Monday, May 5, 2014

the problem with ultimatums

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We have a thing for ultimatums. We use them in our everyday lives: "Clean up your room or no dessert!" We are subject to them in our workplace: "Do this personal favour for your boss or your job is in jeopardy!" We love to watch movies and television shows based on them: "Give me 1 million dollars or someone you love gets hurt" (hostage drama) or "Pay me 10 million dollars or I tell your dirty little secret" (blackmail). They fascinate us because not only can we identify with the feeling of powerlessness, but we love to see someone find their way around the restrictions of an ultimatum and defeat the person trying to assert power over them.

Yesterday in our Sunday gathering I told the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego and their encounter with the fiery furnace (you can read the whole story in Daniel 3). It is a story based on an ultimatum. Nebuchadnezzar, that tyrant of a king, decided it would be a great idea to have a 90-foot statue built. The reasons behind this gigantic effort could have been any or all of the following: to assert his power, to intimidate his subjects, to quash disloyalty and thereby, to better unify his kingdom. But I suspect that at the core of it all was the embarrassing fact that he felt somewhat powerless and insecure. Whatever the case, he issued an ultimatum: when the music played everyone was to bow down and worship the statue or they would be tossed into a fiery furnace to suffer a horrible death.

Well, wouldn't you know it, there were three Hebrew expatriates, in leadership positions nonetheless, who did not comply. Even though the king gave them another chance to prove their loyalty to him, they refused. Politely but firmly. These three didn't react like most characters do in those movies which depict people in desperate, ultimatum situations. They didn't panic, they didn't meet to discuss possible options and devise a clever plan of action, they didn't try to defend themselves or talk their way out of it. They just respectfully declined to participate in the ultimatum. They said their God could deliver them from that fiery furnace, and if he didn't, well, he was still a trustworthy God. They did not even try to coerce God into saving them (no fervent prayers like "You've got to save us, God, or you will look bad!"). Strange.

Well, the king lost his cool and flew into a rage (sure looks like there was some insecurity there). He had the fire stoked even hotter and demanded that the three men be tied up and tossed into that blaze in a hurry. He didn't even give his guards time to put on any protective gear so they were unfortunately killed in the process of feeding Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego to the flames. What the king saw next totally shocked him. There were 4 men walking around in the fire, unbound, and the fourth guy had the look of a divine being. Whoa! Even stranger, the 4 men didn't seem to be in a hurry to leave the fire, so Nebuchadnezzar had to call them to come out! The 3 Hebrews exited the fire, no smell of smoke on them, their clothing not even singed, and everyone was astounded.

The king quickly aligned himself with the source of this power and issued another ultimatum: no one was to speak against this god of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego or they would be torn limb from limb and their houses destroyed. Sigh. Old Neb just didn't get it.

The problem with ultimatums is that they can never occupy the same ground as trust or friendship. If you need something from a friend, you just ask, you do not threaten them or intimidate them. Ultimatums are not based in mutual trust, in fact they try to eliminate personal risk by placing all the risk on the other person and seek to obliterate the other's free choice while maintaining the illusion of choice. An ultimatum is using leverage or a threat to influence another's behaviour to benefit ourselves. It reveals that we, in fact, feel powerless and friendless.

Nebuchadnezzar operated from a conquering mentality (you are either with me or you are someone I need to subjugate or kill). And he hadn't really changed his ideology by the end of the story: he was still employing the same tactics (issuing ultimatums) after he saw the power of Jehovah, but he was aligning himself with what he wisely perceived to be a greater power. It was all about being on the side of power, not about entering into a relationship based on trust.

On the other hand, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego lived in the paradigm of friendship and trust. They did not serve a God who issued ultimatums but who promised to be with them, no matter what happened. They didn't try to coerce God into rescuing them from the threat of death because that was not the nature of their relationship; they didn't serve a coercing God. The trust went both ways, as it does in a friendship. In the story, we never get the sense that the 3 men felt threatened at all. They trusted that God would be with them, not that he would arrange a certain outcome.

Too often, I believe we operate in the paradigm of ultimatum instead of friendship. We have all heard preachers issue the ultimatum: "Repent and believe in Jesus Christ or go to hell!" Is that really how Jesus talked? Jesus said, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt 4:17). That's hardly an ultimatum, that's an invitation to see that God is right here with us, near to us, and to respond!

It is interesting to note that the word "come" occurs 2078 times in the Bible and the word "repent" only appears 44 times. Mind you, not all these words are used as imperatives nor refer directly to the relationship between God and humanity, but I think the proportion is somewhat telling. God is not a God of ultimatums, threats, or intimidation, as if he needs to assert his authority. God is a God who offers relationship, who calls us to friendship, who invites us to trust him, love him, hope in him, and be with him. God is a God who walks with us, even in the fire. Now that's a true friend.

Let us lay down our ultimatums; they only reveal our insecurities and testify to our powerlessness. Instead, let us offer friendship at our workplace, through our leadership, in our families, and in our day to day living. This is what Jesus did.

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