The Old Testament is a pesky document. For a start it’s often blamed for many of Christianity’s PR problems – it’s claimed by its critics to present a picture of God that’s all smiting, vengeance and wrath as opposed to the fluffier, grace-filled God of the New Testament. Anyone who’s spent any serious time studying the Bible knows that this is a woefully simplistic misreading of very complex texts but it’s still easy to see why people do tend to fall into this all too obvious trap. In an instant age it’s easy to avoid some hard theological work and take the headline-grabbing response.
That doesn’t really concern me, though. There’s a more insidious type of trap that Christians of my flavour are in danger of falling into. It plays to my flawed vision of myself, appeals to my sin-ravaged self-esteem and is especially toxic to someone who’s paid to lead Christian communities. I call it The Hero Trap.
The Old Testament is full of derring-do, of larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things in ways which give lessons for life and insights into the way God deals with people. There’s a Promised Land (I know that in itself is problematic to many, but that’s a subject for another day) to take, and it’s occupied by an army so fearsome that they look like giants. There are people who fight lions, there’s visitations from angels, there’s vengeance and there’s war. It’s all exciting stuff, and preachers of my tradition often like to use it to draw parallels: we too have land to take, we too face opposition that appears to be over-whelming and we all know that we’re in a battle against powers and principalities too much for us by ourselves. There’s truth in there, but it’s not the whole truth.
Consider one of the most famous stories of them all; David and Goliath. We know it well from Sunday School and sermons galore; young David is the only one brave enough to stand up to the overwhelming and overbearing Philistine champion. Armed only with a sling and stones he takes out the enemy with one shot (incidentally, Malcolm Gladwell’s take on this story in his book David and Goliath should be essential reading). We know, I’m sure, how we’re to read this story: we’re all puny in front of our enemy, but in the power of God we can overcome any opposition.
There’s truth in there, but not the whole truth. You see, as much as I may be a David, I could also be a Goliath. The Hero Trap is appealing because it casts we in a heroic role that will stir the blood in film adaptations and sunday school stories. My ego is fragile and it needs to be rubbed and nurtured.
The trouble is that my ego also needs to be kept in check. The Bible’s actually quite good at that, reminding me that without God I’m dead; I can do nothing and I need Him if I’m to do or be anything, if I’m to have a life worthy of the name from an eternal perspective. So this should give me pause; might I not, sometimes at least, be the giant in the land, the one who causes fear and who needs to be opposed? What if I don’t need to conquer, but need to be conquered? What if I’m learning the lines of the wrong character in the script?
It’s a slightly less inspiring thought and somewhat harder to preacher appealingly. However the reality is that I’m more naturally capable of opposing God’s purposes than I am of being the one through whom they come about ; I’m more likely to stand in the way than I am to be used to remove problems. That’s not going to change anything eternally – to be blunt, God will still win – but it should at the very least make me less eager to cast myself as the hero in the story.
Peter is often said to be one of the characters in the Bible to whom it is easiest to relate. There’s good reason for that: he may end up as a formative figure in the life of the early church, but he gets there by way of denial, being called Satan by Jesus and a brush with a watery grave. He’s a funny sort of hero, one whose weaknesses are appealingly real. At my best I’m Peter flirting with disaster. I, and we, would do well to remember that next time there’s ground to take. It may just be that we’re already occupying the ground; and we may need to vacate it.
Put that in a Sunday school lesson.
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