Having a long fuse

Personally, I’m not a hot-tempered guy. I manage to take most things in stride. That’s not to say I won’t complain about challenges. But it takes a lot to get me overtly angry at someone else. Is that because I’m patient? Maybe. But I suspect it has more to do with being conflict-avoidant.

(Show of hands out there?)

We probably know people, however, who have a short fuse: they fly off the handle with the least provocation, and sometimes seem to imagine a provocation where there isn’t one. Others walk on eggshells around them, never knowing when the next explosion will be. Research in recent years has demonstrated repeatedly that children who grow up in such an environment are chronically stressed-out, and this wears on their physiology; the stress can have a negative impact on their emotional and physical well-being even decades after they’ve left their childhood home.

Unfortunately, some of these homes are filled with people who supposedly follow Jesus. And the children who grow up there may have a skewed understanding of the character of God, flinching internally whenever a preacher mentions God’s wrath.

Even Christians who haven’t grown up in conflict-ridden or abusive homes, however, may struggle with the idea of divine wrath and judgment. The recoil at what they take to be the angry judge of the Old Testament, preferring the God of love and grace in the New.

But there is grace in the Old Testament and judgment in the New; God hasn’t changed through the ins and outs of the story Scripture tells. Here’s an example of both grace and judgment from the parables of Jesus.

Simon Peter once came to Jesus asking whether there were any rules about how many times he had to forgive someone who ticked him off. The question itself was spiritually small-minded, so Jesus responded with the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:23-35). The long and short of this well-known story is that a servant owed his king an enormous, unpayable debt; the king forgave the debt in its entirety; that servant went out from the king’s presence and shook down a fellow servant for money he was owed; finally, the king called the first servant back in and meted out the punishment he should have received in the first place.

Both servants, when confronted with their debts, cried out, “Have patience with me! I’ll pay it back!” On the lips of the first servant, it was a ridiculous and empty promise. But the king took pity on the man and was patient and merciful anyway. As we’ve seen previously, “patient” here means “long-suffering,” or as I sometimes like to put it, “having a long fuse.” For the first servant, pragmatically, it means putting off the day of reckoning. And it would have been put off forever, had he not hypocritically ignored the same plea from his fellow servant, a promise that was far more realistic.

The message: God has us all dead to rights; we owe a debt we cannot pay. But with characteristic compassion, he wipes the debt from the books. The catch? He also expects us to extend the same compassion, forgiveness, and mercy to others.

Otherwise, there will be a reckoning (Matt 6:15; 18:35).

Likewise, Paul also teaches that when we understand the patience and kindness of the God who has every right to judge us, we should stop judging others. He writes:

If you judge those who do these kinds of things while you do the same things yourself, think about this: Do you believe that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the riches of God’s generosity, tolerance, and patience? Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life? (Rom 2:3-4, CEB)

This is what the servant in Jesus’ parable failed to do: he had not repented. He had not been transformed by the king’s patient mercy enough to extend that mercy to others. And in the end, he could not escape the king’s righteous judgment.

Because we tend to be the heroes and heroines of our own stories, we like to see ourselves in a positive light. We think and act as if our sins are less than someone else’s, particularly those who need our forgiveness. But God’s long-suffering patience is meant to change our hearts, minds, and behavior.

God’s story is primary; our stories are secondary. When we judge others in the context of our stories, we see ourselves as intrinsically right and the other as wrong; we are the hero, they the villain. But God’s story ends with a judgment which we must all face. And in that context, we want patience and mercy — which is happily given, even though it’s not deserved.

Both Jesus and Paul teach that we should do no less with regard to our brothers and sisters. We should be the People of the Long Fuse.

And as we’ll see in the next post, James agrees.