Nehemiah 3-4 and 1 Corinthians 8
It was just a week ago, at the close of summer school, when a student poignantly asked me if I had ever been a bully. Hmm. My gut answer was immediately, “No.” Well, at least I don’t think so. Right? Then he referenced a sheet of paper he read outside the door to my classroom that stated “Mr. Winner is a bully, but in a good way.” Truth. I remember seeing this phrase as I freshly hung up papers from my former students to my incoming classes. The forms they filled out were entitled “10 Things to Know about Mr. Winner’s Classroom.” While the more consistent items were “Mr. Winner will throw things at you,” or “Mr. Winner will make sure you won’t go hungry,” or “Mr. Winner really cares,” there were two people who listed “Mr. Winner is a bully” but with the comforting caveat “in a good way.” I literally scratched my head as I tried to dissect the information in front of me for a moment. Maybe I am a pusher? Or do I tease the students too much? Or bully the bullies creating some ironic form of verbal justice? I didn’t come to a clear conclusion, but I reflected a bit more on my past and present. I responded, “I think I’ve been a bully before, but I am doing my best not to be.”
Like all of us, I often think before I speak. This happens significantly less at 36 than a half of a lifetime ago at 18, but my words can be quite cutting when my pride is wounded. I have a rapier wit sharpened through the first-world sufferings of low self-esteem and some extra weight in high school (and at other points in my life too). While some mighty say that my rebuttals to ridicule were simply justified self-defense, I know I have often lost control and engineered shock-and-awe offensive assaults. At several points in my life, my tongue has been an unbridled mess (James 3). While there is more restraint over words today, neither can I stop craving the attention they give, nor can I shake the overwhelming urge to be right.
Now out of the dark recesses of psyche and into today’s reading. In the Old Testament (Nehemiah 3,4), we get a detailed look at the many groups who return to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem under the direction of Nehemiah. They are faced with two named nemeses, Sanballat and Tobiah, who openly criticize what they deem as futile work. In the New Testament (1 Corinthians 8) Paul deals with the issue of food, specifically food that isn’t deemed clean by the conditions of the Law, and speaks to the nuance between licensed actions and actions of the conscience. Both beg the question of what our response should be when faced with open criticism to what we know is correct.
“Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at <Sanballat’s> side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones” – Nehemiah 4:3
“Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders. So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.” – Nehemiah 4:4-6
It is easy to be distracted from an important purpose to respond to bullies who are critical because of their own malice, jealousy, or ignorant nay-saying. If you are shaken by their words, then your next step should be to consult God through his Word and in prayer before continuing. If he approves, then being despised by the right people can truly be a wonderful thing (James 1:2-4 — said by someone who also loves to be liked). What arrows will find their mark if God is on your side? Let God handle the frustrations (v.15) and land the blows. Save your wit. Hold your tongue. You won’t cross the finish line running your mouth; you must use your feet to run his race. “Yes” and “no” are sufficient replies, (Matt 5:37), and it’s okay to be on your guard, (v.22), but you must continue your efforts to build His kingdom.
“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” – 1 Corinthians 8:9
But should we ever care about what others think? Paul, inspired by God, says we MUST consider the feelings of our brothers and sisters in Christ (and those who we are speaking the words of God to). Culture and maturity play roles in what is and what is not perceived as permissible. While we may have license or liberty to enjoy certain things, like dancing, indulgent foods, clothing trends, worship music styles, or maybe a glass of wine, not everyone is on the same page about all of these things. You may very well have the scriptural support that gives you the greatest of freedoms, but if they are not requirements to be a follower of Jesus, they are discrections NOT worth causing a divide in the body of Christ. You are not justified in bullying someone into your belief or preferences (again, if it is a permission and not prescription). In fact, Paul adds , “(12)When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” So being “right” by the law, but wrong by the heart is the most ironic form of sin. See: legalism.
Circling back, in the context of my classroom, I hope the words “bully in a good way” are just a lack of expression of some more positive quality that I possess that is a little more like Jesus and a little less like the man I am trying to flee from. However, in the context of our reading, being a bully, even if it is in a good way, doesn’t get a ringing endorsement. God wants us to work diligently to fulfill his calling. Some days it is as simple as denying ourselves a certain privilege for the sake of unity. Other days it can be a bit more difficult, carrying on big callings while being openly criticized and attacked. In either instance, God wants others to see more of him and less of us as he works to rebuild the biggest of crumbling walls and remove the smallest stumbling blocks.