“My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God …”
October 30, 2011
May 8, 2013
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Let’s recap the divine strategy behind the first 3 steps: People who overcome willful anger and contempt (Step 1) are less focused on the wrong-being of neighbors. It’s therefore easier to stop lusting after them as objects, make them targets, or wish them ill will (Step 2).
This in turn makes it easier—almost natural—to stop swearing this or that to manipulate neighbors’ opinions and judgments. Yes can be yes, and No can be no without insisting that they see things your way (Step 3).
If you follow the Sermon on the Mount’s sequence, Jesus’ path to love and good will gets easier, not harder, because he builds success right into it. Would he promote something designed to make you to fail? I think if people knew this, they’d be greatly relieved and abandon the false notion that Christ-like love is super-difficult or not very smart. It just takes practice and planning.
You don’t tackle everything all at once. Work on each step until you’re prepared for the next, like learning ABCs before writing words, then sentences, then paragraphs. The new you isn’t conjured out of nowhere, either by you or by God. The power comes from building up to a spirit capable of love. You get that by de-constructing 6 habits universal to all people.
These habits always seem right, so we embrace them like a “harlot.” However, once you divorce this divorce from God, and the Spirit’s strengthening action is added to the mix, you become a person substantially like Christ, mended and whole yet still uniquely you. In his preface to the Sermon, Jesus calls it getting beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Mat. 5:20).
“Death to self” is really nothing more than that. You kill off what’s killing you so that you gain self-control, and your soul flourishes. It’s unfortunate that “self” is a dirty word in today’s Christian culture, yet it’s where the focus must be in a relationship with God that empowers you to move in His direction. Otherwise, you can’t obey Jesus’ command to love your neighbors as yourself, and you remain lost, pulled in a hundred different directions. (more…)
May 1, 2013
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We’ve looked at the first 2 of 6 universal habits that sabotage love and good will, as well as steps to minimize them as Jesus outlined in his Sermon on the Mount. We discovered that they’re sequential and cumulative, not stand-alones:
The Sermon’s sequence, and planning ahead (will/intent), are essential for success. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ but don’t do what I say?” (Luk. 6:46) For example, if I try to stop obsessing over others, but I’m still a “righteously” irritated person, my anger alert will trigger over every little offense.
I’m not following Jesus. I’m following a “harlot” that looks and sounds right, but sets me up to wish harm, not good. Instead of overcoming, I give up because biblical love is “unrealistic” and I’m just a no-good sinner.
Now if I give up pride and simply digest and do what Jesus says to do, I will have taken him into my whole being—heart, mind, body, and behavior—and my soul will flourish. Although there’s a learning curve, I’ll soon be prepared (“worthy”) to face challenges with a lighter spirit and a real sense of power and direction.
So, as we move to Step 3, keep these first two steps in view. Like building a house, Jesus is adding texture and detail to the frame. Biblically, houses or temples represent the self, or soul. Of course, there are literal houses, too, but your body “houses” your personhood. In fact, Jesus concludes his Great Sermon by comparing a wise and foolish builder. (more…)
April 24, 2013
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First, a recap. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is one continuous dissertation on 6 universal habits that sabotage love, presented in a specific order. Last week, we looked at Step 1: getting rid of habitual, willful anger and contempt. These always seek harm, which always returns harm.
By contrast, to love means to wish or seek good for someone. (This does not require affection. You don’t necessarily have to like people or their behavior to love them.)
Anger is a reflexive emotion triggered by an offended sense of internal justice. Its only purpose is to alert you to something that needs attention. Mercy is the antidote, an active force once it’s put in motion correctly.
You practice mercy by acknowledging the offense (not necessarily out loud), but temporarily suspending the sense of indignation until the anger subsides—a day, a month, whatever. Anger has done its job and can be put away. Now you can deal with the situation with a less scornful spirit. You’re thus empowered, in control rather than dragged along by every aggravation.
To most people, this sounds ridiculous or flat wrong, so they refuse to embrace it. But by giving up your “right” to be mad, not only do you break the grip of willful, retained anger over yourself, you automatically bless neighbors because they cease to be targets. Your new, more relaxed spirit feels greatly relieved, and the natural result is improved relationships.
But this takes intentional desire and planning ahead. It doesn’t happen by itself, nor does God do it for you. It’s how you love your neighbor as yourself.
Now then, as we move to Jesus’ second step—adultery and divorce—Step 1 must be in view. It is not a stand-alone. Remember, Jesus is a builder; his Sermon is not only sequential, it’s cumulative, like building a house. When the Sermon is chopped into bits in no particular order, it becomes nothing but a random collection of divine gripes instead of an intelligent Way to mend the soul.
Also, each new step assumes that the previous one is fairly well-established. Like learning ABCs before writing words, you don’t move on until you’re ready. God blesses and moves with you at your pace and ability. (more…)
April 17, 2013
Few people realize that the secret to a more loving spirit and wellness in the soul is to get free of 6 universal habits that sabotage it. Jesus exposes them in his Sermon on the Mount.
You’ve probably heard parts of the Sermon many times, but never realized that it’s one continuous dissertation, not a random collection of disconnected sayings. (Three full chapters, Mat. 5 – Mat. 7.)
Also, Jesus presents it in a specific order, step by step. This is the secret to putting off the old self and putting on the new, as Paul phrased it (Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:10).
The Savior has first-hand, divine expertise on the workings of the human soul, and died to ensure that we can put his words into practice without paying a Death penalty for mistakes while we learn. You can overcome sin and evil with good if you simply “take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mat. 11:29)
Therefore, I thought I’d re-post my series on the sneaky habits that Jesus addresses in his talk from the hillside. Because they usually come disguised as “right,” it often feels wrong to give them up. Evil always masquerades as right, exactly why these universal habits remain deeply entrenched in all cultures.
You have heard it said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I’m telling you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment also. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin [Jewish equivalent to the Supreme Court]. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Mat. 5:21-22)
Step 1 is to eliminate retained, habitual, willful anger and scorn. (Raca and fool are terms of contempt.) Unless you start here, your spiritual walk might as well be on greased marbles. If you’ve ever wondered why Christ-like love seems impossibly unrealistic, this is why. But Jesus is laying out an intelligent course that leads to a loving spirit quite capable and willing to pray for enemies, bless those who curse you, etc., assuming you want to go there with him.
“Angry with” includes everything from pet peeves to irate rants to raging violence. “Brother” is synonymous with “neighbor.” “Subject to judgment” refers to human judgment as well as God’s.
Contempt covers a lot of ground, too. “You fool!” is evil because it includes all forms of ridicule, shame, malice, indignation, and superiority—which most people consider good and proper as long as the “right” people are shamed and ridiculed. In fact, you’re quite the “fool” yourself if you give this habit up and refuse to indulge it.
Obviously, if you’re full of scorn, you can’t genuinely love (wish goodness for) the objects of your scorn. You’re too preoccupied with making sure they know your disdain. So a soul in this condition is petty and pinched, easily offended, and at the mercy of every situation they encounter. They don’t overcome; they’re owned. Powerless.
The Mechanics of Anger
To merely feel anger is no more sin than to feel a toothache. Anger is a reflexive emotion like pain and fear, and has a legitimate function. By God’s design, we have no control over its arrival, so there’s no need for guilt. But willful anger or nursing a grudge is the sin that Jesus is addressing. Just as we’re not designed to live in constant pain or fear, neither are we designed to function well in constant irritation.
Anger’s only purpose is to alert us to an offended sense of internal “justice.” That can be anything from being cut off in traffic, to a rude remark, to an actual crime. The point of the alert isn’t to put “that jerk” in his place, but rather, to let you know there’s something that needs your immediate attention. Whatever can be accomplished with anger can be better accomplished without it.
Anger’s antidote is mercy—that is, to temporarily suspend the sense of offense for a moment, a day, a month, whatever. This does not mean to deny that a wrong was committed or pretend it’s okay. Jesus never did that. You fully acknowledge the fact, but choose to not take action until the anger alert subsides. You’ll find a new, almost giddy sense of power and control.
This takes planning ahead of time, i.e., intention, will. If you genuinely want to get free of anger’s grip, don’t wait until your blood is boiling to try it out. That moment is too late. So make a plan well in advance and start with small aggravations. As you practice the new habit of mercy over a month or so, you’ll get stronger and better at it until one day, you’ll catch yourself in the act of being gracious.
When it happened to me, Jesus’ words never rang more true: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” While everyone else touts random acts of kindness as a big deal, yours will be routine.
Not What We’ve Heard
Getting rid of anger is the first step to good will and a healthy soul. Indulged anger and contempt always seek to do harm to one degree or another. And that always returns harm: judgment—first from neighbors, then from God. Also, there’s always an element of self-righteous ego in it, however mild it may be. Whenever I get mad, it sure isn’t because I humbly believe I’m wrong.
So the benefits of Jesus’ strategy are first to the self, then to neighbors. This step alone brings greater strength, patience, joy, a sense of direction, life to the full. It isn’t selfish; it’s why Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself. Thus, if I let go of my “right” to be mad, not only do I un-sabotage my own spirit, I also un-sabotage my neighbors.
April 10, 2013
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When most Christians mention saving a soul, they likely mean some part of the person in the future part of his/her life, often termed “eternal destiny.” Once that’s secured, the soul gets no further consideration. It’s “saved.”
People can then turn attention to earthly living, preferably in a Godly life-style, but nevertheless as a kind of throw-away. In fact, it’s common to hear Christians say, “Life is temporary.”
Well, no, it isn’t. It’s permanent.
From the biblical perspective, a person’s life is one single, ongoing continuum. Some of that life is lived in the physical realm on this physical planet; some of it isn’t. The biblical paradigm says that physical death doesn’t end anyone’s life. (And if I read resurrection passages correctly, the majority of one’s eternity is spent in physical form. But I digress.)
Also from the biblical perspective, personhood consists of a mind/intellect, a heart/will/spirit, a body, and a social/relational context. I think of the soul as the overall “auto-pilot” that continually manages input and produces output in the form of behavior and relationships. It does the best it can to synchronize each aspect of personhood into a functional, cohesive whole. But it can’t do it on its own. It needs God’s help.
I realize it’s a rudimentary analogy. Human beings are more complex than even the most sophisticated auto-pilots. But the soul is simply the total person, greater than the sum of its parts. And a soul never stops living once it starts. It isn’t something you have; it’s who you are. It isn’t a piece of you; it’s all of you, the essence of your being.
In bible-speak, when that’s torn and jumbled, it’s ruined. When it’s mended and whole, it’s restored. Perfect. Complete.
So when Jesus says, “Love God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul,” he means “with your total being.” When he says that God has the power to “destroy” both body and soul in hell, he means that no part of the person will be overlooked when God fully confronts his/her sin and ruin.
I used to think that overcoming evil with good was about overpowering it with brute force. But suppose it happens by subverting it from within, from the inside out with love. Suppose evil is destroyed in an individual when input and output synchronize as God designed, and the whole soul harmonizes with its Creator—mind/intellect, heart/will/spirit, body, and social relations.
What might happen if this idea spread through the ages, person by person, as more and more people became less abusive, less frightened, less insistent on their ruined ways, and more desiring of complete good for themselves and others? Wouldn’t it be a lot like yeast working its way through the whole batch of dough? (Mat. 13:33)
Now suppose that God plotted all along to overcome evil this way, like an unstoppable dawn swallowing the night. How valuable, then, might you be as God’s partner in paying attention to your own soul, the essence of your being?
God is always about completeness, thoroughness. Jesus therefore proclaims a comprehensive salvation for the whole world that addresses the total person for an entire life. His idea is that everything about that life moves increasingly toward love—that is, the desire to promote and contribute to good—now, later, and always.
Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love enemies. Be good to those who hurt you or make your life a pain. Why? What’s the point of listening to Jesus? Well, at first, for your own well-being. Whatever you wish upon someone else, you wish upon yourself. The measure you use will be measured to you (Luk. 6:38).
So, if for no other reason, you wish for their good, unless you’re a masochist who likes double the aggravation. Once that isn’t such a foreign concept to you, you can do it for other reasons. It’s right. It’s blessed. It overcomes evil. You get a beaming wink from God.
Beginning next week, I’ll re-post a six-part series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There, he outlines step by step how to subvert evil and make room for love, goodness, and blessed well-being for the soul, individually and collectively. It’s actually pretty simple, but was such a radical concept that the religious experts of Jesus’ day declared him to be straight from the devil. He was crucified for blasphemy and subversion. They got it exactly backwards and upside-down.
Many Christians today unknowingly treat him similarly. They don’t actually believe that unconditional love is possible or a priority, much less right and good. It doesn’t seem right to give up their “righteous” anger, precious payback, or wounded spirits. I don’t say this critically; I speak from experience.
But that’s okay. Experience is knowledge, and knowledge is the beginning of repentance. Everyone starts from where they are, not where they will be.
April 3, 2013
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For many years, I thought that holiness is sort of conferred upon Christians, maybe a little like knighthood. When I hear other Christians talk, it sounds as if they may be under the same impression.
There also seems to be disagreement on when holiness is conferred. Pentecostals might say it’s when the Holy Spirit “comes upon” people. They’re holy if they speak in tongues. Baptists might say it’s when adults get baptized. They’re holy when they rise from the water. Evangelicals might say you’re holy when you witness to others.
Holy means set apart for special use—not in a condescending way, but a remarkable way. You might say remarkably different. Uncommonly good. There’s a certain nobility to it, so maybe holiness is a little like knighthood. But it’s a command we follow rather than something conferred on us. And, obviously, it must be doable or it wouldn’t be a command.
Holiness is associated with rightness, goodness, and perfection (completion). “But just as he who called you is holy, so you be holy in all you do.” (1Pet. 1:15) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat. 5:48)
Fortunately, and contrary to some teaching, holiness isn’t about being flawless, omnipotent, omnipresent, or omniscient. If it were, Scripture would command us to be God, which is impossible and makes no sense. Being holy is about being whole, becoming right again, sound of mind, will, body, and behavior—all elements of personhood aligned with God’s will for mankind’s good. In other words, His love.
Biblical love is nothing fancier than the will and desire for His greater good in any situation. Yet there’s nothing nobler. It may be holy and misunderstood, but not impossible.
You’ve heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward will you get? Aren’t even tax collectors doing that? If you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Don’t even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat. 5:43-48)
God is looking for people of remarkable character who can do what is commonly thought to be un-doable. He wants this not so we can satisfy His ego, but so He can safely share power and glory with us; so He can trust people with the dominion He originally intended.
Dominion without love always leads to ill will, self-righteousness, fear, manipulation, unkindness, and other sins that become the accepted norm. When the love of most, even Christians, grows cold, no one expects anything different or remarkable. People are thus unprepared for the fullest life with God—both in earthly life and the afterlife when ruling and serving in good will is the name of the game.
So I think churches need to better define, prioritize, model, and teach love. Let’s not just talk about how much “God loves you” or say that Jesus loves you enough to die for you, then leave it there like a penny on the sidewalk. We should teach how to love as Jesus loves and why it’s essential to pick it up and practice it. The Sermon on the Mount is where Jesus himself taught it.
(I wrote two very basic 6-part blogs on the Sermon’s content—one entitled 6 Steps to Unsabotage Yourself in Every Relationship, the other entitled 6 Sneaky Ways to Poison Your Spirit. If you’d like to read them, you can use the Search box at the top of the sidebar.)
Christians talk about saving the soul, and by that they usually mean securing “eternal destiny” after physical death. But God doesn’t just save the soul and abandon the person. The soul is the person. And it isn’t just about future well-being, but about present well-being, too. Holiness is intended for the whole person and the whole world, to calm and comfort the cries of the soul.
“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jhn. 13:34-35)