skeleton keys

Skeleton Keys (Photo credit: peatbogyeri)

Most of us learn the Sermon on the Mount as a random, disconnected collection of sayings from Jesus. But that’s not what it is.

It’s a comprehensive action plan for new life, presented in a specific order for maximum results, and recorded in three full chapters of Matthew (5-7).

Following it is how one follows Christ to seek his kingdom. To use Paul’s words, it’s how you put off the old self and put on the new (Eph. 4:22), continually working out your salvation (Phl. 2:12).

The Sermon is where Jesus has “hidden” the keys to the kingdom of heaven, God’s system of goodness and well-being at hand. Even the spiritually destitute can unlock it and enter, provided they’re not merely hearers of the Word, but are also doers of the Word. (Jas. 1:22)

How Did I Miss This New Life From Above?

I used to wonder why, having been a “believer” all my life, the presumed new creation in me never actually showed up, and Jesus’ words and ways still seemed ridiculously unrealistic. Yet they must be crucial to grasp or he wouldn’t have said them.

But the Christian books I read and radio shows I heard insisted that Jesus’ primary value is in his blood. Whatever he taught was back-burner stuff—either too random or too profound to make sense of in real life, and in any case, was separate from deliverance.

This conclusion shows in the lives of multitudes of sincere Christians (including the old me) who nevertheless have no idea how to love their neighbors, themselves, or do what Jesus says to do. We’ve been taught that getting our doctrines correct—the Trinity, justification, atonement, baptism, etc.—takes priority.

However, the new me has learned that doctrines, although helpful, don’t produce the radical, long-term changes that God is looking for. No wonder genuine new creations in Christ are as common as three-legged cats. There’s more to Jesus than his blood!

A Brilliant Savior

The sequence in Jesus’ Sermon is a divine strategy for life to the full. Before he delivered it, he had already provided incentive and hope for scores of people trapped in the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (ROTSAP) by announcing his good news of an alternative system available for new life, i.e., his gospel of the kingdom of heaven at hand.

So here’s a quick run-down of his plan that invites even the most spiritually impoverished people to follow him into the kingdom of heaven in the life they’re living now. It’s a matter of “yoking” with him, through practice and grace, to eliminate the following habits of mind, heart, and behavior.

1. Willful, retained, “righteous” anger and contempt. The Pharisees were constantly angry at Jesus. The more he went on about God’s kingdom, the more offended and contemptuous they became. People rarely say, wow, my anger is wrong. It always seems right, so we cherish it and hold it dear, refusing to let go. This leads to:

2. Adultery and divorce. Individual human affairs/divorces aren’t Jesus’ direct target here, although they are micro-reflections of the systemic target he’s aiming at. This is primarily a spiritual adultery “in the heart” and a collective divorce from God. It’s about lusting for substitute ways of life, both religious and secular. Together, they become the “harlot” we embrace, which leads to:

3. Swearing oaths. This addresses stubborn insistence, pride, and proving things by swearing this or that, which often backs us into disastrous corners. Recall that Peter swore on oath that he didn’t even know Jesus. So Jesus advises that anything beyond simple Yes or No comes from the evil one. Swearing progresses to:

4. Score-keeping, returning evil for evil. This stems from a greedy sense of fairness that turns revenge into something righteous (eye for eye). It demands “payment” from people who owe anything from apologies to favors to money. If they don’t pay up, pay-back’s a bitch, and a sworn enemy is born. Compounded by anger, it manifests as anything from spiteful insults to mass shootings. Score-keeping leads to:

5. Obsession with outer appearance and reputation. The old fashioned term is vanity, and the Pharisees were experts at it. This is about egotism, looking down on others with contempt if they don’t measure up, or about envy, admiring people for superficial qualities. Both finally create:

6. Judgmentalism and hypocrisy. Here’s the finished product of all the previous habits. It manifests as a compulsion to correct everyone else, whatever it takes, up to and including abuse. Whether it’s snobby social practices, political character assassinations, or “holy war,” the full-grown beast destroys others in self-congratulatory “correctness.”

This is sin and spiritual death in a nutshell, to which everyone falls prey. It’s important to realize that these are not only sequential, but also cumulative. Each new habit is built on the previous one, creating a less and less Christ-like heart.

Getting rid of these habits one by one is what “dying” to self is. Jesus knows that if you start by knocking the legs out from under willful anger and contempt, the rest of the structure gets wobbly and almost falls apart by itself. It’s precisely how you repent, surpass ROTSAP, and seek and enter the kingdom of heaven through Jesus’ well-defined “narrow gate.”

Re-boot

If the forgiveness-only view of life from above purifies the human mind and cleanses the heart, why do we still have obnoxious, forgiven Christians? Wouldn’t these destructive thoughts and behaviors vanish? Forgiveness cleanses guilt, but has no transformative power over sin, the cause of guilt. Wouldn’t it be smarter to aim for the root, as Jesus does, and let the result take care of itself?

If we plan to someday rule the earth with Christ, it’s best to follow his plan and practice. God can hardly entrust dominion to people who can’t or won’t live in His system of total well-being.

So Jesus’ complete package to restore God’s system to humanity consists of his gospel of the kingdom of heaven, his Sermon on how to unlock and live in it, and his death and resurrection to ensure safe passage for those who choose to practice. Faith alone in Christ alone.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (Jhn. 1:4)

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House under constructionWe’ve now reviewed all 6 sinful habits, universal to all people, as Jesus outlined in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5, 6, and 7).

We’ve also reviewed 6 corresponding new habits he taught to make love less difficult and more consistent. The secret to success is his well-defined steps—very specific and narrow.

Because most of us want to be right and good, evil disguises itself as correctness. So, internal evil becomes invisible and we become blind. Personally, I was very reluctant to gouge out habits that I considered righteous. It turns out that I was actually destroying the very goodness I want.

In the remainder of Matthew 7, Jesus summarizes his message with a few final warnings and illustrations.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (vv. 13-14)

This is a re-wording of the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus started with, not limited to them, but common to all people of all cultures and time periods. He’s referring to a self-justifying life-style, the “adulterous generation” we still live in. He knows that people need help getting beyond it if they’re to enter God’s kingdom life-style of love, gracious power, and well-being.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they’re ferocious wolves. You can recognize them by their fruit. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit…Thus, by their fruit you’ll recognize them.” (vv. 15-20)

The faith and action that Jesus invites is easier, smarter, and nothing like the burdens that crowds were used to in his day. It also isn’t like the Christianity I was used to, widely preached in our day. He makes this point early in the Sermon by saying several times, “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” (more…)

English: Hypocrite "Love" message. A...We’ve been reviewing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There, he addresses 6 sinful habits, common to all people, which make love inconsistent, if not impossible.

He also offers 6 alternative habits which, when practiced intentionally and in the order he presents them, build love into a routine way of life instead of sporadic acts of kindness.

This gradual shift from the old self to the new is known by several biblical terms: repentance, redemption, salvation, completion, and perfection, to name a few.

Step 1 eliminates willful anger/contempt by practicing willful mercy until that feels more natural. Step 2 keeps your eyes on you and God, not everyone else. You add this new habit to the previous one. Then, Step 3 is to stop swearing/insisting on having your way, the “right” way. Instead of demanding or manipulating, you can let Yes be yes or No be no and leave it at that.

Step 4 gouges out indebtedness/score-keeping by adding debt-free thinking. When you don’t feel obligated to the whole world, and they don’t “owe” you respect, apologies, or whatever, you’re well on the way to gracious, unconditional love. Your will/spirit is keeping step with God’s (Gal. 5:25).

Step 5 reduces worry over image and appearance by practicing privacy with God. Instead of sharing every opinion or deed with the world, or jumping through hoops to get noticed, you keep some things “secret,” just between you and God. You’re less prone to spout off and trigger retaliatory anger from neighbors, which degenerates into animosity and all out war.

Like building a house, each new habit is added to the previous ones once they’re well established. Love is cultivated and grown, not conjured out of nowhere.

Step 6 is the culmination, or perfection, of a Christ-like spirit that doesn’t struggle with love as if it’s a two-ton set of weights. This kind of person is complete and whole. He/she wishes God’s good on obnoxious or even dangerous neighbors. They live with a rich sense of relief from sin’s control, abundant in power and blessed delight. (more…)

Binoculars, 25x100First, 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…)

English: A metaphorical visualization of the w...

English: A metaphorical visualization of the word Anger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Step One

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.

Crown clip artMaybe we should start with what God doesn’t require from you: flawlessness. The biblical word “perfect” (Greek, teleios) means complete, whole, mature, brought to a finished end or goal.

When Jesus said to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat. 5:48), he didn’t mean flawless, absolutely sinless, and error-free. The sooner you divorce this mind-set and all that goes with it, the sooner you escape Babylon’s cup of toxic, spiritual adulteries.

God simply wants you to be like Him. Or, more accurately, more like Him than you already are. Even as a sinner, you’re created in His image, having more in common with Him than anything else in creation. The goal is to restore that to full completion.

So the first step to becoming more like God is to love, admire, and want His qualities. You can’t pursue what you don’t want, or what you don’t see as possible and worth pursuing. Therefore, “Love God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul” isn’t God’s demand to satisfy His ego or meet a divine need. It’s His visionary spark to jump-start meeting your needs.

God wants you mentally, emotionally, and spiritually sound, whole, complete, and mature. What does that mean? It means you can love yourself and others. Love your neighbors, including enemies, as yourself. That’s what a clean spirit, “cured” and healthy, looks like. (more…)

Example for Image classification system. From ...

Example for Image classification system. From U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. :ICS Class 02.11.11 Skull and crossbones (poison symbol) Category:Image class 02.11.11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Six habits, universal to people of all cultures and time periods, are often practiced as right and good when, in reality, they are to the human spirit what acid is to human tissue.

The cumulative effect is to render transformation into a powerful, loving spirit like Christ’s impossible; they’re the definition of spiritual death. And since these habits are so sneaky, a quick refresher might help before getting to the main points.

God’s primary goal for mankind, as Old and New Testament writers and Jesus himself present it, is to regain a sound disposition (spirit) that can love God, self, and all neighbors, including enemies. This is the “new life from above” that spontaneously and cheerfully obeys God’s Law of love, brings maximum glory to Him, and allows us to rule with Christ throughout the ages to come. (more…)