Tucked away in the sermon-letter known as Hebrews, in its summary of its central section, is this evocative statement: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (10:24).
The Greek word translated “provoke” in this version is paroxysmos, and it’s actually a noun. It’s almost always negative in connotation. It’s the word used in Acts 15:39, for example, to describe the “sharp disagreement” between Barnabas and Paul—a convulsive eruption of thoughts and emotions and words. A paroxysmos is when something deeply disturbing—something that stirs you up emotionally and psychologically, that aggravates and agitates you in a gut-wrenchingly visceral way—pushes you to act.
Here’s the evocative image, then: We are to be deeply disturbed—provoked, incited, aggravated, agitated—not toward anger or violence, but toward love and good deeds.
This past weekend our church hosted Theatre of the Beat and their latest production, #ChurchToo. The play tackles the issue of sexual violence—discrimination, harassment, abuse, and more—within the church. It’s a timely topic, to be sure. Yet it’s also a difficult one—even a deeply disturbing one.
Those who have seen the play know how deeply disturbing it is. As I watched the final scene I could feel my own gut wrenching—physically clenching—as the actors brilliantly portrayed the bodily impact of sexual violence, an impact that is felt long after the violence has occurred. Afterward, the show’s artistic director talked about how every audience responds the same way: looking away from the stage in shock or shame or agonizing pain, but then looking back; rocking on their chairs as if to leave, but remaining riveted in their seats.
It’s disturbing—and it’s supposed to be disturbing.
But it’s not needlessly disturbing. It portrays the real-life impact of sexual violence for victims, and so invites us to experience this vicariously ourselves, in order to understand better, to be more sympathetic and compassionate, to push us to raise awareness of sexual violence, to prompt us to prevent sexual violence if possible and to respond well to it when it happens.
The play is, in fact, all about “being disturbed toward love and good deeds.”
I’m thankful this is not the only way we can be motivated toward love and good deeds. We can be comforted toward love and good deeds—we might experience compassion, for example, or see compassion modeled, and so be prompted toward greater compassion ourselves. But sometimes we need to be discomforted toward love and good deeds—agitated, aggravated, provoked, incited, deeply disturbed.
As the saying goes, “The gospel comforts the disturbed, but it disturbs the comfortable.” Jesus brings us comfort—Amen! But Jesus does not make us comfortable. Selah.
May God give us a holy discomfort, a willingness to step into the hard realities of this world, to sit with the pain and suffering of others, in order to understand their experiences and show compassion and seek justice. May we be willing to be disturbed by the things that disturb God, so that we can show an ever-increasing love to others in the way God has shown love to us in Jesus.