Living Gracefully (1): Changing Life's Default Settings
Intro – A young man was about to leave for Basic Training. He jokingly told his family that he was going to have to learn how to eat, sleep, shave and make his bed all over again. His brother, who was about to get married muttered, “Me too!” Well guess what – something similar happens when we become believers – the whole process of growing in Christ is about learning to replace natural reactions with graceful ones.
We all know computers have default settings. Push a certain button and you get a certain screen. When I push the Yahoo! button, the internet connects. Defaults are good; if the computer did random things it would be useless. I’m told it’s possible to change default settings, but I’ve never succeeded. I’m stuck in default mode. Can’t change the computer. Jesse can, not me.
People are born with default behavioral settings. Get a certain stimulus and we give the same reaction over and over. We default to our natural instincts. BUT when we become Christians we are in the words of II Cor 5:17, “a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” We are now children of God and to live up to the family name, there are a lot of default settings – natural reactions – that have to be reset. Since our old self resides side-by-side with our new self, change doesn’t happen overnight. But our goal is to become more and more like Jesus. That happens as old default settings – natural reactions – get changed to new ones.
Our text today deals with one of the hardest of all defaults to change. It addresses how we handle difficult people who abuse and misuse us. What do you do when you are passed over for promotion even though you do better work? What do you do when your neighbor purposely lets his leaves fall into your pool because he’s mad at you? So it’s just a 6’ doughboy, that doesn’t give him the right! What do you do when someone spreads lies that smear your reputation at school? How about when someone mocks you because you are too big, too small, too normal, too beautiful, too ugly, or maybe too Godly. How do you handle the irritations and downright evil actions that you meet everyday? Most of us fail miserably. It is one of the hardest defaults of all to change and we get a lot of “F’s” on this one.
What is our natural response when our buttons get pushed? Our default? You know as well as I. “I’ll get him or her if it’s the last thing I do. I know Jesus says love your enemies, but this is different. My rights have been violated, but they’ll be sorry they tangled with me.” That’s our default, right? We call it standing up for our rights. God calls it revenge. Anytime the word “rights” is in our mind, it should be a red flag to check the defaults.
See, when we accept Christ, we transfer ownership of rights to Him! But when attacked, we are quick to take them back! Society tells us, "You've got to do it. You’ve got to stand up for yourself. No one else will do it for you.” But someone else will. God will. I used to have a little sign hanging above my desk. It said, “Anger is someone finding a right that I haven’t given to God.” To change my sinful default, I’ve got to leave those rights with Him.
God wants His children to be different from the world. His command for dealing with unfair treatment is tough. Love your enemies. To help us do that, Jesus give us 4 commands we’ll look at today in vv. 27-28, 32-34; He gives us 4 application examples in vv. 29-31, then a 3-fold purpose (35-38) Jesus is very serious that we do this a lot better than most do now.
I. The Precepts (commands) – Four commands revolve around attitudes and actions God requires to demonstrate how His kingdom differs from the world we live in. We can only do these in the power of the HS.
A. Love Your Enemies
Background -- V. 27, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies.” This command was like a gut-punch to Jesus’ disciples. Why? Because it was absolutely foreign to anything they had ever been taught. They’d been taught the opposite. Jesus notes in Matt 5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Who said that? Hate your enemies? The Pharisees and religious elite – that’s who. They knew the law commanded they love their neighbor. Lev 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” They understood love your neighbor. But they inferred (wrongly) that that left the door wide open to hate your enemy. They considered it a moral positive to hate their enemies -- made it one of their traditions. When Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” He had the barrel pointed right at the Pharisees who had taught that to everyone. Jesus is calling them out.
So when Jesus said, “Love your enemies” it was a startling statement. It wasn’t like this was something that had been tried and found impossible – it hadn’t even been thought of. This was radical for them, just like it’s radical for us. When an enemy violates our rights, real or supposed, we not only feel justified in seeking to even the score – we feel obligated. We’re Pharisees at heart, Beloved. We admit this applies to others – but our case is always different! I wish I had a nickel for every time someone who claims Christ has said, “Yes, but” when confronted with His command to love our enemies and leave retaliation to Him. I’m afraid our default is largely unchanged.
Agape --The word “love” is agape. We studied it in depth in Ephesians. It is not the warm feeling of attraction we normally associate with love. Greek has at least four words for love. Eros is romantic love – sexual attraction, and certainly not what is required here. Neither does Jesus command storge (natural affection), nor philia (the love of friendship). Those are dependent on an emotional response to some desirable quality in the one loved. Jesus uses the agape, a calculated, purposeful act of the will to seek the positive good of someone. It is not outwardly stimulated; it is inwardly willed. It shows changing defaults starts within us – with a decision to do good to someone who is stabbing us in the back. Man, this is tough; it can only be done by the Holy Spirit. But it is a command. It’s what God exemplified. Rom 5:8, “God shows his love (agape) for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God did not love us because we were attractive to Him. We were in rebellion, yet He sought our greatest good at the cost of His own life. He’s not asking anything He hasn’t done Himself.
It’s not enough to put on a phony happy face while seething inside. That’s not love, that’s hypocrisy, and everyone, including our Lord, will see right through it. The HS must help us look past the enemy to the Lord behind the enemy. Getting even is invading God’s territory, did you realize that? He’s marked that ground “No Trespassing!” God says 3 times, “Vengeance is mine” (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30). We trespass at our own risk. God warns us off in Prov 24: 17) “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, 18) lest the LORD see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him.” Even tho our default mode, natural reaction, is to take revenge, we incur God’s discipline by doing it.
Incentive -- Now, God gives us an interesting incentive to love our enemies in v. 32: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” This puts our supposed goodness in its place, doesn’t it? We think we’re loving people, because we love family, friends and lovely people. We’re good at loving those. But guess what? So is everyone. The New York Times on Nov 28, 2011 reported the death of Lana Peters in Richland Center, Wisconsin. Why was that newsworthy? Because her 1923 birth name was Svetlana Stalin. Her father, Joseph Stalin, was the greatest tyrant of the 20th century who killed 20 million people, mostly his own countrymen. He once wrote, "To choose one's victim, to prepare one's plan minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed – there is nothing sweeter in the world". Great guy! Yet Stalin loved his daughter Svetlana tho she occasionally defied him. Hitler, a close 2nd to Stalin for “killer of the century” honors, loved a niece, Geli, and later, Eva Braun whom he married just prior to his death. Everyone loves those who love them and whom they find attractive – even great sinners. So, Jesus is saying, “You love those who love you? Congratulations – you’re up to the standard of Hitler and Stalin.” That’s great, but it’s not special. Everybody loves those to whom they are attracted. That’s our default. It’s natural.
Jesus wants more – He wants special! See the word “benefit”. It is the Greek word χαρις – grace! Jesus is saying, there is nothing graceful about your life when you love the lovely. Everyone does that. Graceful living goes to a whole different level. Loving the lovely is default set at “Normal”. Loving enemies – that resets the default to “Grace.” That’s what He is looking for. That’s what He is commanding. Let me put it another way, we can’t claim to be a loving person until we love our enemies. Grace doesn’t start til we love our enemies. That bar just went from very low to very high, did it not?
Okay, so let’s get practical. How do you go from smoldering anger at an enemy to truly loving them like Jesus is commanding? Two practical ways.
1. Leave the Vengeance to God
So someone has truly wronged you – taken credit for your idea at work, betrayed a confidence, lied about you, rejected your offer for help, criticized you unfairly. Your rights have been trampled underfoot. What do you do? Default setting, natural reaction, defend my rights. Retaliate. Get even. New setting – Love your enemy. How? Step one – leave the revenge to God. Remember --you turned your rights over to Him. He is the one being violated. Your orders are Prov 24: 17) Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, 18) lest the LORD see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him.” Get even on your own and you are interfering with God’s business and incurring your own discipline.
Look at Eph 4:26-27, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.” Harboring bitterness gives place to Satan. God warns against it, but He is not saying just accept it. Rather, He says in Rom 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, BUT leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” God is saying, “You want your revenge or mine?” See the words “leave it to me” – same words translated “give no opportunity” in Eph 4:27. In essence, God’s instruction is, “Don’t give opportunity to Satan (by taking your own revenge), give opportunity to me.” When we hang on, we tie God’s hands! We prevent God going to work on our behalf. If God is going to go to work for us, complete surrender to Him is required. Some of us here are holding out and we know it. Beloved, don’t do it! Give it to God. Let Him deal with the vengeance.
This is hard. We all love revenge. Ever see John Wayne in McClintock? John’s an old codger by this time, but still feisty. Some guy has done him wrong, and John backs him up, but just as he’s about to throw a haymaker, he catches himself and says, “I'm gonna use good judgment. I haven't lost my temper in forty years, but pilgrim you caused a lot of trouble this morning, might have got somebody killed... and somebody oughta belt you in the mouth. But I won't, I won't.” He turns and starts to leave then turns back and says, “The blankety blank I won't!” and he belts the guy in the mouth starting a huge mud fight between both sides. We all love it, right? REVENGE. Great for John Wayne. Best left to God in our lives, Beloved. God is saying, “No – revenge is my territory. Stay out!”
So, not taking personal revenge is a great first step, but you can do that and still have a lot of animosity boiling over inside, can’t you? So, now what?
2. Look from God’s perspective
Lewis B. Smedes, in, The Art of Forgiving, astutely observes when someone wrongs us, we begin to see that person in terms of that one single action – a one-dimensional view. We lose all sense of their personhood – that they have a family, issues of their own, a past and a future, a life outside of our interaction with them. Where once we saw a person, all we see now is ENEMY. They are their offensive acts, nothing more. “Forgiving happens in three stages: We discover the humanity of the person who wronged us (that is, see them more than their offensive acts), we surrender our right to get even (leave the revenge to God), and we wish that person well (agape them).” Find their humanity, surrender our right, wish them well.
Let me help you see their personhood -- from God’s perspective. If you are truly harmed, here are some things you need to know about the one who did or is doing it. Prov 29:6, “An evil man is ensnared in his transgression.” Unfairness makes us feel trapped, no escape. Feels like they are winning and we are losing. God’s perspective? It’s actually the enemy who is trapped by his own doing. That’s God’s promise. BUT there’s more. Prov 24: 19) “Fret not yourself because of evildoers, and be not envious of the wicked, 20) for the evil man has no future; the lamp of the wicked will be put out.” That person, who is such a burr under your saddle now, has no future – not unless there is a change – more to be pitied than feared. Stalin authored of a reign of terror, but he died as a paranoid schizophrenic afraid of his own shadow, no doubt in hell now while believers he killed are in heaven. Psa 37: 1) Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! 2) For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.” Nothing lasts long in this life. And think of the future that awaits the person outside of Christ – Rom 2:9, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil.” Listen, Beloved, there is no wrong that will not be made right – either in this life or the life to come. Trust God. Seek ways to agape that person. Do you really have an enemy that you hate so badly you want to see them in hell forever? See your enemies from God’s perspective and you’ll begin to have a love and compassion you never had before.
Conc – A Dr. DuPre was head of the Fine Arts Dept at Furman for many years. His son-in-law was a successful dentist, but just before DuPre retired, the dentist abandoned DuPre’s only daughter with 5 children. He left her absolutely destitute –no means of support. Several months later, the dentist was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, but when he went in the hospital for the last time, who do you think was there to comfort him and share the gospel with him? It was DuPre – the man who had come out of retirement to support a family of 5 at a time when he should have been enjoying his gold years and playing with his grandchildren. He reset his default from “natural reaction” to “grace” and he led that man to faith in Christ.
I bet that there is not a single one of us who does not need to put this sermon work this week. Each of us almost certainly has some enemy whose positive good we can seek. You know, it was said of an old Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, that the quickest way you could become his friend was to do him wrong. The minute you did him wrong, he would work so hard to love you back, that eventually he would win you as a friend. That’s a glorious testimony of the power of the Christian spirit whose default has been changed from “natural reaction” to “Grace”. Let’s make it our testimony as well. Let’s pray.