“Making Others Be Righteous”Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford
The betrayal of Jesus into the hands of His enemies is the beginning of the darkest sequence in human history. However, according to John 18:10-11, this grim scene contains a tragicomic episode. Peter, in apparent fulfillment of his promise in John 13:37, reveals his willingness to die for Jesus by his willingness to kill for Jesus.
The untrained fisherman produces a sword and takes a wild swipe at a slave of the high priest named Malchus. He’s likely aiming for Malchus’s skull, but instead he connects with Malchus’s ear. At this, Jesus intervenes, telling his would-be bodyguard to put away his weapon. He surrenders Himself into custody, and His disciples flee instead of fighting.
Though it might seem that the situation is unique, in reality, Peter has faced a temptation that many of us experience regularly. It is the temptation to make others be righteous.
Last week, a brother posted a picture on Facebook of a T-shirt he had received as a gift. It read, “Other People’s Free Will Stinks.” To that, many disciples would give hearty amens, myself included. Other people’s free will does stink! They use it to make all kind of horrible, evil decisions, from cheating on their wives to becoming atheists to having abortions to helping arrest the sinless Son of God.
(We, of course, would never, ever use our free will to sin. Oh, no! Not that!)
When faced with stinky free will, many of us want to respond in a way that is positively Petrine. If they’re not going to choose to be righteous, we’re going to make them be righteous! If they want to arrest Jesus, we’re going to use force to make them back off. If they want to have an abortion, we’re going to stop them by passing laws to make abortions illegal. If they want to leave the Lord, we’re going to browbeat them and make their lives pure misery until they come back.
On one level, these strategies appear to offer success. Jesus remains unarrested. Babies don’t get aborted. The straying Christian is filling a pew once more.
The problem is, though, that coercing someone into changing their behavior never results in a changed heart. Even if the high priests’ posse is defeated, the high priests won’t hate and envy Jesus any less. Preventing a woman from having an abortion does not lessen her fear or increase her natural affection. Forcing a Christian to assemble does not inspire them to worship.
Indeed, attempts at coercion often fail to produce outwardly good results too. If Jesus’ disciples defeat a posse, the chief priests will show up with a Roman cohort next. The fearful woman is likely to seek an illegal abortion. The browbeaten Christian often will persist in falling away, bearing a new cargo of bitterness over their bad treatment.
If we truly want godliness in others, then, we must look not to change behavior, but to change hearts. We must rely not on coercion, but on persuasion. God isn’t looking for sullen compliance. He wants devotion instead.
This is hard to do. The more we care, the more we want to fix others’ ungodly decisions by hammering them flat. We want quick results rather than engaging in the slow, patient work of winning a heart. However, only the latter can produce the fruit of genuine righteousness.