Say It: “I Was Wrrrr….”

Are you teachable? Really? I’m not asking about how you respond to sermons preached by your favorite guru in the comfort of your own church, home or car. A better test of your teachability is how you accept personal reproof. How do you respond when confronted with your own sins and character flaws? According to Scripture, the answer to that question will go a long way in ascertaining the true nature of your character–and the character you will have in the future.

FonzieThe importance of accepting reproof is a theme especially prominent in the book of Proverbs (1:24-32; 9:8; 10:8, 17; 12:1; 13:1, 18; 15:5, 10, 12, 31-32; 18:2; 25:12; 27:6a). Scripture repeatedly commends those who seek counsel (solicited advice–Proverbs 19:20a) and hear reproof (unsolicited advice–Proverbs 19:20b). Such humility is rewarded with wisdom (Proverbs 19:20c). Yet, most of us are about as adept at admitting wrongdoing as Arthur Fonzarelli (“I’m sssss…I was wrrrr…”). What may have been a comical trait in a fictional character, however, is a tragic flaw in the life of the Christian. We’re not teachable, and therefore we’re not wise.

A survey of the life of Saul, the first king of Israel, has again reminded me of our tendency to “dodge” reproof rather than embrace it–and of the tragic results of such an M.O. Saul had a plethora of problems, but his tendency to deny his own culpability repeatedly revealed the pride, rebellion and self-delusion of his own heart. Three famous encounters with the prophet Samuel demonstrate the danger of allowing self-justification to replace self-judgment.

In I Samuel 13 Saul is confronted for having unlawfully offered sacrifices:

“So Saul said, ‘Bring a burnt offering and peace offerings here to me.’ And he offered the burnt offering. 10 Now it happened, as soon as he had finished presenting the burnt offering, that Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might greet him. 11 And Samuel said, ‘What have you done?’ And Saul said, ‘When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, 12 ‘then I said, “The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the LORD.” Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering.’ 13 And Samuel said to Saul, ‘You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you. For now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 ‘But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.'”(13:9-14)

In I Samuel 15 Saul is confronted again, this time for having spared some of the Amalekites, thereby disobeying God’s clear command to the contrary (15:3):

“‘Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the LORD?’ 20 And Saul said to Samuel, ‘But I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me, and brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. 21 ‘But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.’ 22 Then Samuel said: ‘Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. 23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.'” (15:19-23)

Finally, in I Samuel 28 Saul is confronted for having solicited a witch’s help to communicate with the now deceased prophet:

“Now Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’ And Saul answered, ‘I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may reveal to me what I should do.’ 16 Then Samuel said: ‘Why then do you ask me, seeing the LORD has departed from you and has become your enemy? 17 ‘And the LORD has done for Himself as He spoke by me. For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 ‘Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day. 19 ‘Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The LORD will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.'” (28:15-19)

Did you see a pattern in those conversations?

1. In each of the encounters, Samuel approached Saul with questions, not accusations (13:11; 15:19, 22; 28:15-16). In so doing, he appealed to Saul’s conscience and afforded him the opportunity to admit his guilt.

2. Yet, each time the question was met with denials and excuses. Though Samuel tossed the “Say ‘I’m guilty’ and repent” softball gingerly to Saul, Saul habitually whiffed. In particular, he spoke of others’ culpability rather than his own–every time!

  • “The people…you…the Philistines…the Philistines…therefore…” (13:11-12)
  • “They…the people….The people…” (15:15, 21)
  • “The people…God…therefore…” (28:15)

3. In each situation, Saul rattled off pious speech even as he excused his own rebellion against God:

  • “I have not made supplication to the LORD.’ Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering.” (13:12b)
  • “Blessed are you of the LORD! I have performed the commandment of the LORD.” (15:13)
  • “…the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God.” (15:15)
  • “But I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me, and brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites.” (15:20–notice the self-deception)
  • “…to sacrifice to the LORD your God” (15:21)
  • “And Saul swore to [the witch!] by the LORD, saying, ‘As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.'” (28:10)
  • “‘God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams.'” (28:15)

The entire saga of Saul’s life is tragic. He was ruined by his own rebellion, pride and hatred. He became so obsessed with his (imagined) rivalry with David that it cost him everything. It’s almost painful to read. But prominent among his many faults was his refusal to acknowledge his own sin. He claimed to be obedient in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. He blamed the Israelites, Samuel, the Philistines and even God Himself for his own actions. On the last night of his life he showed the depth of his self-deception and hyprocrisy by calling on the name of Jehovah–something he did again and again throughout his sorry life–while making a promise to a witch (28:10)! The results of his rebellion were severe, both for himself and for those under his leadership. By the end of his life, God was actually his “enemy,” a very real threat to all who are too proud to receive correction (James 4:6).

Rejecting reproof is natural. We’re all prone to bristle when confronted, to launch a counter-attack, to defend ourselves, to describe extenuating circumstances which justify our actions, or (perhaps most aggravating of all) to say “I know” or “You’re right,” then leave the conversation unchanged. I see such responses all the time–in my home, in the church I pastor, and in my own life. Such arrogance not only reveals present foolishness, but also guarantees future foolishness.

Far better to hear reproof, be thankful for the one who cares enough about you to risk his own neck by sharing it, and accept it. If it’s genuinely inaccurate, fine. You’ll live. But more times than not, it will have at least some merit to it. Take it. Think on it. Be grateful for it. Pray over it.

The next time you’re confronted by a friend, spouse, or pastor saying “Thou art the man,” respond like David, not Saul. Both had spectacular failures in their lives, but only David repented when confronted with his sin. Saul was too busy dodging. I’ve been there and done that. So have you.

Listen to counsel (Proverbs 19:20a).

Accept reproof (Proverbs 19:20b).

Grow in wisdom (Proverbs 19:20c).

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5 Responses

  1. In a somewhat realted post, TJ Klapperich addresses the importance of accepting even hostile criticism here. Give it a read. It’s only two paragraphs long, after all. (TJ can pack a lot of conviction into a small space.)

    This is especially good:

    When it is all about me, [criticism] is an attack on me. However when I realize it is about Christ and not me, I can let it have the impact in my life Christ wants it to have.

    BTW, a while back I hosted a brief discussion of Mahaney’s “Humility” here.

  2. Amen and amen to your recent article. Very well stated.

    May I ask something? Why is it that many Christian leaders feel that to admit wrong would ruin their testimony before their people? I’m not talking about glorifying sin, but what about “simple” things: losing your cool in a deacon’s meeting, coming across wrong, admitting you made a mistake. When God discusses “blameless” in I Tim. 3…that doesn’t mean they are without fault.

    As a pastor’s wife I know the responsibility is there to set the example…but isn’t that also in demonstrating how to say “I’m sorry”? (of course, without the qualifications that skirt the true apology)

    Why isn’t this discussed more? What are Christian leaders afraid of? I have come across numerous people like this. Can you shed some light?

    Also, I have also been told that we (in the ministry) should never tell someone what we have struggled with and God gave us the victory over. Bitterness, anger, pride, etc. It is glorifying sin. What are your thoughts on this as well?

  3. Crystal,
    I do not believe that that glorifies sin at all. I believe that it glorifies God in showing that Pastors and their wives (as you mentioned in your case) are sinners just like the “people in the pews,” who have been saved by God’s grace. Pastors struggle with the same sins that their people do and need God’s grace just as any other person does. It doesn’t glorify sin. It simply tells the people that the Pastor is honest too.
    If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 1 Jn. 1:8
    If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His Word is not in us. 1 Jn. 1:10

  4. I’ve got to be quick, but I agree with Mike: admitting wrongdoing enhances leadership. You don’t earn respect by appearing to be faultless–especially when you’ve given ample evidence of your frailty. Of course, gaining respect isn’t the goal of a genuine admission of guilt, but I do think it’s a very real effect.

    I think it all depends on the leader’s goals:

    * If you want to seem like a leader, pretend to be perfect; take every criticism as insubordination; backpedal and rationalize when questioned; play the authority card often; work to protect your image rather than being transparent.

    * If, on the other hand, you want to influence people for Christ’s sake (which is the essence of leadership), be real; admit your own struggles (discretely, of course); describe how you’re growing; accept blame when you blow it; admit that you need the sermon you’re preaching as much as anyone.

    This is actually a much bigger discussion than how you accept criticism. It’s really about your philosophy of leadership–whether you think leaders should be approachable or untouchable.

    My take: I’d much rather have a “Pastor Chris” or “PC” or even “Chris” relationship with people than a “Pastor Anderson” relationship, if by doing so I can have influence in their day-to-day lives.

    Bottom line: I don’t want the kind of respect that makes people stand when I enter the room or admire me from afar; I want the kind of respect that makes people seek me out for help when they’re having problems.

    (In the interest of transparency, I’m not the most teachable guy in the world, especially when the criticism comes from my lovely wife. In other words: I need this post as much as anyone.) :)

  5. Good stuff.

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