photo by Laura Evans
I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
Galatians 5:12 ESV
Dear ICB family,
For four whole chapters now, Paul has gone after these troublesome distorters of the gospel of Christ (1:7), and as Pastor Neil said on Sunday, here Paul uses language that is almost hard to believe coming off the pen of a Spirit-inspired apostle. In fact, it's hard to imagine Paul using any stronger language than that of wishing emasculation upon this particular group of people who insisted that Christians return to Torah keeping as the basis of their right standing before God.
It's hard to imagine Paul using any stronger language than that of wishing emasculation upon this particular group of people.
There are moments to feel deep anger and even to use strong language. Your beloved spiritual children falling into a perversion of the gospel, in this case self-righteousness, is one of those times. I can only wish that that was what got my goat. Instead, I want to use strong language when I drive in Bishkek. I feel deep anger when someone slights me. If only it was my love of Christ and others and not my self-centeredness that stirred such strong emotions within me.
But let's back up a moment. Am I even right to call Paul's extreme language an expression of his love for Christ and for others? Surely he was out of line here. Surely true love would soften its tone. Hasn't Paul read 1 Corinthians 13?
We cannot be overly simplistic here. Psalm 97:10 says bluntly, "O you who love the LORD, hate evil!" And Paul himself wrote, "Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good." Remember, Jesus flipped tables and drove out with a whip those who were profaning his Father's house (John 2:13–17). One day that same Jesus will descend from heaven on a white horse, a sword will come out of his mouth with which he'll strike down the nations, and he'll rule over the world with an iron rod (Revelation 19:11–16). I'd say the relationship between love and even the strongest of actions and language is more complex than it might seem at first glance.
We cannot be overly simplistic here.
So how do we know when it's OK to wish that a person would go emasculate himself and when such a wish is a reflection of a sinful heart?
Let's start with the observation that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). That is, anger as a starting point does not result in anyone going and carrying out righteous actions. That's true. Of course it is. Scripture says so.
But what if anger is not the starting point? What if love is, and what if anger is the result of love? While anger does not produce the righteousness of God, might love produce both anger and the righteous acts that God wants his children to produce?
The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20).
And since I mentioned 1 Corinthians 13, let's take a look there for a moment: "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
There's no way Paul's wish that the false teachers would go emasculate themselves fits this definition of love, right? Well, let's see. Was Paul being impatient with either the Galatians or the false teachers themselves? It doesn't seem so. Can we say for sure that Paul was being unkind, especially if his use of such strong language was so that no one would find himself ultimately "severed from Christ" and "fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4)? No. Was Paul expressing envy of these false teachers? Not in the slightest. Was he boastful of his apostleship before them, or was his language a demonstration of arrogance? Not a chance. Just read the entire letter as a whole.
Paul was most assuredly not seeking his own interests.
But come on, Eric, surely this was rude. Well, the nice folks at Wikipedia define rudeness as "a display of disrespect by not complying with the social norms or etiquette of a group or culture." Was Paul's intent disrespect, or was it instead meant to serve as a rude awakening (pun intended) for those whom he considered his dearly beloved children? I don't think so. And who can say that Paul was insisting on his own way here? In fact, Paul says that even if he himself turned up one day and started preaching that they all should get circumcised, the Galatians are to count Paul himself as accursed (1:7). In fact, this might be some of the strongest evidence. Paul was most assuredly not seeking his own interests (see 1:10; 5:11; 6:12).
Was irritability or resentfulness at the root of the use of Paul's language here? I think it might better be called love. He certainly wasn't rejoicing at wrongdoing, and it's clear that Paul rejoiced in the truth that salvation is a free gift to be received by faith. He had borne so much on account of the Galatians and had even endured sickness (see 4:11, 13), and he continued to believe and hope that the Galatians would ultimately listen to him, their spiritual father (5:9).
If only it was my love of Christ and others and not my self-centeredness that stirred such strong emotions within me.
In short, I do believe that even language as strong as Paul's in Galatians 5:12 can be the expression of genuine love. The proof is not in the words themselves but in the heart from which those words flow, and more than a mere cursory reading of Galatians shows that Paul's heart, even as expressed in 5:12, was full of deep love for the Galatians.
May we imitate such love, and may even our strongest language be an overflow of love and not of anger.
Grace and peace,