Union Civil War General “Fighting Joe” Hooker once thought to inspire his beleaguered Army of the Potomac with a boast calculated to nerve up dispirited troops. “If the enemy does not run, God help them. May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”

Hooker, never known as either a modest or a moral man,1 had apparently forgotten both his Bible and his Shakespeare: “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36, KJV), Jesus had once commanded His followers. Sixteen centuries later the playwright—who understood the Scriptures much better than the general—underscored the mutually beneficial character of kindness:

The quality of mercy is not strained,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”2

Hooker’s boast has survived for nearly 150 years in American culture because it neatly captures an important paradox about how we hold the things we believe to be true: it is possible to express one of God’s truths with such a ferocity that it ceases to be completely true or fully His. Pairing God’s offer of mercy with a soldier’s promised vengeance undermines the meaning of the former even as it betrays the godlessness of the latter.

Like other lines I stored away from the history books of my youth, Hooker’s foolish posturing has found multiple applications during more than 30 years of ministry. Truths expressed without their full-orbed biblical balance become dangerously angular and pointed, weapons in the hands of those who have forgotten the Scriptural goal of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15, NKJV).*

I have heard the Sabbath preached as all commandment and no invitation. This is not the Sabbath of the Bible, even though numerous texts are read in its support.

I have heard the Second Coming taught as all judgment and no deliverance, as if to scare the impenitent into the arms of One they do not know and have not loved.

I have heard the sanctuary described as all furniture and no redemption, a lesson in geography but not in grace.

I have heard the state of the dead instructed so as to correct the grieving but not bind up the brokenhearted.

I have heard the Spirit of Prophecy delivered as “stripes for the back of fools” (Prov. 19:29, KJV), proving that the speaker knew neither Ellen White nor the pastoral spirit that motivated her.

God’s truths, if they be fully His, must savor of the heart that once announced them. The truths taught by Jesus were both accurate depictions of God’s realities and winsome descriptions of His character, for Scripture tells us that “the common people heard Him gladly” (Mark 12:37, NKJV). Ferocity in declaring a truth typically illustrates that the speaker has not yet experienced “the truth as it is in Jesus.”

Ellen White, God’s messenger to this movement, often expanded on what she meant by that felicitous phrase used more than 700 times in her collected works:

“The correct interpretation of the Scriptures is not all that God requires. He enjoins upon us that we should not only know the truth, but that we should practice the truth as it is in Jesus. We are to bring into our practice, in our association with others, the spirit of Him who gave us the truth. We must not only search for the truth as for hidden treasures, but it is a positive necessity, if we are laborers together with God, that we comply with the conditions laid down in His Word, and bring the spirit of Christ into our hearts, that our understanding may be strengthened and we become apt teachers to make known to others the truth revealed to us in His Word.”3

So here’s a call to hold our truths with all the gentleness with which Christ Himself holds us. Let us be clear: nothing less than truth will do. And nothing less than love will rightly testify to truth.

* Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1  Stewart Sifakis, “Who Was Who in the Civil War,” www.civilwarhome.com/hookbio.htm.
2  William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1.
3  Ellen G. White, Christ Triumphant, p. 331.

Bill Knott is the editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published July 14, 2011.

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