I never had anything approaching a conversation with Rex Humbard during the time that I worked in his ministry during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He might have recognized my face as someone among the dozens that worked there, but I doubt that he knew my name or anything about me. But there was something that has stated with me all these years which I overheard when I walked by him once when he was talking with several other people in the mailroom.
Rex was talking about the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. He said something to the effect that he didn’t think that he personally could have lived through the kind of conditions under which Jeremiah had his prophetic ministry, during the years from about 605 to 586 B.C.E. Rex’s point was that Jeremiah saw practically no response from anyone to his ministry; perhaps Baruch, maybe a few others, but there were very few, if any – and there was a lot of personal rejection, hardship, persecution, ostracism and imprisonment.
One thing that I can see from the ministry of Jeremiah was that his personal toughness had nothing to do with his ability to endure to the end in his prophetic ministry. In fact, Jeremiah is widely regarded as one of the most sensitive men in the Bible. He didn’t react with bluster and defiance to all that he went through; rather he often reacted with lament and tears. It’s not for nothing that he’s been called The Weeping Prophet. Yet God didn’t taunt him with his weakness; rather, he commanded him to be faithful and deliver his word, and he would make Jeremiah able to stand in the face of that would come against him:
“Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee: be not dismayed at their faces, let I confound thee before them. For, behold I have made thee a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land. And they shall fight against thee: but they shall not prevail against thee, for I am with thee, saith the LORD, to deliver thee.” (Jeremiah 1:17-19).
These promises came to Jeremiah when he wasn’t much more than a teenager (Jeremiah 1:7-8), but God promised that he would give his word to Jeremiah, and Jeremiah would be his messenger (Jeremiah 1:9). Moreover, God pretty much repeated the same kinds of promises of enduring grace in the face of opposition and adversity during the renewal of his call to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:20-21).
So, the man that God chose and used during this time was a sensitive, weepy man – maybe someone that some today would call a wimp or a wussy – someone who reacted to the apostasy of the people of God and his constant persecution with tears and laments — but God gave the enduring grace and strength to make him the iron pillar in the midst of a difficult, defiant and apostate nation. Jeremiah wasn’t a tough talker, standing up to them, facing them down, not letting them get away with anything and making sure that they knew who was boss. And I think in the face of all this, anyone who uses Jeremiah 12:5 as a taunt of personal weakness against anyone going through a hard time with other people (“If thou has run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses?”) is misusing this verse. Rather, in the light of God’s dealings with Jeremiah, it can rather be seen properly as a call to find the strength of God to endure.
Pretty much same can be said of the warrior king and poet David. Throughout the Psalms you can find someone who reacted to ridicule, slander, rejection and betrayal with tears, lament and prayer. Yet he has been well regarded as the best king of Israel, a proven ruler and warrior as well as a poet. But even his prowess with the bow and spear he attributed to God:
“It is God that girdeth me with strength,
and maketh my way perfect.
He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet,
and setteth me upon my high places.
He teacheth my hands to war,
so that a bow of steel is broken [bent] by mine arms”
Just as much could be said about Jesus. He wept over the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35-36) and over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). He endured the crucifixion endured not out of a hard bitten and defiant toughness ethic, but with obedience to the will of the Father. Even so, he received strength through the ministry of an angel (Luke 22:43) and offered himself up through the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14).
At times the apostle Paul has been cited as an example of toughness. But he could also weep and pray over the needs of the churches and express his relief at Ephaphoditus’s recovery from a near fatal illness (Philippians 2:27). And he did not ascribe one bit of all that he did to his own ability, strength or toughness, but rather to the grace of God. “For I am what I am by the grace of God, and his grace to me did not become empty, but rather I labored more than all of them, but not I, but the grace of God with me” (I Corinthians 15:10). “And he [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, because my power comes to its completion in weakness.’ Therefore I will most gladly take joy in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may overshadow me. Moreover, I will take contentment in weaknesses, in insults, in difficulties, in persecutions and deprivations, on behalf of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9-10). It’s noteworthy that the apostle did not respond with trash talk (“Is that the best you can do?” “Bring it on!”) or denial of his limitations and weaknesses, but rather, sought for the power of Christ through the grace of God to overshadow his weaknesses and difficulties.
So here’s the thing. The kingdom of God is not just for the tough guys among us. God’s purpose in no one’s life, man or man, is not to make a tough guy or gal out of us; rather, his eternal purpose is to make us like Christ (Romans 8:28-30). Even more, God does not call us just to tough out our hardships and afflictions in this fallen world and in the face of spiritual evil through the power of our own broken and fallen human nature. For instance, no human being, no one made of flesh and blood, has the power and strength to endure in this world against the principalities, the powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, the spiritual wickedness in high places. The kingdom of God does not advance by, “Only the strong survive,” or “When things get tough, the tough get going,” but by “ . . . be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” (Ephesians 6:10).
So then, in the light of scripture, the toughness ethic can be easily seen to be often both overrated and overemphasized. Scripture is notable in its absence of Marine Corp pep talks or taunting and browbeating to those undergoing affliction. Rather, the idea of persistence and toughness is most appropriate in some cases to physical and military training, but it is horribly inappropriate to apply it to many or most situations in church ministry and business and family life. For example, I’ve had a number of friendships with physical trainers and coaches – some of whom are fine Christian men and women — and the most ineffective ones are those who have no other tactic in their repertoire than to taunt and browbeat people to perform to a standard. Rather, they instruct and encourage first. And in military training, it’s insane to attempt to taunt and browbeat someone until they have actually been instructed how to do what they are intended to do.
Over the years I’ve sensed that especially among Christian men, there is too much reliance in the different circumstances of their lives upon a ‘toughness’ ethic which often turns out to be simply ‘pretending to be tougher than you are.’ This ‘pretending to be tougher than you really are’ is what scripture calls hypocrisy and living a lie. Most Christian wives eventually come to realize that this is simply empty bluster. I’ve found that it’s very like something that Stephen Ambrose recounted in his books on the United States Army in World War II: some of those who talk toughness to others and give the greatest bluster in fold like cheap umbrellas in the time of minor adversity and opposition. And sometimes this reliance on ‘toughness’ is characteristic of Christian men who have served in the military. But there needs to be the realization among them that most of their fellow believers, men, women and children, have not served in the military, have not gone through boot camp, and cannot be regarded with contempt or disdain if they do not react to their hardships, afflictions and opposition with the toughness demanded from a Marine drill sergeant of a recruit in boot camp.
Even more, this toughness ethic can become for a man in our culture a counterfeit of the fruit of endurance which turns out simply to be a reliance on the power of fallen human nature. I’ve noticed that this counterfeit tends to result in harsh, stubborn, hypocritical Christian men very unlike Jesus Christ. Those who try follow this kind of ethic actually tend to be quite prejudiced toward others who don’t live up to their self styled façade of toughness and tend to label others with cruel labels of weakness simply for not acting hard and impassive when undergoing hardship, rejection and opposition. In fact, this false toughness ethic sometimes goes along with abusive family relationships. For example, someone who is in the habit of attempting to prove or display his or her personal toughness may often tend to do so through cruelty to other family members – sometimes the youngest and most helpless. And it does happen that abusers do try to whitewash for personal abuse of others with the excuse, “It’s for their own good, since I’m trying to toughen them.” So, if this results in bullying and abusive behavior, it is leading a person to behave directly contrary to the command of God, and into conduct for which that person will answer to God directly. And finally, this counterfeit ethic tends to produce men who are not suitable for church leadership nor qualified for eldership within the church.
I have also seen those who adhere to the counterfeit toughness ethic in times of persecution. A person habitually set to prove and display his or her toughness in the face of personal opposition will often react with retaliation and defiance in situations of persecution, directly contrary to the command of Jesus. Rather scripture repeatedly calls for a reliance on the Holy Spirit to give words to reply in times of persecution (Luke 21:12-15) and to demonstrate utter Christlikeness in the face of persecution (Luke 6:27-36).
Next, it may also feed a tendency among some men to label some things as unmanly because they do not fit the toughness façade, and this may lead to an inability to appreciate the beauty and kindness of a godly woman (see the Song of Solomon) and to function as a caring and compassionate father, as a loyal and honest friend and to appreciate beauty of God’s creation in nature and man’s work in areas such as art, architecture and music.
Finally, it is certainly true that Holy Spirit produces endurance, and over the course of our Christian life God will seek to grow us in endurance. But the responsibility for that is from God himself, not from any human being and certainly no malicious or abusive conduct toward any other human being made in the image of God can be excused by saying that it’s to toughen that person. Rather, let God bring about those circumstances that produce the fruit of endurance, and every other fruit of the Spirit. The production of the fruit of the Spirit is not the responsibility of anyone in leadership or any fellow Christian in the life of another believer. Rather, the need is simply to take care to produce a strong, loving, compassionate, faithful and obedient fellowship of believers growing in faith in and obedience to Christ through his Word. And even more, there needs to be a recognition that endurance is only one of the fruits of the Spirit (one of the aspects of scriptural patience), and that there needs to be balance of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the Spirit: love and gentleness as well as patience and endurance, for example. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control; against these kinds of things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
So we need to see that the call to endurance in the scriptures is not the same as demand for toughness. Rather, we need to put the call to endurance in the proper perspective:
- Never, ever lead with a demand for toughness to a fellow believer undergoing any kind of affliction. The call to toughness to someone in affliction can be putting a heavy burden like the Pharisees – “They tie down heavy and practically unbearable burdens on the shoulders of other people, but they themselves are not willing to lift one finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4) . Rather, scripture more often calls us to, “Bear each others’ burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
- Never presume that you know or any other human being knows what God’s will is for a person in affliction. Rather, stand with that person in prayer to receive the wisdom of God about what to do (James 1:5, Philippians 4:6-7), and for the strength to endure and show the fruit of the Spirit until God provides his conclusion to that situation.
- Understand that for someone in an abusive situation, the demand for toughness may well amount to aiding and abetting a abusive, malicious person, and that an abusive and malicious person often wants the target of their abuse and hatred to remain in hardship – which, incidentally, falsifies any claims of having ‘good intentions’ toward the target of their abuse and malice. I personally would never, ever advise ‘suck it up and tough it out’ to any wife or child in a physically abusive situation – certainly civil laws are being broken in those situations.
- Understand that God does not necessarily intend for any kind of affliction to be perpetual in this life (I Peter 5:10). Rather, this is more often the pattern which is his intention:
“For thou, O God, has proved us:
thou has tried us, as silver is tried.
Thou broughtest us into the net:
thou laidst affliction upon our loins.
Thou has caused men to ride over our heads:
we went through fire and through water:
but thou broughtest us our into a wealthy place”
- Understand that God does not always intend for us to enter or continue in any kind of affliction. God’s wisdom often means avoiding dangerous and perilous situations which stubborn naiveté may seek to plod through to unnecessary suffering (Proverbs 22:3,27:12). It may often mean removing oneself ethically and legally from that situation, such as in a workplace situation with an abusive boss or coworker, and recognizing that the situation is not worth one’s life, health and sanity, and that the abusive person is finally responsible to God. For example, for someone in slavery, the apostle Paul advised, “By all means, gain your freedom if you can,” (I Corinthians 7:21), and did not counsel that person to remain in that situation with any kind of idiocy like, “You don’t know what lessons God has yet to teach you through your slavery,” or, “You might eventually lead your master to Christ.” And some situations God simply calls us to use common sense to remove ourselves from the situation. For example, if someone comes into a church with a gun and starts shooting people, there’s no need to pray about what to do or to stand there stiffly to prove your toughness in the face of affliction. God’s will for you is simply to take cover, do what you can to protect others, and work within the law to have the shooter apprehended or stopped from shooting.
- Understand that the scriptural call to endurance is more than undergirded by God’s promises of power to endure, and that Jesus’s statement “ . . . apart from me you can do nothing . . .” (John 15:5) applies to these situations also, where we are called to produce the fruit of the Spirit through abiding in him.