In Parts 1-4, we sampled four of six habits, common to people of all cultures and time periods, that Jesus warned of in his Sermon on the Mount: Willful anger and contempt, an adulterous mind-set, swearing oaths, and score-keeping.
Each fortifies the next in a chain reaction that creates a toxic spirit incapable of loving anyone, including yourself and enemies, as Jesus does.
The bad news is that these habits are often seen as right and good, so people protect them the way a drug addict protects his supply. But the more the poison builds up, the more conditioned you are to react negatively at the slightest provocation. It owns you.
The good news is that as you flush each one and God blesses your obedience, the clearer your vision and mind become, and the more conditioned you are to not return insults with better ones. You’ll soon be blessing those who curse you and loving enemies the way Jesus does.
So, the fifth sneaky habit Jesus warns of is outer appearance, reputation, and the need to look good for public approval. In a word, image. The old fashioned term is “vanity.”
Right down to the love-sick kid who only wants to win the heart of his dream girl, everyone faces the occasional need to impress others. It isn’t automatically bad, but if your entire way of life depends on image and approval, your heart will dictate just about anything to maintain that image. Also, because it’s so dependent, it’s easily threatened.
Saving face is a major cause of lying, stealing, or other criminal behavior, and makes peer pressure tough to let go of. Whenever there’s too much image to lose, you can bet there’s a lurking sense of insecurity somewhere underneath.
Mix in some retained anger and contempt, a mind that divorces God’s Spirit, the habit of swearing, and a you-against-me score-keeping attitude, and you get a brew guaranteed to cause all sorts of unloving, erratic sin that leaves you scratching your head.
As Herod and Peter demonstrated with their oaths (see Part 3), unless you get beyond the fear of others’ opinions, outer appearance will own you every time.
“Many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they wouldn’t admit their faith for fear they’d be put out of the synagogue; for they loved approval from men more than praise from God.” (Luk. 12:42-43)
To look good on the outside but be dead on the inside was the Pharisees’ problem. They were all about grandstanding to get noticed or have their egos publically stroked. To explain his point, Jesus used examples of charity, fasting, and prayer, but it applies to an entire life-style. Letting Yes or No actually be yes or no, as Jesus counsels, frees you from spiritual peer pressure and the addiction to public approval.
He also instructed the crowds to not obsess over what to eat, drink, or wear because there’s a difference between needing food for healthy nourishment of the body and needing food to prove or boast rightness.
In first-century Jewish culture, battles raged over clean and unclean food or meat sacrificed to idols. Paul taught that although God did make laws about what is and isn’t the healthiest to feed on, they were lesser laws. He followed Jesus’ teachings about food not being what ultimately sustains life.
Yet still today, it’s amazing the morality that even non-religious people attach to food and drink. I remember the late ‘70s when America suddenly considered eggs the assassins of the food world. Today, eggs have been exonerated; red meat is the new culprit. So, should we go with chicken or fish? Or be done with meat altogether and go vegetarian? Food police turn health issues into moral issues and thereby judge others by what they eat.
And what should we drink? Is it okay to be a Christian and drink caffeine? Alcohol? Some churches forbid both. On the other hand, many people order expensive fine wine or gourmet meals specifically to impress others.
Does a custom suit or designer dress determine your integrity? There’s nothing inherently immoral about expensive clothes. It’s no sin to love the craftsmanship of a great tailor or the beauty and drape of fine fabric. The trap is when you use them to show off or put on a façade.
Fashionistas get upset if another woman wears the same dress to a party. Kids can get so hung up over what they wear that murder over a jacket or pair of shoes has been common. “Killer outfit” takes on a whole new meaning when you live and die by what you wear.
And, dear me, what should you wear to church? (Your “Sunday best,” of course!) Is it right for men to wear earrings or ponytails? Should women be allowed to wear pants or wear their hair short? What about green hair? Tattoos and body piercing? Amazingly, many Christians are ready to smite one another over these “issues.”
The business world is very much about doing things to get noticed. You don’t move up unless someone important notices you—favorably, that is. The movers and shakers say we should dress for success, dine at the right restaurants, and live in the right places.
It’s impossible to be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually well with all this fuss and anxiety pumping through you; and Jesus has different ideas on what really matters.
Jesus talked with Samaritans (despised by “proper” Jews), dined with tax collectors and thieves, and touched lepers and prostitutes. He offended many people, especially Pharisees. Even his disciples were often baffled by his “disreputable” behavior. They had to un-learn this habit, i.e., repent; and they eventually did master it by watching, practicing, and obeying the Master of life.
For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they’ve closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” (Mat. 13:15)
There’s nothing invincible about sin. Its only power is the permission you give it, knowingly or unknowingly, to own you. But that’s why Scripture so heavily emphasizes light, sight, wisdom, and practicing what God says. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man, and God has provided the way out (1Cor. 10:13).
Misguided Protestants may fire off fearful accusations of, “Works! Earning!,” but obedience is no more earning than pulling weeds and watering your garden is earning fruit. It’s simply God’s prescribed way, and no one objects if you do that. So why would Jesus’ prescribed way out of sinful habits into spiritual wellness be different?
Jesus did God’s will and loved even the Pharisees regardless what they or anyone else thought. He possessed a bold, secure spirit independent of others. No fear, no worry. No playing to the crowd. He wasn’t owned by any of it, not even Death itself. If you don’t believe you can have a similar spirit, I think you’re chasing a false, fatal image.
God will let you do that if you insist, even if it kills you. I know it doesn’t seem that a sane, loving God would do that. But here’s the key: the minute you force, insist, swear, manipulate, or make demands, it’s no longer love talking, but pride. And God isn’t proud. He’s pure, unadulterated Love. And love doesn’t force itself on anyone, while pride insists on having its way.
So we’ll sip the sixth and final poison next week. In the meantime, please share with your friends and feel free to comment. Have you seen other ways that this habit sneaks up on people?