Stop the Bad, Start the Good (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth. Don’t get so angry that you sin. Don’t go to bed angry and don’t give the devil a chance.

If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need.

Stop all your dirty talk. Say the right thing at the right time and help others by what you say.

Don’t make God’s Spirit sad. The Spirit makes you sure that someday you will be free from your sins.

Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude. Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.

Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. Let love be your guide. Christ loved us and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. (Contemporary English Version)

All of us have a hard time breaking bad habits, even and especially destructive habits which damage us and/or others. Why, despite knowing better, is it so doggone hard to change? And why, even though having the best of intentions, does that person in my life never change because I tell them to?

Probably because our approach to change dooms us from the beginning. Here are a few approaches which, frankly, do not work:

  • Telling ourselves (or others) to stop. Barking commands may alter speech or behavior for a while but it won’t stick. That’s because people need affirmation, encouragement, and love in order to change – and not by mandated rules. Judgmentalism or shaming others never effects any sort of positive change. Neither our brains nor our souls operate that way.
  • Relying on willpower. This is really an over-reliance on thinking. Yes, it’s necessary to change our thinking. It isn’t, however, enough. That’s because we are not brains-on-a-stick. We also have a body, emotions, and a spirit which needs activation, as well. What’s more, our thinking doesn’t change by sheer force of the will. Our brains are literally not wired that way.
  • Believing in positive thinking. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….” “Dream it and do it.” “I believe in myself.” “Nothing is impossible.” I am not suggesting we indulge negative thinking or let a bad attitude take root. I’m saying that positive thinking has its limits. It’s helpful but is not the true agent of behavioral change.
  • Pursuing self-help. Yes, we must all help ourselves. After all, we are responsible for our own behavior. However, self-help alone doesn’t bring lasting change. By only going it alone, individuals come up with hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions that will not get the job done. That’s because we are hard-wired for community and any sort of effective change of habit happens with others.

To stop doing or saying something is only half the equation. We also need to start doing and saying something else altogether.

Change always involves both putting off and putting on, laying down and picking up, removing and replacing, starting and stopping.

The Christian tradition holds that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus together, we are to share a common life together.

Therefore, we will stop non-Christian ways of relating to each other and start a Christian way of relating to each other – because we belong to one another and are inextricably connected as the community of the redeemed.

Stop lying and start speaking the truth

Too often, we put up a plastic false front. Pretending we are okay, when we are not, or even acting like life is hard, when it isn’t, is an untruthful presentation – it’s a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretention, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other. 

Buying into the devil’s snake oil salesmanship leads one to believe we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine; it’s not worth the risk. We worry about being rejected, losing face, or becoming a victim of gossip. Shame then takes the steering wheel of one’s life, instead of speaking truthfully.

We speak the truth in love because we are responsible to one another – not hiding in the shadows or avoiding the dark places of the heart – but stepping into the light and forsaking all fakery for the benefit of everyone’s needs. The only thing lying does is undermine and erode true community.

Stop stealing and start being generous

Thievery takes many forms: petty theft, identity theft, stealing intellectual property (copywrites, patents, trade secrets, etc.), fraud, plagiarism, robbery, burglary, embezzlement, shoplifting, and more. Gossip, slander, and defamation robs another person of their dignity and reputation. Likely the most insidious theft of all is the stealing and kidnapping other human beings.

Stealing will always be a way of life unless it is replaced wholesale with generosity. Learning to give back is the surest path to real change. And there a lot of ways of doing it.

We can give back to the community through donating our time, participating in charity events, volunteering at a school, hospital, or senior center, and even recycling or planting a tree, or giving blood.

Whatever it is you choose to do, connect it with the penchant toward stealing you may have. For example the one prone to gossip might replace it with gratitude; or the one who chronically steals another’s time might join an altruism group.

Stop the dirty useless talk and start encouraging others

Locker room talk and dirty jokes aren’t helpful. There’s also a lot of speech that’s just downright useless, such as: a preacher who pads the sermon with lots of unnecessary words; a relative who is vague and not specific with their words; a boss who always points out, with many words, what is wrong but barely says one word of affirmation to an employee.

Instead of tearing down others with words, replace those words with encouragement. Going out of your way to write an encouraging card or note to someone, bending down to look a child in the eye to say, “hi,” expressing sincere condolences to someone who lost a loved one, or just having a kind word for the harried cashier behind the counter or the waitress at the restaurant, are simple ways of embracing encouragement as a lifestyle.

Stop being so bitter and angry and start forgiving people

Many people either cannot or will not forgive because they want to hold onto their anger and bitterness. Somehow, in their twisted and darkened thinking, they believe that, unless they maintain their grudge-bearing, the offending person or group will get off the hook.

Please, lay down that crushing load of mental vengeance; and pick up the light backpack of grace and forgiveness.

Chances are, if you’ve been in the habit of being angry for a long time, you have a cardiologist you see on a regular basis. Do yourself a favor by changing yourself and saving your health, instead of expecting others to change and blaming them for your issues.

If you are not the person you want to be, then take a lesson from the Apostle Paul: don’t just try and stop something you don’t like but also start doing just the opposite of it, in helpful ways that are a blessing to others.

And if ever in doubt, love is always the best choice.

May the God of peace make you pure and faultless, belonging only to what is right, just and good. And may your whole self—spirit, soul, mind, body, and emotions—be kept safe and be blameless when our Lord Jesus Christ comes. Amen.

Psalm 58 – Curse the Wicked

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
    Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
    and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
    from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
    like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
    however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
    Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
    when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
    like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
    whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
    when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
    “Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
    surely there is a God who judges the earth.” (New International Version)

The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people. There are eighteen imprecatory psalms within the Old Testament psalter, all of which make a clear petition for God to turn the evil back on the people who inflict it (or try to) on others. Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.

There is nothing sanitized about imprecatory psalms. They are as raw and real as it gets, expressing deep anger. Whatever you might think about how a proper pious person ought to pray, imprecatory curses are likely not your first thought. But here they are, contained in Holy Scripture for our use.

One reason for the imprecatory psalms is that it is not any person’s place for revenge or retaliation. Instead, for people who are genuinely caught in the crosshairs of evil, for those who have awful trouble dogging them, prayer is their most effective recourse.

Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is. There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face so that you can deal with people who keep gossiping, slandering, and trying to get their way. Yet, there is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.

There are many folks who consider imprecatory psalms a problem because of their detailed expressions of cursing. Yet, such psalms refuse to put a positive spin on malevolent motives, wicked words, and destructive actions.

Desperate people utter desperate prayers. Their unflinching sense of injustice will not allow them to sugarcoat the villainous plans of corrupt people.

Evil is never toppled with tepid prayers from wimpy worshipers. Rather, nefarious agendas are thwarted in the teeth of specific, focused, and intense prayers directed with spiritual precision to the very core of diabolical forces.

We need not be shy about being real with God, even with praying imprecatory prayers. There really are people in this world, maybe even in your own life, that have malicious intent against you or others. Our job is not personal revenge, but to entrust ourselves to the God who fights for the poor, the oppressed, and the needy against the arrogant and the powerful. Let your prayers reflect your life.

With no cursing of evil, our emotional pain and spiritual anger come out sideways in an unkind sort of “snarky-ness” toward each other. What I am proposing is that our terrible hurt and our rage needs to be acknowledged and voiced.

Our bitterness must have an outlet, not directed toward one another, but toward the evil itself – and even toward God because God is big enough to handle our rage, whereas other humans are not.

Victimization needs a voice, and a bit of raging and cursing is the means to do it. Giving voice to our deep anger is cathartic and therapeutic. Our speech needs to be congruent with the intensity of our pain because where there are no valued words of assault for victims, the risk of hurting each other becomes much higher.

Despair with no voice and no one to hear will eventually transition to harming others.

Spiritual problems require spiritual implements to solve. And the imprecatory psalms are a major tool for pushing back the dark forces of this world. They are a significant means of spiritual assertiveness against heinous acts, acerbic words, systemic evil, depraved people, and horrible circumstances.

God’s wrath is an expression of God’s love because God is not okay with evil taking root in the lives and institutions of humanity.

Prayer is our privilege of coming to the God who upholds justice and righteousness. For if God is for us, who can be against us?

1 John 2:7-11 – Love, Not Hate

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing, and the true light is already shining.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. (New International Version)

It ought to be abundantly clear that hate has absolutely no place in the Christian’s life. Hate is never justified for any individual or group of people. There are no exceptions.

Love, however, is the consummate Christian virtue. The highest of all truth in Christianity is the grace that is bestowed on us through the love of God in Christ. We, in turn, reflect our Lord’s grace by loving others, no matter their gender, race, creed, or ethnicity.

Yet, we are all familiar with hate. Everyone has hated another, and others have hated us. Unfortunately, hate is ubiquitous throughout the world.

Let’s face it: You and I have people we just don’t like. And maybe for good reason. After all, if you are being gaslighted by someone, or have been abused, mistreated, or oppressed by a person or group, then it takes no effort in disliking them, even to the point of despising them in your heart.

As much as other people need to change, the Apostle John places the burden of change to fall on us who claim the name of Christ. Love must begin somewhere. Let it begin with me.

The bald fact of the matter is that we cannot change another person. We can only control ourselves, and a lot of us don’t do a very good job with that. Christians are to learn to speak and act in the loving ways passed on to us through the gospel. We are to become skilled in the ways of Jesus, which is the way of love.

I fully understand this is not easy. In fact, it is downright hard. Forgiving another, even ourselves, can be a long painful process. Making the choice to love again, or love my enemy, is no small thing. Love must always be our default and de facto response to everyone. Otherwise, our hearts will grow cold and hard. And we will become the very people we despise.

There is a shadow self, dwelling within us all. There are murky places in our hearts where darkness resides. We cannot afford to ignore those places. If we pretend there is no shadow self and keep up appearances, then we actually give the darkness power to come out of us through hateful speech and actions.

The “shadow” is a concept first coined by the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875-1961). Jung describes the shadow self as those aspects of our personality we choose to reject and/or repress. In other words, we all have parts of ourselves we don’t like—or that we think others won’t like—so we stuff those parts down into our unconscious psyche.

So then, the shadow self is a collection of things we toss into the closet of our hearts, lock the door, and forget about them. But they’re still there. And they still exert a great deal of influence from inside that dark closet.

We must be willing to face the shadowy parts of ourselves, to face the dark thoughts and feelings of secretly harming another (or ourselves), nursing a grudge, harboring bitterness, or holding onto an offense, as if it were a security blanket.

Whereas some may believe all our unwanted emotions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences are tightly hidden, they are not. Instead, the telltale sign of the darkness slipping out sideways into the world is hate. And that insidious hate typically takes the following forms:

  • Harshly judging or criticizing others by taking a superior posture over another. The critic, however, doesn’t know they are really castigating themselves.
  • Rebuking others as a common practice. Pointing out another’s “sins” is only a projection of one’s inner darkness onto the other.
  • Having a quick temper. Getting angry and belittling those who cannot fight back or respond is really self-loathing slathered onto someone else.
  • Being the victim in every bad situation. Victimization is a terrible thing. And when someone who isn’t really a victim claims to be one, it diminishes and invalidates the help that true victims need. This is the shadow self’s insecurity coming out – needing attention so that the incessant pounding from the inside of the heart is silenced.
  • Doing whatever is needed to get what you want. If that entails being mean, nasty, and hateful to achieve a desire outcome, then that is what is done.
  • Expressing implicit biases and prejudices. Anyone different is a threat to the shadow self. That other person might expose what’s inside me. So, the other gets treated with subtle digs, demeaning behaviors, and discouraging speech to keep them from getting close.

We need healing from this awful malady of hate.

The good news is that light is also available, and within us. Even in the blackest of hearts, there still remains the little spark of God’s image, way down in there. And it only takes a small Bic lighter to penetrate the darkness.

God’s glory is brighter than the brightest sun. A mere glimpse of such glory is more than enough to lay any heart bare and dispel the darkness.

The love of God in Christ is meant to be received, and then given to others. Fortunately, God has an inexhaustible storehouse of grace, mercy, and love – which means we can keep receiving and keep giving. We’ll never run out.

The shadow self sees only scarcity, so it holds onto resources in the belief there may not be enough. The true self, however, living into the grace and mercy of Christ, rightly discerns that God’s kingdom is a place of abundance. We are enhanced, not diminished, whenever we do the opposite behaviors of the shadow’s propensity to hate:

  • Encouraging and helping others. Pointing out another’s strengths and affirming their good behavior is a liberal practice in God’s kingdom.
  • Showing empathy. Being able to put oneself in another’s shoes, along with the willingness to sit with another’s pain, are common practices of the loving Christian person.
  • Doing whatever is needed to build up the community for the common good of all persons.
  • Including others, especially those who are different than me, by making room for them at the Table and giving them a voice.
  • Forgiving others, just as Christ forgave us.

The believer need not be blinded by hate but can love from a place of healthy self-awareness.

Loving heavenly Father, I thank you for looking beyond my faults and loving me unconditionally. Forgive me when I fail to love others in the same way. Give me eyes to see the needs of the difficult people in my life and show me how to meet those needs in a way that pleases you and glorifies the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Psalm 59 – Victimization Needs a Voice

Oh, my God, deliver me from my enemies;
    put me out of reach from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from evildoers;
    save me from the bloodthirsty.
Look at how they lie in ambush for my life!
    Powerful people are attacking me, Lord—
        but not because of any error or sin of mine.
    They run and take their stand—
        but not because of any fault of mine.

Get up when I cry out to you!
    Look at what’s happening!
You are the Lord God of heavenly forces,
    the God of Israel!
Wake up and punish all the nations!
    Grant no mercy to any wicked traitor!

They come back every evening,
    growling like dogs,
    prowling around the city.
See what they belch out with their mouths:
    swords are between their lips!
        Who can listen to them?
But you, Lord, laugh at them.
    You mock all the nations.
I keep looking for you, my strength,
    because God is my stronghold.
My loving God will come to meet me.
    God will allow me to look down on my enemies.

Don’t kill them, or my people might forget;
    instead, by your power
    shake them up and bring them down,
        you who are our shield and my Lord.
For the sin of their mouths,
    the words that they speak,
    let them be captured in their pride.
For the curses and lies they repeat,
        finish them off in anger;
        finish them off until they are gone!
Then let it be known to the ends of the earth
    that God rules over Jacob.

They come back every evening,
    growling like dogs,
    prowling around the city.
They roam about for food,
    and if they don’t get their fill,
    they stay all night.
But me? I will sing of your strength!
    In the morning I will shout out loud
    about your faithful love
        because you have been my stronghold,
        my shelter when I was distraught.
I will sing praises to you, my strength,
    because God is my stronghold,
    my loving God. (Common English Bible)

David was in a major pickle.

He was wildly successful as a member of King Saul’s court and a captain in his army. David fought Saul’s battles and won major victories. And this put him in the position of being the object of jealousy from Saul. So much so, that the king was ready to snuff out David’s life. David had done everything Saul had asked of him, and he was now about to be repaid by becoming a hunted man.

Today’s psalm was crafted by David in this awkward space between being at home but about to be on the run. It was a time of high anxiety and hypervigilance, of trying to come to grips with what was happening and about to happen.

Honestly, I really don’t like it when people poo-poo and invalidate other people’s emotions.

Every feeling which comes up for us is meant to be acknowledged and paid attention to.

Otherwise, if every feeling is tossed into some internal trash bin, those emotions eventually come out sideways,  looking like the stereotypical uptight and inflexible person who chronically complains and irritates others with their stone-faced tight-lipped sanctimonious policing of another’s feelings.

Such persons are aghast that psalms like today’s are even in the Bible. Biblical scholars identify these psalms as “imprecatory” psalms because they are curses, giving vent to the bitter anger and painful wonderings of the inner person.

A few years back, I was a chaplain in a large care facility. One of the residents was a retired Episcopal priest. He developed a brain tumor and had surgery to remove it. However, getting rid of the tumor damaged his ability to speak.

So, when I came to see him after his return to the nursing home, he labored intensely just to get a simple sentence out. And after each struggle to speak he would swear and utter some expletive, then apologize to me.

Finally, I said to him, “There’s no need to apologize. You have spent your life using words to bless and help others and now that has been robbed of you. You are angry. I am angry. Let’s just sit here and swear together about it.”

We raged together about disease. We swore like sailors about injustice. We cried out to God for vengeance on evil (and I was secretly praying that no one would walk into the room while we were doing this).

Whereas psalms of lament express deep sadness, imprecatory psalms rage with deep-seated anger.

With no cursing of disease, sickness, and death, it comes out sideways in this unkind sort of “snarky-ness” toward each other. In fact, one day I was speaking with someone at work, and she said to me, “Everyone was so mean to each other yesterday that I went home and cried.”

What I am proposing here is that our anger, our rage, even our vengeance needs recognition, just like our sadness does. Our bitterness must have an outlet, not directed toward one another, but toward the evil itself – and even toward God because God is big enough to handle our rage, whereas other humans are not.

Victimization needs a voice, and a bit of raging and cursing is the means to do it.

Giving voice to our deep anger is cathartic and therapeutic. Our speech needs to be congruent with the intensity of our pain because wherever there are no valued words of assault for victims, the risk of hurting each other is much higher.

Despair with no voice and no one to hear will eventually transition to harming others.

Holy One, you do not distance yourself from the pain of your people, but in Jesus bear that pain with us and bless all who suffer at another’s hands. Make our hurting holy! With your cleansing love, bring healing and strength; and by your justice, lift us up so that we may again rejoice in you, through Christ, my Lord. Amen.