“Do not imagine you can avoid giving offence.”
These direct words were Wesley’s second piece of advice to “the people called Methodists.” But why would Wesley tell the fledgling Methodists that it would be impossible to avoid giving offence?
“Your very name renders this impossible.”
“And as much as offense as you give by your name, you will give still more by your principles.”
Wesley is surprisingly frank that Methodists who know who they are and are faithful to who God has called them to be will inevitably give offence. (For Wesley’s definition of a Methodist see the first post in this series. The second post emphasized the importance of Methodists knowing who they are.) In case his audience was unclear how Methodists might give offence, Wesley offered a litany of ways Methodism would offend:
You will give offence to the bigots for opinions, modes of worship, and ordinances, by laying no more stress upon them; to the bigots against them, by laying so much; to men of form, by insisting so frequently and strongly on the inward power of religion; to moral men (so called) by declaring the absolute necessity of faith in order to acceptance with God. To men of reason you will give offence by talking of inspiration and receiving the Holy Ghost; to drunkards, sabbath-breakers, common swearers, and other open sinners, by refraining from their company, as well as by that disapprobation of their behaviour which you will often be obliged to express. And indeed your life must give them continual offence; your sobriety is grievously offensive to a drunkard; your serious conversation is equally intolerable to a gay impertinent; and, in general, that ‘you are grown so precise and singular, so monstrously strict, beyond all sense and reason, that you scruple so many harmless things, and fancy you are obliged to do so many others which you need not,’cannot but be an offence to abundance of people, your friends and relations in particular.
Some of the 18th century turns of phrase above may obscure Wesley’s meaning for contemporary readers. The conclusion to his “litany of offence” is pretty straightforward: “Either therefore you must consent to give up your principles, or your fond hope of pleasing men.”
I’m not sure I could come up with a piece of advice from the founder of Methodism that would cut harder against the grain of contemporary Methodist sensibilities, at least in my part of The United Methodist Church. Here is what I understand Wesley to be saying: Being who you are will be offensive to others. You can either strive to please them or you can be true to who God has called you to be and save your own souls and, God willing, theirs as well.
In order to try to be as clear as I can, let me say that I do not think that Wesley is saying that Methodists are to strive to offend others. He was telling Methodists that being who they were, for the reasons mentioned in the extended quote above, would inevitably offend others. The purpose of Methodism is not to offend. But, Methodists determined pursuit of holiness of heart and life will inevitably offend those who are not pursuing holiness of heart and life.
Wesley describes the result of all of this offence:
“You cannot but expect that the offence continually arising from such a variety of provocations will gradually ripen into hatred, malice, and all other unkind tempers…. The consequence, humanly speaking, must be that, together with your reputation, you will lose, first, the love of your friends, relations, and acquaintance, even those who once loved you the most tenderly; then your business… your health, liberty, and life.”
Wesley was exaggerating, right? I would guess that is the instinctive reaction many would have to this quote. The rhetoric just seems so inflated. But was he?
Historians know that Wesley himself experienced tremendous strain in relationships with family and friends due to the “principles” of Methodism. He was also regularly told after preaching in Church of England parishes that he would not be invited to preach there again. Wesley also experienced the wrath, violence, and unpredictability of mobs on more than one occasion in the years immediately before writing this essay. William Seward actually died of stoning by an angry mob in 1740, five years before Wesley wrote this.
When Wesley told Methodists not to imagine that they could avoid giving offence that would cost them dearly in terms of relationships, employment, and even their physical health, he meant it.
Wesley’s next piece of advice is one of the passages in this essay that I just keep coming back to again and again. I’ll let it speak for itself:
What further advice can be given to a person in such a situation? I can but advise you, thirdly: Consider deeply with yourself, Is the God whom I serve able to deliver me? I am not able to deliver myself out of these difficulties; much less am I able to bear them. I know not how to give up my reputation, my friends, my substance, my liberty, my life. Can God give me to rejoice in doing this? And may I depend on him that he will? Are the hairs of my head all numbered? And does he never fail them that trust in him? Weigh this thoroughly; and if you can trust God with your all, then go on, in the power of his might.
I stopped reading several times as I read Wesley’s second and third pieces of advice. “Do not imagine you can avoid giving offence.” “Consider deeply with yourself, Is the God whom I serve able to deliver me?” I stopped because the advice seemed so obvious and true. At the same time, these simple exhortations are so counter to how I experience my own United Methodist Church today. I cannot imagine a key leader of Methodism saying what Wesley says in this advice. I also believe it desperately needs to be said for our time and our place. This is how I see Wesley’s advice applying to us today:
Methodists, if you are centered in your identity and if you are true to who God has called you to be, people will not like you. People will be offended by what you believe and by how you live your life. That is ok. Make no mistake, being disliked, even despised is hard. That is one reason it is essential for you to unite together to watch over one another in love. But the purpose of Methodism was never meant to be winning the approval of a world that does not believe. The purpose of Methodism has been and, as long as the Holy Spirit is in the building, will be spreading scriptural holiness. When Methodism is faithful to that purpose, the once offended are often converted to faith in Jesus Christ and the peculiar and particular principles of this people so strangely raised up by God.
The next piece of advice is most important of all. Do not trust yourself. Do not seek to discover a confidence in yourself that you have what it takes. These are dead ends. When your faith begins to cost you, really cost you: Do you trust God? Are the promises of the gospel still true? Or as Wesley beautifully puts it, “Does he never fail them that trust in him?”
I am preaching to myself here. God brings me back to the basics over and over again. “Do you trust me? Do you believe that I am good and that I love you?” I need to hear and receive Wesley’s advice. I need to trust God every moment of every day. I desperately want to see United Methodism renewed. I want United Methodism to be what Wesley intended. But I don’t have what it takes to renew Methodism. Neither do you. But there is one who is able: Jesus Christ the risen Lord. I am thirsting for a revival of God’s Spirit that brings back to life a Methodism dependent on and desperate for intimate connection to the triune God.