God is big enough to handle it

The writer is a member of an independent church fellowship, the Church of God Twin Cities. The views in this article are Mr. Stith's and not necessarily representative of the views of other members of the Church of God Twin Cities.

By Tony R. Stith

ZIMMERMAN, Minn. - The book of Joshua is a fascinating account for what it reveals about God's mercy and graciousness toward repentant people and His enduring patience toward those imperfect tools He uses to carry out His will. It would seem that nowhere did God need His unending patience more than in his dealings with the man Jonah. If it were possible for God to get migraines, it is sure that this man gave him some doozies.

You know the story. Jonah was commanded by God to do something he really didn't want to do: to go to Nineveh and prophesy the Ninevites' destruction, to foretell their downfall. That he didn't want to do this wasn't in itself unusual. After all, it was not the first time men had balked when given a commission by God. He was in good company, among such notables as Moses and Jeremiah. But Jonah's particular response was a bit different. Where Moses and Jeremiah tried reasoning with God in an attempt to talk Him out of it, Jonah simply made tracks. He hopped the first ship out of there.

But, in the end, after a little incident with a large fish, Jonah did have a change of heart, and he did go to Nineveh and proclaim God's warning powerfully-so powerfully, in fact, that the whole city was moved to repentance before God.

The residents were moved to change their lives and, hence, the whole city was saved.

Wasn't this a time to rejoice, a time to give thanks? You would have thought so. But where was Jonah when all this repentance was going on? The Scripture indicates that he-in effect-threw up his hands in disgust, went outside the city, sat in a "booth" and waited for God to rain down fire and brimstone.

To Jonah's surprise and consternation, the appointed time came and went, and-what's this?-there was no fire and brimstone, no earthquake swallowing the city-nothing!

Jonah's reaction? He was, well, angry. After all, look at all he had gone through. Some sailors had thrown him off a ship. He had suffered through three dark, despairing days and nights in the belly of a slimy and-you can bet-smelly fish, finally to be vomited out onto a lonely beach.

He had then spent hour after hour reluctantly treading back and forth through this godless, immoral city, prophesying its destruction. And for what?

For, it seems, God to irritatingly turn around and change His mind. He was going to let these people live? He was going to give them another chance?

I daresay that had Jonah the power he would have destroyed the city himself. He exhibited what appears to be a prophet's equivalent of a child's temper tantrum. I'm sure that by now God was experiencing the beginnings of one monster migraine.

Lately I've been thinking a great deal about this account and this man Jonah, and I have to confess that I see a lot of myself in him. No, I have never been inside a fish, although I've cleaned a few. Neither am I deluded into thinking myself a prophet sent from God, although I've known a few who have.

But, as far as attitudes go, Jonah and I could have been twins. The feelings Jonah experienced toward Nineveh were not foreign to me.

For me, however, Nineveh came in the form of hierarchical church government. Although I wasn't directly commissioned to do so, I have been known to walk to and fro on many occasions prophesying its doom. I have often shot my mouth off to anyone who would listen about the dangers of hierarchical church organizations: specifically my former affiliation, the United Church of God.

Now, I'm not at all trying to say that the sins of the United Church of God were comparable in my eyes to that of Nineveh, nor did I desire fire and brimstone to come raining down on the home office in Arcadia. I might have wished for a little earthquake to shake people up a bit, but, being in Southern California's earthquake zone, they probably wouldn't have got the message anyway.

However, I did wish for, and in many ways expected, their downfall-or, rather, the downfall of their hierarchical structure.

I put everything I had into expediting the process. I wrote letters proclaiming my convictions. I strove to "convert" anyone I could over to my way of seeing things, especially those still duped by organizational thinking. I relished hearing murmurings and rumors about impending splits or the latest outrageous happenings at the home office. I took joy in any news that foretold or hinted at the United Church of God 's demise-so much so that it consumed much of my thinking, my conversation with other people and my prayers.

Needless to say, a few months ago when a memo written by a staffer in the home office appeared on the Internet laying the United Church of God 's problems bare, I was elated. Finally someone was telling it like it was. No more cover-ups, no more rosy success stories. They were confirming what everyone knew to be true, at least those of us not deceived by organizational dogma. United was anything but-united. The demise of abusive hierarchical government structures was imminent-at least for one of them. Wow! Isn't that great?

Then, before I could shout hallelujah: Wait a minute. What's this? A unity statement? Why? Are they actually going to try to keep this thing together? Are they going to give it another chance? It will never work. They can't be serious; it's got to be just a front. Everyone knows it's a farce, a Band-Aid. Those men aren't being realistic. Why can't they see? Why don't they-? I figuratively threw my hands up in disgust.

Then it hit me. Listen to myself, I thought. I actually am exasperated, even angry, that these men would have the gall to commit to working together through their differences. Set aside for a moment the question of whether they should or shouldn't, whether they ultimately will or won't. For me the important question had become: What is happening to me, to my attitude? Is it one of love? Is it of Christ?

I had to ask myself some other hard questions: Do I really need them to fail so I can feel right about my convictions and beliefs? Does God really have to accomplish His will according to my plan and will, through whom I dictate worthy? So what if God does decide to bless a hierarchical organization or any other large organization for His purposes? Does that automatically invalidate the decision I made to leave it?

Could one organizational structure be right and another be wrong or vice versa, and would God in His graciousness, according to His will, decide to work with and bless one or both of them anyway? Is it my job to decide? If not, then who am I to be angry?

I am personally excited about where God has placed me. I have never regretted my decision to jump off the bus of hierarchical church organization. I feel a renewed sense of individual responsibility, a sense of ownership in my faith. Our little independent group is thriving. It is alive. We are exploring new opportunities and new methods of doing a work, and we, individually, are actively involved. It's challenging and exciting.

But I will be the first to admit that we are far from perfect. We have our own challenges and tests that have come with independence. We are not immune from problems. It's comforting to realize, though, that God, in His graciousness, can and does choose to work with imperfection.

If God is in the process of breaking up the hierarchical church structures, of rescuing His people from abusive ministerial authority, it will happen regardless of any effort I put into it. Alternately, if He wants them to be fruitful, they will continue in spite of my prophecies of destruction, in spite of my convictions or desires.

My approval or disapproval doesn't matter one whit. But my attitude, my spiritual condition, the beam in my own eye, does matter to God. That is where my focus should be. He can handle the rest. He is big enough.

Although it's a struggle at times, I am beginning to feel less of a compulsion to expound my beliefs on the imperfections of hierarchical church organization to anything that moves. I no longer feel it is my responsibility to churn out letters or E-mail criticizing anything that smells of organizational propaganda. I no longer need to waste my energy on things that are really God's to worry about.

I am striving to focus on what God has given me to do. No, I have not changed my convictions or my beliefs. I have simply swapped trying so hard to change others in favor of trying to change myself.

So, for those of you who can, as I did, see a little of yourself in Jonah, I, in the infamous words of Rodney King during the L.A. riots, appeal to you: Can't we all just get along? Good or bad, right or wrong, ultimately, as the Body of Christ, we are all in this together.

Let's pray for one another that God would bless His church, that His work would be fruitful, whatever form it may take, through whomever He chooses to do it.

Let them be them, let us be us, and let us all be brethren-united, if not by a physical organization, then through an attitude of mutual love and concern for one another-and leave the rest to God. God can and will accomplish His purpose through His body in His own time and in His own way.

He is big enough.

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