An interesting question was posed to me the other day when it comes to a follower of Christ compromising convictions as a necessity. The question was essentially, “What does the example of Naaman say about compromise for the believer?”
And my response was this…
In truth, this is a bit of a poser. I don’t have in front of me any specific commentaries or anything that would give a historical analysis or any such support for positions so all I have to offer is just a rather amatuer set of impressions with the intent of looking at this a little deeper when I get the chance.
For those of you not familiar with who Naaman is, here’s a bit of background:
Historically speaking, Naaman comes into the story of Israel during the divided Kingdom where there is the nation of Israel on the north and the nation of Judah on the south. Generally speaking, both of these nations were not exactly doing what God wanted and so there were all sorts of problems with surrounding nations and a bunch of “trouble-maker” prophets that were basically running around telling the kings of Judah and Israel, “Um… don’t do that.”.
One such maurading nation was Aram and they had this habit of running into Israel, grabbing a bunch of folks and stuff, and heading back home. One such dude who did this a lot was Naaman, a heap-big general in Aram. Keep in mind, also, that Aram was probably more closely related to Syria and worshipped a god named Rimmon (also called “Baal” or “Ramanu”)… definitely not YHWH. And such worship was a “national” thing in that the King did it so everyone did it.
You can read more about the story of Naaman in 2 Kings chapter 5 but the part that this question is referencing comes in after Naaman realizes who is really the most powerful God and decides to worship YHWH alone and never again worship Rimmon. Now he’s got issues. Check out verses 17 through 19 here:
“If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord. But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”
“Go in peace,” Elisha said. 2 Kings 5:17-19a NIV
So, back to the question. Here we have Naaman saying he will worship YHWH alone from here on out and yet he is asking permission to compromise this promise so he can bow in the temple with his King. Does this give license to believers to make similar compromises, to engage in activities that may be questionable as concerns values and principles?
My initial response is no (although, I reserve that I may change this if additional study says so). Naaman’s situation was pretty unique. When you are such a high-muck-a-muck as Naaman was, you make some VERY serious promises to your King (who Naaman calls “my master”). Naaman was still bound by these promises, and they were promises not quite like what we make today, but more on the lines of covenant where Naaman has land, home, and family in return for his service to the King. Would God condone breaking these solemn promises? This is not like Naaman choosing to start something new now that he was a follower of YHWH, but he was stuck in a bind of whether or not he should break a promise (something against the law of YHWH) or participate in worship of a false god (also against the law of YHWH). So, it’s not really a story about compromise, it’s a story about finding yourself in a situation that you really can’t see a way out of and looking to God for grace and mercy. I could even see Naaman saying something like, “When I get back home, I’m going to have to break a solemn covenant I made with the King of Aram and violate God’s law by doing so. May YHWH forgive his servant as I do this.” The point would be the same, that Naaman recognized where he was and knew that he was stuck.
Elisha’s answer seems to be less an answer of “It’s OK for you to compromise” and more of “You’re stuck in a bad place. Your heart is right, YHWH’s grace is enough.” We live in a really rough world where all sorts of stuff comes up every day where we need to weigh decisions between two equally vital questions of principle and values. It is easy to despair and be troubled that you will never make the right decision. I don’t know what Naaman should have done. Naaman seems to recognize, as well, that no matter what path he takes, he’s going to have issues with God.
Now, is this license to go and specifically seek out the situations and compromise? I don’t think so. Naaman was already in a bad place when he realized his dilemma. To kind of stretch it, if Naaman wasn’t already in a covenant with the King of Aram, God’s law would trump and he would be in some serious danger if he decided to go to the temple and bow down and worship if it wasn’t required of him already.
The application today is very nuanced, I think. If a believer does not find themselves in a position of compromise and has a way of acting that will not compromise, I don’t think they can use Naaman as justification for compromise. That is not what happened. But say a person becomes a believer and finds themselves in a position where they are faced with a dilemma between two morally or ethically problematic choices (or a person is already a believer and becomes newly convicted about something), they can feel confident that God’s grace and forgiveness will extend to them. They may have to compromise their beliefs but not because they went out of their way to do so, but because they were already in a position that had no other way out. God’s grace is sufficient. We aren’t given the grace to start doing something wrong that we know we shouldn’t, but we are given grace and forgiveness when we have to submit to our circumstances caused by our fallen world and our fallen selves. Naaman is a story of grace when righteousness seems impossible. I actually find that to be very hopeful.
What do you think?