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Betrayal

By Tom Hawkes

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” John 13:21

“If Jesus, who was a perfect leader, was betrayed by one out of twelve of his followers then why should we expect anything different?”  This statement, made by a seminar leader at the World Harvest Mission, mission wide conference in Greece in early June, stunned me. It is not that I had never experienced betrayal before, I could readily think several instances of serious betrayal. (Funny, I could remember far more easily the times I had been betrayed, than I could my own failures!)  I was stunned because I had never stopped to consider the probability, the inevitability, of betrayal in ministry leadership if we are to follow after Christ. Betrayal has always come as a categorical shock to me, and here I was learning after more than 30 years in ministry that I should have expected it, as you would expect to choose leaders, disciple, evangelize, preach and write budgets.

I should not have been surprised by betrayal. The Bible is so filled with examples of betrayal of leaders that it is shocking that I have been surprised by it. From our first betrayal of a good God when we sided with Satan in the rebellion of tasting the forbidden fruit we seem to find as much betrayal as fidelity. Perhaps what ought to shock us is faithfulness, given our proclivity for betrayal!  Ham betrayed his father Noah. (Gen. 9) Jacob betrayed his brother Esau (Gen. 27). Joseph is betrayed by his brothers (Gen. 37). Moses is betrayed by his brother Aaron. (Gen. 32) Samson is betrayed by Delilah (Judges 16). Tamar is betrayed by her half-brother Amnon. Betrayal unfortunately marks the establishment of the church throughout the Bible all the way down to Paul’s ministry. Paul mentions in his letters several former brothers who proved unfaithful, few with more hurt than Demas. “Do your best to come to me quickly,   for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.” (2 Timothy 4:9-10)

But among all the betrayals in the Bible it is hard to imagine than any of them stung more deeply than Absalom’s betrayal of his own father, David. This betrayal was not the passion of a moment but the careful work of a four year plan where Absalom “stole the hearts of the men of Israel” away from his father the king. Perhaps it was the memory of that painful betrayal that moved David to write in Psalm 41, the very line that Jesus quotes to explain Judas’ betrayal:  “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” You can feel the agony of a father who loved his son, a leader who loved his follower, as the pain of betrayal knifes into his soul. 

Calvin realized that betrayal was the common lot of Christian leaders more than four hundred years ago.  “And, indeed, it has usually happened in the Church in almost every age, that it has had no enemies more inveterate than the members of the Church; and, therefore, that believers may not have their minds disturbed by such atrocious wickedness, let them accustom themselves early to endure the attacks of traitors.” (Commentary, John 13:18)

I should have expected it. It is a deficiency in my leadership to have been surprised, surprised every time I was betrayed during thirty years. You think I would have learned sooner. But I had not. To make the point even more obvious another speaker at the conference, who taught on the kinds of trials we must endure as Christian leaders, had an entire category for betrayal, as one of only five major types of suffering we undergo. The teacher, John Smed, who is a PCA pastor in Vancouver, made the obvious point: “Betrayals are the sharpest splinters of the cross of Christ which will wound us.” I found myself wondering after the second clear teaching on the subject how I had missed the memo, which must have been issued in seminary, certainly!

Understanding that betrayal will come in Christian ministry is helpful for several reasons.

1. It helps us to understand that being betrayed by a follower is not necessarily a sign of leadership failure, as it has often seemed for me.  Of course, our failures may lead to rebellion. One could easily see that David’s failure to address the rape of Tamar by Amnon, or the murder of Amnon by Absalom, led to Absalom’s betrayal of David. I too can look at my failures in leadership and see the contribution they have made in some cases. But God had not failed Adam, nor had Jesus failed Judas in anyway that could excuse or cause their betrayal.  Being betrayed does not mean we have failed the one who betrays us. 

2. It helps us prepare our hearts to endure betrayal. When Jesus warns of us trials and suffering that will come our way he does so in part to prepare us to meet them. So too we are meant to be prepared for the likelihood of betrayal by fellow believers, even those closest to us. Not that we should become cynical, expecting everyone at all times to fail us. But that we should not be, as I have been, surprised, confused and disoriented by betrayal. Knowing it may well come helps us keep our hearts staid on the faithfulness of Jesus rather than trusting too much in the faithfulness of those around us. This lesson I have learned far later in life than I should have: I have relied more heavily on those around me than pleases the Lord. He is perfectly faithful. Even the best of friends will prove less than perfectly faithful.

3. It helps to warn us away from betraying others. To be betrayed, someone must betray another.  Understanding that this is a category of sin that Christians are very subject to allows us to be on our guard against the sin in our own heart which  rises up as we are tempted to betray those whom we ought to protect,  or to whom we owe loyalty. (Romans 13:7-  Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.) No doubt that each of the Biblical betrayers justified in their own minds how they were doing the right thing in their betrayals. One could imagine Absalom thinking, “If dad won’t deal with my problems directly then he is unfit to be king,  think of how much better I will lead than my dad, Israel deserves a king like me!”

4. It helps us to forgive the betrayer. When we understand that this is a normal human sin, not some special unpardonable category of sin (which it may feel like!), it helps us to offer forgiveness to those who have betrayed us.  This is, of course, easier when the betrayals are small, and more difficult as they grow in intensity. The seminar leader offered four categories of severity of betrayal. ‘Small scrapes,’ such as when a friend forgets your birthday;  ‘bruises,’ as when a friend betrays a confidence; ‘knife wounds,’ as when a friend gossips to turn others against you;  and ‘toxic poisoning,’ as when a father abuses his daughter for years. Not expecting betrayals I have over reacted to them. Surprised, I am also outraged and want to respond, have responded, with venom rather than forgiveness.

Forgiving the one who betrayed us, even unilaterally when they do not repent, is possible as we turn to Jesus. While we do not see forgiveness offered to Judas (and some who betray us may finally prove reprobate and not be forgiven by God!), forgiveness is offered to the other eleven disciples, all of whom also betrayed Jesus, though, one might argue,  to a lesser degree. After Jesus announced Judas’ betrayal he warned Peter of his own faithlessness, even as Peter vowed to be loyal.  “Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!” (John 13:38) In some ways I wonder if Peter’s betrayal was not more painful than that of Judas. It was in the temple courts as Jesus was being bound and beaten that Peter denied him and that Jesus caught Peter’s eye. “Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed.  The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. (Luke 22:60-61)  How that must have stung our Lord, bitter splinter indeed.

But what is most amazing about the betrayal of the eleven is how easily Jesus seems to take them back as friends.  There is no harsh rebuke, he shows himself to them, teaches them, even cooks them breakfast (John 21). Even when he restores Peter his concern appears to be more for His church and Peter’s heart, than his own betrayed dignity. “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”(John 21:15)  Jesus does not appear to be out for a pound of flesh to even the score. His heart seems open and ready to receive the eleven, even Peter after that searing betrayal, right in front of Jesus!

Here is our hope having been warned of betrayal, “brother will betray brother to death,” (Matt. 10:21) we may endure betrayal with Jesus, and having been perfected by what we suffer, with Jesus, we may forgive, even the worst of betrayals.

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