I was talking with some friends and I said something that stereotyped a group of people, and one friend called me on it. Did I handle it well? Not in that moment. The hot flush of shame rose up my neck and I defended myself. Because I knew my intentions, and I knew my love and respect for the people I’d stereotyped. My words hadn’t been mean-spirited. So I justified my behavior. And the friend and I parted for the evening.
It took all of 10 minutes for me to realize that I’d been wrong.
I immediately sent her an apology for bungling what I’d been trying to say, but by the time I saw her the next day, I was grateful to her for calling me on my words. It would’ve been so easy to just get mad and leave the conversation and then express her frustration to other people. But she didn’t, and because of that, I was given the opportunity to hear my words from another’s point of view: I couldn’t hear the stereotyping until she revealed it to me. I asked for her forgiveness, she gave it, and our friendship deepened.
So why am I sharing this story that doesn’t put me in the best light?
I am concerned about my Christian brothers and sisters, both as individuals and as institutions: we are too concerned with justifying ourselves, our words, our actions. When other people point out how wrong, how hurtful, how against our own principles our words or actions are, we don’t get past the initial flush of shame and self-defense. We do not take the prayerful time to see whether God might be telling us something through the critic, something we need to pay attention to. We seem to have lost the inclination and ability to ask for forgiveness from people we’ve hurt and wronged. And seeing that we’ve been wrong and asking forgiveness is basic to our faith.
There is biblical precedence for God using someone else to tell us what we need to hear. There is the famous story of the prophet Nathan getting David to see the wrongness of his behavior with Bathsheba and Uriah, causing David to confess his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-13). There’s another interesting story about David. After he’d been king of Israel for some time, he chose to flee Jerusalem when his son Absalom staged a coup. This happened when they were on the run (2 Samuel 16:5-13):
As King David came to Bahurim, a man came out of the village cursing them. It was Shimei son of Gera, from the same clan as Saul’s family. He threw stones at the king and the king’s officers and all the mighty warriors who surrounded him. “Get out of here, you murderer, you scoundrel!” he shouted at David. “The Lord is paying you back for all the bloodshed in Saul’s clan. You stole his throne, and now the Lord has given it to your son Absalom. At last you will taste some of your own medicine, for you are a murderer!”
“Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king?” Abishai son of Zeruiah demanded. “Let me go over and cut off his head!”
“No!” the king said. “Who asked your opinion, you sons of Zeruiah! If the Lord has told him to curse me, who are you to stop him?”
Then David said to Abishai and to all his servants, “My own son is trying to kill me. Doesn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it. And perhaps the Lord will see that I am being wronged and will bless me because of these curses today.” So David and his men continued down the road, and Shimei kept pace with them on a nearby hillside, cursing and throwing stones and dirt at David.
It would certainly have been within the culture of kingship to give his nephew, Abishai, the nod to cut off Shimei’s head–the man was insulting and lobbing weapons at him. It might even have satisfied a frustrated urge to lash out, since David was choosing not to fight against his son. But David didn’t choose that. He was a man after God’s own heart, and he recognized that God’s way is not always the comfortable way, that sometimes God is in the person telling you that you did wrong things. Now, David didn’t repent of taking over the kingship of Israel, but he did accept it when God told him that he wouldn’t be the one to build the Temple because he had shed much blood (1 Chronicles 28:3). Perhaps Shimei’s actions prepared him to hear that message.
And then there’s the story about David’s first attempt to bring the recovered Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Ark was carried on an oxen-drawn cart amid a grand parade of soldiers and people, with singing and playing of musical instruments.
But when they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand and steadied the Ark of God. Then the Lord’s anger was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him dead because of this. So Uzzah died right there beside the Ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)
I don’t really get this story. I don’t like it. Uzzah was just trying to make sure the Ark didn’t wind up in the dirt. Surely that was a good thing to do. But God’s earlier directions to the Israelites were clear: only certain people could carry the Ark, but even they could not touch it, and the penalty for doing so was death (Numbers 4:15).
The only way I can approach this story is to hear this message in it: our good intentions do not excuse the action. If our actions or words are wrong, that is more important to God than our intentions being right.
Our belief in our good intentions keeps us from being open to the idea that we may have said or done something wrong, something sinful. It keeps us from moving beyond the hot flush of shame and self-defense. It blocks us from the blessing of forgiveness.
It’s my prayer that we lovers of Jesus grow ever more able to move past our good intentions and towards the ability to not only see when we’ve been wrong, but also to admit it, and even to ask forgiveness for it. It would be a glorious witness.