We live in a tolerant age, indeed, one that is so tolerant that it will tolerate anything—except intolerance. “Don’t you judge me!” is a favorite rallying cry of the defensive sinner. So too, “Don’t you judge their hearts!” is beloved of those who want to defend sinners, particularly when the sin involves apostasy.
So-and-so has left the Lord’s church and is now worshiping with a church that teaches the sinner’s prayer instead of baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but we are supposed to accept them as good people with sincere hearts who simply are seeking God in a different way right now. We’re not allowed to suggest that they have made this decision from unrighteous motives. After all, we can’t see hearts, can we?
Jesus, though, tells us that we can see hearts, after a fashion. Indeed, He commands us to do so. As He says in Matthew 7:16, we will recognize false teachers by their fruit. Good hearts don’t bring forth bad fruit; bad hearts don’t bring forth good fruit.
This is true not only for false teachers, but generally for all of us. What we do reveals who we are. Most of us don’t like this thought, particularly as it applies to ourselves. We want to engage in special pleading about the difficult circumstances that led to our bad behavior.
Ideally, we want to put the blame on someone else. I yelled at my kids because they’ve been out of control recently. I got in a fight with my wife because she did that thing that she knows I hate. I left my church because they were a bunch of hypocritical legalistic Pharisees who never said anything about love and grace.
We can construct all the narratives we want, but the truth lies in our actions. I yelled. I got in a fight. I left.
Indeed, whenever we have done evil, we didn’t do it because of somebody else. We did it because of ourselves. Indeed, we did it because of evil in our hearts that our evil actions revealed. By our fruits we must know ourselves, and by their fruits we can know others.
Without exception, it is true that the good-hearted disciple of Christ will, according to their knowledge, worship where the truth is taught and practiced. Hypocrisy is everywhere. A church’s relative emphasis on legalism, love, and grace is subjective.
Truth is objective, and baptism for the forgiveness of sins is too. Either a church repeats the Biblical teaching from a dozen different passages on baptism, or it doesn’t. If you know those passages, but you choose to worship with a congregation that doesn’t teach Bible baptism, then, yeah, you’ve got a heart problem. The fruit says so.
Now, that’s not an incurable disease. Some heart problems are worse than others, but the presence of sin in all of our lives reflects the presence of evil desire in all of our hearts. Every heart can be purified by the grace of God.
However, before God will solve the heart problem, we first must acknowledge that it exists.
The Life and Teachings of Jesus – Week 11 – March 16-20:
Monday – Matt. 7:7-11 (cf. Luke 11:9-13): When you pray, do you make your petitions with timidity as if you’re requesting something from a grudging giver or with impudence as if you’re requesting something from a generous giver? In our reading today, Jesus calls for us to approach the throne of our Father with boldness. Now, carte blanche approach to prayer taught by prosperity preachers is not supported from scripture. Perhaps it is wise to read the unqualified offer of vv. 7-8 against the backdrop of Matt. 6:11, 16-24, 25-34. But for all the necessary caution, there is a sense that Jesus invites not merely a resigned acceptance of what the Father gives, but a willingness to prayerfully explore the extent of His generosity. The point Jesus is making is not that human persistence wins out in the end, but that the heavenly Father who loves His children will certainly answer their prayer… if only they would ask, seek, and knock.
What encouragement does Jesus give those who ask, seek and knock? How can we be assured of these promises?
Tuesday – Matt. 7:12 (cf. Luke 6:31): “Therefore, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” For ninety-one verses Jesus has been teaching us what He expects from His disciples. Yet, in one verse He summarizes His whole sermon, not to mention all of the Old Testament. In these few words, our Lord gives us a guide to how unselfish love should work itself out in our relationships with others. Our actions, He teaches, are not supposed to be dictated by the actions of others. If a person is mean to us, then we’re to be good to them because that’s how we want to be treated. The person who consistently lives according to this rule is totally excluding selfishness and replacing it with love and care for others. An ancient Jewish teaching stated in the negative, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.”
How does Jesus’ positive rule go beyond this command? In what ways would your life change if you followed Jesus’ teaching from this verse?
Wednesday – Matt. 7:13-14: The concluding section of the sermon is taken up with impressing upon hearers the difference between real and nominal discipleship. In four short warnings (vv. 13-14, 15-20, 21-23, and 24-27) Jesus calls for wholehearted commitment to Himself and the Father’s kingdom. To start, Jesus makes it clear that there are only two paths in life that are set before people; therefore it is important that the right choice be made. He presents a scene where a broad road leading to a splendid gate is obvious and easy to be seen, whereas a way that brings a traveler to the unimposing gate is inconspicuous and is perceived only by those who look for it carefully. The first road “leads to destruction,” a fact that doesn’t alter its popularity. While the second road is “narrow” (or “difficult” NKJV) and few find the way “to life.” (We must not press “few” too hard, for elsewhere in Matthew Jesus speaks of “many” that are saved cf. 8:11; 20:28.) The contrast is stark and clear between the two roads in their character, popularity, and in their destination. Without using the words, this saying sets before us the alternatives of heaven or hell. Those are our only two choices, choose wisely.
In what sense is “the gate wide and the way easy” that leads to destruction? Conversely, in what sense is “the gate narrow and the way hard” for those who follow Jesus? Which road are you on?
Thursday – Matt. 7:15-20 (cf. Luke 6:43-45): The second warning focuses on the danger posed by false prophets, who are, by implication, contrasted with true prophets who may be trusted. How can followers of Jesus recognize false teachers? From their fruits; their fruits will in the end betray them. It is not outward appearance that is important (ravenous wolves may be dressed in sheep’s clothing) but the things that the false prophets teach and the manner of their life. For their teaching and lifestyle proceed from what they are in their hearts. The fruit is the test of the tree; if there is no good fruit, there is no good reason for the tree to exist. And the fruit is the test of one who claims to be a prophet (or in modern terms, preacher, pastor, etc.). “Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” Jesus asks. Obviously not, if there is no fruit there, then there’s no good reason for the person to be treated as a prophet worthy of an audience.
List several “fruits” a false teacher would produce and several “fruits” a true teacher would produce. (You might think in terms of opposites.)
Friday – Matt. 7:21-23 (cf. Luke 6:46): In the third warning, we’re confronted with a profoundly searching and disturbing scene for all professing disciples. Here we meet people who confess their allegiance to Jesus as “Lord” and who can back up that claim with impressive spiritual achievements, all carried out explicitly in the name of the Lord. Nevertheless, Jesus says to them, “I never knew you, depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness” (v. 23). Even good works by themselves are not enough. There are good people who claim to follow Jesus as “Lord” and who do good works, nonetheless they are on the broad way leading to destruction. Despite their good deeds, they were carried out by people who still lacked the relationship with Jesus which is the essential basis for belonging in the kingdom of heaven. While the words and actions may be good, their lives were lawless denying Him in their hearts. Since they didn’t really know Him, He didn’t know them.
In spite of their admirable statements or actions, why does Jesus condemn these people? Why do you think people so often confuse religious activity with knowing and doing the will of the Father?
In Judah, God is known;
In Zion dwells the Lord,
He breaks the armaments of war,
The arrows, shield, and sword.
More glorious are You
Than mountains full of prey;
Your anger stunned the mighty men
And stole their strength away.
But You are to be feared;
Who dares oppose Your will?
You spoke Your judgment from above;
In dread, the earth went still.
Let all give praise to You
And bring their tribute near;
You shame the princes of the earth
And fill its kings with fear.
Several weeks ago, I got a distressed phone call from one of the sisters at Jackson Heights. She expressed her concern that in one of the adult Bible classes, it didn’t seem like anyone was talking. I sympathized with her and promised that I would write a blog post on the value of Bible-class participation, so here we are!
To me, one of the most beautiful things about the churches of Christ is our core belief: that ordinary Christians are equipped by God to read and understand the Bible for themselves. We don’t need priests, pastors, or anyone else to tell us what to believe. We can figure it out on our own.
I think a Bible class is one of the highest expressions of this ideal. Maybe we don’t know much about the Bible ourselves (though this assumption is often mistaken when it comes to brethren), and maybe we’re in a class with other Christians who don’t know much about the Bible either (ditto), but the few things that we each know usually aren’t the same things.
As a result, a good Bible class is like a potluck dinner. Nobody wants to make a meal out of nothing but their green-bean casserole. However, when we bring our casserole, and somebody else brings their Jell-O salad, and somebody else brings their ham, and somebody else brings their iced tea, and so forth, the result is a meal that will satisfy everybody. I’ve never heard anyone complain about being underfed at a potluck!
In the same way, even if that auditorium or classroom isn’t filled with top-notch Bible scholars, it’s probably true that everybody in the room has something to contribute. Maybe it’s an answer to the who’s-buried-in-Grant’s-Tomb opening question. Maybe it’s a related passage. Maybe it’s a personal experience with the spiritual concept under discussion.
Probably none of those things would be enough to carry a sermon, for instance, on their own. However, when you put them all together, what you really are doing is pooling the spiritual wisdom of the group. I respect ordinary Christians as individuals, but I have a whole lot of respect for what ordinary Christians come up with when they put their heads together! In fact, I can’t recall having been in a discussion-based class without feeling nourished and edified by the discussion. As much as I love worshiping in song, I love studying the Bible with my brethren just as much.
Potlucks work. You’re never sure beforehand just how they’re going to work, but they always end up working. The only way they can fail is if the participants don’t bring anything but show up expecting to eat anyway. In the same way, what sinks a Bible class is not the comments that the people in the class make. It’s the comments they don’t make. You’ve got the poor Bible class teacher up in front with his green-bean casserole all by himself, and it makes for a poor meal.
In conclusion, then, I have this to say: if you’re used to sitting there in Bible class not talking, now’s the time to start (unless, of course, you have conscience issues with participating). You know more about the Bible than you think you do, a lot more. Trust me! I’ve studied with folks who truly knew nothing about the Bible, and the difference is profound. You have insights that are wiser than you think they are. You have experiences that are more relevant than you can imagine.
Share what you have. If everybody will do the same, I guarantee that everybody will be well fed.
About three weeks ago, a minor tragedy occurred. Evernote, the program on my phone that I use to keep track of everything, including my sermon and blog-post ideas, crashed. Post-crash, I discovered that Evernote hadn’t synced since June 2019, so all of those ideas are gone forever. That means that if you asked me to preach a sermon on something and you haven’t heard the sermon yet, you probably aren’t going to unless you remind me of the request! For that matter, if you’d like to hear me preach on something and haven’t asked, I’d love to hear your question!
However, since the Great Evernote Crash of 2020, I have had other requests trickle in. This evening’s request actually comes from a sister who lives out-of-state, but because I know that this is relevant to people in this congregation too, I decided to turn it into a sermon. She wanted to know how one should deal with toxic people in one’s life, particularly close relatives who are toxic. Let’s consider, then, how to manage toxic relationships.
Here, I think the first thing that we must do is to RENEW OUR MINDS. Paul makes this point in Romans 12:2. Here, he tells us that there are two ways we can think. We can have a worldly mindset, which will conform us to the world, or we can have a spiritual mindset, which will lead us to be transformed into the image of Christ. Perhaps the most global struggle we engage in is the struggle to renew our minds, to daily think less like the world and more like Christ.
One of the characteristics of our worldly society is its love of labeling people. You’re black, you’re white, you’re straight, you’re gay, you’re rich, you’re poor, and that’s all I need to know about you to know who you are. All of these labels divide and create hostility, and that’s the work of the devil. By contrast, God calls us to be one in Christ Jesus, to love one another and love Him so fully that all these labels recede into insignificance.
When we’re talking about toxic people, or we’re talking about their close cousins, the narcissists, we must recognize that we are labeling others, and we also must recognize how deceptive and dangerous that is. “Toxic” and “narcissist” are worldly labels that people in the world use to dismiss and condemn others. “Narcissist” is at least a clinical diagnosis, but it is widely employed by people who learned all they know about psychology from a Buzzfeed article. I don’t even know what “toxic” means, except maybe, “Here’s somebody who does things I don’t like.”
The thing is, though, that once we have concluded that somebody’s a narcissist, that somebody’s toxic, our society gives us permission to write them off. We no longer have an obligation to try to understand their bad behavior, except maybe by reading more articles on Buzzfeed that tell us how awful toxic people and narcissists are. We don’t have to try to help them because toxic people and narcissists are irredeemably evil. We can shun them with a clear conscience because, well, they’re toxic and narcissistic! Perhaps most of all, we don’t have to examine ourselves and ask how our own unloving hearts and bad behavior have contributed to the breakdown of a relationship. Those labels do a great deal to help people who want to be self-righteous, but they do nothing to help us be more like Christ.
Instead, as Christ’s disciples, we are called to seek to understand others and have compassion. In many cases, we begin by remembering THE POWER OF FEAR. Consider the words of John in 1 John 4:18-19. According to John here, the opposite of love isn’t hatred. The opposite of love is fear. In my life, I can’t think of anybody I know who did awful things because of hatred. However, I can think of plenty who sinned egregiously because they were afraid.
This should transform our understanding of people who tend to get stuck with those labels of toxic and narcissist. Often, they seem very powerful and strong to us. They say shockingly hurtful things to us that we never would say to anyone. They make decisions that seem calculated to make us suffer. Indeed, they make us feel like we’re a helpless animal in a cage, and they’re taking joy in tormenting us.
However, if we could see the world through their eyes, we would see something very different. They don’t feel strong and powerful. They feel vulnerable and weak. All of those behaviors that seem so offensive to us, in every sense of the word, seem defensive to them. They are trying to protect themselves from being hurt, from losing something they love, from appearing as a failure, from becoming valueless.
I don’t say any of this to minimize the evil that fearful people do or the damage that they cause. Make no mistake: those who let fear rule in their lives are letting the devil rule, and they will not inherit eternal life! Instead, I say it so that we can understand them.
Most of us don’t know what it’s like to hurt others because we are feeling strong and powerful. I think all of us, though, if we are honest, will admit that we know what it’s like to hurt others because we are feeling hurt and weak and afraid. We don’t get to write off all those toxic narcissists because, on some level, we are the same as they are.
Ultimately, then, we must deal with the hurtful, destructive people in our lives by CONSIDERING EACH PERSON. For an example of this in action, look at Jude 22-23. Jude knew that people who were wavering in the faith did so for their own individual reasons, so it wasn’t right to treat all of them in the same way.
Likewise, we have to try to understand the flesh-and-blood people who are in front of us rather than cutting them off because their behavior displays the Ten Infallible Signs of Narcissism. If we react to them by striking back, which is what all of us instinctively do, most likely, we are only going to confirm them in their fear and their ungodly behavior, unwittingly confirming our own fears.
Instead, over time, we have to show them that they don’t have to be afraid, so that they will see that the sins they think are defensive really aren’t necessary. We can’t minimize their sin, but we also must make sure that when we speak truth, we do it out of love rather than a selfish desire to elevate ourselves at their expense. Additionally, we need to remember that the ugly coping strategies that they’ve spent years learning will take years to unlearn too—even if they’re working on it.
Sadly, some don’t want to work on it. They are sunk so deep in sin and fear that the pain of confronting the truth about themselves is too great for them to consider. We have to be honest about that too. Helping a sinner is one thing; throwing pearls before swine is another.
Finally, we have to recognize when we’re dealing with someone who isn’t motivated by fear. A couple of years back—let the reader understand—I got to know somebody pretty well who did not hurt people because he was afraid. He hurt people because it was exciting to hurt them, because all the resultant commotion was interesting. Those people also are beyond us. It’s a cliché to say that somebody needs professional help, but those people truly do.