In the 1960s it was the Age of Aquarius. (If you’re much younger than I am, you probably don’t understand that reference.) We are now in the Age of Offense. Everybody is offended these days. Everybody has become touchy. We all tend to take everything personally. We have begun to use the things that offend us to define our tribes. If you’re offended by the same things I’m offended by, then you and I are part of the same tribe. In other words, you’re one of “us.” If, on the other hand, you are not offended by the same things that offend me, then you are not part of my tribe. You must be one of “them.” So, now more than ever before in my lifetime, Americans have embraced this division into “us” and “them.”
To “my” tribe, I owe unquestioning loyalty. To “their” tribe, I owe nothing but abuse, disrespect, and insults. Recently, a prominent member of one of our major political “tribes” said of members of the other political “tribe”, “To me, they aren’t even people.” (citation available upon request) That’s where this age of offense and “tribal” divisions is leading us.
That is not the vision God has for his people, but in an age of offense, God’s people are immersed in this sea of offendedness. Our political leaders model it for us. Talk radio reeks with it. I can’t check my Facebook feed most days without being slimed by it.
And sadly, many leaders in the religious community have embraced insults, labeling people, and imputing bad motives as the best way to “persuade” people who disagree with them. In other words, even some in leadership in the Christian community have adopted the world’s way of talking to those who disagree with us. That fact just shows us how difficult it is for us, when we are surrounded by people who are quick to take offense and quick to give it right back, from important leaders in our nation and community to the ordinary guy in the car behind me at the intersection.
God has a very different vision for what his people should be like. “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19, NIV 84) It’s important to point out that this call to be slow to anger is based on a deep theological truth. The phrase “slow to anger” is found 14 times in the Bible in the English Standard Version. In nine of those fourteen times it refers to God. For example, Nehemiah prays, “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Neh. 9:17 ESV) God’s people should know this characteristic of God better than anyone else.
Two other related Bible words for this characteristic of slowness to anger are “forbearance” and “patience.” Those two English words are generally treated as synonyms. To exercise patience or forbearance means that you will be slow to become angry, slow to take offense. The New Testament Greek word that is generally translated as patience or forbearance means something like “far away anger.” To be patient or forbearing, means to put our anger at a distance, to keep our anger in a place that is far away from us, to park our anger in a location that is out of reach and inconvenient for us to get to.
God wants his people to be slow to become angry because that’s how he has treated us. We are the beneficiaries of God’s own slowness to become angry. To be a Christian is to be those who know themselves to be, as the apostle Paul says, “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3). Above all others, we Christians are those who know that we are broken, sin-sick creatures deserving God’s judgment and condemnation. Again, as the apostle Paul says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV). We live and stand before God solely because of the patience, forbearance, and love of God. God has shown his patience toward us in our sin, how can we withhold our patience and forbearance from others in their failings?
And yet we do withhold our patience and let loose our anger quickly. In this age of offense, Christians are gaining quite the reputation for being a prickly, short-tempered, easily offended people. How can that be? It is, I think, because we tend to forget who we are. We forget that every moment we are able to stand before God only because of his patience and forbearance toward us. In Christ, God is slow to become angry with us, and so we are safe in him. If God is patient with us in our sin, should we not also be patience and forbearing toward others in their failings? Yes, of course. There really can be no arguing that. But we allow ourselves to get swept up in the way of the world around us in this age of offense, and so we allow ourselves to be unwilling to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry.
Our God intends that the world should see his patience, his mercy, his grace when they look at us. That’s why James says what he says in the verse I quote above. As beneficiaries of God’s patience, as recipients of God’s grace, we are the only ones who can show the world what God’s patience and grace look like in the way we interact with others, especially those who are most difficult and irritating, especially those who consider themselves our enemies.
But the most important place we must live out this slowness to take offense is in the church itself between us and others in the church. It should be for us a spiritual gymnasium. Over the course of my several decades of ministry in the church, I’ve watched several churches tear themselves apart because they had allowed a culture of offense to take root within their fellowship. Churches can import the ways of the world into their own fellowship. They can encourage their members to be easily offended, to be quick to criticize and slow to encourage, to have a short fuse, to assume the worst of others, and so a small spark will easily ignite the church into a blaze of fighting.
I’ve known many, many churches over the course of my work as a pastor, four that I’ve pastored myself and many others. In some cases, I’ve worked with churches that were experiencing serious conflict. All too often, that conflict arose and got out of control because those churches had nurtured a culture of offense. They had allowed themselves to become people who were quick to anger, quick to take offense, slow to listen, and quick to speak. Such churches become tinderboxes just waiting for a spark to set them ablaze.
I have also been richly blessed to work with churches who have nurtured a very different attitude. It is a remarkable blessing to be among churches in which people are hard to offend, where they naturally assume the best of others, where people listen to others before they speak, where forgiveness is quick coming and genuine. Right now, our world doesn’t need more churches that specialize in passing on information about God’s love and forgiveness. It needs churches that demonstrate God’s love and forgiveness in all their relationships with each other and with those outside their own doors. We need not just to talk about God’s love and forgiveness, we need to embody it.
©2018 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.
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