1 Kings 13
Now, he had not ran far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! life! Eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.
The above quotation is from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in the opening pages when the young man, soon to be called Christian, comes under conviction that he lies under judgment, and must find a way of escape. Believing the word of the Evangelist, he flees his city, his fingers in his ears.
The account in 1 Kings 13 of the young prophet who fell is a tremendously sobering passage. He goes to Jeroboam and delivers a very hard word, one that might well have endangered his life. He decisively rejects the king’s invitation to eat with him, in obedience to the clear word of God who had told him not to eat or drink in that place. Yet, he falters when approached by an older prophet, who also invites him to eat with him, claiming also to have heard a word, one which flatly contradicted the word the young prophet was given by God. The though process of the young prophet is not given—whether he wrestled or not with the word of the old prophet. But he went to eat with the old prophet, disobeying the word of God and suffering the consequences of his disobedience.
Why did he go? We aren’t told. Perhaps part of his decision to follow the old prophet had to do with his hunger, given that he hadn’t eaten and was perhaps disposed to want to believe that it was OK to eat. Or perhaps it was because he simply believed an older and more experienced prophet, and therefore doubted the word he had heard. The prophet appears to have been a true prophet, given that it seems that he heard from the Lord later. But he lied.
While it is difficult to know exactly what to learn from a passage like this, at very least we can see the importance of tenaciously clinging to what we know of the word of the Lord. There are always temptations to rationalize our disobedience. A young man can often find reasons for his sexual license, or his anger. A woman can justify, at least to herself, her gossip (never, of course, calling it that). Just like Adam and Eve in the garden, we can reason our way to disobeying the clear word of God.
There are needs of the flesh that can clamor for our attention, sometimes creating a temptation to fulfill them inappropriately. And there are voices upon voices in our world that will seek to divert us from resolutely holding to the word of God, voices that sound reasonable, and even voices that will claim to be from God. There are times when we do well to listen. And there are times when we listen to our peril. In other words, sometimes we need simply to stick our fingers in our ears and press on, holding fast to the word of the Lord, despite our own inclinations and despite the reasonable sounding voices around us.
(By the way, if you haven’t read Pilgrim’s Progress, do. You’ll be helped.)
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city (Proverbs 16:32).
I met a man recently who told me his philosophy of life was “do no harm.” Not a bad philosophy, but I asked how he managed to do it. A bit puzzled at the question, he asked what I ever did that harmed another. The answer—to my shame—was ready at hand. Speaking in a way that tore another down. He asked, “Do you mean temper?” and then fell silent. He understood.
Rare is the person who has not fallen to the sin of anger, which is precisely why the proverb puts the one who controls his temper in the class with the mighty and victorious warrior. Only few can take cities. Fewer can rule their spirit.
Let me offer a few reflections on the proverb above, I hope by way of encouragement. First, recognize that controlling one’s spirit is a battle. If you are old enough to read this, and are willing to pause to think about it, you know what I mean. The encouragement here is in seeing self-control for what it is. If we believe that self-control is a battle, then we are not deceived when the battle is fierce, when fighting is painful, when our endurance is tested, and when we are required in the end to drive a stake into our own lust for vengeance. It is precisely when we forget this is a battle, and furthermore a battle that the Lord requires us to fight, that we surrender.
Secondly, determine that surrender is not an option. We often don’t consider the fruit of our lack of self-control. One who loses a battle has not just lost a battle, but has been devastated. There are real effects to being controlled by one’s anger, effects that are always destructive— physiologically, spiritually, relationally. Anger wounds, and not least ourselves. The word of the proverb is not theoretical: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov. 25:28). A man without self-control will find his life—at least that which is important—falling apart around him.
Thirdly, recognize where the battle lies. In the moment of anger, we naturally believe the battle lies between ourselves and the other. Not so. I am not denying that sometimes we deal with real issues that are tough or ugly, and that need to be dealt with. But the enemy is not the other. If it were, the solution would be to vanquish the other. But the Scriptures speak differently: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness… anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (Colossians 3:5-9). My battle is in the end with myself, and with the powers and principalities that would delight to see me destroy myself by destroying my neighbor. You can’t win the right battle by fighting the wrong one.
Finally, remember that self-control is not a battle we fight alone. It is a battle that we fight, to be sure. But ultimately self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Which means that our success in dealing with our anger depends upon our yielding to the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you’ll know the feeling of being angry and unwilling to pray and ask the Lord’s help in dealing graciously with the other. Yet, despite our desires to the contrary, we must yield to the Holy Spirit, or else we are left “broken into and without walls.” It is foolhardy for a soldier to rush impulsively into battle without availing himself of available support. And God has promised that support is there. But we must avail ourselves of it.
Let me end with a short vignette I came across years ago, in the Banner of Truth magazine:
We mention the interesting case of one man called Tom, a convert to Christ. Tom had been a desperate and hard man, given to much fighting and hard living before his conversion. When invited to join the Methodist church after the work of the Holy Spirit in his life, he refused to do so until he had read through the whole of the New Testament to see ‘Whether I can live up to it.’ He subsequently reported to the Methodist pastor that, ‘I accept everything I have read . . . as the truth of God, and I consent to obedience to the best of the ability that God shall give me.’ But still Tom would not join himself to the local church. Christ’s command to ‘turn the other cheek’ was a stumbling block to him. Here was a babe in Christ, who, knowing the deep-seated anger that erupted into physical violence in his former life, was fearful that he would not be able to prevent himself from retaliating if he should be provoked. It was not long before he was tested.
A fellow miner, in a wild rage, threatened violence to Tom’s person. Offering up a silent prayer he said nothing in reply and quietly walked away from the angry miner. This so enraged the man further that he set his huge dog upon Tom, who knocked the animal into a large hole some five feet deep. The incensed miner halted long enough to rescue his dog, then rushing upon Tom, he unleashed a solid blow to his face. The latter turned the other side of his face toward the panting miner, with the invitation: ‘There is the other check . . . fire away.’ The attacker turned and fled!
Speaking later to the pastor Tom said, ‘I am ready to join your church. I have read the rules, and have proved the sufficiency of the grace of God to enable me to keep them.’
Plead my cause and redeem me; give me life according to your promise! (Psalm 119:154).
Literally translated, the above verse reads “plead my cause and redeem me, give me life according to your word.” The translation “promise” is, I believe, faithful to what the psalmist intended. But let me make two brief observations.
First, it is through the word of the Lord that we find life. In the end, God’s word is life, because God created the heavens and the earth, and us, and knows what is best for us. Like a generous father—He is a generous Father—the Lord gives commands for our good. Paul mentions that the command “honor your father and your mother” is a command with a promise, in this case that God’s people would live long in the land. Yet what is true of the fifth commandment is implicitly true of all of them—keeping the commandments is the way to life. You might say that commands are implied promises.
Secondly, it is as important to know the promises of God as it is to know the commands of God. It is interesting that the Scriptures often use the word “word” for both, suggesting that perhaps the line we draw between the two can be overdrawn. There is a difference—the Lord does give commands, and he does give promises. But often the promises are contingent upon commands. And the promises give us the strength and willingness to keep the commands. In other words, walking faithfully is as much about remembering the promises of God as it is about remembering the commandments of God.
As you seek to walk faithfully, what promise from God can you call to mind and hold onto today?