Don’t trust every spirit, but test them To discover whether they come from God or not. (1 John 4:1)
Following nearly three years in the Navy and Marine Corps during World War II, I returned home anxious to begin my new life as a free citizen and commence my college education. Upon graduation four years later, jobs were hard to come by due to an abundance of veterans seeking the few employment opportunities.
I decided to do some research in the Standard and Poor’s volumes, analyzing the various businesses and finally selecting the “lucky” corporation that would receive “my offer” of services. I sent my letter directly to the Chairman of the Board, assuming it would be tossed after possibly being read, or if I were very lucky, answered with an offer of a personal interview in New York City. It happened! Not too long after that, I had become the youngest regional sales manager in that manufacturing company.
Nearly a decade later, something else unanticipated occurred. Sensing the call of God upon my life, I sold our house and with my wife and young child, left for seminary to prepare for the ministry. With only a few exceptions, all of my well-meaning friends questioned the wisdom of giving up all that security for such an unknown and uncertain future.
Moving ahead three years more, the long-awaited time has finally arrived—a weekend of candidating in a church. My wife stood beside me as we both greeted the congregation as they departed after that first service. Everyone was cordial and encouraging. One younger mother of two warmly smiled and held my hand a bit longer than was comfortable. On our trip home I remarked to my wife that this person was either “too good to be true or has a major problem. I’m sure that if I become pastor, we’ll soon find out which it is.”
It was exactly six weeks after my installation when I chose Psalm 51 for my message. King David’s penitential cry for God’s mercy after his affair with the beautiful Bathsheba, his faithful top general’s wife. The message was solely an exposition of the facts, relationships, judgment, ramifications, and final redemption. But before I could get to the narthex to greet the exiting members of the audience, the young mother stopped me with her most unusual and unanticipated confession, this self-incriminating statement: “How dare you publicly expose my problem before all these people today?”
I’ll have to admit, I was startled by her words. In the split second I had to respond I simply tried to explain, “Ma’am, I’ve been here only six week. I hardly know you and your husband, and I am totally unfamiliar with any details of your personal lives!”
In retrospect, I later recalled an earlier casual conversation in which she had commented that, as one of the youth sponsors, she was amazed at the innocence of some of those who knew nothing about infidelity, who naively believed that adultery meant only that you had simply “grown up” and become an adult. There was nothing especially unusual about that comment perhaps, but why make that subject your first to the new pastor? I didn’t give it another thought. However, further events and investigation revealed that her local reputation was brazenly forward, especially toward community leaders and businessmen.
At that point things got even more complicated. The woman’s brother, who wanted nothing to do with any church, was seriously dating one of our members. He came to me and confided that he was going to go public about the affair unless I addressed the matter. Not only had the affair become an embarrassment to him and others, his sister had judged him “evil” over a sports activity in which he participated on Sundays—water skiing! His sister’s strange hypocrisy was more than enough to call for pastoral attention. I offered to look into the matter.
With the support of an elder, a serious attempt was made to deal with the issue. It was hoped the repentance of both parties could result in forgiveness and restoration for the two couples, with a minimum of exposure for the sake of their families and the preservation of the man’s career. However, other family members had already chosen to speak out, intensifying the bitterness. Neither of the two involved would let the matter be settled. The attractive young mother seemed to enjoy the attention. Topping it off, her husband was heard to say how proud he was to be the husband of the woman so many men desired. Under those circumstances, I would hardly label him a man to be envied!
This didn’t seem to be an ordinary situation. There was an element of openly brazen warfare present. Later that same week during a baseball game, I heard the wife of the man involved warn her younger adversary, “Stop! Remember he’s my husband!” Any doubt I might have had about the seriousness of this indiscretion was gone as I realized the degree of arrogant vindictiveness in her neurosis. My next discovery was that I, as the assumed counselor, had become one of her newest targets.
One evening as I pondered the situation, the book, Neurotics in the Church, came to my attention. The following excerpt from R.J. St. Clair’s book helped me understand the degree of the problem at hand:
“Nearly all shades of neurosis have some feelings of love and loyalty that hold hostility in check, but the arrogant-vindictive person makes retaliatory triumph a style of life. Competition and conflict are his/her native air. Struggle to the bitter end, with victory at the last, is his dream. When he fastens his hostility on a target, he broadcasts to one and all that the target hates him, and for the good of everyone he must humiliate or destroy him. He cannot rest until he has proven his worth to himself and his power before others—and crowds cheer” (page 67). It is all about power! I had no interest in becoming victimized in that kind of battle.
To worsen the situation, even denominational “politics” became involved, which caused further perplexity within the membership as new questions kept surfacing. The ultimate solution came about through a voluntary, angry exodus of two families, one try to “save face” without repentance, and the other, the elder who had originally tried to help but failed to discern a deceitful spirit.
Their departure relieved the hangover effects and allowed the church to be revitalized, to prosper and expand the ministry outreach in the years that followed. In an unusual but not uncommon turn of events, the offended wife turned against the pastor who had tried to protect her and her family from further shame.
There are warnings and lessons in this story:
1. First impressions can be dangerous to the unsuspecting newcomer. Be prepared to wait for reality to be revealed. On the other hand, cynicism is not the alternative. It will only deaden your sensitivity to the real needs of people. Observe deeply, listen carefully, pray much, and decide wisely. “Be quick to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Discernment is a gift to be developed by God’s Spirit, through obedience and God’s Word. 2. Apparently, blood is thicker than water, as the saying goes, especially in matters of morality and finances. Families tend to protect their own. Protect your actions, words, and decisions by carefully, patiently, and cautiously finding some church leader or fellow pastor whom you can trust with the motives and purposes of your actions. And don’t be remiss in the matter of church disciplines (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). 3. Know your own bottom line and commit to it. “Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically as something done for the Lord and not for men, remembering it is the Lord Christ Whom you serve” (Colossians 1:27).
“For the Word of God is living and effective and shaper than any two-edged sword, penetrating. . .and a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 Holman C.S.B.).