Choosing Humility Over Revenge: A Case Study2
If anyone seemed justified in getting even, it was Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), Puritan pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. Continue reading . . .
If anyone seemed justified in getting even, it was Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), Puritan pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. In December of 1748, Edwards told a man who applied for church membership that he must give a credible testimony that he had been born again before he would be admitted to the Lord’s Table. This sounds routine to us, but in eighteenth-century New England it was revolutionary. Until the time Edwards took a firm stand, no profession of saving faith was required.
The opposition Edwards faced was hostile and vindictive. All that he asked for was an opportunity to explain his views from the pulpit. He even wrote a book on the subject. But the governing church council refused his request and few people even bothered to read his written defense.
The attack on Edwards was less theological than personal. But why? He hadn’t committed adultery or stolen money from the offering plate or slacked off in the preparation of his sermons. Perhaps no one has ever been less like a twenty-first-century televangelist than this Puritan pastor! So why was he persecuted?
There were several factors in addition to his opposition to treating the Lord’s Supper as a “converting” ordinance (i.e., an ordinance freely given to those lacking a credible Christian testimony in hopes that the Spirit would use their participation as a means to convert them to saving faith). Edwards and his wife Sarah had eleven children, prompting him to seek an increase in salary. That didn’t go over well. Then there was the practice of “bundling” among the town’s youth. With their parents’ permission, they would cuddle and embrace beneath blankets while still in their clothes. Edwards denounced the practice, insisting that it would lead (as it did, in many instances) to fornication.
When some older teens and young men in their early twenties began circulating a midwife’s illustrated book, combined with salacious and suggestive taunting of several young women in the community, Edwards made the tactical error of reading a list of names of those involved, while failing to differentiate between those only suspected and those actually proven to have been guilty. Finally, his regular rebuke of sin in the lives of his people pushed them over the edge. But it was primarily his change regarding qualified participants at the Lord’s Table that led to his dismissal from the pulpit in Northampton.
The burden Edwards carried became progressively more grievous, as seen in this letter he wrote to a friend:
“I need God’s counsel in every step I take and every word I speak; as all that I do and say is watched by the multitude around me with the utmost strictness and with eyes of the greatest uncharitableness and severity, and let me do or say what I will, my words and actions are represented in dark colors, and the state of things is come to that, that they seem to think it greatly concerns them to blacken me and represent me in odious colors to the world to justify their own conduct – they seem to be sensible that now their character can’t stand unless it be on the ruin of mine. They have publicly voted that they will have no more sacraments; and they have no way to justify themselves in that but to represent me as very bad. I therefore desire, dear sir, your fervent prayers to God. If He be for me, who can be against me? If He be with me, I need not fear ten thousands of the people. But I know myself unworthy of His presence and help, yet would humbly trust in His infinite grace and all sufficiency” (quoted in Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 322).
After a long and rather bitter dispute, Edwards was dismissed by his church on June 22, 1750. Only men were allowed to vote in those days: of the 230 that did, only 23 stood in his favor.
Rarely has a man been treated more unjustly than was Edwards. Yet he refused to strike back. One church member sympathetic to Edwards describes his pastor’s reaction to being fired:
“That faithful witness received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week, but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life, even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismissal” (ibid., 327).
How was Edwards able to resist the urge to do what comes so easily for you and me? You just read the answer. His “happiness was out of the reach of his enemies.”
Edwards preached his farewell sermon on July 2, 1750. His text that day was 2 Corinthians 1:14. His words were singularly free of blame or accusation or bitterness. Mercy and kindness abound. As Iain Murray has said, “No congregation was ever spoken to more tenderly than the people of Northampton” on that day (329).
How does one do that? What is the key that unlocks the secret to such humility that, in response to being horribly and unjustly slandered, rejected, and released from one’s means of livelihood, a person can respond as did Edwards? It comes from the simple truth that one’s happiness is out of the reach of one’s enemies. They can’t touch it. Nothing they say can diminish its presence in the heart. Nothing they do can separate one from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Edwards’ happiness was wrapped up in the glorious gospel of the grace of Christ by which he had been saved. His identity in Christ was unassailable. His justification in Christ was irreproachable. His hope in Christ was unshakable.
If you and I ever hope to resist the temptation to seek revenge, especially when it seems so reasonable and justified, and instead embrace humility, we must rest satisfied in all that God is for us in Jesus. We must live each moment in the radical, life-changing reality that we “have died” and our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). And no vote of a congregation or voice of an enemy or assault by Satan will be able to shake us from that truth.