Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For we have no continuing city here, but we seek one to come.
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When the phone rang late that evening, it was my older son. Driving home through the neighborhood, he spotted a large serpent on the street not far from our house, crawling toward a house where small children lived and often played outside. The serpent had stopped and curled up on the edge of the road, and my son’s description of its coloring made me think it was one of the poisonous copperheads that we have so many of in this area. When I rode out into the neighborhood to see the snake for myself, my suspicions were confirmed. I sent my son to the house to get a shotgun and waited near the snake to make certain it did not escape. (This was an easy task, for copperheads are notorious for not fleeing from humans.)
When my son returned with his double-barrel 410 shotgun, I had his car lights turned toward the ditch and stood by and watched as he aimed and pulled the trigger. What I saw next stunned me. The snake was curled up, and so hitting the target was easy. The first of the two blasts of the shotgun was a mortal one, the second one making a quick end to the wiggling, deadly serpent, but it was the serpent’s response to that first blast that struck me.
When the shotgun first went off and the snake was struck, he was as good as dead, but he did not act like a victim. He was completely confused and in terrible pain, but by nature, he was such an aggressive beast that he went on the offensive, striking wildly into the air, straight up and as far as he could still launch his body. Once and again, in lightning-fast succession, he tried to poison with his fangs whatever it was that was tearing his life and his body apart, until the second blast ended his attack and his life. There was no thought of flight, no thought of giving in, not the first inkling of humility or confession that a far greater power held him in its grip. The suddenness and viciousness of his attack, straight up into the night air as if striking at the God who made him, taught me more about the spirit of a serpent than all the biology books on earth could have done.
Some people are like that. They have the spirit of the Devil, “that old serpent”, and when they are hurt, they strike out at people, cruelly, and without thought of anything but their own suffering. The attacks may be in the form of pointed words that pierce the heart, or unkind acts intended to rob others of their happiness, but all such behavior is, at heart, directed upward at God.
The children of God should be taught beforehand not to lash out at the people around them when we are hurting, for it is God, not people, who puts them through times of suffering. We are exhorted to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God so that, in His time, He might “lift us up”. We are warned to follow Jesus’ example of suffering with grace and faith, “who did no sin; neither was guile found in his mouth; who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not, but committed himself to Him who judges righteously ” (1Pet. 2:22-23).
Jesus told his disciples that they were to be “harmless as doves”. Another scene from childhood taught me the meaning of that phrase. I was a teenager, and it was hunting season. As usual, that meant I was out hunting through the fields and woods near my grandmother’s farmhouse. When a dove suddenly shot up from the edge of a field I was passing through, I brought it down with a thunderbolt from Grandpa’s old 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun and excitedly ran to the place where I had seen it fall.
There it was, at the edge of the forest, but it was still alive. I had to be cautious. In past hunting adventures, I had wounded other birds and found myself the target of their wrath when I approached them. But after drawing near to this one and, with some trepidation, quickly daring to pick it up, I was perplexed. The dove did nothing. I knew it was hurting, and I knew it would have preferred to be soaring high above the pine tops rather than being squeezed in my hand. There was nothing about its present circumstance that it wanted or enjoyed; still, it did not attempt to harm me. In fact, as I recall now, once I had it in hand, it ceased even to struggle. The soft little grey creature still had plenty of strength and life to have attacked me, but it had no thought of doing so. Its nature was to be harmless, and nothing I had done to it had changed that at all.
There was nothing natural about its life now; everything it had always known was changed forever in an instant. I had stolen the dove’s liberty. I had brutally thrown it to the ground when its nature cried out for the bright, cool sky. I had injected pain into its healthy body and ruined its wings. Still, it did not even attempt to peck me. And it did not try to avenge itself on me because it was not its nature to do so. This realization came over me as I stood there holding that poor bird in my hand, and I wanted so much to undo what I had done to her, but I could not. I had conquered the wild bird with my mighty weapon, but now that tiny captive was conquering me with its humble, harmless spirit. It had every right to be angry and vindictive toward me, but it had no heart for it. The spirit of the dove would not allow it to strike at me; it could only cause that little bird to stare out of dark eyes into the distance with a heart-wrenching longing that made me wish I had never left home that afternoon.
Jesus’ commandment for us to be “harmless as doves” is not suspended when we are suffering. It was not suspended for him when he was nailed to the cross, unjustly tortured and abused, cruelly handled and reviled. The nature of Christ was to do good even to those who did evil to him. It is that nature that the Spirit of God brings to us when we receive it. Peter said that in Christ we partake of that divine nature, “escaping the corruption that is in the world” (2Pet. 1:4). The “corruption that is in the world” is the spirit of the serpent. That brutish nature would cause us to be cruel toward others when we are disappointed or hurting, as if other creatures like us can determine what happens to us.
Once, I turned a large rock upside down in my yard, and when the light of sun brightened the ground formerly covered by the rock, the many ants and creeping bugs that occupied that protected space turned on each other with great fury. It was as if they blamed each other for the intrusion of the sun. How could they not have known that none of their neighbors could have removed that huge stone? I stared at the vicious scene for a long time as small creatures who formerly had dwelt together peacefully now engaged in merciless combat with one another. How unlike a dove they were, and how much like a serpent!
My dear friend, if you are going through a time of sorrow right now, do not strike out at those around you, not even those whom God has used to harm you. Remember, He used wicked men to crucify His sinless Son Jesus. None of your fellow earthly creatures has the power to determine the circumstances of your life. Only God is mighty enough to lift that stone.
When Jesus makes us a partaker of his divine, harmless nature, he gives us the choice of reacting like a serpent or reacting like a dove to the trials God fashions for us all. If we understand this truth about who is in command of our sorrows, it makes it easier for us to make the right choice.