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.
Step 4 is to eliminate score-keeping and payback. Both stem from perceptions of indebtedness—the pervasive sense of owing. It involves a feeling of entitlement on one hand and the sense of obligation on the other. This causes us to keep score in relationships, which builds conditional love, the opposite of unconditional love, and reinforces earning or wages mentality.
This step is a bit lengthy, so I’ll highlight the relevant verses:
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? If you’re friendly only to your brothers, what are you doing so much better than others? Don’t even pagans do that?” (Mat. 5:38-40, 43-47)
This is probably where most people give up because they haven’t followed the sequence. Our culture is stuck in the mentality that people owe us things: respect, apologies, a promotion, common courtesy, whatever. It’s only “proper”; and when we don’t get them, the anger alert goes off. So if you haven’t dealt with Step 1, you won’t get beyond this one (not consistently).
We’ve all heard of debt reduction or debt-free living as it applies to finances, but I rarely hear it applied to spiritual living. This explains why Christians talk about grace, but can’t seem to actually wrap their heads around it and put it into practice.
Yet, how many parables did Jesus use that involve a servant who owed something but whose debt was cancelled? The more you let go of indebtedness, the easier it becomes to give and accept forgiveness.
You want to move toward debt-free thinking because it’s tremendously freeing for both self and neighbor. When you’re stuck in indebtedness mode, you end up living on everyone else’s terms. And in a culture where everybody owes, payback’s a bitch. Love, grace, generosity, and kindness become foreign concepts or outright stupidity while getting even is the goal.
Identify Your Enemies
Anyone you think of with contempt is an enemy (as Jesus means it): competitors, back-stabbers, antagonists, and adversaries. Every jerk who interferes; every deadbeat who won’t follow through; every snob who insults or ignores you; every incompetent “fool” who screws up qualifies. Sometimes, they’re members of your own household.
If I’m pre-filled with contempt, I automatically sabotage love, well-being, and relationships by treating people as targets when they don’t pay what they owe. This guarantees my un-gracious reaction no different from anyone else. 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 habit, payback produces payback in return. I’ll reap exactly what I sow.
It’s why gang warfare doesn’t go away. It also rears up in sports, business, politics, religion, and especially, romance. Think of Carrie Underwood’s song about taking a Louisville Slugger to both headlights and slashing a hole in all four tires. I can’t recall making a single improvement happen whenever I’ve been in this frame of mind.
Living well truly is the best revenge! But the first 3 sinful habits work cumulatively against you. So without those to support a spiteful spirit, score-keeping and payback become less important. Indebtedness doesn’t have to be a life-style that penny-pinches your soul.
Here are some real life examples of score-keeping and the corresponding lack of a rich, loving spirit. You may recall a waitress posting a pastor’s meal receipt showing a comment written by the pastor, something along the lines, “I give God 10%. Why should I give you 20%?” It went viral, the waitress got fired, the pastor ended up apologizing, but most notably, Christianity got yet another black eye.
Last week, a local priest followed a guy who cut him off in traffic, and beat him up. After Michael Vick had served his time for engaging in dog fighting, animal lovers on my Facebook feed called for him to be abused exactly as he had done to the dogs. More recently, I’ve seen people recommend sending poop-bombs to the famously hateful Westboro Baptist Church.
Really? You want to be the same kind of nasty people? If you’re so readily sucked into ugly behavior, how are you any prettier than the original behavior? Is spite intelligent as long as one hates the right people? Not long ago, I might have said Yes. Now I say No.
If for no reason other than my own wellness, I now refuse to cooperate with this sneaky habit. It’s how I practice overcoming evil with good, or, as Paul put it, “heap burning coals upon their heads” (Rom. 12:20).
I deliberately give a big tip to a bad waiter—not because I owe it, but because of who I want to be. When someone drives like a maniac, my anger alert still goes off, but I now know what it is, so I consciously ask God to do something good for that person—not because she deserves it, but because I don’t want her to own me.
I can afford to give a cloak in addition to a tunic because I choose to be spiritually debt-free and am richer now than I was.
The goal is the genuine power to do good to everyone, or at least to not seek harm, and it’s easier to be the kind of in-control person Jesus was if we do it his Way. “I have plans to prosper you, not harm you, to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11)
Next week, Step 5.