THE NIT PICKER
Holding forth the word of life;
that I may rejoice in the day of Christ,
that I have not run in vain,
neither laboured in vain.
Fight the good fight of faith,
lay hold on eternal life,
whereunto thou art also called,
and hast professed a good profession
before many witnesses.
1 Timothy 6:12
When he appears it is as if from nowhere. Silently, his presence looms up in front of one without warning. There he is, suddenly and censoriously, the creator of an atmospheric pressure. His way-laying of the man of God, in the privacy of the church vestry or in the public arena of the kerbside, is unavoidable. He tends to fill doorways, trap his victims in small corners, or sit beside them at meal times when courtesy stifles the rude withdrawal. He is as chewing gum between fingers – a clinging irritant.
There is never any thanksgiving to God for blessings received, or any hint of hope for the preacher’s future, just the unravelling of his sermon. It may have been appreciated by all and sundry, but the nit picker can undo encouragement like claws a cardigan. Doom fits as neatly upon him, as black cloth once laid upon a judge’s head.
His art has been honed to perfection over many generations, psychological warfare encased in piety! The pompous glare and steely glint, the overbearing manner, the unsmiling mask, the judgmental frown, the prodding finger; these, accompanying the carefully selected opening gambit, are guaranteed to create in the inexperienced preacher especially a gulping ‘adam’s apple’, a furrowed brow and trembling knees.
The furtive approach is heralded not with the dulcet tones of the ‘harp’ of sweet fellowship, but with gloom’s dull thud from a ‘drum’ draped in black. The voice of the ‘inquisitor-general’ possesses the authority and chill of the school bell, its tone bleak, a long-forgotten headmaster returned to haunt. No greeting as from one brother in Christ to another eases the tension, no interchange of spiritual thoughts, no enquiries after health or family – just the sounds of thin theological hairs being split – or, is the noise that of angels dancing on a pinhead?
The nit picker may never have preached a sermon in his life, or been engaged in any form of christian service, but that fact is conveniently overlooked. Instead, a ‘nit’ has been discovered (‘I have listened to your sermon with interest! ..,’) and the picker is quick to seize It. Or perhaps it is the preacher’s latest book he has read, or reviewed, a word or a mere phrase disliked rubbishing the whole. From a great height he swoops, the intention being to scrape his theological expertise over the jagged nerve end of the other’s ignorance, Taken off guard the preacher’s mind drains of all thought when confronted with a christian brother turned ‘rack master’.
The name of the game is ‘one-upmanship’. First, the victim is placed at a distinct disadvantage. He has been thinking of other matters, but is now without prior warning expected to possess instant answers to rarified questions; ‘Brother, are you an infra, or a supralapsarian…a semi-Pelagian, perhaps?’ Or, ‘What is your view of the Kenotic theory?’ Or again, ‘Do you agree that the word ‘Filioque’ should have been added to the Constantinopolitan Creed?’ The victim does what is expected of him, he changes colour, as feelings of inadequacy rush to the fore. He wonders where his adversary has gamed such knowledge, and of such a wide variety. The answer lies in the fact that the text .book was probably consulted only the previous day.
This self-styled ‘puritan’, having waited with studied patience for the inevitable blush of embarrassment upon his victim’s cheek at this point only too willingly twists the knife. He suggests certain books for required reading, somehow guessing he has discovered a prominent ‘archilles heel’. With a chill grin he says, ‘Surely, you already have them in your library!’, but no, others on the same theme perhaps but not these. How strange, the picker of ‘nits’ invariably finds them within easy reach!
The final thrust is due, submission abject, as he slowly and studiously unsheaths his giant Bible from under his arm, as if preparing for an execution. It is never a new Bible, but always much battered (for obvious reasons!), and fat with copious notes written in the smallest and neatest of handwriting. With the ominous words, ‘You said in your sermon…’, the poor preacher sees a rifle being loaded, or hears the sharpening of an axe.
THE FLY ON THE WALL, THE MUD ON THE SHOE
The nit picker though is not only a sermon-taster, but also favours the Bible class. Indeed, here he is at his happiest and most lethal, for there is nothing he delights in more than having an audience to share his victories. He considers himself to be the protector of pulpits and guardian of the most peripheral of truths. Thus his attendance is as a junk yard hound fangs bared at the ready, to growl at the merest hint of error, and in any case to bark in order to make known his presence.
There is never a problem detecting him. He is the one regularly gazing around him during the study as if slightly bored by the proceedings stit1ing an occasional yawn, who suddenly espies an object of interest through the window, a fly on the wall or a slither of mud on his shoe. He may whisper repeatedly to his neighbour, or feel the need to search for an obscure text in the furthest regions of the Old Testament at the very moment the teacher is seeking to interest the class in the New. Then as if spotting a ‘nit’, he is seen fumbling through his pockets in search or it pad and pen creating the impression of censure, like a school inspector in the process of examining a student teacher. To the naive, undoubtedly an ‘expert’ is in their midst. In truth, he is an ‘evangelical Jesuit’, and just as useless to Christ’s cause and glory.
NAKED KNOWLEDGE, NOT SPIRITUAL NURTURE
The nit picker reads systematic theologies as boys read comics, but his concern is not for the soul’s nurture, but rather with the head’s knowledge, the fine scriptural balance between the two being absent. (John 4:24) He claims to be reformed, but the Reformers would not own him; a Puritan, but the ‘uniform’ does not fit. Discovering Oliver Cromwell’s helmet, breastplate and boots, is not to have found the man and the Bible in his heart and hand!
Nevertheless, being solemnly observed from a short distance by this ‘puritan’ in short trousers is an unnerving experience, in which a ploy is used guaranteed to disturb even the most experienced of men out front. Silent he may be, but the picker’s presence speaks volumes, as he enacts his private witch hunt. The signs of displeasure are easily noted; the restless uncrossing of the legs, the hefty heave of the shoulders, and the giant sigh provoked by the merest hint of a side-stepping from the strictest ‘party line’.
All this can produce unusual reactions from the prey, who recognizes he is under stern surveillance and probable censure, He sees his stalker in the corner of his eye, and thus ill at ease like one walking on eggs, he feels obliged to choose his words very carefully as if conducting the study for one person. One slip of the tongue, one doctrinal ‘t’ left uncrossed or one ‘i’ not dotted, and before the evening is over he knows who will swoop like a vulture from a twig upon sight of a corpse.
The result is, a restriction of intellectual and spiritual freedom, as he wrestles within his straitjacket. Hackneyed expressions are substituted for articulate exposition, theological cliches for f1uency of speech, in his endeavour to be considered ‘correct’. In other words, this ‘cromwellian’ actor has got-to-him. To change the metaphor; let loose this ‘roaring lion’ (l Peter 5:8) cub is capable of devouring the entire meeting, his presence overshadowing the proceedings.
Ah, but the golden moment has yet to arrive, the debating chamber still locked. Soon perhaps, the pastor will lay his head upon the block and say, ‘Are there any questions?’ The nit picker has plenty of them, few answers, but an unlimited supply of questions. The biblical, the theological, the historical, the obscure, the oblique, the impertinent, the irrelevant, the supplementary; a kaleidoscope of information, all of which is expected to be dancing on the ends of the man of God’s finger tips. The confession that an answer is not known, provides the nit picker with his opportunity to inform the class what it is – and thus his day is made, the teacher has become the pupil!
Nit pickers roam reformed circles at will, and cannot be curtailed in their activities. However, they have one use in Christ’s service. They remind the rest of us of grave possibilities; the theological text book is better known than the Scriptures, the words of great men are more familiar than the Word itself – and we may not be as concerned with embracing Almighty God (Phil.3: 10), as we are with gaining knowledge about Him.
Dr. Peter Trumper