Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross
Jesus was teaching around the Sea of Galilee when some Pharisees from Jerusalem saw some of His disciples eating bread with unwashed hands. They considered this ceremonial impurity (Mark 7:1-2). Mark gives a short list of examples of rules the Pharisees inherited from their forefathers and pushed as divine law (3-5). This law-making upsets Jesus considerably. In Mark 7:6-13, Jesus rebukes them for confusing tradition and God’s commandments. They were so in love with their traditions that it actually caused them to violate God’s will.
Then, He uses that episode as a springboard to discuss a related spiritual concern. The central thought was, “The things that proceed out of a man are what defile the man” (15b). The point was probably missed on the crowd because it was missed by the disciples (17). Mark tells us that Jesus was declaring all foods clean (19), but there was a deeper, spiritual point. He makes it plainly when He says, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (20-23).
I wonder how this initially hits the disciples. The Pharisees definitely would not have appreciated it. They considered themselves spiritually superior, but context would suggest they would have been as big offenders as anyone in this. Some of what comes out of the heart that Jesus mentions is “big” enough to make our sin’s “hall of fame” or at least its “all-star” team. Wouldn’t you be quick to put fornication, theft, murder, adultery, and wickedness on the “evil things” list?
But Jesus digs deeper and exposes our hearts further. Look at what makes His “big” list with those other sins: evil thoughts (literally, harmful reasoning), deceit, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness (lack of good judgment). Before we brush these aside, consider some practical application.
What is it when we assume others’ intentions and motives without tangible evidence? What about when we have such a tainted perception of someone that we cannot be civil and peaceable, much less tenderhearted, kind, and forgiving toward them (cf. Eph. 4:32)? What of using opportunities to gossip and slander a brother or sister in Christ? What about the words we say when our pride is wounded or we feel slighted? What about a failure to be discreet about people’s situations we come into the knowledge of?
Scripture tells us how vitally important a good, Christlike attitude is. Philippians uses the word “mind” to admonish proper attitude. A mind fueled by encouragement, love, affection, and compassion lead not only to unity, humility, and high regard for others, but it also reflects the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:1-11). It eliminates grumbling and disputing (Phil. 2:14). It shows us to be above reproach in the middle of a world that lives out the kinds of things Jesus reproves in Mark 7:20-23 (Phil. 2:15).
If I have a heart filled with the kind of “evil things” in Jesus’ Mark seven list, how can I have the right, Christlike attitude He expects me to have? I will likely be biting, sarcastic, bitter, hateful, negative, complaining, and critical. Whatever that says about the object of my bad attitude, it does not excuse me in His eyes. He would tell me I am defiled. That means unclean and unacceptable. To see it that way convicts me to watch my heart so that acidic content does not spill out and hurt my reputation, my relationships, and my Righteous Ruler!
Seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Each remembered for an overall characteristic. The same is true for individual Bible characters, isn’t it? Most remember Moses, Samson, David, Jeroboam, Jonah, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Judas, Peter, Paul, and John for a particular attribute, whatever else could describe their lives. That’s more than fascinating. It’s sobering.
What about you and me? Is there a word others–those we attend school with, work with, live near, attend church with, or share family ties with–would use to describe us? Here are some possibilities:
Such attributes are the cumulative result of the attitude, words, and actions that we portray each day we live. Everybody has good days and bad days. But, there is an overall tenor and flavor to our lives that cause people to associate something with us. However, the word might be different:
That, too, is being built moment by moment, day by day.
With both groups of words, we can think of people who epitomize characteristic above. But I want to know, “Which one would best describe me?” Don’t you want to know that about you? The good news, if you don’t like the answer there’s time to change that. Dickens’ Christmastime novel about Ebenezer Scrooge is written to make that very point. Infinitely more importantly, the Bible is written to make that point. We can be transformed through the influence of Christ in our hearts and lives (Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Cor. 3:18). How will you be remembered?
It will happen, at least occasionally. A remark you make gets taken out of context, will not be correctly heard, or will be heard through the personal filters of the listener. Your facial expressions and body language may not accurately express your feelings or at least not tell the whole story. People may ignore the adage, “Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.” While that truism may be naive and certainly not entirely true, we’ve all been on the receiving end of others’ misunderstandings of what we’ve written, said, or done. What do we do when we feel we’ve been unfairly treated by the misunderstandings of others? Consider the following:
- Try to understand others better. Everybody has been through the same thing. I need to make sure I’ve not misunderstood intonation, intention, motivation, emotion, or information. It’s easy to happen.
- Don’t obsess over the hurt. The world has enough victims, and the perpetual victim is exhausting. I cannot afford to fixate on the fracture. I am usually best served to let it g.
- Rejoice in the great company you are keeping. Jesus’ whole life and ministry was misunderstood by the religious leaders of His day. Their misunderstanding was certainly not the meat of His mission. His eyes focused on the bigger picture. He was perfectly sinless and still unjustly treated. I can rejoice when I’m in a similar position, sinful though I am.
- Turn to God, not gossip. This is hard! The urge to lash out and retaliate can seem irresistible, but it’s definitely possible. How much greater peace and harmony would come if we resolved to pray (even for the “misunderstander”) when misunderstood?
- Redouble your efforts to spread salt and light. I may be tempted to throw up my hands and say, “What’s the use? If this is what I get, I quit.” That doesn’t sound so good when I can read it in print. Instead, I need to strive harder to do good.
- If necessary, clarify but with utmost love and kindness. But, let me do some serious soul-searching and ask, “Is it really necessary?” Can I turn my cheek(s) and move on? If I truly cannot, I need to cleanse my heart of sinful anger and act in genuine love and kindness toward my “aggressor.”
- Remember that wisdom is justified of her children. Ultimately, the body of work that is your life will leave a clear impression. Most people who know us know more about us than we think. They see what side of the ledger our lives are lived on and they draw conclusions accordingly. I just need to be characterized by righteousness and good works.
- Be sure you are communicating clearly. Communication is a problem in every medium and relationship. Some do better than others, but all make mistakes. When I am misunderstood, I need the humility and honesty to step back and ask if I asked for a reaction through unclear meaning or veiled messages.
I hate to be misunderstood. But as with every other trial, I can often find blessings even in these distasteful situations. My prayer is that I will not be conformed to the world (or the worldly), but I can be transformed by the renewing of my mind. That’s going to turn out for the best (Rom. 12:1-2).
The theme of our recently completed lectureship was, “Every Man Did What Was Right In His Own Eyes.” This seems to be the summary statement of this entire period of Bible history. It is interesting that this idea shows up more than in just the two verses where the statement appears (Judges 17:6; 21:25). Samson wanted the woman of Timnah because “she looked good to” him (Judges 14:3,7; literally, “she was right in his eyes”). In reality, she was a loose, treacherous, and idolatrous woman, but she seemed right to him. In that dark story about the Levite man, the elderly Ephraimite man, the Levite’s concubine and the Ephraimite’s virgin daughter, the old man, seeking to placate the wicked Benjamites, offered the women to them “to do with them whatever” they wished (Judges 19:24; literally, “the good in your eyes”). Obviously, what was right in these men’s eyes was reprehensible and vile. It is one of the most extreme examples of wickedness recorded in the Bible.
Elsewhere, the Bible says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 12:15a), and “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2a). We often think things seem right when they are far from it (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25; 18:17). After talking about those who mix up right and wrong and good and evil, Isaiah tells us why they do this. He warns that they “are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight” (Isaiah 5:21).
In the world, the church, and our own lives, we are tempted to do what is right in our own eyes. We justify habits, relationships, desires, religious practices, lifestyles, and choices about which God warns in His Word by ignoring that and rationalizing, rewording, and reframing them. We use emotional arguments. We twist Scripture. In the end, when we do these things, we reject God’s authority and seek to become the standard ourselves. The book of Judges was written, in part, to show us what happens when we do it and how God feels when we do it. The well-worn phrase goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That may be. But right and wrong is not such as is in the eye of the beholder. That is determined by the One who possesses “the all-seeing eye” (Proverbs 15:3).
In 1 Peter 1:13-19, there are three commands that relate to something that must be done regardless of how much time it takes to complete. They are, “fix your hope completely on grace” (13), “be holy in all your behavior” (15), and “conduct yourselves in fear” (17). There’s a fourth command of this type in verse 22: “Love one another from the heart.” All of these are done as the result of a salvation taught by the prophets and revealed to us. Because we’ve been saved, we should fix our hope on grace, be holy in behavior, conduct ourselves in fear, and love one another from the heart. Considering what God has done for us, we should be eager to do what He tells us to do. At the heart of the discussion, Peter calls for holiness. “Holy” is found 10 times in 1 Peter, but there are synonyms in the book, too (“behavior” or “manner of life”—7 times; “do good” or “right”—13 times). We want to be holy, do good, and behave, and this letter says a whole lot about how that looks. It’s faithfulness in suffering, distinctiveness in daily living, and keeping heavenly in focus. It’s captured in Peter’s petition (2:11). Our world places more emphasis on happiness than holiness, and if you have to choose one the world says choose happiness. But, God calls us to choose holiness. How do we do that?
- Look within (13). Moral behavior begins in the heart. So, he says to keep sober in spirit and fix your hope on grace. These are both heart matters.
- Look out (14,17). Sanctification and obedience appear together in three different verses in chapter one (2,14,22). Holiness is a matter of obeying the truth. This has a negative aspect (14—“Don’t be conformed”) and a positive aspect (17—“Conduct yourselves in fear”). To be holy, we’ve got to keep our eyes peeled and be vigilant. We’re going to look out for the traps and tricks of this world because we know we’re only strangers here.
- Look up (15-16). This letter is about our need of God’s help to be holy. There’s a wide gap between our holiness and God’s holiness, and we can never forget that. Peter says to be holy like He is holy. That is an endless aspiration, a goal we’ll never achieve but must constantly work at.
- Look ahead (17). God is going to impartially judge according to each one’s work. We should be holy now because we will stand before the Perfect Judge some day.
- Look back (18-19). I love the way Peter ends the paragraph. It gives us such hope! The way to take time to be holy is to turn around and look back—at our salvation (1:4) and at our Savior (1:2,21). I can’t look at sin in my life and glorify it, rationalize it, defend it, hide it, or minimize it. Peter reminds us why He had to die (2:24-25).
We take the time for what is most important to us—sports, social media, hobbies, work, shopping, and the like. None of that ultimately matters. As we do anything, these or other things, we must make sure that we are holy in heart and conduct. It’s worth the time and will be worth it when there is no longer time.
Unfortunately for folks in southwestern Colorado and several surrounding states, it’s more than a matter of staying out of the Los Animas River. Due to a mishap by some federally-supervised workers in which there was a blowout in the Gold King Mine in the mountains above Silverton, millions of gallons of toxins that include mercury and arsenic are in downstream water supplies. It has contaminated domestic wells and endangered fish and livestock. It has negatively impacted tourist industries that rely on customers who raft, canoe, and fish in the river. It has impacted irrigation and city water intake facilities. All from a single incident in a mine hundreds of miles away from some of the affected areas.
Who knows how this will ultimately be resolved, but a lot of people and money will be thrown at the matter until it is finally resolved. A problem that started in a relatively small, remote area has finally become a national story. As the river continues to flow, the troubles continue to compound.
Have you considered the power of your influence? A single conversation, an impulsive act in a moment’s time, or a thought unchecked and fed all can lead to outcomes that spill into a lot of lives and potentially do damage that could not be anticipated. David learned this (2 Sam. 11:1-2). The young lads from Bethel learned this (2 Ki. 2:23-24). Judas learned this (Mat. 26:15). So many others in Scripture, from thoughts to words to deeds, learned of the destructive power of negative spiritual influence. It can cause spiritual babes to stumble (Mat. 18:6), the offender to stumble (Mat. 18:8), the world to blaspheme (2 Sam. 12:14), and so much more. No amount of remorse, regret, and retreat can undo the toxic damage it does.
If you find yourself in the “clean up” stage, realize that with time and effort you can work to counteract the impact of poor influence. There may be lingering consequences, but you can mitigate that through genuine repentance. It doesn’t have to end catastrophically, as it did for Judas. It can end triumphantly, as it did for Peter.
Keep in mind, too, that positive influence works the same way (Mat. 13:33). A kind, righteous thought, word, or deed can trigger a powerful effect that leads the lost to be saved and those on the broad way to turn onto the narrow way. You may never know it in this life or see the end result of it in your lifetime. May the great power of our influence drive us to our knees and fill our thoughts with how we may use our lives to bless and help the lives of others, knowing that, for good or bad, our lives touch way more lives than we think.