Playing Possum

By Mike Willis

As we move away from a rural environment, we may forget some of the images from rural settings which have been used to illustrate important spiritual lessons. Sometime ago, an elder used the example of “playing possum” to remind us of our need for action when spiritual dangers threaten. His use of the illustration reminded me of what I had seen as a child.

Some of our readers probably don’t know what the phrase “playing possum” means. Those who grew up in the country do. While growing up in a rural setting in East Texas, I occasionally heard our dogs tree a possum late at night. Sometimes the dogs would continue howling until someone would finally go to the tree and kill the possum. On several occasions, the dogs found the possum on the ground and tore into it. For whatever reason, whether it is a defense mechanism or a reaction to fear, the possum falls over and pretends to be dead when danger threatens. When the danger is gone, the possum awakens from his stupor and resumes his activities. This is what is known as “playing possum.” I have watched our dogs chew on the possum which was “playing possum” until I could hear his bones breaking inside, but still the possum pretended to be dead.

One day, my brother Cecil and our cousin Billy Mochman who were teenaged boys at the time, brought home a possum which was “playing possum.” After the dogs had chewed on it but were unable to awaken it from its stupor, these two young men decided they would make the animal quit “playing possum.” They got a can of kerosene and poured it in the possum’s ear. Nothing happened. You can guess what they tried next. They poured the kerosene all over the possum and lit it on fire. The possum woke up and took off running toward the house in which we lived.

Our house was flat against the ground in the front and was raised about 18 inches off the ground in the back so that it would be level. The possum was running toward the back of the house, blazing with fire. About this time, Momma walked out the back door. Something had to be done to stop the possum from running under the house and causing the house to burn down, so Billy grabbed the possum by the tail. The flames of fire were licking too close to his hand. He began to swing the possum around in a circle so that it would not burn him. Momma was standing on the back door steps and screaming.

About that time, the skin on the tail burned off, it slipped out of Billy’s hands, and the possum hit the ground running toward the cover which the house would provide. Momma hit the possum with the broom handle just as he went under the house. That knocked him out or killed him. Whichever, it saved the house from burning to the ground. All of this proved one thing: you can make a possum quit “playing possum.”

My cousin Billy is dead now and I have never turned my brother

Playing Possum .. .

Cecil in to the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals. Perhaps the statute of limitations has expired for his offense. The incident was related to me years later. I have ever since remembered what “playing possum” means.

Some Brethren Play Possum

Brethren used to describe how some handle the threat of false doctrine and false teachers, saying they are like the ostrich who buries his head in the sand. Some still try to pretend that there are no dangers threatening the church. They accomplish this by burying their heads in the sand, like the ostrich. They refuse to read papers or listen to preachers who warn them of imminent dangers to the church. Soon the problems troubling other churches across the nation have invaded their local congregation and a major conflict ensues  a conflict that could have been averted had brethren been alert to the issues threatening the church.

Others “play possum” when danger threatens. They role over and play dead until the danger is passed. Stronger brethren take up the sword of the Spirit and confront the error and false teachers  the wicked men who attack the peace and unity of the local church. All the time they are fighting the error, other brethren are “playing possum.” When the danger is passed, these brethren will arouse from their stupor and talk about how “we” whipped them and drove them from among us.

Unfortunately, “playing possum” with false teaching has become the accepted conduct among preachers in some places. Those who have the audacity to put on the whole armor of God and stand against sin are castigated as “watch dogs,” “guardians of orthodoxy,” and other derogatory terms. These are the terms used by those who say they agree with the truth on such subjects as unity-in-diversity, institutionalism, the sponsoring church, and divorce and remarriage, but never raise their voices or lift their pens to expose the error. The bottom line is this: the false teacher has a higher position on the social ladder among those brethren than does the man who exposes his false doctrine. The highest position on the social ladder, of course, is reserved for that preacher who is too refined to dirty his hands opposing false teachers (his strongest words are reserved for those who expose the false teacher). He states that he agrees with the truth but “plays possum” when the false teacher arrives. However, he awakens to fight like a lion the man who exposes the false teacher!

“Playing possum” antics also exist in local churches threatened by strong-willed brethren who would rather tear a church apart than not to get their way. When such factious men are resisted, some of those whom godly men depended upon to stand with them in facing and overcoming the danger begin to “play possum.” They are as silent as if they were dead.

There have been times when I thought I needed to get Cecil and Billy to arouse brethren from playing possum. When the battle needed to be fought, brethren rolled over and played dead. Sometimes in a business meeting, those who you were counting on for support sat as quietly as a bump on a log while the battle raged. When false teachers are publishing their materials in the journals circulating among us, capable brethren sat back and said nothing, except to criticize those sometimes younger and less experienced brethren who loved the truth enough to resist the error. These were the times when I thought about calling for Cecil and Billy to awaken my brethren who were playing possum.

Playing possum may be a good defense mechanism for a possum, but not for Christians.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 13, p. 2
July 7, 1994