Progressing through the Sermon on the Mount, you’ve now sampled the first three toxic, universal habits that prevent spiritual well-being and God’s goal for humanity: the ability to love one another as He loves us.
Because each poison fortifies the next, the tainting effect is cumulative. Jesus therefore presented spiritual detox—sanctification, becoming holy—in a specific, necessary order.
Flushing out the most destructive habit (willful anger and contempt) makes the next one (an adulterous spirit) less difficult to flush. If you get rid of both, the next one (the need to swear oaths) is even easier.
Spiritual pollution builds in reverse. Maintain the first habit, and the second is harder to flush. Retain both, and the third is even more difficult. The less we see the masterful wisdom of Jesus’ sequence, the sneakier these poisons get and the blinder, more hard-hearted we become.
Unless you approach it his way, spiritual detox and maximum well-being simply can’t happen. Holiness gets reduced to minimal, random acts of kindness, for which we high-five and pat each other on the back. This is precisely Jesus’ warning to the unrighteous Pharisees who considered themselves spiritual A-listers, but whom he called a brood of vipers and whitewashed tombs full of death.
So today, we’ll sample poison #4: score-keeping and payback. True to Jesus’ strategy, this one loses potency once the first three are less available to fortify it.
Our desire to keep things even is based on God’s eye-for-eye principle of equity and balance. But this easily spins out of control when you use it to keep score, determine who does or doesn’t deserve kindness, and assign blame.
For example, we say, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” or that one good turn deserves another. But we rarely say one good turn deserves two or three. Neither are we in the habit of doing one good turn when it isn’t deserved. And if back-scratching doesn’t go well, someone’s gotta pay to even the score.
God’s original intent behind the eye-for-eye principle wasn’t vindictive punishment. It was restoration by repaying exactly what was taken or damaged, no more, no less. So if a hypothetical eye was damaged through negligence or abuse by another, an eye was to be taken from the guilty party. No one could take his hand, tooth, or property instead. Neither could they take someone else’s eye as payment.
But equity and restoration are adulterated by anger and contempt. If you indulge those, the next thing you’ll have is sworn enemies. And sworn enemies quickly become dehumanized enemies in a downward spiral of ill will that divorces God’s intent that you treat them with good will, the way He treats you.
Once we’re riled up, retained anger or woundedness blinds us. Then, seeing only an opponent before you, not a person, ego steps in and balance goes right out the window. You’ll focus on payback and the opponent’s downfall instead. We’re thus pre-conditioned to not only strike, but to strike back—and hard. Whenever I’ve been in this frame of mind, I’ve had no problem giving back double or going that extra mile. But not the way Jesus meant it.
And when it comes to jealous rivalry, all’s fair in love and war whether it’s actually fair or not. From crush-the-competition sports to smear-tactic politics to vicious gang rivalry, we insist we “win” at any cost. Don’t love your enemy; run him over. Then put it in reverse and run him over again to make sure he learns his lesson. It’s survival of the fittest in a dog-eat-dog world, and payback’s a bitch. Collectively, we’re fairly frothing at the mouth for grudge matches.
The Reality of Unbelief
Rather than restore, this mind-set always seeks to do damage to some degree or another, and sincerely believes it’s right and good to do so. Thus, by definition, it kills the spirit of grace and good will that seeks God’s best for ourselves and others.
You simply can’t seek good will when you practice ill will. So you remain sick-spirited, incapacitated, and powerless, having little sense of well-being or protection other than keeping tabs on every wrong committed—real or perceived. This guarantees repeatedly un-Christ-like reactions without a clue that it’s happening.
Even among Christians, Paul’s tactic borders on the ridiculous: “Why not rather be wronged?” (1Cor. 6:7) His claim that love isn’t envious or easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs is unrealistic. (1Cor. 13:5) Peter’s strategy goes in one ear and out the other: “Do not repay evil with evil.” (1Pet. 3:9)
And Jesus can’t be seriously believed; he’s way out in left field: “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, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Mat. 5:43-46)
“Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He’s kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luk. 6:35)
Strong, healthy people can love enemies more and more routinely because they seek and practice what Jesus prescribes in the order he prescribes it. They find an increasingly rich, clean spirit that can not only afford to be wronged, but can live a life-style of pure, unadulterated gladness and content even in tough circumstances.
Do you realize what immense freedom and power that is? Imagine not being owned by every careless or deliberate stupidity that others dish out! Imagine a pre-conditioned spirit that commonly reacts without stress, drama, or ill will.
You probably don’t believe deep in your bones that gaining a Christ-like spirit is possible. While most of us wouldn’t say that out loud, many church leaders have no problem telling us it’ll never happen in this life. No wonder it’s so hard to believe! If that view came in a bottle, it would have a skull and crossbones on it.
With God’s help, you can safely face this reality with sound, clear-headed wisdom, learn from mistakes, and be restored. That’s exactly Jesus’ offer. However, keep ingesting the maddening stuff in Babylon’s cup, and none of this will sound sane.
Two killers remain in the series, and you’ll get a whiff of poison #5 next week. I hope you’ll share this post and also let me know some ways this habit sneaks into your life and relationships. You’re definitely not alone!