Thursday, 24 April 2014

Despising others: a nasty habit

As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart. 2 Samuel 6:16

Be honest now. Have you ever “despised somebody in your heart”? If you can truthfully answer No, then all I can say is that you are a far better person than I am. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t go around looking for people to despise - God forbid! - but I would be a liar if I said it has never happened. So I think I can identify with Michal in this sad story.

Michal was David’s wife, though her father King Saul had earlier given her to a man called Paltiel (that’s rather how royal females were treated in those days: a bit like pass the parcel). But she had shown great loyalty to David, and 1 Samuel tells us more than once that “Michal loved David”. So it’s especially sad to read about this incident. 

What had David done wrong in her eyes? Answer: he had praised God - for the bringing of the ark, the sacred chest, to Jerusalem - by “leaping and dancing” in front of the crowds. Michal felt that this was way beneath his dignity, and told him so. David defended himself angrily. And that, it seems, was pretty much the end of their marriage.

That’s Michal and David: but why might we be tempted to despise others? Well, perhaps we just have a rather bloated opinion of ourselves: we think we are cleverer or more talented than someone else. Perhaps we have had a more privileged background, and so look down on those we consider to be “beneath us”. (I heard of a young man who wore a tee-shirt saying “It’s hard to be humble when you’ve been to Eton”.) But our story makes clear how this can happen over the matter of worship. David was adamant that his behaviour that day was in praise of God - so how dare Michal criticise him!

My work as a minister began in the early 1970s - just the time when what became known as the “charismatic movement” burst on the churches. Many of us found it quite bewildering. We were used to standing sedately in church singing time-honoured hymns to the accompaniment of the organ.

But suddenly now there were people lifting their hands up to worship God; they were playing guitars and singing new songs in a modern idiom; they were “speaking in tongues”; yes, there were even some who, so report had it, were actually dancing in church (I knew a vicar who changed the name of his evening service from "Evensong" to "Come dancing with Jesus": I kid you, as they say,
not.) I don’t think I was the only one who did a bit of despising in those days, though I hope that most of us have learned better since.

There is a key principle here that all Christians need to take seriously. It’s called humility. Paul sums it up well: “... in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). He tells the Thessalonian Christians not to "treat prophecies with contempt" (1 Thessalonians 5:20) - which would hardly be necessary if it were not a real temptation to some. 

Considering others better than oneself... it's easy to say, often hard to do. But sorry, there’s no getting round it. Even if we feel someone is making a fool of themselves, we are not to despise them, but, rather, to assume the best about them, not the worst. Who, after all, are we to judge what is going on in someone else's heart? How do we know they are not closer to God than we are?

True, this does need to be balanced with other factors. Paul also tells us that in worship “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40). And John tells us that we should be wise and discerning when it comes to things we might struggle to make sense of: “... do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). In other words, the fact that somebody seems to be making a fool of themselves doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not! Openness is one thing, gullibility quite another.

But humility is always called for. All right, perhaps David’s antics were a bit over the top. But wouldn’t Michal have done better, however disapproving, to shake her head with a smile, give him the benefit of the doubt, and have a quiet, loving word with him later?

Is there anybody in your life you need to revise your opinion of? anybody you are, in your heart, looking down on? Make no mistake: this is sin.

Lord God, help me to be discerning and wise - but also teachable and humble. Amen.

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