One of the things writing does for me is to help me think things through in ways that I can’t always do mentally. With writing I can take each strand of swirling thoughts, lay it out in black and white, follow it through to completion, go on to another, put them all together in some order, and then stand back and take a look at them. When I try to do that without writing them down, they just continue to swirl, and I can only think about one part for a brief time.
Something that’s been on the back of my mind for months is an offhand statement I saw on someone’s blog. When I go to a new blog, if what I see there interests me, I often will check out the “About Me” section to find out a little more about the person, to get more of an idea of who it is I am reading about. A part of what this particular blogger wanted people to know about her was that she was taught in her church and youth group to keep certain standards in order to maintain a good testimony before others, so people would think well of her God by what they saw her do; but as she got older she felt that many of those standards went beyond the parameter of what she was called to do, and furthermore, she felt that she was not responsible for God’s reputation, that He was big enough to take care of that on His own. She wasn’t advocating a total overthrow of any standards at all, but she was refusing to place them on that level on importance.
Now, I agree with this young woman that some people go beyond what the Bible actually teaches or implies in their standards, and that some place their standards almost on par with the ten commandments and look quite condescendingly at anyone who practices something different than they do, and that both of those approaches are wrong. What I mean by standards are the practical ways people work out their beliefs and convictions that may vary from person to person (Romans 14) as opposed to the bedrock doctrinal truth that there can be no variations on.
But what really stood out to me and has had me pondering these many months is the thought that we are not responsible for God’s reputation. Is that true?
First my mind went back to verses in the New Testament about doing or not doing things so that God’s Word is not blasphemed. For instance in Titus 2:3-5, older godly women are instructed to teach younger women in a variety of areas – soberness (self-control in the ESV), loving husband and children, being “discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands,” so that “the word of God be not blasphemed” (reviled in the ESV). The word of God can be blasphemed when I am indiscreet, lacking in self-control, or unloving to my family? Apparently so.
In I Timothy 6:1, servants were to “count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.”
I Peter 2:11-12 says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
Philippians 4: 5 says, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.”
Philippians 1:27 says, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”
In II Corinthians 6:3-4a. Paul says, “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.”
In the Old Testament, God’s reputation was a motive for prayer. When God was going to destroy the Israelites for their lack of faith in going into the promised land, Moses prayed:
“Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’” (Numbers 14:13-16).
In Psalm 106:21, 27, David prays, “But you, O God my Lord, deal on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me!…Let them know that this is your hand; you, O Lord, have done it!“
The sake of God’s name is a factor in many prayers and actions in the Bible, so I think, yes, we should be concerned about how we are representing God in what we say and do. Stated a little differently, I Corinthians 6:19-20 conclude that we should not do certain things because “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
That doesn’t mean different people can’t have different standards. I think people’s carping about other people’s different standards does far more harm to the reputation of God’s people than the different standards do. The Bible does teach grace in dealing with others who may not see everything quite the same way we do. But our motivating factor should be God’s honor and glory: even those with different practices in Romans 14 each did what they did “as unto the Lord.”
On the other hand, sometimes God does call someone to do something that seems harmful to their reputation, and to His. Mary’s reputation suffered as well as Jesus’s by the virgin birth, but it suffered in the eyes of people who didn’t believe it, and someday it will be vindicated. There are actions of God, or sometimes what seems to be a lack of action, that cause some to call Him unfair. But off the top of my head, areas in which people criticize God come down to problems on our end of things, not His. We don’t see the big picture or understand all His purposes and lack faith in His character, His wisdom, His love, etc. He is willing to risk being misunderstood to do what is right and necessary in any given situation and He wants us to know Him and trust Him even when everything doesn’t make sense to us.
When Jesus lived on the earth, He “made Himself of no reputation” and “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” He did defend and explain His Father and even His own actions sometimes, but He wasn’t grasping after His rights or His “place” as the Son of God.
It is a misguided attempt to defend God’s reputation that sometimes earns Christians and the God they think they are representing a bad reputation. In almost any online forum, when a non-Christian makes a disparaging remark about God or the Bible or Christianity, you can count on some Christian leaping to God’s defense. That is not a bad thing in itself, but it can be if it is done harshly or condescendingly. Just this morning I came across a blog post about why Christians don’t seek to avenge insults against God: He Himself showed people grace in their ignorance and unbelief when He died for them on the cross, and in His love and longsuffering He waits and draws them to Himself. He wants us to show that same grace, love, kindness, and longsuffering. Of course we can and should soak ourselves in His Word and attempt to explain or put things into perspective for others and ask God to make it plain to them. Jude 3 speaks of “earnestly contending for the faith,” and I Peter 3: 14b-16 says, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” That’s quite a different stance than “pouncing” on someone for saying something out of line with the Bible.
The more I think about this issue, the more I realize it is probably too big a topic for one simple blog post. But here are some conclusions I think I can draw so far:
1. Yes, God can take care of His own reputation. He is willing to be misunderstood in the short term, but some day everything will be set to rights and people will see and know Him for who He really is.
2. We can and should contend for the faith and have a reason for the hope that lies within us, but we should be gracious and respectful about it.
3. We do represent God both to other Christians and to unbelievers and we do need to be aware that our actions and attitudes reflect on Him favorably or unfavorably.
4. That will filter down into our everyday lives and standards. But I don’t think the emphasis should be on keeping standards in order to maintain a good testimony. That puts all the focus on the outward form rather than the inward reality. As Erin Davis said in What to Say to That Immodestly Dressed Girl at Church:
This requires an important shift. We need to stop asking, “How can we get our girls to dress modestly?” and start asking, “How can we get our girls to be passionate students of God’s Word?” Hebrews 4:12 tells us that God’s Word works like a sword, surgically removing those parts of our hearts that don’t line up with the holiness of God. Which would you prefer? A girl who covers up out of obligation, or a girl who chooses to change because of God’s work in her through His Word?
Now, when it comes to immodesty, especially with three sons, my first instinct would be to say, “Let’s cover up first, even if it is out of obligation, and then we’ll study the reason for it.” 🙂 There may be times for that kind of an approach: as a parent, often you have to require certain actions and standards for your children even if they don’t understand the reasons behind them. But the motivation, the overarching focus should be love for God and living for Him and what pleases Him and brings Him glory. It should be that inner love that works itself out into our everyday actions. In one biography I read years ago, a young person had grown up with certain standards against “worldliness” which she then joyfully jumped into when she turned away from God for a time. But once she came to truly know Him, the more she grew in her knowledge of Him and love for Him, the more those things just fell away on their own.
From a writerly point of view, I should probably let this sit a few more days and tighten, organize, and “polish” it better. But I am going to let it stand as a “thinking through my fingers” post.
What are your thoughts about our responsibility for God’s reputation?