Offering a prophetic witness is often difficult and, sometimes, costly. The costs vary in substance and degree, but are an ever-present reality for those engaged in prophetic acts or vocations.
A prophet, Greg Mobley stated in a recent EthicsDaily.com column, “sees through the veil of appearances to glimpse a different reality.”
“Prophetic vision,” he continued, “penetrates everydayness to go deeper than conventional wisdom in order to reveal the story behind the story, the baseline behind the headline.”
In challenging the conventional wisdom and the taken-for-granted realities, the prophet is speaking truth to power. And this, as Ircel Harrison noted, is never without great risk and profound cost regardless of whether the message is received well or poorly.
The challenges of the prophetic calling are evidenced in the biblical traditions surrounding the Hebrew prophets.
In noting that we often worship idols unawares, Molly Marshall cited the prophet Elijah’s “showdown” with prophets of Ba’al,
Since we have never worshipped Ba’al, Elijah’s fiery words appear to be pointed at others. But what if the prophet’s ire was turned on us?
What if Ba’al represents wealth, power, status, ideology or possessions? Would we be so eager to accept the prophet’s critique?
Nathan was a friend and trusted advisor to King David, but he was also a prophet who “spoke truth to power.” Following David’s affair and futile cover-up efforts, Nathan walked into the king’s residence and confronted him with his sins.
The narrative doesn’t share Nathan’s emotions and generally portrays him as a bold, confident, unapologetic witness. But since David had recently arranged for Uriah’s death, one can only assume that Nathan’s legs might have been a bit wobbly and his voice a little shaky in confronting the king.
For those of us living in a democracy with protected rights to free speech, Nathan’s prophetic act may seem less risky than it was. In reality, Nathan was not putting his job or career path on the line; he was literally risking his life.
Jeremiah’s call was to the unpopular task of speaking words discontinuous with present circumstances. In the settled, fruitful times he spoke an unsettling word of “plucking up and tearing down.” Then, amidst the ruins of a once thriving economy, he offered a hopeful word of “building up and replanting.”
Longing to loose his commission in the face of hostile, life-threatening responses, Jeremiah found that he could not because his prophetic calling was “like a fire within his bones” (Jeremiah 20:9).
Such is the prophetic task: a compulsion to speak truth to power when it is unjust and oppressive knowing that the message and messenger will, in all likelihood, be poorly received.
Jesus knew these, and many other, stories of Hebrew prophets well. So, when he proclaimed, “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown” (Mark 6: 4; Matthew 13:57), this was not only an observation based on his experiences, but also a well-established concept in Hebrew tradition.
Prophets—those who possess the perceptive insight to see the fallacies of conventional wisdom and the inner fortitude to speak these truths to those in power—are always popular so long as the conventional wisdom and power being confronted are of someone else.
When it is another person, family, organization, company, state or nation receiving the prophet’s truth telling, there is praise and embrace. When it is directed at you, there is loathing and rejection.
Sometimes the message alone is dismissed, but more often than not the prophet pays a price, too.
Jesus knew this well, telling his disciples on multiple occasions that his prophetic ministry would lead to his death when the powers that be had heard enough truth telling (see Mark 8:31-32; 9:31b-32; 10:32-34).
You might not perceive yourself as someone with a prophetic, truth telling personality or feel a sense of calling to “speak truth to power” when unfair, unjust or unwise practices are being enacted.
Nevertheless, as Christians who have committed to journey in the way of Jesus, we inherit a legacy of prophetic truth telling that is risky and costly, but ultimately redemptive and reconciling.
Being prophetic is not an excuse for being rude or foolish regarding when and how your truth telling is offered. Neither is it “prophetic” to complain about anything and everything you dislike or find inconvenient about someone, some policy or some organization.
But just because a person or group reacts negatively or dismisses your statements as petty, personal complaints, does not mean your witness was not prophetic.
Discerning between prophetic witness and personal complaint is not about whether you have a personal interest in the matter or not. Rather, prophetic truth telling is voiced from a deep-seated sense of justice and a desire to advance the common good of all people, not simply oneself.
But even when you speak at the right time, in the right manner and for the right reasons, telling the truth—offering a prophetic word to help others “see through” conventional wisdom to the injustice, unfairness or foolishness of unquestioned norms—is a difficult proposition.
“Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is not a guarantee that the message will be welcomed.