How do you feel about confrontation? Most people I talk with don’t like it. I personally don’t like it, and I can work very hard to avoid it. That includes confronting others, and being confronted myself. Maybe you know what I mean. Confrontation is both difficult to give and receive, and few people do either well. That reality is why, I think, we so often run from confrontational situations, no matter which side of the confrontation we are on.
But confrontation, given and received in the right way, can be a healing balm, a needed corrective, helping us to ward off far greater pain in the long run. What we learn today in the life of the prophet Ezekiel will help us to have healthy, loving confrontation.
In the previous post, we learned that Ezekiel, as a watchman prophet, must first hear from God. Only then was he to speak the Word of the Lord that God first spoke to him. As we read in Ezekiel 3, verse 17, the message Ezekiel is to give to his fellow Jews in Babylon is a warning from God, a confrontation. This is the task of truth-telling that we talked about in a previous post in this series. In the Bible, prophets do sometimes predict the future, but it is rare compared to the normal task of prophets. The normal task of prophets is to do what God asks Ezekiel to do, to speak the truth about the current situation, with the goal of restoration to God and his ways.
Sadly, because the Jews were rebellious, the message that God had the prophets speak was almost always negative, “Israel you are rebellious, obstinate and stubborn. Israel you are wicked.” Israel was not following God’s ways, and thus they had broken the covenant between themselves and God. Worse still, their rebellion had been going on for centuries. God eventually had enough of their disobedience and betrayal, and he said, “You broke our covenant, and thus you have chosen to void its provisions of protection,” and he allowed the Babylonians to attack Jerusalem, defeat it, and cart off 10,000 Jews, forcing them to 900 miles back to Babylon. Even that didn’t get the Israelites’ attention. Last week we learned that even there in Babylon, for the five years they had been living there so far, the Jews were still rebellious against God, and that’s where Ezekiel came in. God called Ezekiel to be a watchman prophet who would hear God’s Word, and speak it to the people, a message of warning from God.
But first, God had a warning for Ezekiel. Scan through verses 18-21. There God repeats the same idea numerous times. He is saying, “Ezekiel, you are my watchman prophet, but if you choose to keep your mouth shut, if you choose not to communicate the warning to the people of Israel, I am holding you responsible.” God further says to Ezekiel, “If you don’t confront them, the people will perish because of their wickedness, and I will hold you accountable for their blood.” Yikes.
That’s a tough one. I don’t want to muddy waters here. Ezekiel was a prophet. We are not all prophets, and I doubt many of you would say that God has told you something that you must speak to someone, including the warning to you that if you don’t confront them, he’s holding you responsible. Still, there is a principle here that we see repeated in the New Testament, a principle about what it looks like to love and care for someone in a sacrificial way: speaking the truth in love. We Christians do have the responsibility to love the people in our lives, to watch out for them, to the point where we will speak the truth to them.
While speaking the truth in love sounds great, if we’re honest, there are times we would rather not get involved in holding someone accountable, or confronting them, especially when the relationship is a close one. We notice a family member or friend or co-worker doing something wrong, we see them headed for trouble, all the warning signs are there, and we know deep down inside us that we should say something to them. If we truly love and care for them, we will speak up. But we drag our feet, we get scared, we rationalize, “What they’re doing is not so bad…they’ll figure it out on their own…right?” and we clam up. Maybe we pray, “God, you convict them.” To the person, though, we don’t say a word.
Why do we keep silent? Why do we feel lots of emotional pressure? Why do we rationalize our behavior, or theirs? Even if we pray for them, which is always a good thing, God calls us to also express love and care for them by talking with them. But we can succumb to our fears, that if we confront them they will be offended, or that it will be awkward and they will get angry. So we do not talk with them about it, and we fail in our God-given role as watchmen who are to love them.
Over the years, I’ve had people come to me with concerns about other people in the church. I’m the pastor, and maybe they think it is my job to confront people. Am I the professional watchman prophet of the church family? Yes and No. Yes, a pastor has a responsibility to “shepherd the flock,” as Paul writes to Timothy, and that can mean embodying the role of the watchman prophet and confronting people. But Paul also writes, as I mentioned recently in this post, that leaders in the church are to build up the church family to do the work of ministry. A pastor/shepherd, then, is to help the rest of the church family grow into the role of watchmen.
I will confess that sometimes over the years, I have indulged those conversations when people have come to me, asking me to confront people on their behalf, and I have even said, “Ok, I’ll talk with them.” But what I really should have done is said, “Thank you for your concern, now you need to go talk with them.” That’s where the principles Jesus taught in Matthew 18 are so helpful. If a person has sinned, go and talk to that person. If that doesn’t work, take someone with you. If that doesn’t work, then take it to the church leaders.
Quite frankly, as I look back over nearly 20 years at Faith Church, this is one area of growth that I believe my church family has struggled with. We have seen so many wonderful aspects of spiritual growth, but this one, the area of spiritual truth telling, is a weak spot that we need to work on. I lump myself in that critique too. I need to work on speaking truth, especially in one-on-one or small group situations.
Consider Ezekiel. For him to be the watchman prophet that God wants him to be, he must speak the true word of God to the people. It will be difficult because it will be a warning, a confrontation. Now apply that principle to yourself: Do you need to improve at sacrificially loving each other well, even if it means having difficult conversations, speaking the truth in love? What will you do to work on that?