231. The chapter is titled 'Listening to Donkeys'
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THE BALAAM PRINCIPLE
They have left the straight road and have gone astray, following the road of Balaam son of Bosor, who loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
There are few stories in the Old Testament quite as charming as that of Balaam and his donkey. In the story, God places an invisible angel with drawn sword across Balaam’s path to prevent the prophet and his donkey from making a journey that God has forbidden. Three times the donkey refuses to cross the angel, and in so doing, three times saves the unwitting prophet from certain death. Finally, God opens the mouth of the donkey to speak in human language. Balaam’s eyes are opened to see the angel and the nature of the imminent danger, and Balaam is forced to bow to God’s rebuke from the mouth of his own animal.
There’s a serious lesson for us in this story, which is that God can speak through anyone. Balaam was a spiritual leader of high repute. He had a high opinion of himself and of his own spiritual gifts, and as a prophet he naturally expected to be God’s spokesman to others. God decided differently.
In terms of absolute spiritual gifting and depth of knowledge, Balaam was clearly way ahead of the donkey. But God, who is no respecter of persons, was not impressed by Balaam’s office and didn't see him as deserving of special treatment. To bring him down to earth and deflate his foolish pride, God looked around for the most menial, insignificant messenger he could find, and he chose the donkey.
God is not limited to using those with greater knowledge, experience, and status to teach those with less. He can, and often does, reverse the roles.
For those who identify with the self-styled spiritual leader Balaam, the message is: Listen to everyone, no matter how menial or inexperienced they may seem to you. You never know who might be the next donkey in your life, sent by God as a bearer of wisdom to keep you on track.For those who identify more with the donkey, the message is: You may lack experience, wisdom, or natural talent, but it doesn’t matter. God can still use you as his chosen instrument to speak his word to those older and more experienced. Be ready for it, and don’t be surprised or resist it if it happens. It may even involve wisdom beyond your natural capabilities. Balaam knew a lot more about angels than the donkey, who probably knew nothing at all; but that didn’t stop God from providing the donkey with a single, blinding flash of supernatural wisdom to set his master straight.
We may feel, like the donkey, that we are condemned to be instruments in the execution of other people’s plans and agendas forever. This is not at all what God wants for us. If that’s how we see it, we need a thorough reordering of our own self-image as well as of our God-image. This can take time and patience. As we navigate this process, it can be useful to remind ourselves occasionally of the story of Balaam.
There’s a final lesson, or warning, here. When we critically appraise the leaders in our churches, we need to ask ourselves the question, “Where do they stand on the Balaam scale?” A true spiritual leader will always have an eye open for the donkey in his life. He won’t limit God, and he will always keep himself open to hear the opinions of those younger and less experienced than himself. He should be happy to have God rebuke or correct him through such a one.
Many leaders will not pass this test. These are men in whom the character of God is improperly formed. Their sensibility of their own status makes them incapable of seeing a donkey as anything other than a convenient means of transport. We need to be wary of such men. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily in the wrong place or position—God has room for imperfect men at every level. It does, however, mean that many of their responses will be determined by fleshly rather than spiritual considerations, and so we need to treat them with caution.
Hierarchy is deeply ingrained in the church, and we will probably be taught that God wants it that way. We may be told that it’s wrong to question, to express opinions, or to follow God’s leading in our lives without approval from above. It’s lucky that Balaam’s donkey didn’t think that way and didn’t feel the need to ask Balaam’s permission before opening his mouth—otherwise history might have turned out differently.
The story of Balaam and his donkey is a warning against excessive pride and willfulness, and a warning against excessive or inappropriate humility. We should never put a limit on what God can do through us—to do so is to insult him. I may have a low opinion of myself, but I can hardly go any lower than Balaam’s donkey, and I should never use my own human limitations as an excuse for limiting what God can do through me.