Crisis of Leadership
One of the highly successful—and deeply troubling—assignments in my Inspiration class focuses on the prophetic calling. Biblical examples of the prophetic call form the backdrop to the reading of Ellen White’s autobiography in the Testimonies (1T 9, 112). Almost universally, my students have found Ellen White’s story very moving—and very troubling. The Lord’s hand was sometimes very heavy on her. And that’s what has troubled my students (and me. . .).
For example, from the summer of 1848 when her first child was just one year old, she recalled this wrenching story; I have italicized the most “troublesome” words:
And now a painful duty presented itself. For the good of souls we felt that we must sacrifice the company of our little Henry, that we might give ourselves unreservedly to the work. My health was poor, and he would necessarily occupy a great share of my time. It was a severe trial, yet I dared not let the child stand in the way of my duty. I believed that the Lord had spared him to us when he was very sick, and that if I should let him hinder me from doing my duty, God would remove him from me. Alone before the Lord, with most painful feelings and many tears, I made the sacrifice, and gave up my only child, then one year old, for another to exercise a mother’s feelings toward him, and to act a mother’s part. We left him in Brother Howland’s family, in whom we had the utmost confidence. They were willing to bear burdens to leave us as free as possible to labor in the cause of God. We knew that they could take better care of Henry than we could while journeying, and that it was for his good to have a steady home and good discipline. It was hard parting with my child. His sad little face, as I left him, was before me night and day; yet in the strength of the Lord I put him out of my mind, and sought to do others good. Brother Howland’s family had the whole charge of Henry for five years.
I remind my students that this was not God’s view, but Ellen White’s perception of God. All we have in Scripture and in the writings of Ellen White are human perceptions. With reference to our ability to read the mind of God, Scripture itself declares, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9, NRSV).
Ellen White reinforces this perspective when she writes: “Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers. It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired” (Ms 24, 1886, 1 SM 21).
Perhaps the most striking parallel to Ellen White’s anguish is provided by Ezekiel’s report of the loss of his wife:
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners. So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded (Ezek. 24:15-18, NRSV).
Isaiah 55:8-9, reinforced by Ellen White’s comments, can enable us to hear such horrific sentiments—and still believe.
But now let us return to Isaiah’s prophetic calling. And here I include his call in a list of eight Old Testament call narratives—with references and succinct descriptions that are often vivid and provocative. I want my free-will loving students to confront the text as it reads. And with the exception of Isaiah’s, all the call narratives appear to include coercive elements. Isaiah was the only one who “volunteered”—but who wouldn’t “volunteer” in the face of such an overpowering sound and light show!
From the list that follows, it would be good to check the biblical references and read each “call” experience in context:
A) (Exod. 3:1- 4:17) Moses: divine coaxing and urging; many excuses in return.
B) (Num. 11:16-30) The Seventy: one-time, non-volitional experience.
C) (Num. 22-24) Balaam: prophetic dictation (cf. Num. 31:16; Josh. 13:22).
D) (1 Sam. 19:18-24) Saul: non-rational, ecstatic prophetic trance, seemingly imposed for defensive purposes (to protect the innocent).
E) (Isaiah 6) Isaiah: a call “almost” freely chosen.
F) (Jeremiah 1:4-19; 12:1-17; 20:7-18) Jeremiah: coerced, overpowered, openly complaining.
G) (Ezekiel 2-3; 24:15-18) Ezekiel: coerced, overpowered, but uncomplaining and unemotional.
H) Jonah 1, 3-4) Jonah: angry, reluctantly obedient – a failed “prediction” but successful “prophecy.”
So where is “free-will” in all those heavy-handed experiences? In my view, such heavy-handedness is something that God reserves for prophets. He treats ordinary humans much more gently. An insight from Adventist history has pointed me to that kind of distinction. In Ellen White’s day, some were appealing to her seemingly strong-arm tactics to justify their own use of the heavy hand. Ellen White discouraged such a connection. These are her specific words to those who attempted to justify their own approach by appealing to hers:
God has not given my brethren the work that He has given me. It has been urged that my manner of giving reproof in public has led others to be sharp and critical and severe. If so, they must settle that matter with the Lord. If others take a responsibility which God has not laid upon them; if they disregard the instructions He has given them again and again through the humble instrument of His choice, to be kind, patient, and forbearing, they alone must answer for the results. With a sorrow-burdened heart, I have performed my unpleasant duty to my dearest friends, not daring to please myself by withholding reproof, even from my husband; and I shall not be less faithful in warning others, whether they will hear or forbear.
Perhaps we could say that strongly theocentric temperaments are the ones most likely to experience God’s heavy hand. For more ordinary mortals (like thee and me), he is much gentler. These lines from Isaiah 42:1-4—echoed almost verbatim in Matthew 12:15-21—reflect God’s preferred way of relating to the human family:
Isaiah 42:1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
But sometimes God has a really tough assignment that requires extraordinary methods, maybe even some arm-twisting. C. S. Lewis might put such arm twisting in the context of the great battle between good and evil: “If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.”
. Testimonies 1:87. The autobiography was most likely written in 1885.
. Testimonies 5:20 ; repeated in 5:677-78 .
. C. S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1987), 11.
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.
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