hands visible above a wooden table as two people are engaged in a discussion

Teaching in Love

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body. Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.

James 3:1–10

We teach because we love other people, but it’s also important that we approach our teaching in a loving way. James 3 offers a warning about our teaching — that it matters howwe speak to and about other people. This is an increasingly challenging topic in our modern culture. Our ability to instruct and discuss things in a civil and kind way is steadily deteriorating. As ambassadors of God’s word, we cannot blind ourselves to the way this kind of discourse influences us, and we have to be self-reflective about the way we talk about our faith and beliefs with others.

Am I Teaching or Arguing?

The first thing we need to think about is whether we are discussing God’s word or arguing about it. The easiest way to do this is to look at our own motivations: Am I trying to win, or am I trying to help someone on their journey? If it’s the latter, then we will watch what we say and how we say it. That’s being loving toward that person. On the other hand, if I just want to win, then I’ll treat the other person however it takes for them to back down and let me feel validated. If I’m in a discussion for myself — even if it’s about spiritual topics — then I’m not teaching in love.

This was one of the challenges the Pharisees had in the First Century. Matthew 16:1, Matthew 22:15, Matthew 22:23, Mark 8:11, Mark 10:2 — these are just a sampling of passages where religious leaders come to Jesus to antagonize, argue, or try to paint Jesus into a corner. Those who should have been the most intimate with God’s word used it as a weapon instead of a tool, sought technicalities instead of truth. This is what it looks like to argue instead of teach. If love is our motivator, then we’ll take the sword out of our words and humbly lean on the sword of truth.

Seasoning Our Words

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.

Colossians 4:5–6

Theres’s a whole article at The Atlantic about how Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhoodfame) was incredibly intentional about how he used language with children. We should be so thoughtful about the words we use to teach or correct others. Galatians 6:1 and 2 Timothy 2:25 both emphasize the importance of gentleness in correcting one another. It’s when we believe that someone else is wrong that we let our guard down and become verbally harsh. We don’t have to be defensive to defend the truth.

That’s not to say there is never a place for a sharp rebuke, but the overwhelming message of Jesus and His apostles is that when we teach, we should do so with an attitude of gentleness, humility, and love.

But What About That One Time?

There are indeed times where we find Christ and His apostles using stronger words to correct or rebuke. Galatians 2:11 – 14 contains a record of Paul publicly rebuking Peter for hypocrisy and prejudice. 2 Timothy 2:16 – 18 has Paul comparing a couple of false teachers to a disease that needs to be removed. In Matthew 12:33 – 37, Jesus calls the Pharisees in his audience a group of vipers. And there are certainly a few more examples where Jesus or an apostle does use harsh words in their instruction.

The thing to keep in mind with these is that they are an exception rather than the rule. That Jesus used harsh words a handful of times over the course of His three-year ministry is not justification for nightly online tirades or frequent mean-spirited arguments. That we see Paul publicly rebuking Peter once for public sin does not mean we need to turn every disagreement into a spectacle. Proverbs 16:32 says, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.”

Conclusion

Our love for the world and our fellow Christians will drive us to teach; it will cause us to instruct, correct, explain, and even rebuke when needed. Whatever the need, we should fulfill it with love. We have to fight the urge to let misunderstanding or misapplication of God’s word drive us to angry or mean-spirited conduct. We need to avoid tools like sarcasm and insults. We have to be better than that, and we can be if we first fill ourselves with the same love Christ had when He went to the cross. If that’s our starting point, then we can approach our opportunities to teach with love and gentleness.

Photo by Nik MacMillanon Unsplash

Removing the Sword from Our Words

image of a man shouting into a bullhorn

When Jesus told Peter to lay down his sword, he instructed us all to reject violence and unnecessary conflict. This is not restricted to my refraining from physically attacking you for differing beliefs; it must, by extension, affect our words and attitudes toward those outside the body. If I unthinkingly hurt you with my words, then I am every bit as guilty of attacking you as if I had truly taken sword against you.

Ephesians 6:17 and Hebrews 4:12 both compare God’s word to a sword. It pierces hearts and minds; it divides between right and wrong. It discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. But there’s a danger in wielding a sword carelessly or rashly. I recently saw this approach come out in a lesson I was listening to about Catholic doctrine. Setting aside the fact that the preacher was teaching factual inaccuracies, his tone and word choice would have likely driven away anyone who identifies as a Catholic.

He said things like:

  • “They claim to respect the Bible, if you can call what they do respect.”
  • “How can anyone think this is pleasing to God?”
  • “The priests get up and do their mumbo-jumbo.”

I almost interrupted the lesson (and I kind of wish I had). It was unnecessarily harsh and disrespectful to others’ long-held beliefs. Sure, he might have been preaching Biblical truths, but he was doing so in a way to ensure he alienated anyone who didn’t already agree with him. I’ve been guilty of the same in the past, but it’s no more than another form of self-sacrifice to show grace in our speech toward or about those with whom we may disagree.

The place where this seems to be the biggest challenge is online. When we get behind our keyboards, our natural filters disengage, and we write things in posts and comments we would likely never say in person. I’ve even seen it in church families — brothers and sisters who are perfectly pleasant to each other’s faces but who have written extremely thoughtless and mean-spirited things to each other online.

We would all do well to remember some warnings from Jesus and His followers about our speech:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:29

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Colossians 4:6

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

James 3:10 – 12

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Luke 6:45

We should be as careful with what comes out of our mouths and our keyboards as we are about any other potentially sinful activity. Our words need to be thoughtful and intentional, inviting consideration rather than demanding a reaction. Yes, there were times when Jesus’s or Paul’s words gained a hard edge; that’s not in dispute. Those times, however, were the exception rather than a habit. Our habit needs to be one of grace.

Disagreements happen, even among the closest of Christian families. We can have disagreements without being disagreeable. We can talk about doctrine without condescension. We can address controversy without meanness.

Here are some things that might help:

  1. Read Jesus’s words and the letters of Paul in particular. They each have times where they address difficult topics. Looking at how they did so while maintaining a good relationship with the affected parties is a valuable lesson.
  2. Delay commenting. If you read something online that provokes a reaction, avoid posting a comment until the next day. If you’re like me, you might have an easier time wisely choosing battles with this approach.
  3. Turn off harsh voices. This might look like turning off Rush Limbaugh or Tucker Carlson. It might mean unsubscribing from incendiary Facebook pages. It might mean avoiding sites like Daily Kos or The Drudge Report. If we feed ourselves bad examples, we will begin to emulate them.
  4. Pray for the person who made you angry. Don’t just pray that they come to their senses. Pray that you will forgive them and that they will have a closer relationship with Christ.
  5. Be prepared to follow Christ’s example. “What would Jesus do?” is only enough if you are willing to do it.

My hope and prayer for all Christians is that we lay down our verbal weapons and keep doors of opportunities open rather than closing them with a harsh word or unkind attitudes. Every person is valuable to God. We should speak to them like we understand that.

Running Without Legs

hunterwoodhall

This is based on a sermon I delivered at the South Boone Church of Christ a few years ago. Image of Hunter Woodhall of Team USA 2016.

On January 2, 2008, one of my favorite tech bloggers posted this short anecdote:

On the final day of a trip to Disney World with my family last month, I saw something remarkable: a boy, 4 or 5 years old, with two artificial legs, running around Mickey’s Toontown Fair in the Magic Kingdom. Running. If he had been wearing pants instead of shorts, you’d have simply thought he had a bit of a limp.

He was born without legs, but yet there he was, galloping across the playground on a warm, sunny December morning, every bit as happy, excited, and carefree as every little kid in the world ought to be.

His legs — sleek, lightweight, and impressively dextrous — were inspiring and beautiful. And they were made using technology that simply did not exist when I was his age, one generation ago. Focus solely on current events and it’s all too easy to despair at the state of the world. But science and progress march ever forward, and the world is a better place today than it used to be.

This post caught my attention for several reasons – not the least for shaking my perspectives about this world we live in, for contradicting that, “What is the world coming to?” voice. I really think that sometimes we have grown very fixated on negative things to the detriment of our spiritual lives. Hopeless and pessimistic attitudes can impair our spiritual walking in a way this child’s disability fails to impede him.

Recognizing Our Obstacles

We often go to Ephesians 5 to discuss our Christian walk, and in verse 2, Paul instructs us to walk in love. If we skip to verse 5, he encourages us to walk as in the light, and the apostle concludes in verse 15 that we should walk with wisdom. Love, light, and wisdom should guide our lives. In other words, we should be able to:

  • Clearly see what matters. This is light.
  • Make good choices based on what we see. This is wisdom.
  • Allow compassion for others and for God motivates every step we take. This is love.

Worldly Cares

Unfortunately, there is much around us to tear us away from this walk if we allow it to consume our energy and attention, leaving us sitting along the side rather than progressing toward our goal. We can grow discouraged at crime rate statistics, at political figures, at business decisions, at stock market trends, at individuals or groups who somehow offend our sensibilities.

We argue these issues over the dinner table. We complain about them around the water cooler. We blog about them. We yell at the TV about them, and, in so doing, we are sitting down and giving up. We are forgetting how to walk. We are failing Christ. We are failing our brothers and sisters. We are failing those toward whom we should be examples – and over what? Over things that are temporary and insignificant in the bigger picture.

Matthew 6:19-21 reminds us that the things of this world are temporary and warns us about letting them take hold in our hearts. Also, I John 2:15-17 warns us against loving the things of this world, which are transient and will pass away. Often, we apply these passages to outward temptations and covetousness, but we fail to apply these at a deeper level.

When I argue with and berate you because my politics don’t agree with yours, am I not putting worldly cares first? When I mope and complain about taxes or bills, am I not allowing money to rule my life? In these cases, I have stopped walking that Christian walk of light, wisdom, and love, and I have allowed myself to become helpless along the side of the road.

Back in Matthew 6:31-34, Jesus concludes that we should not be overly concerned with the petty details of this life, relying on God for what really matters, and Paul, in Philippians 4:8 reminds us to concentrate mainly on those things that are virtuous and encouraging.

Helplessness

Additionally, I can permit my own sense of helplessness disable my journey. After all, I am apparently powerless against sin (Romans 3:23). I cannot earn my salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). I deserve death (Romans 6:23), and every sin I commit reinforces the torture Christ went through millennia ago (Hebrews 6:6). I may feel myself a hopeless case. I am expected to walk the narrow path. I am expected to walk in light, love, and wisdom. Yet I find I have no legs to stand on.

James 4:10 tells us that we should humble ourselves before God, and He will lift us up. I Peter 5:6 reiterates this sentiment, encouraging us to cast all worries and doubts upon Him who cares for us. In every passage that recounts our helplessness before God, his grace and mercy is described as negating those obstacles between us and Him.

The imagery of God’s hand is replete throughout the Old Testament, and the prophet Isaiah encourages God’s people with the news that His hand is able to save them from their helpless state if they would but take it in Isaiah 59:1 . We may be unable to walk on our own.

We may be unable to make the Christian journey on our own legs, but remember Jesus in Mark 2 when helping a paralyzed man. He asks the scribes around Him which was more difficult, to make him walk or to forgive his sins. With this man, Jesus does both, and today He gives us the ability to walk with Him because of the forgiveness He offers.

Running Toward the Goal

The child at Disney World was not content to walk, though. Even on his artificial legs, he wanted to run, and he ran so well, he could have fooled those around him had it not been for the shorts he was wearing. Likewise, I Corinthians 9:24 encourages us to run to obtain the crown. Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages us to run with endurance toward Christ, but to do so we have to be willing to lay aside anything that burdens us.

I personally like the account in John 20, when Mary Magdalene tells Peter and John of the empty tomb, and both race to see it for themselves. John makes it first, but Peter runs right past him and into the tomb itself. For all intents and purposes, these two should have been strangers to each other by now — the disciple possibly closest to Christ and the one who verbally denied Him. Still, they set aside their differences, and they ran toward Christ. We can do likewise. Though we have no legs of our own, through Christ we can run.

Comfort and Joy

girlmittens

Comfort and Joy — those two words summarize the gospel message very well. In Matthew 11:28, Jesus extends this invitation:

Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.

This is an invitation to all of us who want to leave behind the burdens of the world and find comfort in His arms. Jesus goes on in the the following verses to talk about how He is Lord of the Sabbath, the day of rest from this world’s labors. He offers comfort that gives us refuge and rest from this world and its concerns.

In John 15:11, when Jesus is telling His followers of the love He has for them and that they should have for each other, He says:

I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you.

How many times can we read of Christ’s followers rejoicing? They rejoice in worship. They rejoice in prison. They rejoice in persecution. They rejoice in their hope. Their lives are joyful because they carry Christ’s joy and love inside them.

Too often, we trade Christ’s comfort and joy for burdens and heartache. We dwell on things that take away our peace. We take in influences that squander joy, and then we might go and do the same to others. Think of how confrontational and impatient we can become while waiting in lines or stuck in shopping traffic this time of year. Think of how you treated the last cashier to ring your order up incorrectly.

We proclaim to serve a risen Savior, a Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, the Lamb of God. Every day we follow Him should bring us comfort and joy, and we should then spread that everywhere we go. What joy it should be to know that we have a home prepared with our Savior! What comfort we should be able to take in the fact that the burdens of this life are temporary and that He came to bear the weight of our transgressions! How can we let anything in this world get us down when we keep those things in our thoughts?

These two qualities are then rooted in love — love for our Savior, love for the world, love for each other, and the confidence we have of God’s love for us. It’s a way we should be set apart form the world. During the holiday season and throughout the year, we should bear tidings of comfort and joy.

The Slippery Slope of Grace

xkcd has been one of my favorite webcomics for a long time, and today’s entry is absolutely fantastic.

Sure, taking a few seconds to be respectful toward someone about something they care about doesn’t sound hard. But if you talk to hundreds of people every day and they all start expecting that same consideration, it could potentially add up to MINUTES wasted. And for WHAT?

What would happen if you took time to care about the people around you? What would result from actually showing kindness and concern for your bank teller, your waitress, your cashier, your plumber, or a telemarketer? Might you start to make the world around you a little better? Might it eventually make you into a better person? We get so worried about so-called slippery slopes in our church cultures, but this is one I can get behind: a slippery slope of grace.

Peter describes this slippery slope in I Peter 1:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

Jesus has shown us grace in His love, and we come to know that grace through knowledge of His word. We then let that word help us grow to the same love He showed us, and part of that love is grace. Every time we practice grace toward others, we grow more like our Savior. This might mean we use kind words where we might want to be harsh. We listen where we might want to dismiss. We show kindness when we feel wronged. We forgive where we might want to begrudge. We take time to understand before we pass judgment.

When Paul was verbally or physically assaulted during his ministry, he never responded in kind. When Jesus confronts Peter about denying Him, he shows mercy and forgiveness instead of resentment. Jesus challenges us to resist conformity with the harshness of this world at the end of Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even n the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

These statements are not suggestions or truisms. This is how we grow closer to being like our Savior. This is what it means to be like Christ.

If we do this though, we will indeed be on a slippery slope. Because if I show kindness to those around me, even those I do not like, I might begin to care for them. If I care for them, I might be concerned for their well-being. If I’m concerned about that, I may begin to love them. And if I love them, I will begin to care about their souls. Then I will start focusing more on God’s work of seeking and saving the lost. If I do that, I might lift my head above worrying about all of the things that seem so important in this world and focus on something higher.

The slope is indeed slippery, but unlike others, it’s on an incline. It’s a risky journey worth taking.