Chapter 7: The Power of Tenderness

Note: This is the seventh in a series of letters written for those who will be living at the end of the age, whenever that comes. Once complete, I’ll combine them into a book. You can access the previous chapters here.  If you are not already subscribed to this blog and want to make sure you don’t miss any, you can add your name here.

“Since I got back from Afghanistan, I have noticed a growing anger and aggression among my Christian friends. They seem to want to force God’s kingdom on others, some are even taking weapon training to prepare for what’s next. I want to see the kingdom come, but something inside me is unsettled by this. Where is Jesus here?  

Aaron, 38, VA mental health counselor near Dallas, TX

Hi Aaron, 

In my last letter, I wrote about the joy in learning to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. It’s not lost on me that the book most centered on the end of the age uses the image of a lamb almost exclusively to describe Jesus’s final redemption of the earth.  

Only in the first chapter of Revelation does Jesus appear as the Lion of Judah. In every reference thereafter, he is portrayed as one like “a Lamb who had been slain.” He is the one worthy of worship and to unseal the scroll of the last days. The Lamb overcomes darkness and introduces a future free of it. In the end, all of that is celebrated at the marriage feast of the Lamb 

And yet, “Lions not Lambs” is a popular meme for many Christians today on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and social media. I get it. Sick and tired of losing to a secular agenda and belittled by a left-leaning press, many conservative Christians want to assert whatever power they can muster to bend culture back to their preferences. Thus, they seek political power, often by less-than-honest means, or adopt a Seven Mountain Mandate to dominate the culture with their beliefs. 

There is no end of so-called prophets or apostles tapping into that frustration. Their anger and their war metaphors run counter to the nature of Jesus. They have yet to realize that when you seek to dominate the world, you will become like the world, and in doing so, unwittingly leave the true power of the Gospel behind. When you chart your course by anger, it is impossible to stay inside his love and recognize how God works far better through our kindness than our belligerence.  

It is a message long lost in the realms of Christianity where many see themselves as another interest group vying for control of the culture. Though their desire to spread the life of Jesus may be genuine, they have taken up the wrong tools. They assume the conquering hero at the end of the age will look more like a roaring lion than a wounded lamb, but Jesus’s kingdom doesn’t work that way. The nature of the Lamb will prevail, winning by love what coercion can never repair. 

There is no better image to keep in mind to warn us away from putting our hope in human effort. Compelling others to do what we think they should do, even in the name of God, will make us despots in the end. Few human leaders have held on to their honor or their kindness to others in the wake of rising human power—political, military, or religious.[PD1]  Amassing power will invariably drive us to compromise our character and make horrific alliances with ungodly elements in our society that will render the Gospel impotent. We can attain our agenda at the same time we subvert his kingdom.

 

True Power

Aaron, to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, we will need to see power in a different way. True power is found in loving, even to the giving up of our lives for the welfare of others. It looks weak, of course, when arrogance and bullying seem to win so easily over kindness and compassion. But the meek will inherit the earth, and until we choose to lay our lives down instead of forcing our agendas, we will never discover the greater power that has the capacity to transform this world.

It’s easy to see why we do it. When someone takes advantage of us, it’s only natural to want to fight back. Fighting for a righteous cause may seem like our duty on the surface, but your restlessness is the Spirit warning you away from such tactics. Jesus’s words to Pilate explain why: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest. My kingdom is from another place.”

Take a beat and sit with those words. It’s one of the most profound things he said. 

Like us, his own followers missed the point. James and John wanted fire from heaven to consume a group of Samaritans, and Peter cut off an ear of the high priest’s servant. Acting out of our human aggressions will make it harder to recognize how Jesus leads us. Our fears will seek a Lion-Redeemer to right the wrongs done to us, and we’ll find ourselves more distant from Jesus. Only a growing trust in him will put us in touch with the Lamb-Redeemer and the power of humility, kindness, and compassion. None of the fruits of the Spirit encourage us to get even with those who mistreat us or take control of others for God’s sake. Instead, the fruit of his love in us leads to peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. 

That does not mean that nations don’t have the authority to make laws and police them nor that a military cannot restrain the power of evil growing in the world. God has sanctioned such things, even if they often lead to injustice and corruption. The levers of power, however, will never bring redemption to humanity. 

Yielding to the urge to dominate only makes sense to those who have lost sight of the power of his love. When you learn to serve the world as Jesus did (Mark 10:42), instead of dominating it, then you’ll find the true power of redemption. Only he can teach you how to embrace tender-heartedness in the face of your fears, but here are some of the things that help me: 

 

1.     Separate yourself from angry voices. 

That’s not easy in our day because there is so much outrage just under the surface of so many in these ever-darkening days. 

The media have discovered that tapping our anger or fear will hold our gaze. Denigrating our perceived enemies helps garner votes and raise funds. It’s also true in our pulpits and those who claim prophetic gifts—whether they are railing against the ways of the world or the failure of Christians to live up to God’s standards. Even when sharing good news, their countenance is twisted with anger and their voice is pitched with rage.

While anger can provoke people to action, it does not endear them to Jesus or his purpose in the world. Righteous indignation is a great way to justify turning our fears into hatred. The voice of Jesus comes with tenderness and invitation, even when he clears out the temple or confronts religious leaders for their hypocrisy.  

So, if you have fallen for the voice of the angry prophets and preachers, even if they promise revival, walk away! If they grasp for political power and the rule of law, they are building an earthly kingdom, not Jesus’s. If they justify lies and anger to restore Christianity’s power, they have missed God’s heart. God’s kingdom does not impose morality on a hostile people but invites the broken and traumatized into the wonder of his love. 

God would say similar words to them that he spoke to the false prophets and teachers of Jeremiah’s day: “I did not send you; you’re not speaking my words and you are causing great hurt and destruction by deceiving my people. Stop it.” But they won’t; building personal networks and raking in money is too intoxicating. So, it’s up to you to separate yourself from angry voices. 

One of the best decisions I made was to turn off those voices that didn’t speak with the tenderness of his love. I unsubscribed from a Christian magazine whose worship of celebrity constantly frustrated me. I spend less time with people who simmer in anger and those who mock and scoff. You don’t need to confront them; just take your distance and marinate yourself in the love of a Father who agonizes over the lost. 

Pride and arrogance are easier to recognize when you don’t take in a steady diet of them. Never trust the words of an angry person, no matter what “truth” they may be expounding. Whatever they have learned, they did so without engaging Truth himself and thus their heart is not refined in love. There is no anger in God’s redemption for the lost and broken.

 

2.     Think reconciliation, not payback. 

I grew up thinking God only loved the home team, those who follow his commands, and was vengeful to the away team who did not. I worked hard to ensure I stayed on the home team, and this dualistic thinking allowed me to take up the language of vengeance with any who didn’t serve God the way I did. 

The Old Testament set me up for that, but I began to discover how incomplete it was without Jesus showing us a very different picture of God. The conclusion that he is a vengeful deity toward those who fail him is a misunderstanding of his nature, which is why he shocked the Pharisees. “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Why would we do that? Because that’s what his Father does: “He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36)

I never heard that in Sunday School. And yet, in the middle of his torturous death, Jesus asked for the forgiveness of his enemies, not their punishment. He took their vengeance into himself and paid them back with grace and forgiveness. In doing so, he showed us how to embrace his Father’s love in a way that brings his kingdom into our world.

So, when someone angers you, take a breath. Ask yourself how you might respond graciously. Don’t ask how you can get even; find a way to be kind. We are ambassadors of reconciliation, not purveyors of vengeance. You can even practice turning from anger when other drivers provoke your rage. Instead of ranting at them, even internally, discover what it means to drive graciously, then do in everything.

That’s the way God has treated me. He seeks reconciliation, not retribution. He has never bullied me into obedience. He’s not overbearing or manipulative and is even kind to me in my mistakes and failures. His goodness opens the door to knowing him, and yet he always leaves the choice in our hands. That’s how love works, even when others abuse it. 

Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries thinks of it this way: “Kindness is the only non-delusional response to everything, which is to say all other responses—rage, anger, self-righteousness, high horsiness—everything else is delusional. Kindness isn’t.”

It takes more wisdom and grace to live inside love than it takes to give in to your fear, anger, or desire for vengeance, and fight the world on its terms. Nothing disturbs our fleshly inclinations or our religious prerogatives more than choosing a path of tenderness in the face of hostility.

 

3.     Entrust outcomes to God

From our youth we’ve learned how to use every resource at our disposal to manipulate others to the outcome we want. It doesn’t always work, but not for lack of trying. However, we are not responsible for the outcome of anything, only our response to him. 

The One who loves you most and wants the best for you has relinquished the power to make you follow him. Redemption can only happen where people embrace it freely and discover a love so compelling that they want to be a part of it. That’s why we can’t live this way without leaving the outcome to God. It takes more strength and wisdom to give up power in our relationships than it does to manipulate them. 

I would not be married today if Jesus hadn’t taught me that lesson over the last twenty years. When I came home from a trip a few years ago, and discovered Sara had left me, cut off all communication, and was initiating a divorce, I couldn’t have been more shocked. I had no clue this was coming, especially since I knew of no conflict between us. From those actions and the note she left me, I knew she was in trouble. I’m not a perfect husband, but I knew I wasn’t the person in her letter. 

Without ever talking to me, her therapist had assumed her rising PTSD was caused by an abusive husband, and coached Sara into leaving me to escape the horrible pain that raged in her body. From the start, the counsel I received was not to rush after her and confront her. “Keep your heart open; let her come back to you in her time” was the most difficult counsel I’ve ever followed, but I’m glad I did. 

When I had contact with Sara, I assured her that I loved her and would be willing to work through anything, but I forced nothing. The first time I saw her three weeks after she left, she only wanted to discuss how we would handle the grandchildren post-divorce, and that’s all we talked about. I left a hundred questions unasked and a ton of comments unspoken. I let her have the conversation she wanted, and when we parted, she asked if I wanted to spend more time together. I was both shocked and thrilled. 

The next day, she came over and stayed for six hours. Again, I let her shape the conversation. She said later that my tenderness caused her to reconsider everything her therapist had convinced her to be true about me. In a few weeks, we were finding our way back and, with a new therapist, discovered that Sara’s PTSD had been caused by childhood trauma that had lain hidden in her memories for over sixty years.  

Our love eventually triumphed over her trauma. Didn’t Jesus do the same when he brought us his kingdom? He didn’t force himself on broken humanity, but gently demonstrated the love of his Father, letting each decide whether they would embrace him or not. Even though it eventually cost him his life as the powers that be rejected his message and his kingdom, he knew the only hope of reconciliation could come from the free choice of loved people. 

 

4.     Learn the Path of Least Control 

My first experience with this came over 30 years ago when my co-pastor and a small group of elders lied about a resignation I had not offered. My first inclination was to come back and fix the lie. I had the power and affection to right the wrong. However, I also had this nagging thought that I later identified as Jesus’s leading: “I have more to teach you if you walk away than if you stay.” I had no idea what that meant and eventually conceded to it partly because I didn’t have the will to do to them what they had done to me, even if I was in the right.  

Unfortunately, that didn’t bring reconciliation with them. But whatever they stole from me, and it was significant, Jesus repaid many times over and made me more resilient in tragedy by teaching me a different way to live inside his love. It’s the only way to overturn darkness in the world; vengeance can only meet pain with more pain. 

If you hear these words calling you to be a doormat for the abuse of others or a whipping post for their rage, you’re not ready for them. Giving up control doesn’t diminish our authenticity nor prevent us from establishing boundaries where others seek to harm us. Jesus didn’t let the Pharisees co-opt him, nor did he react to their threats. 

That would be easy for Jesus, right? He knew God had his back, regardless of what others hurled at him, and it would all give way to a greater redemption. And it will be easier for you when you discover that God has your back and hasn’t left you to your own devices. Until you have enough security inside God’s love, you won’t be able to stop trying to take control. This is a steep learning curve to realize control is an illusion and Jesus’s ability to care for you can lead you through the injustice or accusations of others. 

Giving up control to others does not mean giving into their control. “Religious” people often have an agenda and will use any means necessary to force it on others. In doing so, they operate in the wrong spirit and do more harm than good. When you discover that people are lying to you or about you, or trying to control you with guilt or shame, walk away!

Learn to say, “I am not treating you this way, and I hope you’ll stop doing it to me.” Even though Jesus didn’t seek to control others, you would never have called him a push over. He submitted to their abuse only when his Father asked him to, and when he had the internal strength to endure it for a greater purpose. Even on the cross, he wasn’t powerless.  By loving in the face of their dishonesty, forgiving their abuse, and allowing their evil to crush him, he opened wide the doors of redemption.

Aaron, you can’t lay down your life if you don’t have the freedom not to. Giving up control is not weakness. You can be firm in kindness and say no to whatever is not in your heart to do. Being firm in what’s true and kind in the face of rejection is the greatest nightmare for those who seek to control you. It may make them even angrier, but it will set you free to honor the work of Jesus in you.  

 

God’s power at the end of the age is not boast and bluster, threats and anger; it is the gentleness of a Lamb. It is in the power of love and lives laid down that God makes himself known in our world, which is why Jesus told us to be “as wise as serpents, but as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Let’s join him. 

Centuries of Old Testament stories conditioned us to expect a God that comes to exact vengeance. That’s what Israel’s leaders hoped for its enemies, and they missed his first coming. We are in a similar danger if we look for God’s vengeance instead of his redemption for the world he deeply loves. 

 

_________________________

You can access previous chapters here.  Stay Tuned for Chapter 8.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 7: The Power of Tenderness”

  1. I agree with you about God’s power at the end of the age is not a boast, bluster, filled with threats and anger. However, His power does demonstrate an aspect of His righteous character to be involved with a powerful intervention to correct the major world powers and leaders that are hell bent on destroying or harming civilization. We are all aware of the main spiritual actors behind this rebellion but this transition to a new world where our Creator is in charge will come with a lot of pain and tribulation. It is easy to attribute frustration and anger as a part of God’s character but in reality His intervention is act of love and care for this world as He sets it on a straight course. As followers of Christ we have the blessing to see the bigger picture and embrace the loving nature of our God.

  2. Pingback: Is There Any Vengeance in God? | Lifestream | Wayne Jacobsen

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