Over the last several weeks we have been looking at the examples the Apostle Paul has given us which illustrate what it looks like to put off the old self and put on a new self. Paul has been specific and to the point.
Once again, we must remember that Paul is not telling us that we must do these things in order to earn salvation. Paul is arguing that these things are the result of our salvation. This is the goal of the Holy Spirit in our lives. If we are not making progress in these areas it is a sign that there is a problem in our spiritual lives.
Our text this morning is Ephesians 4:31-32.
31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
In this text Paul builds on some things that he has already mentioned (anger and our conversation) and gives us a general summary of what it means to live in a way that does not grieve the Holy Spirit. These words are pointed and practical. Once again Paul states the negative behaviors we need to abandon and the positive behaviors to develop.
What to Stop
Bitterness. The first thing we are to work on eliminating from our lives is bitterness. Bitterness is a sour attitude that seeps into every area of our lives.
Bitterness happens most of the time because we fixate on hurts and replay them over and over in our minds. The hurts may be real or imaginary. We examine the hurt from every angle. We examine each word and tend to give it much more meaning than it ever could have had to start with. Bitterness feeds on itself and leads us to see hurts and grievances everywhere (even where they actually don’t exist).
Next Paul tells us to get rid of Rage and Anger. The two words are related. Some have suggested that this is the result or outworking of bitterness. The word for Rage or wrath is also translated by words such as passion and fury. It is an intense kind of anger that is dangerous. This is the what happens to people who “lose their temper.” Such people (at least temporarily) are “out of control”. These people are dangerous and can sometimes do great damage (physically or verbally) to others when they are in this state. A person in a rage is one you need to stay away from. Even more importantly, we need to take steps to never be that person who loses control.
The word Anger describes a more settled state. This is the person who is in a “bad mood”. They pick at everything because they view everything from a negative perspective. An angry person can quickly turn into a person who moves to rage. Generally however, rage is a temporary explosion. Anger an attitude that lingers.
Next Paul says we should get rid of Brawling and Slander. This seems to be the verbal results of bitterness, wrath and anger.
Brawling is loud. You see this when people are shouting at each other in anger. We have probably all witnessed this kind of explosion. It has happened to most of us at one time or another.
Brawling is unproductive. Nothing gets solved because no one is listening. It is often accompanied by crying and intense emotion. In these times our words are usually sharpened and meant to wound. The goal of the brawler is not to reach a point of understanding and cooperation, the goal is to win, intimidate, or punish.
Here a general principle: if you are raising your voice, you are probably sinning. Christians are to pursue peace. The tone and volume of our voice will inhibit productive relationships.
Slander is more devious. It is repeating things that are designed to make someone look bad or destroy a reputation. It operates in half-truths, exaggeration, and distortion. The word for slander is actually the word “blaspheme”. We generally think of blasphemy as something (or someone) which slanders, misrepresents, or dishonors the character of God. Paul is giving this word an even wider usage. When we slander each other; when we diminish another person, we are actually slandering the Lord who made that person!
That’s not really hard to understand. If someone makes fun or slanders your child do you take it personally? Of course you do. God takes it personally when we slander others.
Every form of Malice. Paul leaves us no loop holes. Any behavior that destroys relationships or diminishes another person is to be eliminated from our lives. These behaviors are selfish and inconsistent with the Holy Spirit who has taken up residence in our heart. When we live this way we grieve the Holy Spirit.
A.W. Tozer made a chilling observation.
We have all noticed how quick many people are to excuse themselves for some outburst by pleading that they were provoked to it. Thus their own wrongdoing is laid to others. What is overlooked in this neat trick of self-exoneration is that provocation cannot stir up what is not there. It never adds anything to the human heart; it merely brings out what is already present. It does not change the character; it simply reveals it.
What a man does under provocation is what he is. The mud must be at the bottom of the pool or it cannot be stirred up. You cannot spoil pure water. Provocation does not create the moral muck; it brings it to the surface.…
The point is simple: how we respond to each other (especially in times of conflict and tension) reveals more about our hearts than we may be ready to see.
The Better Way
Paul never leaves us without a solution. The believer in Christ can go in another direction because we have God’s Spirit at work in us. We can leave this way of life behind! Paul gives us a formula for living that is pure, good, and powerful. If we do these things we will enjoy life, have friends, and influence many for the Kingdom.
32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you
Kindness is a goodness of heart. It is acting toward another person with consideration. The kind person acts in the best interest of the other person. The Bible tells us that love is kind. Kindness begins with simple civility.
- It is being considerate of the needs of others. It involves seeing beyond ourselves so that we consider the needs of others or how our actions will affect those around us. For example, the kind person lowers their voice when they know someone is sleeping. They clean up a mess they made.
- It gives another the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming the worst. Rather than jumping to a “worst case scenario” the kind person leaves the door open to the possibility of mitigating circumstances.
- It is spot-lighting strengths rather than weaknesses. We all appreciate it when someone spotlights the good things we do.
- It is refusing to be part of hurtful gossip.
- It is letting someone else have the “spotlight”. In other words it is letting someone have their “moment” without feeling like you have to “trump” their experience or turn the spotlight back to yourself. It is letting someone tell their story without feeling the need to jump in and correct them.
- Sometimes being kind is simply listening.
One of the indicators of a depraved society is when people only care about themselves. If you look around you will see that kindness, respect and civility are becoming the exception rather than the rule. That is never good for a society. Rather than respond to people by being abrasive in return to their abrasiveness, the Bible teaches that kindness is the antidote to the self-centeredness around us.
Compassionate or tender-hearted. The word used here is derived from a root word that means bowels. The idea is that a compassionate person feels for someone from the depth of their being. They will weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.
The compassionate person is the one who learns to “put themselves in the shoes of another”. For example, they will sense
- the fear, anxiety and weariness of the person who is sick
- the sense of inadequacy in the one who is unable to provide for the needs of their family.
- the regret, embarrassment, isolation and shame of the one who has failed and had it reported on the front page of the paper.
- the sense of hurt and rejection in the one who has been asked for a divorce.
- the loneliness and sense of isolation of the new student, employee, or church visitor.
- the fear of failure in the one who is reaching beyond their comfort zone.
- even the desire for approval and attention in the child who won’t stop talking.
We appreciate it when someone takes the time to truly understand us. At times, we have all felt like we were unseen, and because we are unseen, we quickly conclude that we don’t matter. The compassionate person is the person who conveys the sense that we DO matter.
Forgiving. This last word is perhaps the most difficult. The word forgive comes from the root word of grace. To forgive means to “extend grace”. The antidote to the anger, resentment, bitterness, and aggressiveness is forgiveness.
Sometimes forgiveness means simply overlooking an offense. We all have bad days. We say things before we think. We make mistakes. Some things we should just overlook as just a part of being human.
However, some wounds are deeper. In this case forgiveness doesn’t mean that we pretend it didn’t happen. It is not about ignoring a wrong. Forgiveness sees the wrong, recognizes the hurt or the injustice, and then chooses to extend grace rather than exact retribution. In other words, we choose to “let it go”.
Is forgiveness difficult? Of course it is! If you have ever been hurt deeply you have struggled with forgiveness. However, forgiveness is the best way to go because it sets us free. A person who is unwilling to forgive is a person who invites bitterness, wrath, anger and all the other things into their lives.
We have all kind of reasons why we think we think we should not, cannot, or will not, forgive. Most of these reasons boil down to just two: the depth of the hurt and the feeling that forgiving means justice will be perverted. Let’s think about these.
First, there is the depth of the hurt. Let’s concede that great hurt was done. It may have been physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. It may have been public disgrace, embarrassment, false charges, betrayal, financial loss, or shattered dreams. These are not little things. The Bible does not minimize our hurt. God does not make light of our sorrows.
However, we must keep perspective. We must remember that we have been forgiven by God. We have rebelled against His leadership, we have slandered His name, we have violated His laws, and we have treated Him as if He were nothing. We must ask a simple question: Has any hurt we have endured been as great as the assault that we have made against the God of creation? If we understand the cosmic ripple effect of sin we will realize that our sin makes even the most horrible actions of others seem minor by comparison . . . yet God forgives us through Christ. So, forgiveness is possible.
Second, there is the issue of justice. There is a feeling that if we truly forgive then the other person is going to “get away” with the wrong they have done. They will likely do it again. We feel the wrong demands some kind of payment.
Yet again we must ask if we are willing for that same standard to be applied to us. Paul asks: was not the crucifixion of Christ a sufficient punishment for sin? Was not the wrath that He endured in our place sufficient to pay for the sin of those who have offended us?
The Lord has told us: “vengeance is mine, I will repay”. Only God knows all the facts. He is the only one who knows the actions, motives, and mitigating circumstances of every situation. Our viewpoint is distorted. If more punishment is needed the Lord is the one to hand it out . . . not us.
You are probably familiar with the texts in the Bible that tell us that if we have truly understood the forgiveness we have been given, we will likewise forgive others. In other words, Paul (along with Jesus) seems to be saying that in some respects forgiveness is a test of faith. If we are unwilling to forgive it is possible that we have not understood what it is that we have been forgiven. It’s possible that we aren’t really believers at all!
Admittedly, these are strong words. God chooses His words carefully. The words are strong because this is apparently an important issue. Forgiveness matters!
Are you one who needs to do what Paul is telling us to do? Are you are enslaved to bitterness and anger because you are unwilling to forgive? Are you playing some hurt over and over in your mind? Are you telling everyone you see that you have been treated shamefully? Do you relish opportunities to pass on information that will make the other person look bad? If so, you are not living with the heart of Christ.
Let me give you some specific suggestions on how to let go of the bitterness and embrace the heart of God.
- Be honest with God. You may be able to fool yourself; you may be able to fool others; but you aren’t fooling the Lord. God sees the churning, He hears the angry thoughts. He knows the malice you hide in your heart. Be honest with Him. Confess your hurt. Ask for Him to change your heart. Ask Him to help you to rest in Him.
- Consider God’s grace that has been extended to you. Think about what you “deserve” and about what you have been given. Think long and hard. As you do, your heart will begin to soften.
- Pray for the person who hurt you. At first you will be tempted to pray a simple prayer: “Get them God!” But that is not the prayer He desires. Bring that person to the Lord understanding that their behavior was an expression of a sinful and lost heart. See the danger they face. Then pray that God would open their eyes to His love, mercy and grace. Think about the things that may be motivating their behavior and bring that to the Lord. As we said a few weeks ago . . . most anger is caused by some kind of pain in the angry person’s life. Look for the pain and bring it before the Lord for healing. It is tough to stay angry and bitter if you are sincerely praying for someone.
- Decide to forgive. You may need to do this every time you think about the offense and every time you begin to churn. In those times choose to release the hurt and the one who hurt you to the Lord. You may need to do this for a long time but don’t give up. Decide to forgive over and over until (even though you remember the offense) it no longer impacts who you are and what you do.
- Act in a forgiving way. This doesn’t mean you have to hang out together. Work to be civil. Say hello. Shake their hand. Ask about their life. Try to work up to being kind. Remind yourself that this is less about them and more about you. What kind of person do you want to be? Are you willing to be God’s agent even to those who have hurt you?
- When you really struggle, ask yourself a simple question: Would I want God to treat me this way? Remember the grace that has been extended to you. Give thanks. Gain perspective. Pass that grace on to others.
If you will work at forgiveness, sometimes you will forget. You will get past the hurt. You will see that we all need God’s grace and we need to receive grace from each other. When we extend forgiveness we experience that grace again in our own lives. We discover the freedom and the joy of entrusting our hurt to the Lord of life.
We can’t do any of this in our own strength. We need the help of God’s Spirit. Because of God’s forgiveness, the chains of sin have been loosed in our lives. We have been given freedom and new life. At times it is hard to believe it’s really true. How could God ever love us, after all we have done? But He does.
Having been given freedom why would we put on the straightjacket of bitterness, resentment, anger, and unforgiveness? Why would we choose to return to the prison from which we have been delivered? But that is exactly what we do when we choose not to forgive.
The Lord has set you free. Not only that, He has given us the opportunity, the privilege, and the joy, to extend that same wonderful grace, freedom, and forgiveness to others. It may not be the easy way . . . but it is certainly the best way to live.