I grew up in a house with two brothers. By the time we were all in school, “provoking” was down to an art form. For each of my brothers, I knew the right buttons to push to get a rise out of them. I knew the words, the facial expressions, or even the subtle hint to drop that would flush their anger. What’s more, I knew how to do it to one of them to get at the other one.
Like I said, an art form.
But my parents were wise to such things, and that’s how I learned the meaning of the word “provoke.” It meant, for me, to do that thing that was sure to incite a reaction in one of my siblings. Often times, when a fight broke out among us, all of us would be punished—one for hitting or kicking or yelling, but the others of us for doing the provoking. And now history repeats itself in my own home, as all our kids are similarly learning what this word means.
It’s negative, right? The connotation? We typically think so, and with good reason. But when we turn to the Book of Hebrews, we find that for the Christian, “provoking” one another is actually a good thing. Indeed, it is our responsibility to do so:
Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:23-25)
The call is provocation. Though translated here as “let us be concerned about one another in order to promote…”, the phrase can also be translated more powerfully—that we should “provoke one another.” The word literally means to sharpen, to stimulate, and to incite. Though it’s used here in a good sense, for we are inciting one another to love and good, the same word can be used negatively.
You find it popping up again in Acts:
There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus.” (Acts 15:39)
Same word. In one sense, we are provoking one another to good. In the other, the provocation is negative, even resulting in the parting of company. Nevertheless, the idea is the same. We have in our power the ability to instigate and incite action in others, either for the good or otherwise. But here’s the thing about that instigation and provoking—even if it’s meant for good, it is not always positively received.
It makes me think of my high school days, when we would spend afternoons in athletics running laps around the track. Now in those days, there was sort of an unspoken agreement among us that no one would go as hard as they could. Instead, we would all run in a clump together, with no one falling behind, but also no one exerting themselves as much as possible. Not too easy, but then again, not too difficult either.
That plan worked for a while, but then there always seemed to be that one guy. That one over-achiever. The one that would at some point race to the front of the pack and then keep going. And he was, shall we say, not looked upon favorably.
Why? He was actually doing good. He was spurring us on to better effort. We were forced to pick up our pace, or our comparatively minimal effort would be revealed. Despite this, we still looked on him with disdain because he was disrupting the easy flow we had created for ourselves.
Such is the case with us and our brothers and sisters. It’s so easy to fall into a pattern of holiness in which you’re just getting by. Sure, you’re not pushing the envelope, but you’re not falling behind either. And then the disrupter comes along. The agitator. The instigator. The provoker. And at first, you don’t like them because of their disruption. You find that their pace reveals just how slowly you’re running. But in the end, this is a good and right thing for us.
Don’t be afraid to provoke your brothers, Christian. And don’t react violently when someone does the same for you.
Michael Kelley lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife, Jana, and three children: Joshua (10), Andi (7), and Christian (5). He serves as Director of Groups Ministry for Lifeway Christian Resources. As a communicator, Michael speaks across the country at churches, conferences, and retreats and is the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God; Transformational Discipleship; and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. Find him on Twitter: @_MichaelKelley.