If any part of that feels okay to you, you’re part of the problem. Yes, I understand that freedom of speech means that people are allowed to spew their garbage beliefs. I’m not talking about a legal perspective. I’m talking about a biblical perspective.
The Alt-Right, White Nationalists, Neo-Nazi, whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement is completely incompatible with biblical Christianity. In the second chapter of his first letter, John writes:
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
Additionally, the entire theological notion of the Imago Dei (Image of God) in humanity means that ALL people are created in God’s image. There is no ethnic group that is better than any other. I don’t have time to or space to cover all of the places in the Bible that CLEARLY point to the sin of racism and white nationalism. Let’s just end with Jesus’s golden rule:
Treat people the way you want to be treated.
There is nothing of God in the Alt-Right movement.
C’mon, preacher. I’ve never killed anyone. I’ve got the 6th commandment down – piece of cake!
“You shall not murder.”
I don’t think anyone would disagree that murder is not cool. Whatever you’re feelings are about justifiable homicide, war, etc. – everyone seems to agree that murder is not okay. So we’re not going to spend a lot of time on this one. It’s just that one little line. Instead, we’re going to jump right to the New Testament:
MATTHEW 5:21-24 ~ 21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire. 23 So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Jesus takes the Old Testament idea of the action (murder) and converts it to a matter of the heart (anger). We can’t get away with avoiding behavior any more. We are confronted with the attitude and heart that underlies the behavior.
This is a problem for me. I could avoid killing people all day long. Getting angry? That’s a whole ‘nother matter! Jesus is saying that what’s on the inside can separate us from God. We can’t hate each other on the inside and then go pretend that everything is okay. But we do it all the time. Something happens and fills us with anger. Then we walk into church and we put on a happy face and say, “Praise Jesus – God is good!” We’re two-faced liars who would rather be passive-aggressive towards people than to be open and upfront.
Jesus says, “I CALL SHENANIGANS!”
He calls us out and says that the things we have between us can get between us and God. Don’t try to get right with God when you’re not right with everyone else. Let’s be honest – we do it all the time. We come to worship while harboring anger towards other people. And how often are we intentional about reconciling that anger before we worship? It almost NEVER happens.
Anger by itself is not wrong. We see examples in the Bible of God getting angry. We see Jesus getting angry. It’s not wrong – it’s part of the character of God. And if it’s part of the character of God it’s part of how we are wired. No, anger is not wrong.
How we DEAL with anger is where we go wrong.
Ephesians 4:26 ~ Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and don’t give the Devil an opportunity.
Anger is not bad – it’s part of who we are. Paul seems to believe that we can be angry and not sin. Anger is an attribute of God. God’s anger is a right reaction to moral evil and injustice. It’s not about personal insult or hurt. When God sees moral evil and injustice, God gets angry. What God gets angry about; we can get angry about in a righteous way. We can spot injustice and be righteously angry. When we get angry about our personal causes and offenses is where we run the risk of getting into sin.
Anger in and of itself is not wrong. The question is simply, “What are we angry about?”
What we get angry about and how we deal with that anger are the important things here! Anger can stir up trouble and have harmful consequences.
There are 3 Primary Causes of Anger:
Injustice – We can get angry about the things that God gets angry about – when it’s about faith, righteousness, and justice.
Frustration – something blocks us from our desired goal/outcome.
Frustration can cause anger. It’s NORMAL to respond in anger to frustration. If my desired outcome is to get all of my kids out of the door and into the van by a certain time and they fail to comply, my children are being roadblocks to my desired outcome. They are preventing me from my plan. And I get steamed – I become angry. It’s an easy anger, but it’s not a good anger.
Threat/hurt – injury, insult, attack, etc.
Any time we’re injured, see an injury coming, or perceive any kind of threat (physical, emotional, etc.) our normal response is to get angry. Have you ever whacked your thumb with a hammer? We respond in anger. Did the nail do anything wrong? Nope. How about the hammer? Nu-uh. Yet we get angry over the hurt.
The same thing happens in relationships. When we see someone flirting with our significant other and we feel some sort of threat we respond in anger. We might call that type of anger jealousy, but it’s still an anger response.
But just because anger responses are normal in these situations does NOT mean it’s okay to hold on to our anger. That’s why Jesus comes along and says, “Your anger is keeping you from your relationship with God.” Just from a physical point of view, holding on to our anger can cause real health problems. Living in freedom from anger can heal our souls AND our bodies.
But it often easier said than done. My dad’s side of the family is Scottish. My mom’s side is Irish. People often joke that I’m genetically bred to be angry. But there is no DNA excuse – we can’t skate by simply because of where we’re from. So here are some practical steps to letting go of the anger.
Acknowledge/identify the anger – Who am I angry at? What am I angry for?
Confess to God. Confess to the person you have an issue with. Stuffing your feelings deep down inside is only going to make you sick. Tackle it head on (lovingly, if you confess to the person you have an issue with).
Restrain your outbursts – no matter how mad you get it’s not gonna change the past. How you handle your anger IS gonna change your future.
I remember a classic Disney cartoon in which Donald Duck was taking an anger management class (via a record player). The voice on the record told him to try 10 second countdown timer – when he felt himself getting hot under the collar he was supposed to count down from 10 to zero. Whatever it takes for you, find a way to practice restraining your outbursts. Give yourself time to cool down.
Let compassion replace resentment – get a different perspective; is there ANY other way to look at what’s happening?
When it comes to our anger towards other people, we can go a long way in letting go if we try to see the situation from another point of view. From my shoes I’ve been wronged, sure. What would happen if I tried to see it from an outsider’s vantage point? What about from the vantage point of the person with whom I’m angry? Find compassion for what they’re going through rather than focusing on your own sense of indignity.
Resist ruminating – the 10 second replay button has to GO!
Going over and over and over and over situations that make us angry do nothing to help us cool down. In fact, they usually keep the fire stoked. If we’re serious about keeping our anger under control, we need to stop replaying the situation in our heads. Find something positive and lovely to think about instead. I’m not saying to ignore the situation and sweep it under the rug. I’m saying that we don’t have to re-live it day after day and hour after hour.
PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not take your anger out to the general public (like Facebook).
It only serves to escalate the problem and doesn’t allow you to forgive. The public route is merely an attempt to justify your anger. If you have to talk about it, talk to the person you’re angry at and not the entire community.
Jesus calls us to right relationships – to reconcile conflict as best we can (sometimes that’s not going to be possible – it is a two-way street) It’s time to let go of the anger we’ve been holding on to and time to move forward.
Questions for Reflection
Who am I angry at?
Have I tried to work through the anger or am I holding on to it?
Who does he think he is? I mean, he’s supposed to be the spiritual leader of millions of Catholics but his behavior doesn’t line up very well with American Christianity.
Surely you’ve heard about it.
He talks about climate change and being caretakers of God’s creation.
He talks about caring for the poor and the neglected.
He has even washed the feet of prisoners.
Clearly he needs to work on his Christian behavior, because American Christians just won’t tolerate this kind of Communist, liberal, Jesus-esque behavior. Give us good ol’ boy Christians who go for the photo op with persecuted county clerks. Give us Christians who know what it’s like to work your way up from nothing – to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. This is the kind of faith we can get behind.
The earth is the Lords and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it. For he founded it on the seas, established it over the rivers. (Psalm 24:1-2)
While Jesus was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and asked, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” (Matthew 9:10-12)
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)
Perhaps the Pope is doing something right after all.
So recently I stumbled across this video. The basic premise is this: some dude took soda and boiled out all of the water.
What you have left is some nasty looking black tar that is supposed to be sugar and whatever chemicals don’t boil out.
It reminded me of part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he’s talking about the difference between authentic believers and hypocrites:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you pray, don’t babble like the idolaters, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him.
Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, 18 so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Don’t collect for yourselves treasures] on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal.
Do you get the sense of what Jesus is saying? He’s saying don’t appear sweet and tasty on the surface but be nasty black tar when you’re boiled down. The follower of Jesus is supposed to be genuine – what you see on the outside is supposed to mirror what’s on the inside.
We’re good at covering up the nasty stuff – aren’t we? Boil us down and you’ll find many of us are covered in the black tar.
But we don’t have to be. We can strive to be genuine and authentic people. It’s not about putting on a show for others to see. It’s about REALLY being God’s woman; God’s man.
So get rid of the sugary sweet fake exterior that covers the gross. Let Jesus really work on getting rid of the nasty, and then be that person all the time.
In Part I we looked at how a person isn’t saved by reciting magic words – it’s a matter of faith. While saying the Sinner’s Prayer is a great way to express one’s faith, it is faith that saves and not the prayer.
We also talked about what Christians mean when we use the word “saved.” It’s an understanding of the condition of your soul in relation to eternity. Life as we know it is merely one part of our journey. Death does not stop the journey but continues it.
Those who are “saved” (i.e. have faith in Jesus) will be spending eternity in the presence of God – this is heaven. To be totally honest the Bible doesn’t give explicit details about the nature of heaven. There is a lot of symbolism and imagery when people describe it (streets of gold, etc.), but no solid, “This is what heaven is like.” The most we can say about heaven is that it is the opposite of hell – it is the presence of God and a place that is wonderful, enjoyable, and the place where we are free from any problem, care, or worry.
Those who are “lost” (i.e. have no faith in Jesus) will be spending eternity outside the presence of God – this is hell. And, again, to be totally honest, the contemporary image of hell is not from the Bible as much as it is from the imaginations of writers, artists, etc. The most we can say about hell is that it is the opposite of heaven – the absence of the presence of God and a place that is generally unpleasant, uncomfortable, and not a place you want to be 😉
But the question I hear most frequently from non-Christians is:
Why would a loving God send people to hell?
People have a hard time hearing the message that God loves them when we simultaneously send the message that God will punish them if they don’t become part of the faith. While some Christians do send that message, the Bible does not. The Bible is clear:
God is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
The verse speaks for itself – God doesn’t CHOOSE to send people out of his presence. He wants everyone to be in His presence (heaven). So then…who goes to hell?
Hell is for those who do not choose God. He doesn’t send – we decide. The Bible says:
The works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar, about which I tell you in advance-as I told you before-that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
For know and recognize this: no sexually immoral person or impure or greedy person, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of the Messiah and of God. (Ephesians 5:5).
Hear me out – I’m not God, and the Bible doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of a lot of these. The point is, though, that certain behaviors and actions are not acceptable to be in the presence of a Holy God (holy means set apart or different).
It comes down to love and punishment. I think about it as a parent. I love my kids. But I have certain standards for their behavior. There are some things that are not acceptable. Because they are human individuals they are going to choose to do things with which I disagree.
Sometimes their behavior warrants being put in time-out. What is time-out? It’s removing the child from the family system – they cannot be part of the family system because of the choices they made to behave the way they did.
My children want to live by their own rules (or lack thereof). Then they’re always surprised when they go to time-out. Adults are no different. We want the freedom to live our own lives the way we want and then complain when we are told that there are eternal consequences for our behavior.
The Bible says:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
Ultimately, we all deserve the BIG TIMEOUT (hell). But Jesus paid the price for our brokenness. Now we can once again be in the presence of God. But we can only approach him through faith and repentance.
When all is said and done, God is the one to judge our hearts and behavior. Not me. Not you. Not any human. I fully believe there will be people in heaven that will completely surprise us. Similarly, there will NOT be people in heaven that we always expected to be there.
In the meantime, we do our best in this life to live the life He has called us to live.
That means I may not do some things I want to do because it goes against what he wants me to do.
Because his way is supposed to come before my way.
Image courtesy of sumetho at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Forgiveness is the glue that holds commitment together. Without forgiveness, commitment will unravel and relationships will come apart. The central day-to-day skill of surviving and growing in relationships is reconciliation, and that starts by giving people the benefit of the doubt BEFORE I get offended.
This means if someone ticks me off I have an obligation first to stop, think, and consider if perhaps I am missing one crucial factor. It’s like the woman who was upset at not being invited to her friend’s wedding, and held a grudge for 20 years…until the invitation finally arrived in the mail accompanied by an apology from the Post Office.
More often than not we feel there could not possibly be any excuse or justification for certain behavior and we choose NOT to give the benefit of the doubt. It’s simply easier to become and to stay offended.
But we can grow in our ability. Here are five tips for growing in the grace of giving people the benefit of the doubt:
1. Assess the irritating situation and your reaction to it. Are you mildly annoyed? Frustrated? Angry? Full of rage? What is really sparking this emotional reaction?
2. Take a deep breath and do not indulge in your initial reaction. You cannot help your instinctual emotions, but by feeding into them you are escalating the situation and it will be difficult to follow the next steps in giving a person the benefit of the doubt.
3. Recognize that the person behind the situation is human (just as you are). As humbling as it is, we have all been a cause of annoyance to someone else, we have all had our bad days and we all have our quirks.
4. Put a story with the person. The story can be as ridiculous or as practical as you want. Are you being tailgated? Maybe the driver is late for his daughter’s first ballet recital. Is the waitress extremely rude? Maybe her boyfriend just broke up with her, her rent is past due, and she has been working doubles for the last three days. These probably won’t be the real triggers of their behavior but the point is we never know what is truly going on in someone’s life. I have found it helpful and it distracts me from my emotional reaction. It can be a useful tool or even turned into a game (Are you children in the car? Have them help you come up with possible scenarios for the cause of the offending party’s behavior).
5. Be patient and kind, regardless of the real story behind the behavior. Is a coworker complaining and snapping at everyone? Try bringing her a card, flowers, or chocolate. In my own experience this goes much further than getting mad at them or gossiping about them. Once again, you never know what is going on in their lives to cause the behavior, even if it’s as little as not getting very much sleep.
If you use kindness instead of retaliating, the situation will not ruin your day or give you a bad attitude. Even if the person does not appreciate your patience right away they very well might in the long-run (and you’ll be one less person getting mad at them, which is always helpful when someone is already having a bad day).
Tomorrow in Part II we’ll look at forgiveness through the eyes of a famous biblical character who experienced extreme betrayal and hurt and look at how we can begin to heal and extend forgiveness to those who have actually damaged us.
If you want to discover what a person wants, what a person loves, look at what they do. It’s a simply fact of life that people do what they love. That is to say, what people do is an outward expression of their passions, desires, wants, and loves. If you love your kids it shows in an outward expression of taking time to go to their softball games or school plays. If you love your significant other it shows in an outward expression of taking her out to dinner or massaging her tired feet. If you love television it shows in an outward expression of working your DVR overtime. If you love social interaction it shows in an outward expression of wanting to be at every party or event you hear about. If you love private time it shows in an outward expression of avoiding every party or event you hear about. You do what you love. Jesus talks about this principle. In Matthew 7 he says:
16 By their fruit you will know them. Grapes aren’t gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit. 19 Every tree not producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire. 20 So by their fruit you will know them.
In this passage, Jesus is specifically referring to false prophets. The biblical prophet was not just someone who talked about upcoming events. Even though prophets sometimes told people about the future, the main role of biblical prophet is to be the voice of the Lord, to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus’ emphasis in this passage is saying that, even if people come speaking good words, words that sound like they are from God, words alone don’t mean much. In fact, he calls them wolves in sheep’s clothing. They may seem right, but the underneath doesn’t match up. Well-spoken prophets (and people in general) can still be counterfeits.
To know the true measure of a person, look at the fruit – look to their actions as the outward manifestation of their hearts. In other words, Jesus is saying, “You do what you love.” Ancient Rabbis often debated what was more important: hearing the law or doing the law. You can’t do without hearing. Hearing without doing is meaningless. Forget what people say – you can tell their hearts by what they do.
What you are on the inside – what you love – results in the fruit of your life – what you do. This is an interesting way of evaluating our lives. You can look at your own life and determine what your loves are by what you do. I’ve shared with people about my love of food and my struggle with my weight. In the middle of that struggle, when I was not practicing healthy habits, my wife said to me, “I thought you wanted to lose weight.” “I do, I really want to be slimmer,” I said. She replied, “If you really wanted it you would do it.” She was right – you do what you love, and I loved food more than the idea of being healthy.
You make sacrifices to do what you love. Given the choice of health/weight loss or eating whatever, whenever, I showed my real love by my actions. You can tell what you love by how you prioritize your life and the choices you make between one thing and another. You put aside other things to do what you love.
There are some great biblical examples of people who did what they loved. In Acts 6-7 we find the story of Stephen. When we talk about we do what we love, Stephen is a cut above the rest. He begins preaching to the Jews and religious leaders, telling them how all of Israel’s history points to the coming of Christ. The religious leaders get so upset that they start calling him names and they grind their teeth at him. But he continues to tell them anyway, so they take him out and stone him to death, and as the rocks are flying at him he prays a simple prayer, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, don’t hold this against them.” What did he love? He loved Jesus and telling others about Jesus. What was he willing to sacrifice to do what he loved? His own life.
It’s important that we know who we are – that we evaluate who we are. What do you love? What do you do? Look at that passage from Matthew again:
16 By their fruit you will know them. Grapes aren’t gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit. 19 Every tree not producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire. 20 So by their fruit you will know them.
You can’t fake it. You do what you love. In this passage, what you do is called fruit. Since some fruit is good and some is bad, Jesus would seem to be saying that what we love and what we do aren’t always the right things. The question, then, is this: since we do what we love, are the things we love the same things God loves? Are our values God’s values? Are our values influencing our behavior appropriately? What are our values?
Our values determine our distinctives. What sets us apart from others? The values of a Christian set him apart from a Buddhist who has different values. Values also communicate what is important – they signal my bottom line. “This is what I stand for.” Values influence my overall behavior and determine our direction. God has values, and His values determine His behavior. For example, look at His behavior in John 3:16 – He gave his unique son as a sacrifice for sin. This behavior reflects His values. What does God value? God values lost people. Look at His behavior in Genesis 11 – Humans try to build a tower to heaven and God confuses their language and scatters them abroad.
What does God value? God values humility – knowing your place before the Almighty God. These are just a couple of the things God values. When our values begin to mirror God’s values, what we end up doing is what God wants done. We do what we love. When we do what God loves then we are fulfilling His will for us. This is true in our personal lives and the life of our church. So what do we, as a church, value? Remember, you do what you love. What is the evidence that we value these things? Is there anything that we want to value but don’t yet evidence? Is there anything we should value that isn’t seen in how we act?
When I first realized that you do what you love it changed the way I looked at my behavior. I realized that I couldn’t be a victim of circumstance any more. Picture six birds sitting in a row on an unshielded power line with the power turned off. The first three birds decide that they’re just gonna sit there the whole day and not fly around. The last three decide think that they’re gonna take off and go fly. When the power gets turned on, what’s the difference between the 1st three birds and the 2nd three birds? No difference at all – they’re all toast, because deciding to fly isn’t the same thing as actually flying.
Our actions need to be influenced by our values and our loves. Everything I was doing was the result of my own choice. I struggle with my weight, not because food is just too good, but because I love eating more than I love my health. I argue with my wife, not because she deserves it, but because I love defending myself and being right more than I love her feelings.
When I realized that you do what you love, I started to look at all of my behavior. I was motivated to let my actions reflect what I say I loved – to let my actions reflect what I should love – to let my actions reflect what God loves. I was motivated to change my own behavior, and if you know me you know that I don’t like new things. They’re scary. But God is saying, value what I value. Love what I love. Do what I do. When our lives begin to look like this, we start living in God’s will every day.
We may have to change some things in our lives. Are we willing to change/sacrifice to embrace God’s values and His loves? Can we sacrifice our comfort zones? Our time commitments? I don’t know what God will call us to change – maybe a lot, maybe not so much. But it’s time to love what He loves and do what He does. Are you ready to get on board?
How about you? What do you love? What will you sacrifice to do what you love?
Good vs. Evil. It’s one of the most common themes in storytelling. Some of the greatest movies of all time are about the struggle between good and evil. In our modern world we have created these generic categories of good and evil – they are nebulous concepts, vague ideas of right and wrong. But the Bible does not see it that way. In the Bible, Good and Evil refer to concrete actions and behaviors. You behave in good ways or your behave in evil ways.
The Apostle Paul begins Romans 12 by talking about the need to be transformed, to let God start making us into something new. Then, Paul tells us that our newly transformed selves are part of the bigger picture – the group of Christians we call “the body of believers.” In the rest of the chapter, the part I want to look at today, we see that the Apostle Paul is going to step it up a notch and talk about how we ought to behave towards each other.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. ~ Romans 12:9-21
This passage is not simply a list of random behaviors that popped into Paul’s mind as he was writing this letter to the church in Rome. He is actually very intentional in his writing. This entire section is about how Christians are supposed to behave towards other Christians. He begins with a comment that sets the stage for all of Christian behavior: Love must be without hypocrisy. Remember, “Good” is not merely an ideal, some cosmic thought. In the Bible, “Good” refers to our actions and activities – our behavior. Love must be without hypocrisy means that the actions you take for the well-being of others cannot be fake. You must act genuinely for the benefit of others. This overarching concept governs all of the behavior mentioned in the rest of the passage. Let your behavior be characterized by love that is genuine and not false.
Now Paul moves to the heart of his material, and he uses a technique that is not uncommon in the Bible. He bookends his content.
The start and finish of his material uses similar lines. Verse 9: Detest evil; cling to what is good. Verse 21: Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. Paul is not simply being repetitive. He didn’t forget that he already talked about good vs. evil. Think about bookends for a second. What is the real function of bookends? They prop up books and keep everything together. That is how Paul’s bookends function. The material in between the bookends is held together by this concept of good vs. evil. So we have the overarching guideline: Love must be without hypocrisy. Then we have the bookends: hold the good, run from the evil. When we see Paul’s structure we understand that he is saying, “How you treat each other is the good and the evil.” Treating each other well is the good. Not taking care of each other is the evil.
I love Paul’s language in verse 9: Detest what is evil; cling to what is good. That word detest does not mean hate or really, really, really dislike. It means to shrink away from; to pull back in disgust. One of my favorite old shows is the Twilight Zone. Nothing could put a scare into you like that show. One of my favorite episodes is called, “The Eye of the Beholder.” The episode revolves around a lady who is horribly disfigured. She is considered hideous, a monster to look at. So she undergoes a procedure to fix her face and make her normal. For the first half of the episode you never see her face – she is in bandages. And then the bandages come off (start at 3:30 in the clip)…
They take off the bandages, the doctor exclaims, “No Change!”, she feels her face, and in disgust and horror she screams and pulls back. This is the emotion Paul has in mind. Shrink back from evil, but cling to what is good. Paul says, superglue yourselves to what is good! What is good? Good is behaving in positive ways for the well-being of others. What is evil? Evil is behaving poorly towards others. And then Paul gets into some specifics. He uses 20 different examples of ways Christians should behave as Christians. While we have read over them all, let’s look at three that I think Christians would do well to pick up on.
1. OUTDO ONE ANOTHER IN SHOWING HONOR. Honor is something we all like to have. The opposite of honor is shame. Shame is something none of us likes to have. Showing honor to others means putting them up on a pedestal. We will often do that for other people…up to a point. Sometimes we will honor a person up to the point where their honor does not take away from our honor. As soon as they start to overshadow us, we pull back on showing honor. We want to honor people, but not too much. We don’t want them to think too highly of themselves or forget their place. If I keep honoring him, I could be overlooked! Or think about the reverse side -shame. If I am shamed, I will try to put shame on someone else to overshadow my shame. The whole thing is about “one-upping” other people. We like to keep ourselves on an even field – they can have honor as long as I can too. I will make sure that their level of shame is at least equal to or greater than my own. It seems that we fear promoting other people and singing their praises if it detracts from our own image. It’s something of a competition.
But that’s not the way we ought to behave. Paul says, “Okay, you want to compete? Compete in trying to outdo each other in giving honor! Who can honor other people the most?” Think about the people in your life. In your family. In your church. When was the last time you really went all out to show honor or promote someone else? In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes: “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.” Yikes! That’s a tough pill to swallow. Prop up others ahead of yourself.
2. BLESS THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU – BLESS AND DO NOT CURSE. Paul continues to keep telling us to do the difficult things! We like to try to weasel out of this one. We set up villains in our minds – villains from the secular world. When a group attacks or insults Christianity, we cling to this verse. It is more and more common for non-Christians to attack the church as a hate group or anti-this and that. I have three responses. First, we do not hate anyone. We firmly believe that God cares for all people and that we are supposed to care for all people. Second, it is not hate or prejudice to hold people accountable to biblical behavior – it is personal, spiritual conviction. Third, and this is the kicker, Paul is not talking about situations where non-Christians insult or attack us. He is talking about situations where we come into conflict with other Christians – when we feel attacked and persecuted by other God-fearing people.
This passage is filled with words like “brotherly-love,” “one another,” and “the saints.” He’s talking about our relationships with each other. When we feel wronged and mistreated by other Christians our response needs to be blessing and not cursing. What do those words even mean? They mean that, when we are mistreated and wronged by people in the church, we should be wishing and praying for good things for them and not hoping that bad things happen to them. Think about the last time you felt mistreated by a Christian. Was your initial thought to pray that good things would happen for him? Or did you secretly hope he would fail and come to ruin? Pray and hope for success and good things for the people that wrong you.
3. BE AGREEABLE WITH ONE ANOTHER. Paul is not telling us that we have to have the same perspective on everything. We don’t have to like the same music, the same movies, the same foods, the same books…. He is not telling us that we have to become part of the collective, having hive-mentality and groupthink. The fundamental call here is to moving in the same direction, a common purpose, goal, and unity. As Christians, there is more that unites us than there is that divides us. Too often we focus on the division and fail to be in agreement, to be united in a common purpose and goal. Too many of us embrace being cantankerous Christians. Young people, cantankerous is an older word that means difficult or argumentative. Forget all of the peripherals – let’s focus on the big picture. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes that we are to be united in mind and to be at peace. How can we come together as a united group of people called by God for His purpose?
We now come to the other bookend – Paul’s repetition of Good and Evil. Understanding that Good refers to activities for the well-being of others and Evil refers to behaving poorly. We read Paul’s words: Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good,” and understand that he tells us that how we treat people will determine if good triumphs over evil. Will you let evil win? Or will you behave in Christian love even when it isn’t deserved? Out of all of these examples, notice this: our behavior is not based on the actions of others. We are not called to act right when others act right. We are called to act right regardless of how others act. Show honor. Pray for good things to happen to people who mistreat you. Be united in common vision and goals. Don’t seek payback.
Where do you find yourself lacking? Where does God need to work on you?
It’s time to allow God to start changing us, our thinking, and our behavior. Don’t allow yourself to stay the same.
Do you remember what it was like to obsess over the girl you used to like? That guy you had a thing for? “She didn’t smile at me when we passed today. Why didn’t she smile at me? Or how about, “We had so much fun, but why hasn’t he called back? It’s been 10 hours – why hasn’t he called me? Should I call him? Easy – don’t want to seem too anxious. Should I have my friend ‘bump into him’? Why hasn’t he called?”
Or maybe you never obsessed over a guy or a girl. But I bet that at some time in your life you’ve obsessed over something! There was a time in my life when I was obsessed with collecting comic books. Every month had a visit to the comic shop to get the latest editions to see what Superman, Batman or the X-Men were going to do next. Looking back it seems like a lot of money poured into something I no longer do….
What price were you willing to pay to satisfy your obsession? You can always tell how valuable a thing is to us by the price we are willing to pay for it (or the price at which you’re willing to let it go). The real value of an object isn’t given it by the seller. The real value of the object is given it by the buyer – how much is it worth to you? You can see this when you look at some of the items sold on E-Bay and the prices paid for those things. I found a pet rock for sale on EBay. It came with a nice cardboard box, a nest, and an instruction book on how to care for and train your rock. What would you be willing to pay for this? The high bid – $28. Um…really?
People can become obsessed with silly things. Christian writer Ted Dekker writes in his book Obsessed:
Life is hardly worth living without an obsession. God himself is obsessed. With His creation. With humans. With the love of humans. You think he created with nonchalance? Let’s throw some mud against the sky and see if any of it sticks? Not a chance. We are created for love, for obsession. So we do indeed obsess, though usually not over the right idea.
God himself is an obsessive God, obsessed with his love for his creation, for us! Remember that the value of something isn’t determined by the seller’s price, but is determined by the price the buyer is willing to pay. In His obsession for us, he couldn’t have paid a higher price than he did – the cross. This is the kind of obsession we need to have towards God – a single-minded fixation that puts no limits on the cost. When we understand this kind of obsession some of the crazy stories in the Bible don’t seem so crazy. When you’re obsessed with Him you’d be willing to build a big boat in the middle of the dessert. When you’re obsessed with Him you’d dance in worship without caring what your wife thought of you. Jesus himself even talked about obsession for God in Matthew 13. He told his disciples a parable about a man who discovers a treasure buried in a field. Wanting that treasure more than anything, he re-hides the treasure, sells off everything he owns, and goes to buy the field. Unethical – maybe a bit – but the point is that we need to be fixated on finding God.
That’s all well and good, but how do we get to that point of obsession? It’s not like we can simply turn it on at will. True, we can’t turn it on at will. A friend recently said to me, “I’ve been a Christian for a while. I’ve read the Bible. I know what I’m supposed to think and what I’m supposed to do. But what’s next?” I think that this sums up where many of us are. We know what we’re supposed to know. We’ve heard sermons and been to Bible studies. If someone asks us what it takes to build your Christian life we can faithfully recite the answers without even thinking about it: read the Bible, pray, fellowship, obey. We know all that. So what is next? How do we get to the deep end? How do we discover that obsession within our souls?
It comes from an encounter with Jesus. For the cripple at the pool of Siloam it was encountering Jesus that made his legs whole. For blind Bartimaeus it was encountering Jesus that gave him sight. It is encountering Jesus that breaks our addictions. It is encountering Jesus that restores our relationships. We need to have a face to face encounter with the Living God! This is the kind of story we find in Mark 5:
1They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. 4For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
There are few images in the Bible that are as unsettling as this. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is a troubled soul. Jewish teaching held that there were 4 tests for insanity: 1) a mad person sleeps in graveyards, 2) a mad person tears his clothing, 3) a mad person walks around at night, and 4) a mad person destroys anything given him. In this one person we find all 4 tests fulfilled – what we have here is a madman, and every word of his description emphasizes his pathetic condition. Here is a man who is made in God’s image and the unclean spirit causes him to horribly distort that image. It makes one ask, “Is there anything happening in my life that distorts God’s image in me?” Though we here may not be struggling with actual demons, we do struggle with things that distort God’s image in us – anger, hate, jealousy, or lust, to name just a few.
6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God that you won’t torture me!” 8For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!”
We see several interesting things happening at the same time. Look at what the demon is saying to Jesus – he addresses Jesus by name and says, “I adjure you by God.” In Jesus’ time, if one wanted to perform an exorcism, one needed to know the name of the spirit. When you knew its name you had power over it. Then you could command it under oath (adjure) to leave the body it inhabited. What the spirit is doing here is trying to exorcise Jesus! “I know your name – you are Jesus. I command you by God, leave me alone!” The irony is rich. He thinks he can take on Jesus in a power encounter. But it’s all talk – no one can outdo God. No one can contain Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter who you are or what’s going on in your life, Jesus is ready to encounter you!This man came from the tombs. He was considered unclean and untouchable, but Jesus doesn’t stop this encounter – he welcomes it. That’s encouraging news for us. No matter what our problems, our flaws, our addictions, or our demons, Jesus stands ready to encounter us. But will you run to Him and fall at His feet?
9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. 11A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
The name “Legion” has ties to the Roman army. A Roman legion was made up of anywhere from 3000-6000 troops. And you thought you had problems! Of course, this could be one final attempt on the unclean spirit’s part to put a scare into Jesus! But it’s evident who is in control. The person in control doesn’t beg, and the demon has been begging Jesus since Jesus arrived. They beg permission to go into the pigs and Jesus permits it. And the first thing they do upon overpowering the pigs? They destroy the herd.
14Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well.
When God starts to do stuff, people can’t help but talk about it. This is part of the power of personal testimony. I saw God do something and you’re not gonna believe it! If God starts doing something and we tell people about it, you’d better believe they will come out to see for themselves what’s happening. So the pig herders go to tell the town and countryside what they saw – when everyone returned they see the whacked-out crazy guy sitting by Jesus, clothed and sane.
When they encounter Jesus, people do change. Before, this man had been in an unbreakable grip of destructive evil; now Jesus has shattered the grip of evil and restored him to full human life. It is encountering Jesus that heals the sick. It is encountering Jesus that breaks addictions. It is encountering Jesus that restores relationships. We need to have a face to face encounter with the Living God!
But not everyone is happy with what has happened. The response of the people is fear – not of the once crazy guy – they fear Jesus! He has demonstrated supernatural power and an authority over the spiritual and natural world. If he cast the demons out of all of the sick people, there wouldn’t be enough pigs and livestock to hold them all. Every farmer and rancher would go out of business! The locals are apparently more concerned with their way of life than for the life of this man or the Lord of Life standing before them. Are we more interested in “business as usual” or the power of God to deliver our disordered lives and the lives of those around us? Sometimes we can start to see God as a concept, an idea by which we should live our lives. It’s when we start to think like this that we begin to care about business as usual. But God is not an abstract thing – God is the creator and giver of life and His power can deliver our disordered lives and the lives of those around us. Oh, how we need an encounter with Jesus.
18As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
What a life turn-around. He goes from being demon-possessed to being Jesus-obsessed. He has had an encounter with Jesus Christ and is forever changed – he becomes obsessed. And Jesus sends him out to spread his obsession to others, and all the people were amazed. Now we’re back full-circle: What is your obsession? Do you have a single-minded fixation on God? I believe that we know what we needs to know – at this point going deeper is going to mean developing the personal experience of God and his love and power.
We need a fresh encounter with the Lord of Life, so that we can be healed, restored, set free, and set loose to obsess about God and spread our obsession everywhere we go. The demoniac would not have had his encounter with Jesus if he hadn’t run to Jesus and fallen at his feet. That’s where we need to be. Seeking God and asking him to encounter us, to intervene in our lives. The Christian band Skillet writes in their song My Obsession, You’re my only infatuation…My purpose, my possession, live and die in my obsession, my obsession.