I once heard a sermon by William Sloane Coffin titled “Who Tells You Who You Are?” Most of us have experienced someone who has tried to answer that question. Often, they are “Christians” somehow compelled to let us know they are speaking for God. It is irritating and as far as I am concerned a very large overreach.
Sadly, many of the worst offenders are members of my own profession. After all, it’s up to us to let people know what God wants for them.
Or is it?
There are a couple of places in the Bible where we might want to think twice about how far we preachers, or any of us, should go. The book of Job is the story of a man wanting to take on God until he realizes that God is so much greater, more powerful, more knowing and understanding of how the world works that he changes his mind. Job realizes that he has seen a decidedly tiny part of the big picture.
Another wonderful biblical example of one who goes a bit too far and then pulls back is in the 139th Psalm. It is a beautiful expression of how much we are known and loved by God.
“You know when I sit down and when I rise up.”
“Where can I go from your spirit?”
“I praise you that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Read the whole Psalm because it is reassuring about the depth of God’s love for us. However, a few verses are often left out in the reading of this Psalm — verses 19-22: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me — those who speak of you maliciously and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you. I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”
At that point it seems the Psalmist realizes this is a step too far and comes back: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”
So, if I read the Bible correctly, we Christians are to share Good News (Gospel) but with compassion and humility. Christians often do this without benefit of clergy. Sermons which I have found the most helpful are those which cause me to expand my thinking and, more importantly, open my heart.
Here is where a clear understanding of the Third Commandment is important. On big stone markers in public areas, it says: “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” So, we think we shouldn’t use God’s name in swearing. I agree to refrain from doing so is a good idea, but the actual meaning of the commandment is something different. The new Revised Standard translation is: “You shall not make wrongful use of his (sic) name. In other words, claiming to speak for God puts us on shaky ground.
I believe Christians are to help each other live into their faith. Keeping in mind that it’s best to let God speak for God. Humility is to understand that we’re all made from humus. We’re all in this together. Let’s not get above our station.
We mustn’t give in to a desire to “scare” people into heaven. The problem with that is that we become fearful, judgmental, unloving, unkind. At that point we are not living life in the presence of a loving God and we are VERY bad examples for anyone else considering becoming a Christian. If my idea of God is that God is just waiting till I do something terrible so God can pounce on me in vicious punishment there isn’t much appeal for other people.
If we do not seem to be filled with compassion and kindness, who wants to be like us? Over and over, we read in the Bible that we are not to be full of ourselves; we are to be full of
In order to do that we are going to need to take time to be still; to listen for God’s voice. Sometimes that’s internal. Sometimes others do seem to be able to speak for God. Often, they aren’t conscious of that.
When we seek to be compassionate and kind, I believe we are showing forth what God is like. Kind is a word very related to kin. To realize that we are all kin, siblings, and act that way is how I understand following the Third Commandment.