Recently on You Tube whilst looking for something else I came across a video that took me right back to my Sunday School days with Mrs Currie in Greenock Elim Church. This was the song the children were singing on the video and it was one of my favourites as a child, not sure I can remember the “actions” though.

Twelve men went to spy out Canaan,
(Ten were bad, two were good)
What do you think they saw in Canaan?
(Ten were bad, two were good)
Some saw giants, big and tall!
Some saw grapes in clusters fall,
Some saw God was in it all.
(Ten were bad, two were good)

The song, if you hadn’t guessed it already, is about the story of the 12 spies sent into the Promised Land which is told in Numbers 13.

Scripture tells us that when the spies returned from their mission that ten of them could only see problems. “But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. …. ‘We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.’ 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, ‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size” This group focused on all the problems , such as the fortifications they would face which were large and well defended. They saw problems because the people already in the land seemed to be more numerous and physically stronger than they were and they even saw problems with themselves, they believed that people of Israel were weaker than the Canaanites.

Joshua and Caleb on other hand saw potential, the potential that the land had and the potential that God’s people had to be victorious Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do”

What fascinates me about this story is that all 12 saw exactly the same things, the same land, the same people and the same cities. Yet their perspectives were so utterly different, two could see potential and ten could only see problems. How is that possible? For people to see the same things but reach such different conclusions ?

I’m not sure that my favourite Sunday School song was fair in calling the 10 spies who could see only problems “bad.” I don’t think they were evil men as such, but they do seem to have developed what we might call today a critical spirit. We all know people who can always see clouds but never silver linings and for whom the cup is perennially “half empty.”  People like these develop a negative outlook on life that causes them to look for problems, which of course means they always find them. No matter the situation people like this can be trusted to point out something negative. In Scotland we often describe people with this tendency to be permanently negative as being “never happy unless they are unhappy.” The ten spies would probably have denied having a critical spirit, they might have called themselves “realists” or “analysts” or people with the “best interests of Israel at heart”. The truth was that if all they could see were problems then they had gone from being people who could express valid criticism and fears to people who were simply critical. People who are critical and people who express criticism are not the same, for one criticism has an end in mind, to bring about positive change, for the other the criticism is the end in itself.

There was a point in my life when God had to talk to me about this. He spoke to me through some words from the great Victorian Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who said “The church is imperfect, but woe to the man who takes pleasure in pointing out her imperfections!” I had to admit I was enjoying to an unhealthy extent being critical of the church.  At the time I was doing a lot of research about mission and the church, reading reports and books and the result was the only things I said about the church were negative. Every time I spoke about the church I spoke about problems in the church or the problems the church faced. I was definitely a contemporary one of the “ten.” Rather than sharing Joshua and Caleb’s perspective and having the ability to see potential for God’s people I focused exclusively on the negative, the problems. I suspect my preaching back then came across as negative, and critical. I had a negative outlook and a harsh tone in what I said about the church. If you had to encounter that version of me, I apologise.

Let’s be honest, its easy to see problems in church. You won’t have to look very hard, there will be problems, with the pastor (take it from me there are), problems with the worship, problems with the young peoples work and children’s work, problems with the depth of spirituality and the superficiality of the fellowship. It takes more effort and time and a different perspective to see the potential in these areas. The problem isn’t seeing the problems in the church, its when you only see the problems and focus exclusively on the problems when you talk about the church. Can I meddle a bit and ask you a personal question? In the last year when you have talked about the church have you talked more about its problems or its potential? More about its past or its future?

Unsurprisingly, the ten negative spies attitude had a knock on negative impact on God’s people. Their critical spirit and focus on problems cost God’s people the ability to move on into the future God wanted for them. I discovered recently that when we allow ourselves to develop a critical spirit, we actual damage ourselves as well. A number of years ago, Dr. David Harold Fink, a psychiatrist for the veteran’s administration in the US, wrote an article for Coronet Magazine, entitled, “Release from Nervous Tension.” In this article, he outlined his research into the causes of mental and emotional disturbances. From over 10,000 case studies, he discovered that there was a common trait with all his patients who suffered from severe tension. They were habitual fault-finders, constant critics of people and things around them. Those who were free from tension, were the least critical. His conclusions were that the habit of fault-finding is a prelude or mark of the nervous, or the mentally unbalanced. Those who wish to retain good emotional and mental health, should learn to free themselves from a negative and critical attitude.

My experience tells me that, that research probably applies to organisations like the church too. Churches that are relationally difficult communities, which are filled with tension, characterised by disharmony and conflict and little growth are generally communities where just like in Numbers 13 the people like Joshua and Caleb who can see potential are drowned out by those who focus attention the problems. I have witnessed the scene from Numbers 13 being repeated in more Church business meetings than I care to remember. Fault finding can so easily become the default way of acting among God’s people not just in Ancient Israel but in the contemporary church.

CS Lewis in his brilliant little book the ScrewTape Letters imagines a series of conversations between a senior and junior demon about the best way to deflect and destroy the faith of a new believer. Creating a critical spirit is one of the demon’s effective strategies. The senior demon says ““Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches. … The search for a suitable church makes a person a critic when the enemy wants them to be a pupil.” Screwtape the demon is right, or CS Lewis, depending on your point of view, becoming a professional critic endangers our faith and undermines what God wants us to become.

Now I am not suggesting that we need to wear rose coloured spectacles when it comes to the church, to never express our fears and worries about it. In fact, in our listening meetings we have been encouraging people to share their fears about the future of our church. What I am saying is that if we find ourselves coming to the place where we tend to always focus on the negative, when we more readily and more often and more easily see problems rather than potential in the Church then we need to ask ourselves  a question Are we voicing valid criticism, or have we simply developed a critical spirit? Are we voicing valid concerns or just being a critic?  Perhaps, as I had to do, some of us might need to ask the Lord to give us a different perspective so we don’t just see problems? I can still see problems in the church but thanks to a God given change in perspective I see far more potential.

Funny what old Sunday School songs make you think about! I’m off to reflect on “Father Abraham Had Many Sons” has to teach us …. Probably not to sing it, it was an awful song.

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