I came across this quote from Arthur Pink today and thought it was worth sharing, particularly in light of the alarmist things I encounter in my social media feeds on a daily basis lately. It’s easy to find folks to blame for the problems in our nation. Folks post their outrage on social media, flock to politicians peddling easy answers, demand laws that will straighten up the world we live in, and pine for God to set things right. The problem with these solutions is that they are top-down fixes to a bottom-up problem. Decline and decay start in our own homes and churches. We must address our own messes before looking to those of others. In the 2 millennia since its birth, Christianity has changed the world, not through legislation and power, but through discipleship and devotion to the cause of Jesus. Fathers, follow Jesus and grow spiritually. Then, spend time with your families, loving and teaching them who Jesus is and how to follow Him. Devote yourself to your God, your marriage, your family, and your church (in that order). If you want this country to change, start with yourselves. Through prayer and discipleship, Jesus’ following grew to fill the world. It will only happen again through the same efforts.
In the closing chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul takes the time to address a brewing church fight. Throughout the letter, he seems to touch on the problems that were slowly boiling in the church, while addressing other matters ranging from his experience in prison to dealing with persecution. In the closing remarks of his letter, the apostle bluntly asks for Euodia and Syntyche to live in harmony. Apparently, these women had some sort of interpersonal conflict that had been ongoing and created enough trouble that Paul addresses it directly in his letter. It is important to note that Paul isn’t correcting some evil behavior one or the other is engaging in. Rather, it seems that they just couldn’t seem to get along with each other. Though it seems frivolous, this is an issue that stands at the heart of the most church fights I have encountered in my career. Seldom do modern believers come into conflict with each other over theological matters. Rather, the modern church often fights over issues of personal preference and interpersonal conflict. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes fights are over weighty theological issues, though at times theological issues act as a smokescreen to cover more petty reasons for church schism and disharmony in the body. The same holds true of many other relationships believers find themselves participating in.
Paul’s address of the conflict between the two women is no isolated request. It is part of a larger trend in his work, urging believers to seek harmony and unity, even encouraging grace over theological differences in non-essential matters. This is an issue of significant importance to Paul. So much so that he doesn’t simply give an isolated instruction. Instead, he follows up the direction that they learn to live in harmony by offering a handful of practical suggestions. These suggestions include the use of a mediator of sorts, prayer, etc. One particularly interesting direction is found in Philippians 4:8 “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” This is not just a direction to think positively. It is an instruction regarding the sorts of things we focus on. Most of us have encountered people who just rub them the wrong way. Irritation and friction are common whenever people are expected to interact with each other. One foolproof way to make it worse is to spend time ruminating over perceived wrongs and slights. This time spent replaying or just thinking about things that have been said or done by others often results in more anger and irritation. It’s a little like adding fuel to a fire to keep it alive. In my time as a minister, I have talked to countless people who have kept a resentment alive for years by simply spending time thinking through past wrongs. I have never met anyone who was happier or better off for spending time and energy keeping a resentment hot. Instead, it usually results in bitterness and further disharmony. Paul’s direction to focus on whatever is honorable, good, etc. involves building our thought life around things that will produce good fruit and move us toward the sort of righteousness that God intended us to exude and the kind of harmonious relationship he desires for his children. The practice of training our thoughts on praiseworthy matters is a mental discipline that can quickly contribute to ending fights in our marriages, families, churches, and community. It is easier to forgive, overlook, and get along with someone if you don’t spend huge amounts of mental and emotional energy keeping the fires of animosity burning hot. Grace is easier to offer if we keep no record of wrongs. This is not an instant occurrence in our lives.It is much harder to forgive a wound we keep fresh by picking at the scab.There is a natural tendency in people to remember wrongs and develop resentments. Keeping our thought life focused on honorable and good things takes effort and intentionality. It needs to be worked at every day. Further, in a believer’s life it is accomplished through the intervention of the Spirit, in response to prayer. As we grow spiritually, we learn to forgive and focus on those things that Paul listed. Conversely, if we fail to discipline our thought lives, we will not mature spiritually. Resentments will always hinder intimacy with God.
Perhaps the hardest bit of advice I ever received from a mentor was that I needed to pray more. Normally, being told that you need to pray shouldn’t be an overly difficult suggestion, but this was related to a couple of guys I was working with at the time, who were creating significant difficulty for me. They were making my work harder and undermining me with my supervisor. During the several months I was working with these two individuals, I spent hours every evening fuming and dreaded going to work in the morning. After several months of misery, I approached my mentor and asked him what I could do to deal with the problem. His response made me angry. He asked me how praying for them was going, also reminding me that Jesus directs his followers to pray for their enemies. I didn’t argue, because I knew I was stuck. This began a process of prayer that changed my life. It was hard to pray for the men in question, largely because I didn’t want to do it. The idea of praying for these guys who had made me miserable for months scalded me. It offended me through and through. Praying for my enemies, and as dramatic as it sounds, they were my enemies, was difficult at first. As time progressed, it became increasingly easier and I learned several important lessons.
First, I learned that praying for folks that I disliked had a profound effect on me. I increasingly learned to love the folks who mistreated me. My resentments slowly ebbed away. I began to rejoice when God brought blessing into their lives. Ultimately, prayer accomplished something amazing in me, it changed my heart. Through prayer, I became more like Jesus, a gain that makes all of the discomfort more than worthwhile.
The second major lesson I learned happened in the months and years that followed. One of the guys I was praying for received a huge blessing in his life that resulted in his moving to another job. I celebrated an answer to prayer in the form of God blessing him and also in his departure. The other guy I was praying for changed slowly over time and eventually became a very different person. The changes God made in his heart were evident and a reason for celebration. Prayer changes things. In this case, it changed the guys I was praying for. This is important because God is capable of accomplishing great things in our world.
A final lesson I learned from praying for my enemies happened years later, when I began praying for another fellow I found myself in conflict with. During my first sit down to pray for him, I was suddenly convicted of the various actions I had taken in response to the unpleasantness I was encountering. A simple question came to mind: Is he seeing Jesus in my responses? I will admit that I knew I hadn’t been turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile. I didn’t want to. I wanted to exact my pound of flesh. I began to employ Christ’s other teachings for dealing with my enemy and my relationship with the individual changed. In fact, within a short period I had become friends with him. The product of prayer in this case was conviction of my own sins. That conviction resulted in new action that resulted in a change in the situation. Through prayer, God brought to light my own failure to imitate Christ in my reactions to mistreatment.
At the most basic level, the direction to pray for our enemies is one that is prominent in the teachings of Christ. This is the single best reason for doing it. I can testify as to the various benefits that have resulted from my prayer experiences, but the reason we ought to do it is because Jesus commands it. If He is Lord in our lives, we must do it. Fortunately, it is a teaching that, though counterintuitive, has some clear benefits to believers.
My first ministry job was as a youth pastor. When I started, the church had over 200 members and was growing. 9 years and 5 church fights later, we left a congregation of 20, swearing that we would never work in a church again. During my tenure, I had seen folks act poorly, gossip, mistreat each other (and me), and all manner of other unpleasantness. When I left the church, I took a job as a chaplain at a mental health facility for children with emotional disorders. It was volatile, frequently violent, and a breath of fresh air. I used to joke that even though the kids sometimes tried to punch you, at least they were attacking you out in the open and to your face. It took my wife and I years to decide to agree to take on ministry employment in a church again. There is a terrible truth about churches that has to be faced by anyone who is (or was) ever a part of one. The people who are meant to become like Jesus through their lives together in the church community, often bear little resemblance to Jesus or what He taught. Over the years, I have spoken with and visited with all sorts of folks who have shared tough stories, ones that I can relate to all too well. Folks were burned by people that were supposed to love and support them. It’s a tragedy that such experiences are so common. While talking with a friend earlier this afternoon, I realized how blessed I was to have been surrounded and supported by some awesome believers who helped my wife and I find rest and healing after a tumultuous time in our lives and relationship with God. The basic lessons and realizations we came to were powerful and important.
One of the major lessons I learned was from the Apostle Paul. While studying the second letter to Corinth, I realized that Paul had come to visit the church there and been humiliated and run out of town. A group of preachers, who were more concerned with making money than preaching the gospel, had made a fool of Paul in a debate. Paul then sent Titus to salvage his relationship with the church. He was eventually reconciled with them and the false teachers run off. The thing that’s worth observing here is that Paul was stabbed in the back, mocked, and mistreated by folks who were supposed to be his brothers in Christ. His response was stern, but loving. He did not back down off of the truth, but throughout the whole ordeal he pointed to Jesus as the truth. He did not want payback. He wanted the church to be reconciled. Ultimately, he was just following the example of Christ, who reinstated Peter after he denied even knowing Christ. The lesson to be learned here isn’t that we should jump back into the mess after walking away from those who abused us. Rather, it is a model of forgiveness and grace. It is very easy to fall into bitterness after we are hurt. It is easy to attack and judge. In the end, we need to forgive in order to heal. Nothing keeps a wound fresh more effectively than picking at it forever. I do not believe that Paul simply forget when individuals proved themselves to be untrustworthy. Rather, I’d suggest that he acted “as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.” Love and grace need to rule our attitude and decisions, particularly when dealing with fellow believers.
Another vital lesson I learned was that not every Christian is the same. In fact, not every member of any denomination, sect, or movement is the same. While one church handled us roughly, the next church we attended was supportive and loving. We watched our senior pastor being mistreated in one setting, but have experienced significant appreciation and support in our current ministry situation. It is easy to resort to this: all Christians are the same. Or to insert any of the following groups into that sentence: all pastors, all Presbyterians, all Baptists, all men, all elders, all Calvinists, etc. The truth is that it’s just not true. The people that brought hurt into your life are not the same people as all the other members of the larger group. It is easy to blame everyone for the actions of a few, and it can be quite comforting. It’s comforting to have someone to aim your anger at. It’s easy to transfer hurt feelings to everyone. However, as comforting as it is, aiming hurt at others doesn’t produce healing. It is a false comfort, like drinking salt water to quench your thirst. You can drink as much as you like, it’ll only make you thirstier.
A final lesson I learned in the process of overcoming the hurt that I experienced was regarding the importance of moving on. For my wife and I, it was easy to get mired in remembering some of the particularly ugly behaviors we encountered. I personally spent a lot of time living in response to various actions and things that had been said to me. It’s easy to get stuck. I have met people who walked away from church for life over the actions of a few individuals. I have met those who abandoned their faith in response to un-Christlike Christians. I have met all sorts of people who have let the root of bitterness take hold in their souls and simply live to attack, bite, fight, and hurt because they have hurt that they cannot help but share. Getting stuck in a response to hurt inflicted upon you is simply allowing the people who hurt you to control your life. Whether it’s spending forever ignoring God or trying to take a pound of flesh from someone, anyone. Overcoming this sort of thing once it is entrenched in your life begins with a conscious effort to choose a different response to our past. This isn’t easy, but it is necessary in order to find healing and become whole again.
James’ epistle features a terrific line:
This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.
As we evaluate our response to past ill treatment, it is important that we ask ourselves regularly if the anger we are carrying is bringing God glory. Are we loving the lost and our brothers in Christ? Are we acting in a way that draws others closer to Christ? Is our anger a product of resentment and bitterness? Do we love the least lovable people we encounter? If we find ourselves answering any of these questions in a way that indicates we are not glorifying God, even in the most painful parts of our lives, then we must heal and overcome. James offers an interesting bit of advice for accomplishing this. He calls us to pray for wisdom, which is applied knowledge. This is a difficult act of submission, but is necessary for spiritual growth to take place in the lives of those who have been broken by the careless acts of misguided believers.
A friend of mine, who will likely be a regular contributor, emailed me this essay. I was pretty impressed by it and it relates well to the current sermon series (and this week’s sermon in particular), so I decided to add it. He has asked to remain anonymous. I am planning on respecting that request.– Erik
Through Alcoholics Anonymous, God has taught me some difficult lessons that I desperately needed to learn. One of the most important happened without me realizing it. I started out as a balled up fist of anger, bitterness, and pain. In the name of my addiction, I had hurt those around me and acted despicably. Over time, I got healthier. Then one day I was sitting in a meeting listening to another person talk. I don’t even remember what they were talking about, but I remember hearing them say words that I had said to myself on many occasions. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was as if I was listening to myself talk about my own addiction. Over the years, I have listened to others in recovery talk about the destruction they brought to those around them, stealing, degrading themselves, and almost every other conceivable sin. I don’t feel sickened by their sins. I feel empathy and I see myself. I hear my own thoughts. I see my own loneliness. I hear the lies I tell myself. Sometimes that’s in the past and other times its today. It is difficult to look at sometimes, but seeing my own sickness in the mirror that is others who are struggling for freedom from the slavery of addiction reminds me of what I am capable of. Remembering where I came from helps keep me free. A friend of mine often tells me that the darker the darkness of the world, the brighter the light of the cross of Jesus.
The 12th step is spending the rest of your life helping others get out of the living hell of addiction. One of the best reasons I’ve found for doing this, beyond helping other addicts and serving God, is that the more time I spend with addicts the more I am able to see the junk I don’t want to go back to. I need to remember my powerlessness and flee to His strength. This is not to say that I am judging them. Rather, all I ever see is myself, like in a mirror. Perhaps the biggest blessings that came from finding “the bottom”, and I don’t say this lightly because it wasn’t pleasant, is that it becomes difficult to judge others for their sins. It’s hard to be the pharisee bragging before God and pointing to the tax collector for contrast, when you were the guy the tax collector probably looked down on. Looking in the mirror reminds me that I can always go back if I stop leaning on God to keep me out of sin. Any believer that is blessed enough to come to grips with the depth of their own crumminess has a treasure beyond words. I see it in Paul when he talks about himself being the least of apostles, literally referring to himself as a spiritual abortion. This is a blessing that allows you to brag about God’s greatness because you know how wicked you are. Every time you encounter those who don’t know Christ and are still mired in their sin, you get a chance to see your own sin and reflect on the marvel that is grace.
The other bit of good news that comes to bear after realizing that your fellow man acts as a mirror to help keep you clean, is that God provides an even better mirror to gaze into. In the book of James, we are told that believers are to look into The Word, like gazing into a mirror. Afterward, we are to change based on the reflection we see. For the sinner who recognizes the amazingness of grace, The Word provides an image of what we ought to look like. In the person of Christ, we see perfect sacrificial love, obedience unto death, holiness in the midst of terrible challenges, and our model for all attitudes and behaviors. We are directed by Paul to imitate Christ in our pursuit of holiness. The mirror that The Word provides shows us what we can be as the Spirit sanctifies us. The danger in this is seen when we gaze into the mirror without stark and painful awareness of our sin. We can be tempted to see ourselves in the good parts and our neighbor in the bad. It is easy to become the pharisee proclaiming the goodness of our work and judging the tax collector. Usually, we have such a large plank in our eye at this point that we cannot see any different. None is so blind as those who refuse to see. I have lived there. It is awful believing that your own goodness will carry you, needing to rage at anyone who defies this opinion. In Christ, I was freed.
When we look at the lost and feel only contempt, failing to see our own fallen selves and refusing to see the amazing depth of the well that is God’s grace for sinners, we stand in the temple and boast that we are better than sinners. The scripture is our mirror. It is never our club to beat others with.