college travels

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sabbatical with Balaam #6: The Power of Words

I don’t know how many times I chanted, 'sticks and stones may break my bones but names with never hurt me' as a child, or thought it as an adult. I don’t know how many times I’ve found it to be true. I suspect the first number is bigger than I’d like to admit and the second number is zero.

Words hurt. They can leave an indelible mark on the way we see ourselves and the way we relate to others. James knew the problem all too well. He wrote to his fellow Christians, “out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” In another part of the Roman world the problem was not so much that Christians were dishing it out, but that they were on the receiving end. Guess what? It’s got something to do with Balaam!

Balaam turns up in the Bible in Numbers 22-24. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit recently. But his name also appears in Revelation 2 in a letter, or rather part of a letter, that John wrote to the Christians in Pergamum in the west of what is now Turkey. It seems that the Christians there were facing persecution. It was not an easy place to live, so much so that it is identified as “where Satan has his throne” (Rev. 2:13). Satan, of course, comes from a word meaning “to accuse”. Satan is “the accuser”. The accusation being levelled at the Christian community in Pergamum was that they were corrupt and a corrupting influence on those around them. The name that was being used against them was that they were modern-day Balaams. It seems that 'Balaam' was a derogatory term used to put others down, and to write them off as an individual. Other documents from around the same time indicate that a Balaam was someone who was boastful and proud and led others astray.

Through John, Jesus invites the Christians in Pergamum to consider to what extent the accusation is true. If there is any truth in the accusation then he reassures them that there is a way forward. “Repent” (Rev 2:16). It’s not always easy, and certainly not the first thing that crosses my mind, but in every put-down there is an opportunity to examine yourself and see if there is a home-truth that needs your attention. It takes courage. It takes character. But if we do it and if we do see something within our behaviour or the way we relate to others that does cause offence, particularly a proud of boastful attitude, then there is a way forward. Repent.

Recognise that this sort of thing is out of place for a person who has been saved by grace. Admitting faults should not be impossible for us. We were not saved by being perfect ourselves. And that is not the message that we want to suggest to others through our attitudes towards them. We were saved because we needed saving. We were saved by someone who was perfect. That’s the truth that we want to shine out.

But then there is still the hurt, isn’t there? You’ve recognised that it wasn’t deserved or it wasn’t entirely deserved. You’ve repented. But it still hurts. No doubt the Christians in Pergamum would be the same. Jesus knew that. Every time they heared the term ‘Balaam’ then they remembered that this is what they had been called. The pain and the hurt come back. Jesus knows this too and he gives them a way forward. He gives a new name, his own name, his own pet name to each and every Christian he has called. "I will also give to him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it" (Rev 2:17).

The names people call you do hurt. But did you know that Jesus has a new name for you, the nickname that he will call you, a pet name that describes who you really are? And he is faithful and true.

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  • I'm learning (again) how words can have the power to hurt and cause trouble.

    James is definitely worth another read or two.

    By Anonymous Peter, at 12:55 pm  

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