English: SVG drawing of a baseball bat.

We’ll find relationships and well-being already improved if we’ve implemented steps 1, 2, and 3. It’s important to understand, however, that it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why Jesus says to “put into practice” his words. He’ll help, of course, but he won’t do it for you. That would rob you of the joy of “overcoming.”

To expect instant success is a set-up for failure. Trying it out of sequence also guarantees failure. So, for most of us, it isn’t a lack of “faith” as we’re usually told, but rather, a lack of clear understanding.

Culprit #4 is score-keeping and payback. Both stem from perceptions of indebtedness, i.e., the sense of owing. Owing involves the sense of entitlement on one hand, and the sense of obligation on the other—what we feel we owe others and what we feel they owe us. It causes us to keep score in relationships and usually has a negative impact.

I’ll shorten Jesus’ quote because this step is a bit lengthy, but here are the relevant verses. (This is where most people give up in defeat because they don’t realize that there’s a method to Jesus’ “madness” and they’ve missed his first three steps.)

You’ve heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well…

You’ve heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who persecute you…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Aren’t even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing so much better than others? Don’t even pagans do that?” (Mat. 5:38-40, 43-47)

A Rich Spirit

We’re often stuck in the mind-set that people owe us things—respect, apologies, a raise, a promotion, common courtesy, whatever. When we don’t get them, the anger alert triggers. Once we learn to recognize it, we can simply side-step these “offenses” for the sake of our own inner well-being. That’s what spiritual riches, being filled, and turning the other cheek is about. Neighbors benefit, too, as a result.

That doesn’t mean let yourself get beaten up, taken advantage of, or manipulated. It means you’re in control and get to decide how situations affect you. You can say Yes or No, give a “cloak” in addition to a “tunic” if you’re able, forgive offenses, and not let neighbors (or their debts and failures) own you.

This is a fabulous position of rich character, great strength, and Christ-like competence! But if you try to start here, you’ll fail. You start further back with Jesus’ gospel message to love God, yourself, and neighbors. Then you move to step one in his Sermon on the Mount and go from there.

Debt-Free

We’ve all heard of debt reduction or debt-free living as it applies to finances, but we seldom hear it applied to spiritual living, though it’s everywhere in Scripture. How many parables did Jesus use that involve a servant who owed something but whose debt was cancelled? The more we let go of the sense of indebtedness, the easier it becomes to forgive ourselves and others, as well as to accept forgiveness.

We want to move toward debt-free thinking because it’s, well, tremendously freeing—both for self and neighbors. As long as we’re stuck in indebtedness mode, everyone else ends up dictating our thoughts and feelings. Generous grace thus remains difficult because it feels foreign and un-practiced. When everybody owes, payback’s a bitch.

Identify Your Enemies

Anyone—even strangers—that we think of with contempt is an enemy (as Jesus means it). Rivals, competitors, back-stabbers, opponents, antagonists, and adversaries all qualify. Every jerk who interferes, every deadbeat who won’t follow through, every snob who insults or ignores us, every incompetent “fool” who screws up. Sometimes, they’re members of our own household.

If I’m pre-filled with contempt, I automatically sabotage self- and neighbor love, well-being, and relationships by treating people as instant enemies when they owe me and don’t pay. That ensures my angry, un-gracious reaction no different from “pagans, thieves, and tax-collectors.” The result is my payback, teaching them a “lesson,” or giving them a piece of my mind. Because my neighbors are likely in the same boat, payback produces payback in return. I’ll reap exactly what I sow.

It’s why gang warfare doesn’t go away. We also find it in sports, business, politics, religion, and romance. Think of Carrie Underwood’s song about taking a baseball bat to both headlights and slashing a hole in all four tires.

Best Revenge

Now imagine systematically pulling the rug out from under the culprits that feed this. Living well truly is the best revenge! Without willful anger/contempt (“murder”), adultery/divorce (obsession with others), and swearing (insistence), all this score-keeping and payback become much less important. Yes can be yes, No can be no, and indebtedness doesn’t have to be a life-style that sabotages your life.

The goal is the genuine ability to do good to enemies—primarily for your sake, secondarily for theirs. It gets easier to be the kind of in-control person Jesus was if we do it his way, step by step. That doesn’t mean we become flawless; it means we become complete, set apart. “Perfect.” And that goes all the way back to loving God, loving self, and loving neighbors, in that order. It’s why Jesus says it’s smart to build on his rock foundation rather than on the sand.

Culprit #5 will be exposed in the next step, but in the meantime, what are your thoughts? Are you always trying to “collect” from people? Are you always trying to “pay”? Sometimes these are unavoidable, but do you find it a life-style?