Hope for the Worthless Fellows

By , posted March 15, 2012 at 4:46 pm

For my money, one of the most intriguing phrases in scripture is “worthless fellows” – it appears numerous times in the English Standard Version translation of the Bible. The Old Testament was filled with worthless fellows.

It was a rabble of “worthless fellows” from Gibeah whose act of gang rape led to civil war in Israel (Judges 19-20); Eli’s sons were “worthless men” who did not know the Lord (1 Sam. 2:12); “worthless fellows” refused to follow Israel’s first king, Saul (1 Sam: 10-27); Nabal, who recklessly refused hospitality to David, was, according to his own wife, a “worthless fellow” (1 Sam. 25:17); even some men of valor, who fought successful battles with David, were “worthless fellows” because they wanted to deny spoils of war to their brethren (1 Sa. 30:22). In 2 Sam. 20, the “worthless man” Sheba called for division of the kingdom, declaring, “every man to his tents, O Israel!”

Being a worthless fellow was serious business. In Deuteronomy 13, the law stipulated that the only remedy for a town corrupted to idolatry by “worthless fellows” was to put everyone to the sword and burn the city and all its spoils in a heap, never to be rebuilt.

Elsewhere, the Bible heaps curses on “worthless” counselors, witnesses, shepherds and servants. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be regarded as a “worthless fellow” by anyone, much less The Almighty.

Here’s the problem: I am a worthless fellow. So are you. (Don’t get hung up on gender.) All humanity is worthless in respect to its most important obligation – to love and worship God fully: In Romans 3, the Apostle Paul, echoing Psalms, tells it like it is: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Most preaching I have heard skips that part when proclaiming the Gospel, opting for the slightly softer passage, also in Romans 3: “All have fallen short of the glory of God.” Most people will admit to that much. Taken by itself, that doesn’t sound so bad. After all, who claims to be equal to God and his glory? Only an ego maniac would do that. Maybe “falling short” is barely something we need to be forgiven for, more like something we need a little help with. Hey, I fell a little short of the glory of God today, can you give me some coaching tips?

But take Paul in his full context, and ask people to confess of themselves: I am not righteous, I don’t understand; I don’t seek God; I turn aside; I am worthless; I don’t do good; my mouth is an open grave …” well, that is a pew-emptier.

Easier to pick on others. And so we do. Journalists who write about politics could easily identify some worthless fellows on the campaign trail. As a career business journalist, I have covered some worthless fellows, to be sure. So too have sports writers, crime reporters, religion writers and celebrity correspondents. You might object to my suggestion that everyone should be lumped in together. Someone who donates a kidney to save someone else’s life should not be lumped in with, say, a violent member of a drug gang. A foster parent who loves and cares for unwanted children is not to be compared to a Ponzi-schemer who cheats people out of their savings. And of course, I agree – when it comes to earning a place in society, some people merit a great deal, while others are, well, headed somewhere in the general direction of worthless.

But when it comes to spiritual merit, we are all bankrupt. Apart from Christ, I am the worthless the fellow. I am the problem. It is sharp and painful to hear, like Nathan confronting David for his adultery and conspiracy to commit murder: “You are the (worthless) man!” Falling short of the glory of God should be understood as a dreadful and terrifying thing, shouldn’t it?

How amazing, then, that God has made me his friend, adopted me into his family, sending his Son to die for me when I had only contempt and rebellion for Him.

Confession time: I have become increasingly depressed in recent years by the number of believers I meet who have a completely different view of the nature of humanity and (therefore) the nature of divine grace. The better I know myself, the more amazed I am that God would have anything to do with me. But more and more, I am conversing with people who blanch at the idea that God would disapprove of anything about them. Their picture of grace seems to make God the divine head-nodder, the supreme endorser of basic human nature, all human belief systems and all human lives. There is no “redeemer’s fire” because no redeeming is needed.

Consider this view from a new Facebook friend of mine who was raised Christian and devoted to his church for 30 years. He says, “I choose to believe in the Jesus who is said to have taught that God loves everyone no matter who they are or what they believe or how they behave. I believe in an inhuman, ultimate grace that we can’t possibly wrap our heads around as humans. I believe loving and standing for our society’s outcasts … is what Jesus taught. I reject the authors who added to the first written gospels words (that) said Jesus said the ONLY way was by being a Christian. I believe that if there is a supernatural being, He will accept anyone who comes to Him, no matter how they come to Him.”

My friend continues: “If I’m bound for Hell, I think I’d prefer that over loving a God who doesn’t accept people who were raised differently. That’s a God I think of as arrogant and mean. And that’s not a God I accept. I accept the God who loves me no matter what. The God who wants me with Him in eternity no matter how I came to Him.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, and at least some of what he says sounds good – I certainly agree, for example, that God’s grace is supernatural and beyond the ability of humans to fully understand. And I agree that we are to love outcasts of all types and share the good news with them, realizing that we all are equally wretched, helpless and sinful. But my friend seems to have stripped the Almighty of any right to define for us what is holy and right. My friend would have it the other way around – he and other humans will decide what God is allowed to be, what he is allowed to do, how he is allowed to judge. In this view, God is not really God at all – but merely their elected spiritual figurehead, whom they can vote out in favor of a more tolerant god at any point.

My friend is not describing the real Jesus, because the real Jesus is not needed, in his view. For my friend, the Bible has no authority. Nothing does.

For my friend, there literally are no worthless fellows. For me, there are only two kinds of people — worthless ones, and the worthless ones who have been saved by the blood, born again, given eternal life when they deserve only eternal damnation. Such worthless fellows are no longer worthless at all, but precious in the sight of the Almighty, no longer rebels, but blood-bought treasure. This is the work of the triune God. We cannot do it ourselves. But we desperately need it to be done.

Any journalist knows, both of us can’t be right. One of us is getting the story wrong. One of us is getting our facts mixed up. The world will side with my friend. The world loves my friend’s point of view.

The Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford wrote, “It is the Lord’s kindness that He will take the scum off us in the fire.”  The world regards this as neither kind nor necessary. The two story lines do not converge. One will necessarily be proven worthless.

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