To be Nice or Loving?
“And he said to them, ‘What have I done now? Compared with you? Are not the gleanings of Ephriam better than the vintage of Abiezer? Into your hands God has given the princes of Midian and Oreb and Ze’eb. What am I able to do compared to you?’ Then their spirit withered from being against him when he said these words.”
I have been told that discernment and timing are the key to negotiations. Sometimes one speaks softly and sometimes one speaks with an uncompromising authority. My grandfather spent many years negotiating with unions on behalf of King Instruments in the mid-Twentieth Century. One story he told was of a very tense negotiation over the fact that several of the parts King was using on their instruments were made overseas and the Union officials wanted them to be manufactured in America. The two men were at an impasse until my grandfather pulled out a cigarette and asked the Union negotiator for a light. The Union man pulled out the official Union lighter and handed it to my grandfather, who looked at it and slammed it back down on the table — the Union’s lighter had been made overseas. My grandfather had won the negotiation right then and there in that simple action.
Gideon was in a similar situation. The men of Ephriam complained. They were not excited about confronting the Midianites when things looked dark but now the Midianites were on the run and Ephriam wanted to share in more of the glory. They had effectively accused Gideon of hogging the spotlight.
Gideon’s response is masterful. He essentially says, “Oh my, but you did so much more than I could have done — your successes are much more glorious than mine. You captured these princes, but what has little old Gideon done?” One might accuse Gideon of a little flattery here, but if it is flattery, it is flattery joined with a touch of sarcasm. For what has Gideon done in compared to Ephriam? Gideon was God’s chosen servant in overthrowing not only the Midianites but also the idolatry in the land of Israel which had brought on the Midianite invasion in the first place. Surely the vintage of Gideon’s father is much better than the gleanings that the Ephriamites have been left. And all of this was God’s choosing.
It seems that the jab is not lost on the men of Ephriam. Most of our English translations speak of the anger of Ephriam abating as a result of Gideon’s statement. Literally the text reads that their “spirit withered” from being against him. The implication of the text is not so much that Gideon flattered these men, but that he spoke words that had an edge to them and put these men in their place — much as my grandfather had put the Union negotiator in his place. It is sure that these Ephriamites returned to their task humbled before Gideon’s words.
Unlike my grandfather, I do not enjoy confrontation and would make a lousy negotiator in high-stakes settings. We all have different gifts. At the same time, as we read the Bible, over and over there are times when God’s people are called to be confrontational and I have found, in cases where such is necessary, the Holy Spirit gives us the strength and the words to use.
One of my fears is that Christians have been taught in church and in society that we are not to be confrontational and we have confused non-confrontation with love. Non-confrontation may prove to be “nice” but it is certainly not loving. Further, most people who know me well, know that I do not much like the word “nice” when applied to Christians. Nice has its origins in the Latin word niscere, which means “unknowledgeable.” In Middle English it was used the way we would use the word, “stupid,” and Christians should be neither stupid nor unknowledgeable.
Unlike being nice, love is confrontational. Love confronts those things that bring harm to the one who is the object of one’s love. If a child is threatened, a loving parent becomes a fierce adversary of the one who is threatening to bring harm. That is just what love does. And love confronts sin because sin harms the person who is sinning and harms the relationships one has with others. It may be “nice” to let someone go about their way doing whatever they please, but it is not love. And Christians are called to be known by their love (John 13:34-35). Gideon’s response to the men of Ephriam was not nice by any stretch of the imagination, but it was loving because it shut their mouths to their sin…and isn’t that better?