want to get across. We are fallen and depraved. There is nothing good in and of ourselves, without Christ. So at best, any personal motivation we have to be angry is probably sinful. But if we are angry at something that offends God, that is okay. In fact, we should be angry, because if we are not, it points to a serious spiritual deficiency in our hearts. But that’s not what happened with me. Repeatedly, Sunday after Sunday, petition after petition, confrontation after confrontation I had already victoriously expressed controlled anger that had arisen from an offense against God. But what happened that day in the bedroom was in stark contrast to my behavior in the presence of the Plaintiffs. In other words, I was a different person in private than I was in public. That made me a class A Pharisee. Do you know why I was angry? I was angry because “I” had been inconvenienced. When I express anger against that which inconveniences me, I am sinning. The motivation behind my anger is not godly but selfish. It does not come from Christ but from the flesh. That led me to sin, and we are not supposed to sin when we get angry because that opens wide the door of our hearts to the devil to come in and wreak more havoc in our hearts…and in our homes.
Learn from my mistakes, brothers and sisters. Learn from my sin, pastors! These people were sinning against God, not me. I should have continued to pass the offense on to God rather than take it and hold it within my heart. That’s what went wrong. By taking an offense that rightly belonged to God and holding it in my stinky, sinful, fleshly heart, that offense mutated and grew toxic in my heart. Offenses don’t belong in our hearts. We are sinful and are incapable of doing the right thing with them. The only thing that will come of it is sinful anger. Pass your offenses along to God. He dealt with them by crucifying His Son on the cross. My offenses against God were placed on Jesus there at the cross. And that’s where I must put the offenses of others, extending to them the same mercy and forgiveness that God through Christ extended to me. The gospel is the key here. Failure to apply it’s forgiving, cleansing, and healing power to the offenses others have caused you, will eventually cause you to become an offense to everyone else around you. If you don’t apply the gospel in your anger, two things will happen. First, you will sin in unrighteously angry, and you will undoubtedly be tempted to take revenge, to pay them back for what they’ve done to you. I can’t tell you how many times I thought of wonderful schemes to get Alex in trouble! I mean it! I can actually remember one sinister plot that would have… Well, I might incriminate myself if I put it in print. The point was that this kind of thinking was as sinful as my anger! How childish I had become in my anger! That leads to the second thing that happens if you don’t give your offense to God: you will not leave any room for God to display His righteous anger. God is much smarter than we are. On that basis, I made the determination that if Alex needed to be punished, I would want God to do it rather than I, because He could do it better than I. So whatever you do, don’t think you know better than God! Take Paul’s counsel in Romans 12:16b, 17, 19, 21 “ Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone…Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” 2. As Far As It Depends On You, Be at Peace with your Theological Foes.
Bouncing off the Romans passage just quoted, I purposefully left out verse 18 because I wanted to deal with that second. Paul wrote in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” By God’s grace I was enabled to do this in another situation, and thankfully handle it much more like a Christian and a pastor! In November of 2004, while we were awaiting a verdict from the judge regarding the future of some possible vote, the Lord sovereignly orchestrated a death among the Plaintiffs. She was in her early forties, divorced with an adult son, and was not faithfully attending services when I came to the church. Her father was also a Plaintiff, and together with his daughter they had decided to attend a church up the road, one which our church had helped to plant back in the mid-seventies. This young lady also attended a Bible study which my wife attended on Monday nights. A mother of one our younger church members taught the study. It was obviously quite awkward for my wife to be there with her. But the day she died, the teacher of the study called my wife to encourage her. Evidently some two to three weeks previously this woman had confessed to the teacher that she hated my wife and I. But God had convicted her of it to the point where she needed to confess it to us and ask our forgiveness and express her love to us. She told the teacher that the next time she saw my wife she was going to give her a hug and tell her how much she loved her. The next day this young lady got sick and was laid out of Bible study for a couple of weeks. She never got that opportunity to confess her sin to my wife or express that love. But we feel it now, even though she is with the Lord now. The problem was however, she may not have told her family before she died. How do I know? Because when I went to her house the day she died, I wasn’t feeling the love! I was running errands in Columbus, some twenty-plus miles away, when one of our deacons called to inform me she was found dead in her home earlier that morning. My heart was gripped with fear. I started trembling and shaking, my head was spinning. A little panic set in. I dropped what I was doing and headed for her house. One thought spanned all my other thoughts: “perhaps this was the moment when peace could be initiated between both sides!” That’s all I wanted. I simply desired to be at peace with them, as far as it depended on me. When I got there, I parked behind one of the dozen or so cars that were there. After getting out of my car, I spotted through a windshield of another car Alex and Pastor Meddler talking with someone else. My first thought was to go over to them and embrace them both with the words, “I know we’re not supposed to talk to each other, but I believe
these circumstances grant us all an excuse from that legality.” I didn’t trust Pastor Meddler at all, so I decided not to do that. What I did do was to walk on up the front yard to a couple of women who were talking on the sidewalk. I offered my hand as a greeting to the older of the two women, and explained who I was. Wow! She must not have heard of me or the trouble I had caused! She was really nice to me. She turned out to be the sister of the woman who had died. As it turns out, the reason the young lady never came back to Bible study was because she had contracted pneumonia, something she only found out the day before she died. When she was diagnosed and sent home, her son went to get her meds and bring them home. She took them, went to bed, woke up the next morning, had a phone conversation with another lady from her Bible study group, and then died shortly thereafter, sitting in a chair in her living room. I expressed my condolences, and then inquired as to the officers who were present. I saw a county Sheriff’s squad car, and a city police car. I figured that if the chief of police was there, that was good for me. I knew him, he knew me, and we could chat a bit. I also knew a few of the deputies in our county, so I was hoping to hit a double here. The chief and a deputy were inside conducting an investigation to rule out any foul play. As I was talking to the sister, Pastor Meddler and Alex walked up to the woman’s father who was in the corner of the front porch weeping and sobbing over his precious daughter. Unfortunately, he too was a Plaintiff. But I knew that once Alex and Pastor Meddler saw me, they would make a bee-line for the father. This was quite uncomfortable as you can imagine. When I was talking to the sister, I saw Pastor Meddler bend over and whisper something to the father. I knew my time there would be limited. The sister directed me to the back door where I could enter the house and talk to the police. But I stopped at the back door, not wanting to foul up their investigation with my muddy shoes or fingerprints. So after hanging out back, praying desperately for wisdom, I headed back around front. I found the sister again and asked her if she would mind stepping into the house with me, as I didn’t feel comfortable. She agreed and off we went. As I took off my shoes and attempted to enter behind her, a man came from behind and began raising his voice to the sister. “Ted [the father] don’t want him here. He wants him out o’ here!” I paused and
looked at the sister, and she at me. The man repeated himself a little louder. “I’m sorry, who are you?” I asked. “I’m the ex-son-in-law and Ted don’t want you here.” To that I simply responded, “I’m sorry, I don’t know you but I’ll be happy to see you in just a moment.” The man didn’t like that too much so he got even louder, saying to the sister, “He’s the reason why she stopped going to that church!” He had made enough noise by that time that the deputy came to the back door. Ooops. It wasn’t a deputy I knew, so that just turned up the heat a bit more for me. The look on the deputy’s face and her presence made it clear I needed to keep things calm by leaving. She watched as I put on my shoes and made sure I left. While walking from the back to the front, the sister apologized for the rude behavior and asked me to pray for the family. While leaving, I caught the man out of the corner of my right eye. I turned around and walked up to him, offering my hand with a greeting. “I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Rob Wilkerson.” He gripped my hand and I honestly thought he was going to crush it and snap it right off my wrist! He simply responded with incredible rudeness, “Hi Rob! Bye!” And with that he swung me away from him rather forcefully with the hand he was shaking and pushed me on the shoulder with the other hand. Remember that anger thing I just confessed a couple of pages ago? I suppose a little fleshly anger got in the way. So I held on to his hand tightly as he swung me out of the way and I pulled him somewhat forcefully back to me. I must have been feeling fleshly because this fellow was much bigger than I. As I intimated before, sinful anger makes you act foolish. I was in his face now, just inches away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name. I’d just like to know the name of the man who is kicking me off this property, while I’m trying to minister to the family.” He said, “I’m Brian,” followed by the last name of the woman who had died. I then said to him, “Brian, I’m the pastor at Waverly Hall Baptist Church. Your ex-wife is still a church member there, and I was her pastor for as long as she attended there. I loved her very much, and I love her family very much. And I don’t think we really want to foul up this sorrowful time by making a scene.” He grabbed my hand a little tighter, the pain making me wince, and he responded angrily in a lower, softer tone of voice, “I really don’t care what you think. Now get out of here!” And he shoved me that time! Oh, buddy! It was feeling like ‘throw-down’ time! Wrestling
moves from my childhood days watching WWF began flooding my mind. I imagined myself jumping on the hood of the Suburban behind me and doing a flying scissor kick. I imagined bouncing him off the peach tree behind him and following through with a close line, finishing him off with a back-soufflé. It’s amazing how fast all of that flowed through my mind within one to two seconds. And then the Spirit of God stepped in with His body slam. I was immediately reminded of Paul’s words to Timothy. “For it is not right for the Lord's servant to make trouble, but he is to be gentle to all, ready in teaching, putting up with wrong, gently guiding those who go against the teaching; if by chance God may give them a change of heart and true knowledge, and so they may get themselves free from the net of the Evil One, being made the prisoners of the Lord's servant, for the purpose of God” (2 Tim. 2:24-26, BBE). Everyone’s eyes were suddenly turned toward us. He had evidently made a scene when he shoved me. I felt embarrassed. Pride kicked in, unfortunately, and I turned and walked away hurt and ashamed. I was humiliated in front of a dozen people! So I walked down to my car, off their property and simply waited for the chief of police to come out of the house. Well, he had already come out and had seen the small altercation. So he followed me down, not too far behind. I met him in the middle of the street and shook his hand and greeted him warmly. We knew each other and had talked several times together. But this time he was not very warm to me at all. He was cold, and had a firm look in his eye that told me I needed to make it short before he give me a citation, or better yet book me! So I told him I would be praying for the family and I left. So you’re probably laughing at me now. That’s okay. I can take it now. I’m over it! Let’s do a review then. What went wrong? I had forgotten the phrase in Romans 12:18, “as far as it depends on you.” I had done all I could. And instead of leaving the rest to the Lord, I once again internalized the offense which should have been passed on to God. As I said before, I had envisioned this young woman’s death as the beginning of a peaceful healing. You know how it is when death occurs. People are generally softened. That’s what I thought would happen to the Plaintiffs who were involved. And so I thought I could be a peacemaker. But how often do we try to make peace when it is not God’s timing? When we don’t wait on God, we jump to our time table. And since we are sinful and depraved, our motivations turn selfish and
we begin to want to make peace because we are being inconvenienced. Perhaps this was lurking around in my heart again. 3. Always Forgive Your Theological Foes Because They May Not Know What They are Doing. Later that weekend, while I was out of town for Thanksgiving, I received a letter which I found when I got back into town. It was from Ted’s lawyer. The lawyer introduced himself and then relayed a request from Ted that I not visit him, not attend visitation at the funeral home, nor attend the funeral service. I was again crushed, disappointed, and frustrated. Here I was again, reading mail from a lawyer telling me I can’t do what God has called me to do for the people He called me to shepherd. I recalled Jesus being in a very similar situation. John recalls that, “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him” (1:11). I then remembered that I was in good company. Now, if I could only act, think and feel like Christ did toward His own, I would be better off. Looking back on that particular scenario, I was so disillusioned, irritated, angry, and more than anything, just plain ashamed. You see, my Christ, while being murdered on a cross, looked down on those who were killing him and prayed that God would forgive them. Yet I got pushed and shoved, had my hand slightly crushed, and got a letter from a lawyer telling me to stay away from my church members. I was a embarrassed, and my pride was hurt. But instead of forgiving, I got angry and irritated. Oh, how unlike the Chief Shepherd I am! That attitude plagued me for the rest of the week and on into the next. I got alone in my church office and prayed desperately for the Lord to correct that in me, and had a season of repentance. I wanted the heart of Jesus and Stephen who prayed that God would not hold the sins of their murderers against them (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60)! The Lord was about to test that repentance, however. The beginning of the next week, first thing in the morning, I got a call from our lawyer saying the judge had issued his order. Buddy went down to the courthouse to pick it up. We were the first to lay eyes on it, evidently. I wished I never had. It was even more discouraging than the visitation incident. In short, the judge’s order granted everything the Plaintiffs wanted, and a little bit more. In that order, he spent the first half of his
ruling citing findings of facts and conclusions of law that were clearly in our favor. Yet in the last half it was as if he had ignored what was in the first half. His order was that anyone who is a church member, regardless if they had been to church or not in the last twenty, thirty, or forty years, were permitted to vote on whether or not to terminate me as pastor. Everyone, that is, except the new members who had joined the church after I came on a pastor! Is that biased or what? It gets worse. Only those who were members prior to January 18, 2004 – the date of the vote to call me – were allowed to vote on whether or not to terminate the service of our deacons. Now our church bylaws provided no mechanism for terminating deacons, and recognizing that, the judge ruled anyway that he would permit it. And just as bad was his order that the church would also vote on whether or not my wife and I, in addition to one other church family, were going to be allowed to be members of the church. His order came in that sequence, and he ordered that it was to be voted upon in that sequence. Thus, his prejudice was revealed to be even deeper. Finally, as if it couldn’t get any worse, he appointed our female county registrar, who was head of elections in our county, to (1) show up on December 12, during our morning worship service, and preside in authority over our congregation from the pulpit to read a notice regarding the vote; and (2) show up on December 19, at noon to preside over the voting. We obviously had a problem with that since 1 Timothy 2:12 teaches, “I do not allow a woman to…exercise authority over a man.” The judge was, in essence, commanding us to disobey the Scriptures on this point, as well as commanding us to end our worship service by a certain time on December 19 so that an unbiblical vote could take place. Further, the voting procedures were ridiculous. First, the registrar would show up with signs in the church’s lawn directing people where to enter the building to vote. A line would be formed either inside or outside the building, behind a registration table. When they came to the table, they were to bring a picture I.D. with them to verify name and membership. After verification of their name with the ‘official’ membership roll book, they would be directed to one of two voting booths, pull the curtain behind them, and commence to casting their ballot. In other words, our church was to be turned into a voting precinct. I even wondered if they would allow us to do some candidating and politicking outside, passing out buttons, flags, bumper stickers, and lapel pins saying, “I voted AGAINST the Pastor!”
Well, my repentance was weighed and found wanting that day when this verdict was handed down. I sulked for a while. Bad news is always worse for me when I’m alone. And there I was, alone at home, waiting for my wife to get back from picking up the boys from school. The anger hit me full force once again. I felt it surging through my body, and it didn’t leave that sensation one gets when eating York Peppermint Patty! It almost felt like a sudden onslaught of demonic oppression. Regardless of whether it was my flesh or demons, the solution was simple: stop, drop and pray. But I didn’t do that, for some reason. I continued to sulk instead, meditating on the hurt and the pain. So I let the flesh keep on building for those few minutes. I tried to make a phone call on my mobile phone, and I kept getting a system busy signal. The building anger exploded on an innocent cell phone as I chucked it as hard as I could into the wooded lot next to my house. As it watched it sailing over the trees I thought to myself, “Self, you’re such a stinking idiot. Go over there and get the phone and stop acting like a baby!” So I went inside and got the cordless phone and started calling my cell phone so I could find it. I didn’t hear it ring. But by God’s grace, I did eventually find it, though a piece of it went missing. But the anger hadn’t subsided yet. So I looked around for a something metal and something hard. A portion of our yard was filled with all kinds of junk from the previous residents. (Remember, I live in the South!) I found an axle to a tractor, picked it up, and like some foolish looking little child, found a tree and started beating it with that axle. It then found its way traveling into the woods like my phone. Friends, I feel absolutely embarrassed to write this down, but I did it in hopes that it may encourage some of you. I know I’m not the only one whose ever acted with such sinful anger and childish behavior. Regardless of who you are or what your issues are, you’re not the only one struggling with bitterness and anger. Even us pastors do, and rather frequently it seems! But this is not how our Savior acted when sinful people made him angry, was it? He didn’t throw things into the woods. Instead, He went into the woods to pray. He found solace in solitude, and submitted His will to the Heavenly Father. There’s never any record of Christ throwing something or beating trees when He got angry. My response was utterly sinful. But I praise God for the righteousness of Christ, for justification, for God declaring me ‘not guilty’ of what I had done all because He had already poured out His wrath against my sinfulness on Jesus as He suffered and died for me. God had forgiven me because of Jesus Christ.
Now, there’s nothing wrong, to be sure, with ridding oneself of tension. As I said before, we can be angry, but we must not sin in our anger, as Paul exhorted in Ephesians 4:26. But what was wrong with me that day – and every other day I was angry - was the residue of sin in my heart. For in that invisible space no one else could see but God alone, dwelled sinful anger, bitterness, resentment, and even hatred. If it were possible, I would have turned into the Incredible Hulk and gone off on some rampage. This was the same sort of anger that I displayed toward Alex that afternoon in my bedroom with my wife. Evil and malicious thoughts were running through my head too fast to comprehend. That, in particular is what made me think I was being oppressed by the enemy. I can’t come up with evil thoughts that quickly. But if they were there, I gave room to them, as Paul commands me not to do in Ephesians 4:27. Right on the heels on commanding us not to be sinful in our anger, Paul writes, “Do not give the devil an opportunity.” But do you know why the anger was so hard to repent of? Here’s the crux of this third point here. There was only one reason why I had such a hard time repenting. I had not truly forgiven Alex and his cohorts for what they had done to me, the leadership, and our little flock. For if I had truly forgiven them, I would not have reacted in such anger. Instead, there would have been an attitude like that of Jesus and Stephen in their hours of death. When forgiveness is absent, only bitterness is present. I love the way Eugene Peterson translated the counsel of Hebrews 12:15. “Make sure no one gets left out of God's generosity. Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time” (The Message). Right on the heels of Paul’s counsel regarding anger, bitterness, wrath, malice, clamor and slander, in Ephesians 4:26-31, he closes that section with the solution to it all. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you.” Could there be any greater deathblow to my heart which was already bleeding from so much pain! Christ has forgiven me; me – a filthy, vile, wretched sinner who had committed spiritual murder; me – a pastor who snapped at his kids and yelled at his wife. Me – a pastor who threw his mobile phone in the woods…who beat a tree with a tractor
axle. Me – a pastor who imagined myself performing wrestling moves on a man who hurt me and embarrassed me. My sins are as many as the sands on the beach, and yet God wiped them all away because of Christ. God chosen to remember my sins no more. He chose to not count them against me (Psa. 32:2), but to put them behind Him (Isa. 38:17), throwing them as far as the east is from the west (Psa. 103:12). The spiritual logic lesson here was as simple as it gets: If my sins are great and many, and God forgave me, I must forgive Alex and the Plaintiffs, though their sins are great and many. This was a major part of the Model Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. “And forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us” (v. 12, ISV). Immediately following that prayer, Jesus felt that a most important topic in that prayer was the issue of forgiveness. So He continued by teaching, “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (vv. 14, 15, NAS). If there were one book, besides the Bible, that has helped me more than any other in this area of forgiveness, it would be R. T. Kendall’s book, Total Forgiveness. My friend and fellow elder in a former church, Phil Bradt, recommended this book to me one day on a trip we were taking together. He talked about the impact it made on his own life. But God sovereignly saved that recommendation and brought it to my mind with full force during this particular course of my tribulation. I had purchased it during the first couple of weeks of my ministry here, not knowing how badly I would need it later. It was while I was sulking that day I yelled at my wife in my bedroom, that the Lord brought Phil’s recommendation to mind. God did it again later on after my second bout with sinful anger. And you don’t have to read far into Kendall’s book before you read the clear, biblical, and undeniable meaning of true forgiveness. “The ultimate proof of total forgiveness takes place when we sincerely petition the Father to let those who have hurt us off the hook – even if they have hurt not only us, but also those close to us.”1
Kendall, R. T. Total Forgiveness (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2002), p. 4. If there was only one book I could recommend to hurting pastors who have been offended, bruised, hurt, and almost slain by their parishioners, it would be Kendall’s
The ensuing conversation which Kendall has with the Lord was shocking to me. I thought he had stolen my own conversation with God! But his happened many years before mine, and it happened partly in order to give me comfort and much needed guidance in my own struggle to forgive, which seems undoubtedly much like Kendall’s. It was right after Kendall felt the Lord’s instruction to him above that the conversation continued. “However, after a few moments, it was as if the Lord said to me, ‘Do you know what you are asking Me to do?’ “I thought I knew the answer to His question, so I said, ‘Yes.’ “He then seemed to reply, ‘Are you now asking Me to set them free as if they had done nothing wrong?’ “That sobered me! I needed some time to think, but while I pondered His words, the Lord reminded me of the sins for which He had forgiven me. I became frightened of the possibility that He might reveal – or let come out – some of the terrible things I had done. “I then humbly prayed, ‘Yes, Lord, I ask You to forgive them.’ “He then asked, ‘Do you mean that I should bless and prosper them?’ “Once more I needed a little time. Then the Lord seemed to say, ‘What if I forgive and bless you R. T., in proportion to how you want Me to forgive and bless them?’ “By this time I was boxed into a corner, and I surrendered. I began to sincerely pray for them to be forgiven and blessed as though they had caused me no offense. But I cannot truly say that my prayer was particularly godly or unselfish.”2
book. It effectively yet gently applies the healing balm of the gospel of Christ to the heart so that one is able to come to view our offenders as God viewed us – unworthy yet unending recipients of His superabounding love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. I cannot give this book any higher recommendation to such a group of persons as pastors. 2 Ibid, pp. 4-5.
Reading Kendall’s encounter with the Lord was the most convicting thing I had ever read throughout the course of this lawsuit. By God’s grace, through the truth of the gospel of forgiveness, I was enabled to pray for my theological foes, my church-splitters in the same way and for the same things Kendall was enabled to pray for. The gospel is truly powerful. It is powerful enough to convict me of my sinfulness before God and of the assurance of His forgiveness for my sins. And it continues to be powerful enough to overcome my feelings of bitterness and unforgiveness toward those who oppose me, helping me to love them in the same way Jesus loved me. So you see, though I have had a larger portion of trials and tribulations with respect to my theology and ministry, I am not the model pastor by any stretch of the imagination. I am not the example I would want to follow in someone else. Thankfully, no one saw me yell at my wife and kids, throw my phone, and beat that tree. I wasn’t embarrassed publicly by those shameful acts. But I was convicted privately and rather sorely at that. There Christ was, standing before the eyes of my soul as One perfect, holy, blameless and beautiful. “For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:21-24). I do not deserve this Savior, and I do not deserve another single chance to repent. I have miserably failed so many times that it is a wonder He does not just flush me from ministry permanently and move on to someone else. But as Peter finishes verse 24, “by his wounds you were healed.” I’ve been healed of my sinful anger. I was healed at the cross. And though I was “going astray like sheep,” now I “have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of” my soul. That is only because of the Spirit of God within me whom God the Father put there as the seal of my redemption (Eph. 1:12-13). Praise God for the gospel of His grace. 4. Don’t Get Irritated Over Other People’s Foolishness and Silliness Here’s irony for you. Here I was acting foolish and childish, but I wasn’t the only one! In the fall of 2003 – I can’t remember exactly when – my wife and I were eating dinner one Tuesday night when the phone rang. Isn’t ‘Caller ID’ great? As I looked at the little green LCD screen
on my cordless phone, it gave the number of the person who was calling, and under it read the real name of the woman you have come to know as Mrs. Stopwatch. You remember her. She’s the woman I introduced to you at the beginning of this book, the one who told me I needed to be done with my sermons within twenty minutes. I showed the phone to my wife and we were both stunned. I panicked and asked her what we should do. My wife is so smart. She said, “Answer it!” So I did. “Hello.” The voice on the other end responded, “Who is Sammy Turner?” “Excuse me,” I replied. “Who is Sammy Turner?” There was one problem in these introductory words. I knew the voice of Mrs. Stopwatch very well, and this was not her voice. Without going into much detail suffice it say that Sammy Turner and his wife and daughter were all good friends of mine. They all attended our Wednesday night Bible studies at the church. A week or two earlier, Sammy had written an editorial responding, if I recall rightly, to the local Judge’s verdict. I wish time and space afforded me the opportunity to insert it here, but that would severely sidetrack us. In short, Sammy was defending us, and attacking the government’s involvement in church affairs, and the clear violation of our first amendment rights. Evidently, Sammy’s editorial got under Mrs. Stopwatch’s skin, or rather, whoever was pretending to be her. What makes this all so much more funny is that Mrs. Stopwatch is in her mid seventies. So here is this seventy-something year old woman, putting one of her elderly friends up to calling the pastor to find out who Sammy Turner was because they didn’t like his comments in the paper. As I recall the phone conversation with the supposed Mrs. Stopwatch, I responded to her question about the identity of Sammy Turner with my own question. “Who is this? My Caller ID says this is Mrs. Stopwatch’s house calling me, but this isn’t Mrs. Stopwatch. Who is this?” I asked. “I’m just passing through town,” she said in a rather curt manner. You can guess my follow up question. “So you’re passing through town and you just happen to be calling from Mrs. Stopwatch’s house?” “I told you I’m just passin’ through town. Now are you gonna tell me who Sammy Turner is or not?” she persisted. “Is he a member of Waverly Hall Baptist Church?” she asked. “No, I believe Sammy is a member of a church in Hamilton,” I replied. He was actually a member of the Methodist Church in Hamilton, a nearby town about twelve miles away, but I didn’t want to reveal
everything to this stranger. Her response almost made me break out laughing because of the persistent poking around for useful information. “Well, does he live in Hamilton?” “I don’t think so,” I answered, “I believe he lives in Waverly Hall.” She then asked me, “You don’t know where he lives?” I responded, “You can certainly look him up in the phone book if you like.” She then hung up on me. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was Mrs. Nosey on the phone. You remember her, don’t you? She was Mrs. Stopwatch’s sister, the one who told me the Holy Spirit couldn’t save anybody after twenty minutes of preaching. I figured that Sammy’s editorial got under their skin, and they were going to set out on a mission to find out who this guy was. After all, they were assuming that if this fellow lived in Waverly Hall, certainly he wouldn’t be siding with us. My wife was a bit smarter than I. She surmised that they were calling to find out if Sammy was a member of our church. If so, we would have been guilty of violating the judge’s injunction against allowing new members to join, and they would have had more dirt on us to report. The next morning, a friend of mine was in the post office and overheard a conversation between Mrs. Stopwatch and another local. They were gossiping about me, of course. My friend who overheard the conversation didn’t know what it meant, so she called me with the info. What she heard was so funny I almost fell over laughing. Mrs. Stopwatch presumed from her sister’s conversation with me that Sammy Turner was a fictional character. Her conclusion was that Sammy Turner was a name I had chosen as a sort of ghost writer to write an editorial in the paper to make it look like someone in Waverly Hall was on my side. I called up Sammy Turner and we both had the laugh of our lives. I showed up the next night at Bible study with a nametag that read, “Hello. My name is Pastor Rob, a.k.a. Sammy Turner.” We all had a good laugh that night as we recalled the silliness and foolishness of the prank call and childish conclusions. My point in relaying all of this is that no one got irritated over it. We used it as an opportunity to remain lighthearted and jovial about the whole matter. It merely confirmed for us the wavelength on which these folks were broadcasting, if you get my drift. All they seemed to be able to resort to were silly reasoning tactics to bulk up their side. The Proverbs have something to say about handling such matters. Solomon wrote, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). Thankfully, I had good sense when I got this silly phone call. And recalling this verse, I knew it would only turn out to my honor to overlook it with forgiveness and humor.
Don’t let petty or even bigger issues irritate and frustrate you. It can only turn out for the glory and honor of your reputation by acting towards others the way God acts towards you – overlooking your offenses. 5. Don’t Let Your Soul Be Downcast Because of Your Theological Enemies One of the most important things to do when you are facing conflict is to talk to yourself. Yes, I said talk to yourself. It’s not a bad thing, and it is not necessarily a sign of dementia! David, the psalmist, did it frequently. And I’ve found that it is a very necessary practice in my life in order to keep my heart from going astray, to sort of jerk me up by the lapels and shake me to order. In Psalm 42:5-11 we get to listen in on a conversation David was having with himself once. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all you breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’…Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (ESV). It was my failure to talk to my soul, to preach the gospel to my soul, to tell my soul the truth about my trials and tribulations and enemies that led to the most severe bout with depression I’ve ever had in my entire brief and young life. It was just after New Year’s, and I had driven home from Sherri’s parents house. We stopped by the mailbox which by now had become a place of wretchedness for me, as you can well imagine. That little 4X6 inch metal box had come to hold more bad news (bills not included!) than it ever had good news. In the box that day was a personal letter from Pastor Meddler. Here is just a snippet of what he wrote to me in that three paged letter. “llllll” If I had never read who signed the letter, I would have thought the letter was from a friend. It was written with such cordiality. But the
name belied the fact that it was also written with manipulation and reproof. A certain sense of rancor suddenly began to come over my soul. But it didn’t turn to anger this time. It turned to utter despair and depression for a full week. That has been to date the darkest week of my life ever. I wish never to revisit it or review it, not even here in this book. I felt as if my enemies had finally triumphed over me and that God’s cause through my situation was lost. My soul felt that God had abandoned me to my enemies, and that He had allowed their unrighteous manipulation of the court system and governments to accomplish their evil, fiendish plans…all so that they could get control of their precious building and assets. If it were not for the grace of God I was prepared to turn in my resignation that Sunday and throw in the towel. The only other thing I will say about this time of depression is that it had a hold on me for so long because I did not talk to myself, and tell myself the truth about, “my salvation and my God, my rock.” My soul was in turmoil within me “because of the oppression of the enemy.” I felt as David felt: “As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me…” (v. 10). I had lost hope in God, refusing to believe that I would ever praise Him again. Hopelessness is the heartbeat of depression, and as long as the soul’s eyes are covered with the darkness of pain, the soul cannot see the truth that, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psa. 46:1). I remember my wife singing this Psalm to our congregation on the morning of May 16, the day of that first and terrible church conference. It reduced me to tears. And during this terrible depression, I could hear her beautiful voice combined with the calming melody written by a friend of ours soothing my soul once more, much like David’s singing must have soothed and calmed King Saul’s soul during his troubled days. Friends, if you find yourself in a time of trouble, regardless of whether it is worse than mine or not as bad as mine, and regardless of whether or not it was like David’s, you must talk to yourself and tell yourself the truth about your God. He has not abandoned you to your enemies, to your troubles, to your trials, to your pain. He is a God of salvation. He will save you. He will rescue you. And I promise you that you will one day praise God again. And better than my promise is God’s promise right there in the text for you to read and take hold of today. Remember that hopelessness is one of the most bitter sins. It yells at us that God is no longer there. God Himself is the very presence of hope. And when your soul cannot see Him any longer, you will not be able to see hope any longer. And that is called the sin of unbelief. It is
the sin that sends people to hell. It is the refusal to believe what God says over against what my circumstances say. And yet it is this belief, this hope, that sets the believer apart from the world, apart from those who have no hope. It is our ability to see with our heart what we cannot see with our eyes; that divine strength to lay hold of eternal truth regardless of what my feelings say, what my circumstances say, what my enemies say. Talk to your soul as I did mine. Tell yourself the truth that your God loves you and that nothing will ever be able to separate you from His love for you in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:31-39). God is for you, not against you. If He gave His only Son for you, you can bet your life on the truth that He will give everything else to you also, including rescuing and deliverance from your trials and tribulations. If God has killed His Son for you, and justified you, who can separate you from His love for you? “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Rom. 8:35). The only correct response is, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” Tell yourself this truth and cling to it with every fiber of your being. It is the truth. 6. Trust in the Sovereign God of the Universe to Work Out All Things – Including Your Theological Foes – for Your Good and His Glory I couldn’t end this chapter without giving one last thing to do when facing theological foes and the terrible consequences they seem to wreak upon us. Trust in God. Trust Him in everything, including those times when you will have absolutely no recourse whatsoever to repair the damage. That was another hard lesson to learn. After appealing the decision by the Superior Court Judge, we went to the Appeals Court of the State of Georgia in April of 2005. Each side was given a maximum of fifteen minutes to argue their case and answer any questions the three judge panel may have had. Our side argued first. Wray argued vigorously regarding the real facts of the case, showing how they expose the real motivation and undermining influences of those who were suing us. But just before his argumentation began, one of the judges remarked that he had read our case with great interest so much so that he came back from the bathroom break early just to hear it! He introduced our case to the courtroom with this statement. “When I read through your case I thought you were describing my own church!” Wray answered that in his experience with churches, the things that were going on in our little
church seemed to be happening in many other churches all around the country. That was a humorous remark, to be sure, but it quickly turned from humor to disappointment when a few moments later, that same judge blurted out this comment as Wray completed his arguments: “Well, we don’t call ‘em Calvinists in our church.” To this Wray responded, “Well, your honor, I’m sure that you at least refer to them Christians.” Do you really want to know the judge’s response to that? He said, “No, we don’t even call ‘em that much!” Now I ask you, the reader, what do you do when you hear such an incredibly biased statement against our theological position from an appellate level judge? I’ll tell you what you do. You just sit there and take it, because there’s absolutely not one thing you can do about it. Remember the earlier lesson about talking to yourself. This is the time to do it, friend. Talk to yourself about God’s sovereignty the way Jeremiah did in his time of tribulation. Listen to the way the Contemporary English Version translates Jeremiah’s words. “He chased me into a dark place, where no light could enter...He attacked and surrounded me with hardships and trouble; he forced me to sit in the dark like someone long dead. God built a fence around me that I cannot climb over, and he chained me down…God put big rocks in my way and made me follow a crooked path…God took careful aim and shot his arrows straight through my heart…I am a joke to everyone-- no one ever stops making fun of me. God has turned my life sour. He made me eat gravel and rubbed me in the dirt. I cannot find peace or remember happiness. I tell myself, ‘I am finished! I can't count on the LORD to do anything for me.’ Just thinking of my troubles and my lonely wandering makes me miserable. That's all I ever think about, and I am depressed. Then I remember something that fills me with hope. The LORD's kindness never fails! If he had not been merciful, we would have been destroyed. The LORD can always be trusted to show mercy each morning. Deep in my heart I say, ‘The LORD is all I need; I can depend on him!’ The LORD is kind to everyone who trusts and obeys him. It is good to wait patiently for the LORD to save us. When we are young, it is good to struggle hard and to sit silently alone, if this is what the LORD intends. Being rubbed in the dirt can teach us a lesson; we can also learn from insults and hard knocks…He causes a lot of suffering, but he also has pity because of his great love. The Lord doesn't enjoy sending grief or pain…No one can do
anything without the Lord's approval. Good and bad each happen at the command of God Most High” (Lam. 3:2, 5-7, 9, 12-38) Clearly, my case was not at all like Jeremiah’s. The context there is all about God’s just and righteous anger being poured out against Israel because of their unrepentance toward all God’s warnings and mercies. This lamentation was being cried in the midst of the Assyrian destruction of Israel. My lamentation is being cried in the midst of seemingly ungodly people ruining the reputation of Jesus Christ in the community and splitting a church for no good reason! But good hermeneutics teaches us that of the primary doctrines in this case, God’s mercy never fails. For this reason, He can be trusted. If we learn to root our trust of God in God’s faithfulness to always be good to us and love us and show us mercy, we will grow to love His unexplainable sovereign ways. When we got together with our lawyers after the arguments, we batted around the idea of asking for a recusal of that judge on the basis of his bias. We argued back and forth about the advantages and disadvantages of taking this action. You can imagine how such a move might impact the verdict for us, can’t you? If we try to have him recused, how will the other judges look at us? What will they think about us? But should we allow him to get away with a bias that clearly reveals his own personal theological opinion about our theological views? Isn’t that wrong for a judge to talk and think in such a way? What did we do? Our lawyers decided it was in the best interest of justice to request a recusal for this judge. And the lesson I learned in this particular instance was that I must always trust God especially in those circumstances over which I have zero control. I could not have any influence or sway over that judge one way or the other. I was totally helpless. And there will be many times in your own life and ministry where you too will be totally helpless, unable to say anything or do anything that might help you out a little. The only thing you can do is to sit and wait quietly for the Lord, just like Jeremiah. That’s just what we did, by God’s enabling grace. So I don’t know why God allowed the judge to say such clearly biased things. I don’t know why God ordained that our recusal was rejected. And I don’t know what the verdict will be concerning our case. But I do know that God loves me. He loves our flock. He sent His Son to die for us all. If these things are true, surely He will not abandon us. He can be trusted. His unexplainable and mysterious sovereignty is always rooted in His goodness and love toward us. As one Christian songwriter wrote many years ago, “God is too wise to be mistaken; and
God is too good to be unkind. So when you don’t understand, and when you can’t trace His hand; when you can’t see His plan, trust His heart.” Illustrate also with Athanasius? How did Spurgeon deal with his theological enemies?