“Why wouldn’t he listen?”
“How did she let things get so out of hand?”
“Didn’t they know that was going to end badly?”
These are the kinds of questions we ask when someone we hear about on the news, or worse, someone we love turns their life into a trainwreck. Whether it’s your loved one who stays in a toxic relationship or the CEO of a corporation whose corrupt behavior burns down the whole company, we hear their stories and wonder, “why didn’t they stop before it was too late?”
This summer I spent some time reading through the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was one of several messengers God sent to his people to warn them that disaster was coming if they didn’t change their ways. What I found so interesting reading through the book is that it records a lot about the stubborn attitudes of the people. It tells us how they responded when Jeremiah confronted them with news they didn’t want to hear. Part of what makes the book of Jeremiah so relevant for us today is that we still respond with those same attitudes.
So, this series of posts is called How NOT to Listen to God. In each post, we’ll look at one attitude or mindset that kept ancient Judah from hearing God’s voice, as well as what those attitudes look like today.
Jeremiah begins his career as a prophet about 20 years before the city of Jerusalem falls to Babylon. When he starts preaching, he speaks as though there’s still hope for Judah if they’ll listen. He begs them: stop with the injustice, stop with the corruption, stop with the idolatry. But the people won’t hear it. Their response is basically: God will never let anything bad happen to us because we’re special–really, we can do no wrong. The term we use today for that way of thinking is “exceptionalism.”
And it’s true that Israel was special. They had been chosen for a special role in the world to point people to God. Over time, however, they let that special role become a source of pride and arrogance. They had the temple of the one true God in their city, and eventually, they began to believe that God would bless them and protect them no matter what because of their heritage.
So Jeremiah gives a fiery speech in front of the temple calling out the people of Judah on their exceptionalism: “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!’’ (Jeremiah 7:4, NIV).
What did God want? Jeremiah continued, “If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place.” (Jeremiah 7:5-7, NIV).
The message for the people of Judah and for us today is so important: being near God is irrelevant if we don’t love like God.
Want to be able to diagnose exceptionalism in your life? If you find yourself thinking that your position, rank, social status, heritage, talent, etc. somehow elevates your importance over others, or lets you off the hook from showing compassion to others, you’ve got an exceptionalism problem–and exceptionalism always drowns out the voice of God.