Recently I was reading in Ezra 3 where the children of Israel return to Jerusalem after exile in Babylon. In the early stages of restoring the temple, which involved laying the foundation, there was a starkly different reaction among God’s people to this event – some wailing, others rejoicing.
“But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” Ezra 3:12-13
The question is, “Who was right? Which set of emotions best represented God’s heart for this moment? Was it the old priests who saw how far short the new temple would be from God’s original design and how much work was left to be done? Or, was it the younger generation who saw this as a sign of God’s faithfulness and looked forward to a better life than the captivity into which they were born?” Should they have been mourning or rejoicing?
The answer is, “Yes.” There is nothing in the passage that would indicate to us that God preferred one emotional response to the other. This is an occasion when competing emotional responses are equally legitimate before God and needed to represent God’s heart for the moment.
This led me to reflect on recent discussions about racial equality. In this area, we also have conflicting emotional responses.
- Some people are upset about how far we have to go.
- Other people are excited about how far we’ve come.
The question again is, “Who is right? Which set of emotions best represents God’s heart for this moment? Is it those who are broken-hearted over remaining / residual distortions of justice and are unable to rest until we are significantly closer to God’s design? Or, is it those who find joy and reason for hope in the progress that has been made?”
The answer again is, “Yes.” I believe that God’s emotional response to our corporate-cultural sanctification is the same as it is to our personal sanctification; grieved over all evidences of remaining sin while rejoicing over every sign of growth and progress.
What was remarkable to me about Ezra 3 is that there was no record of a feud. Those who wailed did not feel compelled to compete with those who rejoiced; and vice versa.
This is what I believe the church is supposed to be in our culture; a place where we can be safe having starkly different emotional reactions to the same events because of our bond in Christ, a place where rejoicers are not assumed to be content being passive and wailers are not presumed to be chronic malcontents.
I know I am reading between the lines, but I think part of what made this possible was the different emotional reactions were not rooted in different views of reality. They didn’t disagree on the facts. The wailers didn’t deny the goodness of God in bringing them back to Jerusalem and having a pagan king fund the rebuilding of the temple. The rejoicers didn’t pretend the dimensions of the new temple were the same as the old temple.
At times, I fear in our modern context, we are prone to different views of reality in modern conflicts.
- Racial rejoicers want to believe “better” (i.e., less bad) is “good” (i.e., God’s design).
- Racial wailers struggle to acknowledge that “better” (i.e., less bad) is “good” (i.e., sign of true progress).
This is where I struggle with the tension of these two sentences as I write them. I share the wailers’ concern that rejoicing in partial progress can stall continued, needed progress. I understand the rejoicers’ belief that we “replicate what we celebrate” and wither what we ignore. That is why I don’t think there is one right emotional response to our cultural dilemmas. We need a church full of people with varying perspectives to accurately represent the full heart of God towards collective challenges. We need both rejoicers and wailers.
This is hard. Part of what makes it hard is the lack of examples where we can see this happening. I am grateful to be part of a multi-ethnic church where we are willing to be uncomfortable together. I am grateful for those who experience current events differently than I do, so that I am less prone to assume my response adequately represents God’s heart.
I pray that churches across our country and world will become living pictures of Ezra 3 to our respective cultures on the many topics that are most contentious in each context.