After David’s infamous night with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, there was only silence from his friends and counselors (2 Samuel 11). For months, no one would tell David the simple truth. No one had had the courage to confront him - that is until Nathan the prophet brings this message: “Why? Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?” Then David, in one of the great understatements in Scripture, says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Coming to terms with one’s sin requires the slow work of the Holy Spirit, but more often than not, it also requires one willing to speak the truth to us by that same Spirit. Writing in the 1930’s, Reinhold Niebuhr perceived the incapability of individuals and nations to rid themselves completely of evil, but he did credit the religious spirit with a capacity for restraint and humility. I found this quote in my copy of Niebuhr’s Moral Man & Immoral Society:
“The personality and the holiness of God provide the religious man with a reinforcement of his moral will and a restraint upon his will-to-power.…and a consequent increase in condemnation upon all selfish actions and desires.”
Steven Weitzman notes in a recent Christianity Today article that James Comey was a fan of Reinhold Niebuhr in his undergraduate years and even took the theologian’s name as an email handle. It was Niebuhr who boldly confronted J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, for his improper spying upon Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the revelations of Comey’s testimony in this week’s Senate hearing was that he resisted pressure by both parties to shape past and current FBI investigations in a more positive light – whether it be the mishandling of confidential emails, or collusion with Russia in the interference of the election. Like Nathan the prophet, James Comey seemed willing to restrain his own ambition while speaking truth to power at great personal risk.
Every day you and I, by our speech and conduct, contribute to the larger fabric of society for good or ill. Each and every day we are given the opportunity to exercise our moral will and to restrain the natural will-to-power for the good of others. The prophet Nathan and a fired FBI director share the truth-speaking boldness of Him who confronted hypocrisy and the abuse of power (Matthew 23: 23-24; Luke 22: 24-27), and called his disciples to walk as servant leaders. They are templates for our lives, and how we reflect their example in the world can change the course of a family, a church, a city, and even a nation.