As Jesus entered Capernaum, a man approached him with a need. This, of course, was nothing new, but this man was different. He told Jesus that he didn’t feel worthy. “Don’t come to my house,” he said. “I’m a military man. I understand how authority works. When I give my men a command, it gets done.” Implied, of course, was the faith that Jesus had just that authority. He didn’t need to perform some ritual, call on some power, or do some healing trick. He just had to give the word. The centurion’s grasp on the concepts of authority gave him an understanding of Jesus’ authority that, the gospel says, Jesus marveled at.
As a teacher, the concept of authority is something that I’ve grappled with. I wish I could say that like the centurion, my understanding of authority gives me a much greater understanding of God, but I’m afraid that would be something of an overstatement. Over the years, though, I have not only learned some things in teaching that help me understand how God’s authority works, I’ve learned some things about God’s authority that I can apply to my authority in the classroom. These principles can help any of us relate both to the authorities we find over us, and to those that we find ourselves in authority over.
In my years of teaching, I’ve often followed the philosophy that the least government is the best government. Properly applied, it is true, but in governing least, it is easy to leave your exact expectations unclear. For example, there is no need to come up with a specific rule for each of the thousands of ridiculous things that a group of eighth graders will end up doing on the way in from recess, but it must be abundantly clear that I do expect decent, orderly behavior in the hallway. God told Adam and Eve to abstain from eating of this one particular tree, not just to be careful what they ate. He told Moses to speak to the rock, not just to do something to make water come out. He told Lot specifically to leave Sodom without even looking back. In speaking to us today, God clearly and simply outlines what he expects of us in order to be saved. He demands sacrifice and surrender, but the plan of salvation is simple enough for any to grasp. If we truly want to do what’s right, God doesn’t leave us guessing. When I give instructions to those under my authority, I must do the same.
One does not need to look far in the Bible to find stories of God’s punishment on disobedience. Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, and they were cast out of the garden. Because Moses lost his temper and struck the rock, he was forbidden to enter the promised land. Lot’s wife turned and looked behind her, and a monument of salt bore witness to her weakness. Over and over, God punished individuals, communities and even whole peoples as a result of their disobedience to Him. It is abundantly clear that, if we fall short of the expectations he has given, there will be punishment. Sometimes, in an effort to avoid being overly authoritarian, it is easy to try to avoid giving punishments to students. You see, contrary to popular myth, most teachers don’t actually enjoy punishing their students. “Maybe they won’t do it again,” or “It isn’t actually that big of a deal is it?” There are lots of ways to talk yourself out of confronting an issue that you just don’t want to face. Here again, though, the model God sets up is the best. If, unlike with God, my students have no reason to fear what might happen if they get out of line, I will never be able to get them to cooperate. Although my options for creating that fear are considerably more limited than what God has, that fear must still be there. There must be a respect and—in a limited sense—awe of my authority, just as I must have a respect and much greater sense of awe for God’s authority.
As often as we hear about God’s wrath and punishment falling on sinners, we read of his mercy, often towards those same sinners. At the same moment he casts Adam and Eve out of the Garden, God hints that He has a plan for putting things back to rights. Despite keeping Moses out of the promised land, He personally takes him to a mountain where he can have a view of the whole country. After He sent a prophet to Nineveh to warn them of their impending punishment, He accepted their repentance and spared them from punishment. In the greatest story of all, He sent His own Son to die on the cross rather than pour out judgment on a world that had purposely and deliberately turned against him. Sometimes mercy is more powerful than judgment. There are times that, even though a student crossed the line, the best thing to do is to give them a second chance even if they don’t deserve it.
And here, I believe, is the crux of the whole matter. You see, God isn’t arbitrarily throwing out judgment or mercy based on what mood He is in. He is not looking to have a world full of fearful, beaten people that are following His will simply because the consequences for doing otherwise are too terrible. He is looking to gain the hearts of His people. He wants love and joyful service. He wants to work with you and me to free us from sin, to teach us about Himself, and to help the world around us find that same light. It is in the same way that any teacher worth his salt will want to work with his students. I want to inspire my students to love learning and put effort into school. I don’t want a bunch of students who are terrified and resentful but are too scared to disobey. I want students who genuinely respect school and school authority and who are willing to put forth the effort it takes to make school go well. And so I try to emulate the pattern God gives. I try to give clear expectations. When a student needs to know what is what and where he should stop, I deal with him. I extend mercy to the student who cares and simply needs another chance to do right. In short, I love my students to the best of my ability in the same way that God has loved me. He works through me and inspires me to do my utmost to inspire the best in them.
There is the beauty of it. If I allow God to work through and in me, my authority can be a picture to my students of who God is. The thought is as sobering as it is amazing, because on the flip side, I can mar their perception of authority if I go about it carelessly or selfishly. Just like so many other areas of life, authority is a type of God’s plan that can both instruct and inspire, regardless of which side of it we are on.