Controlled Flexibility

I sat on our deck as a thunderstorm passed through Kansas City. The sky darkened, followed by a gentle rain, followed by gusting winds and heavier rain. As I observed the trees in our backyard that had only recently leafed out, I saw in nature what I see in our culture. The storms and winds of secularism, materialism, and relativism are blowing into our lives with increasing intensity, and we must respond wisely or be broken.

Like God’s people in the Old Testament we find ourselves living as exiles in a “Babylonian culture.” We are no longer living in a Jerusalem culture, which is friendly to our values, beliefs, and practices. The God-followers of antiquity–whether they were Jews living in a Hellenistic/Roman dominated world or early Gentile Christians living in a religiously pagan Roman Empire–faced a similar conundrum. How do we follow God and live in, but not of, the dominant culture?

Various groups at the time of Christ took different approaches:

  • Sadducees:  Sought accommodation by compromising
  • Pharisees:  Sought separation by criticizing
  • Zealots:  Sought liberation by confronting
  • Essenes:  Sought isolation by cocooning

What approach will we take? Living as an exile in Babylon requires the wisdom of controlled flexibility.

What was beautiful about the trees in the storm was the way the branches flexed without breaking. They gave way a little but always returned to their original place. They bent but did not break. In fact, flexibility is a sign of health. It was the dried up, brittle branches that broke and ended up on the ground. How then do we bend but not capitulate, stand up without breaking, give way without giving in?

There are times when it is appropriate to give up the right of way. Say you are in your car at an intersection when the light turns green. You now have the right to proceed. But you notice a car approaching from your left that is not slowing down. Will it stop? You are not sure. Although you do have the right of away legally, is this the time to demand your rights?

To live an effective counter-cultural life there is one thing more important than being right: being right with compassion. Paul, when modeling for the Corinthians how to live counter-culturally, said that there were times when he gave up his rights for the sake of the gospel. Paul demonstrated bending in 1 Corinthians 9. He wrote, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. . . . I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (v. 19-22 NASB).

Daniel and his three friends give us another example of healthy trees growing strong in the storms of life. They had the wisdom to negotiate regarding the king’s food but were uncompromising regarding the king’s edict to worship the image. Daniel contributed to his culture but never lost his convictions. He and his friends had the courage to stand in a fire or in a lion’s den when no other option was available. They were convinced that God could deliver through or out of danger. They had the “but if not” spirit which gave them controlled flexibility and an exceptional legacy.

Jesus gives a different model of counter-cultural living. He didn’t fit into any of the four models listed earlier. In some ways He was unpredictable. When His disciples thought He would be inflexible, He would bend. When they expected Him to isolate, He would embrace. When they thought He would fight, He surrendered. When they expected Him to condemn, He would accept. He was nothing like what they expected–confusing at times but always effective. 

The current storms of gender confusion, conspicuous consumption, civil incivility, and selective intolerance will test our controlled flexibility. The way to bend yet remain strong will demand a vibrant, consistent walk with Christ in the power of His Holy Spirit. As the landscape changes and we face new storms, we will need fresh manna from God and ears to discern the voice of the Shepherd as He says, “This is the way, walk in it.” To “wait upon the Lord” is not passive or effortless. It requires focused intentionality to stay daily in communication with the Christ who is never surprised, threatened, or confused by the storms. 

Adapted from Ron Bennet’s blog, The Adventure of Discipleship, June 29, 2020.

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