Tending the Garden of Faith
Hebrews, Peace, Bitterness, Accountability, Idolatry
In the spring of every year many people (other than me) decide to plant gardens. Some plant flowers, others plant vegetables, some do both. To have a good garden you must do more than simply plant a few seeds, water them now and again and then wait to enjoy the fruit of the labor.
A good gardener fertilizes, is frequently busy pulling weeds, trims and prunes. Without this careful and painstaking work the garden won’t be very productive and soon it will be completely overgrown.
This is a picture of the Christian life. There seem to be some people who think that being a follower of Christ is just a matter of saying a prayer (planting the seed) and occasionally going to church (watering the seed). They believe they have done all that is necessary to enjoy the Lord and spend eternity in Heaven. In truth, they need to continually tend the garden of faith if they are going to live faithfully. Saving faith involves walking with Jesus.
In Hebrews 12:14-17 we are given a number of commands. These are adjustments or tasks every one of us should regularly address so our faith will grow most effectively. If you look carefully at the text you see the author talks about a couple of things we should work to pursue and embrace and there are also some things we must also avoid!
14 Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord.
What to Do
Now we are given some specific tasks. The first thing we should do is pursue peace with everyone. I believe we are not simply talking about peace with other people in your church, or with just other Christians. We are to pursue peace (or respect, cooperation, honor) with all people.
We may not find peace with all people but . . .we should be pursuing peace. We are told in Romans that “as far as it depends on us, we are to live at peace with everyone.” We cannot control how another person responds but we should be making an effort. The goal is to find a way to build a bridge to every person we meet. This doesn’t mean compromising our faith or our values. To pursue peace takes balance.
To do this we have to carefully maintain balance between two extremes. We must find balance between compromising truth (selling out) to keep peace and being contentious and seemingly always looking for a fight about any minor difference we have. It is the difference between contending for the faith and being contentious (or argumentative).
We can’t have peace with others until we first are at peace ourselves. The only way we can find peace in ourselves is by being in the right relationship with Christ. We must first come to recognize our alienation from God. We must admit that we are a mess. Then we reach out to Him as the only One who can rescue and save us. Once we do this we will have a greater sense of compassion toward others. Once we know forgiveness and new life it will be easier to extend grace and understanding (the building blocks of peace) to others.
Here are some simple principles to pursuing peace with others. If you find that you are at odds with someone check this list to see if one of these things might help.
- In times of misunderstanding or disagreement look for points of agreement and build from that agreement rather than setting out to “win” or “punish”. Rather than trying to destroy an argument, try to get involved in a discussion. Gently help the other person understand what Christianity affirms. Angry and aggressive people push others away; they provoke conflict. Gentle, kind, and reasonable people cause people to open up and listen.
- Keep your anger in check. Losing your cool will destroy peace and create conflict. There are many families, many churches, and many friends who are divided because of hurtful words that were spoken in anger.
- When offended, talk TO the person who offended you rather than ABOUT that person.
- Work hard to understand how the other person views an issue (even if you completely disagree). Try to respect their viewpoint rather than being dismissive of that viewpoint. Try to see and state their position clearly so they know you really do understand.
- Speak calmly and softly. Calm words lower the temperature in a situation. Calm words lead to calm discussions. Loud words do the opposite.
- Pray for the other person. It is hard to remain alienated from someone for whom you are praying.
These simple steps should help us to live at peace with people who are much different than we are. It should help us to talk with those who have different political views, religious views, and moral views. We live in a day when Christians are caricatured (sometimes accurately) as angry people. We need to change that picture. The only way to do that is to be people who show respect to all people, even to those with whom they disagree.
Second, we are to pursue holiness. Simply put we are to work to more and more adopt the heart and practice of Jesus. We want to live the way God has called us to live. We should strive to honor Him in everything that we do.
Holiness is not something that suddenly comes upon you; it is a process. The Holy Spirit works inside of us by addressing one issue and then another. We need to be patient with ourselves and with others when it comes to holiness. Not everyone is in the same place in the journey of holiness. The goal is pursue the heart of God.
Practically, how do you go about pursuing holiness?
- Read the Bible and when you read a command, prayerfully obey it.
- Ask God to help you to hunger for Him rather than the things that are made by Him (or in China). Spend much time with the Lord. We tend to become like the people we spend the most time around. Work to make that person of greatest influence the Lord of life.
- At the end of each day bring your day before the Lord and honestly evaluate the day and the decisions and actions of that day before Him. Confront your excuses and justifications. Be honest and transparent before the Lord and He will show you what you need to do to change.
- Find some mentors. These are people who are further down the road of discipleship than you are. Look for people who seem to understand and practice godliness (at least in areas where you are weak). Learn everything you can from these people. Ask questions and watch carefully what they do.
We are tempted to dismiss the idea of pursuing holiness because it feels impossible. Maybe it is impossible to be completely holy in this life. However, we should be making progress.
Things to Avoid
15 Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. 16 Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. 17 You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears. (Hebrews 12:14-17)
From this simple passage I see three things we are to guard against. The first is we must guard against being indifferently self-absorbed. We are told to look after each other. We are to be concerned about how others are doing in their Christian faith.
This flies in the face of much of contemporary thinking that says you have to look out for number 1 (meaning yourself). The Bible turns this notion on its head. Yes, we need to watch our own lives but we also ought to take responsibility for each other.
Be careful. Looking after each other is not the same as being intrusive and nosey. The Bible tells us not to be busy bodies (1 Timothy 5:13). We don’t have to have all the details of a situation to be concerned for people. We are to be concerned for the spiritual health and vitality of our brothers and sisters. Other things are none of our business!
Do you see how peace and holiness fit into this? If we are living at peace with others we will not only be more likely to care what is happening in someone else’s life, we will have the opportunity to care for another because people will respond better to the things we say if we are able to say them lovingly. We must pursue holiness because we need credibility when we talk to others about their faith. If we are living a lackadaisical Christian faith no one will listen to us because we will be speaking words that seem to have no meaning for our own lives!
It is a sobering thought isn’t it? Perhaps one of the reasons we are not more successful in sharing our faith is the inconsistency of our own lives. People need to know that we truly care for them.
We need to keep an eye open for those who
- Are in the church but have not really decided to follow Jesus. They are religious rather than reborn. I believe this is what is meant by: “make sure no one misses the grace of God”. There are people who are busy “doing church” but they have not surrendered to Jesus! When we see such people we need to continue to share with them the message of the gospel that no one can “save themselves” by good works. The gospel needs to be preached to believers and unbelievers.
- We should be watching for those who appear to be drifting away. They may be getting weary or just lazy. Their weekly church habit turns into a monthly habit then perhaps they attend only every quarter. We drift gradually. And it’s not just worship! A person who is not able to follow through on worship is likely drifting in prayer, Bible reading, quiet time before the Lord, and they may be drifting with their moral compass.
- We need to be alert to those who are weighted down and need someone to help them carry their burden. Sometimes people don’t need advice; they just need a friend.
- We need to be diligent to show the love of Christ even to (especially to) those who have become hardened. Some people build a wall around themselves. The only way through that wall is to remove one brick at a time.
- We need to be alert to when others are beginning to conform to the world around us rather than to the Lord. We need to pray that those around us will extend to us the same courtesy. We need people to reflect back to us what we don’t easily see in ourselves.
Second, we need to guard against a “poisonous root of bitterness that grows up to trouble you and corrupt many. What is bitterness? It is to have a bad taste in your mouth. When we say that someone is bitter it means something happened in the past; it is something they cannot let go. They replay it over and over in their head.
There are a lot of bitter people in the world. In fact, the world has plenty of bitter people. They don’t need us to be bitter too. It is possible to let offenses and circumstances poison our lives and our church. A bitter person is no fun to be around. In fact bitter people tend to embitter others. A sharp word often meets a sharp word in return. Before long people who had long been friends (or even family) are at odds with each other.
So how do you avoid bitterness? Several steps are necessary.
- Control your anger. Most of the situations that bring about bitterness start either with a painful circumstance or an argument. If we can control our anger we can minimize the arguments. We need to stifle the urge to RE-act to what others say or do. We must give people the grace to misinterpret our actions.
- Focus on God’s love and sovereignty in the course of life. We become bitter sometimes because we feel we are getting cheated. We might even say, “That’s not fair!” As believers we must continually remind ourselves that God loves us and provides for us what we need. God is never out to wound us; He is concerned to ‘grow us’. If we focused on our blessings rather than our perceived “slights” our bitterness would give way to gratitude.
- Practice forgiveness. Bitterness is an indication that we have refused to forgive. That happens for a number of reasons: it could be that the wound is too new; we may be reluctant because we are concerned that the person may do the same thing to us or others again; we may be afraid a person will escape without consequences. However, generally the only person who is miserable in such a situation is you. The other person doesn’t care what is happening with you. Forgiveness comes down to whether we trust the Lord to be the perfect and righteous Judge. When we forgive someone we stop trying to play God and let God do what only God can do. In forgiveness we let the issue go. We don’t have to be best friends (or friends at all). But we do need to let it go. And when we do we find that we feel like we have been released from prison.
Third, we need to guard against drifting into an Unfaithful Heart.
Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. (16)
Some of the other versions translate the verse: “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, (NIV). However, in context, it seems that “immoral” is not talking about sexual sin as much as it is talking about a spiritual adultery.
The story of Esau (Genesis 25-27) has no record of Esau being involved in any sexual sin. He married foreign women to annoy his parents but that is all. The immoral behavior seems to have been that he traded his birthright for a single meal. A birthright was very significant. Jacob and Esau were twins but Esau was the first one born. As a result he would receive the majority of the family inheritance. The story in Genesis tells us that Esau was so hungry that he felt he was going to die. He was so desperate for some of the stew that Jacob made that he was willing to trade his birthright for a bowl of that stew! He gave up what was enduring for what would quickly pass away. How often are we tempted to do the same?
Esau may not have committed adultery but he in essence cheated on his birthright. All throughout the Old Testament God is pictured as a jilted lover. Every time His people wandered off to serve other gods they were considered to be adulterous. They were “having affairs” with other gods!
Even though Esau was reckless he fully expected to still receive the blessing of the firstborn. In other words, it is possible that when he traded his blessing for a bowl of stew he thought his brother would never be able to collect that wage.
Once again the same thing can happen to us when we treat God’s standards casually and assume there will be no consequences.
We read in the next verses,
17 You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.
When it came time for the blessing, Isaac blessed Jacob. Esau pleaded with his dad for a blessing of his own. However, his dad said the blessing was gone. Though he was sorry, it was too late.
In Romans 1 we see a similar warning,
21 Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. 22 Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. 23 And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. 25 They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. (Romans 1:26-27)
We must guard against making compromises to gain momentary pleasures.
- Fudge a little on your expense account
- Stretch the truth about what really happened
- Stray from your spouse for just one night
- Push the Lord to the back burner for just a few days
- Run to alcohol or to drugs to numb the pain rather than turn to the Lord
- Walk past a person in need when you have the resources to help
We all struggle with spiritual adultery. And the thing is, we have become so good at justifying what we are doing that we actually think evil is acceptable. When we finally recognize that what we are doing is wrong, it may be too late.
We become a follower of Christ by putting our trust in Jesus to save us. We grow and develop as a follower of Christ by cooperating with the Holy Spirit. We must tend the garden of Christian discipleship. We do this by pursuing peace and holiness and by keeping guard against selfishness, bitterness and spiritual adultery. If you want your garden at home to look good you are going to have to put in the work. The same is true for your walk with Christ.