Friday, November 04, 2011

Naturally speaking

I’ve been thinking about natural strengths recently, partly prompted by writing a study on two pretty impressively able characters, one from the Old Testament – Elisha – and one from the New – Paul. On the one hand, God clearly chooses, calls, and uses people of capacity and character to further his purposes. On the other, he chooses what is “foolish in the world to shame the wise and what is weak in the world to shame the strong”. And he calls us to “die to” much that may be naturally good, for the sake of something spiritually better. (Or so Hinds Feet on High Places says, so it must be true, eh?)

So I posed the question on Twitter: “What is the right biblical attitude to natural talent? Die to it? Use it? Both? Half & half? Or what? Answers on a posttweet please.”

Most of the answers were basically positive towards natural strengths and talents, with the caveat sometimes added that we should “give glory to God” for them (Not always quite sure what this means in practice beyond putting pious expressions like “Praise the Lord” on our lips, which I can never quite get into despite being a passionate Christian. Post for another day?)

Anyway – Elisha and Paul. Some thoughts taken from the studies I wrote:

Elisha has many qualities: his determination (ploughing parched ground with twelve yoke of oxen); his full-blooded commitment (burning the tools of his old occupation when called to follow Elijah); his loyalty and resolve to follow his mentor closely once he sensed the time for Elijah’s departure was near, his heart-devotion glimpsed in his quiet grief at the thought of this departure. His boldness and faith are evident in his request for a "double portion" of Elijah's spirit.

Israel had many kings, but they were rarely her real leaders. True leaders were anointed not just with oil, but with the Spirit. In the era of 2Kings, the monarchy was so unspiritual that true godly authority in Israel had reverted to prophets. The issue of Elijah’s successor was vital because he would represent God’s authority in Israel. The Bible narrative hints at Elijah’s likeness to Israel’s founding prophet: his parting the water by striking it with his cloak is reminiscent of Moses’ parting the Red Sea with his staff. When Elisha is able to do this, too, he is shown to be the true successor of Elijah, just as Joshua was successor to Moses. Elisha now carries God’s authority.

Reading and pondering all this, I find myself asking: which of Elisha’s qualities can I aim to grow in? But also – how can we, in our church, ensure those with anointing (rather than just natural ability or a “leadership” label) carry true authority among us?

In Paul’s world there were three key groups: Jews, Greeks and Romans. Paul was the ideal man to represent the gospel across his world: a pure-bred Jew who studied under a leading rabbi; a Greek-speaker with good knowledge of philosophy; a Roman citizen by birth. He is at pains to stress his Jewish pedigree to an audience of zealous Jews; he makes use of his Roman citizenship on more than one occasion; in Athens and Corinth, he quotes Greek poetry and philosophy.

Sometimes these advantages led to gospel opportunities: impressed with Paul’s excellent Greek, a tribune allows him to speak to the Jews, whom Paul addresses in Hebrew. Sometimes they led to Paul escaping imprisonment or punishment, as in Jerusalem and previously in Philippi. And sometimes they did him no good at all: the Jewish crowd still turn on him in Jerusalem; the Athenians dismiss him as a "babbler"; tradition says Paul was beheaded in Rome!

Paul saw his natural advantages as rubbish compared to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ” and having God’s power working in him. But he certainly wasn’t against using natural strengths when the situation called for them!

We’ve landed slap bang in the middle of another paradox, I feel. I must ask myself: what are my natural strengths? Am I able to “consider them as rubbish”? Conversely, can I freely offer them to God to use them for his plans and purpses, for the gospel?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

aaaaarg! Why are we so self-indulgent. It's the results that count. How you get them is useful but not defining. Pious phrases such as 'die to' turn me off Christianity big-time. It becomes an alien world full of people spouting jargon that scares, confuses and makes me feel small. I am an outsider once more.