10/23/15

Fatal Consequences with Anger

© Twang | stockfresh.com

© Twang | stockfresh.com

Beginning in Matthew 5:21, Jesus encourages his audience to strive to obey the spirit of a commandment and not just a strict literal interpretation of it. That is the significance of the repeated formula here, “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” Here Jesus unpacks the deeper implications of one of the ten commandments, you shall not murder. The same should be understood with the remaining commandments or sayings in Matthew 5:21-48. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Matthew said:

Jesus is protesting against a strictly literal interpretation of the commands, an interpretation that indicates an apparent willingness to obey what God has said, but which imposes a strict limit on obedience and leaves scope for a good deal of ungodly behavior. He is laying down authoritatively how these commands of God should be understood.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22).

The sixth commandment in Exodus 20:13 simply said: “You shall not murder.” But here there is the addition of: “and whoever murders will be liable to judgment,” which spells out the consequence to someone who committed murder. His audience would be thinking, “Well, of course there should be judgment against a murderer!” Then Jesus extends the agreement that there should be judgment against a murderer to apply to lesser forms of hostile behavior towards others. He says anyone who is angry with another person, who insults someone—who even calls them a fool—will be liable to “hell-fire and damnation.”

The valley of Hinnom, was a ravine just south of Jerusalem, had been the place where worshipers would burn their children as a sacrifice to Molech (2 Kings 23:10). In Jeremiah, there was a prophecy of judgment against this place (Jeremiah 7:31-32); and it came to be linked with the final place of torment. Leon Morris commented that in Jewish tradition, it was believed the Last Judgment would take place in the valley of Hinnom. The implication for us in Matthew is that anger and insults toward another will be judged alongside murder at the Last Judgment.

It would be wrong to say the passage equates anger and insults with murder. Rather, Jesus teaches here that these behaviors are also sinful and deserving of judgment. Just as murder self-evidently warrants judgment against the murderer, don’t minimize or rationalize your angry and insulting behavior. To illustrate his point, Jesus then gave two examples where unresolved anger or resentment has consequences.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:23-26)

In effect Jesus is saying, get your priorities straight! “The act of sacrifice is not as important as the spirit in which it is done.” Unresolved resentment nullifies any religious sacrifice you bring to God. Just as it is wise to settle a dispute out of court and not risk the possibility of a judgment against you, the time to reconcile with someone you have wronged is before the dispute escalates to the point of formal judgment. Anger, insults and resentments are just as deserving of judgment before God as murder. The standard is to be willing to “live peaceably with all,” if it is within your power to do so (Romans 12:18).

Self-control and resolution of anger and resentment in recovery is a fundamental necessity. In the chapter “How It Works” in the A.A. Big Book, Bill W. wrote: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. . . . If we want to live, we have to be free of anger.” Bill wrote that resentment destroys more alcoholics than anything else. “From it stem all forms of spiritual disease.” One of the ways of addressing anger and resentment is to list them in completing the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of a Fourth Step. “We asked ourselves why we were angry.”

It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die.

In the “Step Ten” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill wrote: “It is a spiritual axiom, that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.” His audience was other members of Alcoholics Anonymous, but the truth of what he said applies to all people. In counseling, I regularly show others how in anger or resentment, we literally or metaphorically point an accusing finger at another person. So do that right—point your finger at someone or something; then look at your hand. While there is one finger pointing out, there are three pointing back at you. Ask yourself why you are angry.

Few people have been more victimized by resentments than have we alcoholics. It mattered little whether our resentments were justified or not. A burst of temper could spoil a day, and a well-nursed grudge could make us miserably ineffective. Nor were we ever skillful in separating justified from unjustified anger. As we saw it, our wrath was always justified. Anger, that occasional luxury of more balanced people, could keep us on an emotional jag indefinitely. These emotional “dry benders” often led straight to the bottle. Other kinds of disturbances—jealousy, envy, self-pity, or hurt pride—did the same thing.

Murder, anger and resentment exist on a continuum of behaviors worthy of judgment before God. The commandment to not murder includes a warning to not hold on to anger or resentment. Twelve Step recovery sees anger and resentment as a form of spiritual disease that cuts off the individual from the sunlight of the Spirit. Unresolved, this spiritual disease leads to drinking and death.

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

01/16/15

Whatever You Treasure Has Your Heart

“Greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it is never enough.” (Janwillem van de Wetering)

The following passage contrasts the pursuit of material wealth to that of heavenly riches. Modern wealth or treasure often means possessing “money” or valuables containing precious metals. So many English translations since William Tyndale use “rust” to translate a Greek word which can also mean: “eating” or “consuming.”  Following this sense, the word translated “money” in verse 25 is better understood as more broadly as material wealth.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.  (Matthew 6:19-25)

Wealth to the audience who heard the Sermon on the Mount would have more likely been excess provisions of food and resources like cloth. So vermin or insects that would get into your stored grain and materials could destroy or ruin your treasure. Thieves could also steal it from you. But earthly treasures can also be things that bring an individual power, prestige or wealth. So there is a broad range of things that we can covet or “store” up that would qualify as earthly treasure.

And here lies the first bombshell of the passage: whatever you treasure has your heart.

The next two verses, 6:22-23, can be difficult to understand. The metaphor of the eye being the lamp to our body doesn’t speak clearly to a modern audience. Craig Blomberg, suggests that it is a restatement of the previous paragraph. So the meaning is that the way people handle their finances affects every part of their lives:

Just as the “heart” (v. 21) forms the center of one’s affections and commitments, the “eyes” enable the whole person to see. Good and bad eyes probably parallel a good and bad heart and thus refer, respectively, to storing up treasures in heaven versus storing them up on earth.

I think that Jesus is extending his statement about treasure, rather than just restating it. In his time, as today, it would likely have been understood that extreme examples of greed were ungodly. But there is nothing morally wrong with trying to improve your financial status, is there? So saying: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”, could have been readily affirmed—but not fully understood. His hearers, then and now, could have missed a crucial point.

So Jesus extends and clarifies his statement about treasure by using another metaphor, how the eye is the lamp of the body; the eye lets in light. Here, as Leon Morris observed, there is a spiritual parallel with Jesus speaking of the eye as the source of light to the body. So, if you have “good,” healthy eyes, your body has light. If your eye is not healthy, you will be in darkness. So far Jesus has described the one half of the metaphor that everyone knows—blind people are in darkness. The second half of the metaphor now equates “light” entering a person as spiritual or moral “darkness,” and then declared “how great is the darkness” if the “light” that enters you is “darkness!”

It asks the question, “What do you have your eye on?” If your eye is on some kind of treasure, that is where your heart is. If your eye is on the things of God, then your body is full of the light of God. If your eye is on other things, you have let “darkness” in—and how great is that darkness! So, no one can serve two masters; you cannot serve God and earthly treasure in any form.

Twelve Step recovery is steeped in the knowledge that pursuing earthly treasures leads to destruction. In the “Step Seven” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. noted how alcoholics for thousands of years have been demanding more than their share of security, prestige—the things of material achievement or earthly treasure. Success meant dreaming of more; frustration or failure meant drinking for oblivion. “Never was there enough of what we thought we wanted.” Never was there “thought of making honesty, tolerance, and true love of man and God the daily basis of living.”

As long as individuals attempted to live by their own strength and intelligence, a working faith was impossible. “This was true even when we believed that God existed.” Here, the Twelve Stepper and the follower of Christ stand in agreement: “We could actually have earnest religious beliefs which remained barren because we were still trying to play God ourselves.” As long as we place self-reliance first, a genuine reliance on God was impossible. “That basic idea of all humility, a desire to seek and do God’s will, was missing.” Whatever you treasure has your heart.

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

08/29/14

Don’t Blow Your Own Horn

The spiritual substance of anonymity is sacrifice. . . . Moved by the spirit of anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction. . . . We are sure that humility, expressed by anonymity, is the greatest safeguard that [we] can ever have.”

Matthew 6:1 cautions against the practice of a public display of righteousness or piety, because if you do, that is all the reward you get. Verses 2 to 18 then looks at three basics aspects of Jewish piety: almsgiving or charity (2-4), prayer (5-15) and fasting (16-18). These three are representative of all other “acts of righteousness.” The message is clear. If you make a public display of your piety, you aren’t actually being pious.

There wasn’t social security or welfare in Biblical times. Deuteronomy 15:11 said there would always be poor people. “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” So voluntary charity and contributions to the poor were one of the three most important demonstrations of Jewish piety. But when you gave to charity, Jesus said, don’t make a big deal about it—don’t blow your own horn. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” (Matt 6:1)

Individuals who didn’t give anonymously were fake—they were play-acting. They were hypocrites.  Their words and actions were done for effect and not truly because they had a concern for others. What they were really trying to do was gain a reputation for righteousness. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” (Matt 6:2)

The Mishnah (the written record of the Judaism’s Oral Torah) spoke of a “Chamber of Secrets” in the temple where the devout Jew could leave gifts in privacy. The poor of a good family would come later to receive help without knowing who their benefactor was.  Leon Morris in his commentary on Matthew noted that the Torah said: “A man who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses our Teacher.” So someone making a big deal about giving to charity was violating the spirit of the commandment in Deuteronomy at the same time they were fulfilling the letter of the commandment. “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matt 6:3)

The standard set by Jesus here in the Sermon on the Mount out-midrased even the Chamber of Secrets in the temple: Give so anonymously that even your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing! There was no wiggle-room. When you made a public display of your giving, you were not being charitable.

D. A. Carson referred to this as “pseudo-piety.” Christians, he said, must not delude themselves that all giving is pleasing to God, or that giving itself is an act of righteousness. “The human heart is too crafty to allow so simple a suggestion to stand.” Anonymous piety or spirituality neutralizes the instinctual action of the human heart to say: “Look at me!” And anonymous spirituality is the heart of Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A.

One of the spiritual parallels between A.A. and the church is the teaching on anonymity found within Matthew 6:1-4 and A.A.’s Twelfth Tradition: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” Both Twelve Step recovery and biblical Christianity see anonymity as essential for true spirituality. The above opening quote was from Bill Wilson’s essay on Tradition Twelve in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The only change was where I substituted the word “we” for “Alcoholics Anonymous” in the original essay.

In July of 1955 Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal minister, spoke at the convention commemorating the 20th anniversary of A.A.’s founding. He believed A.A. was one of the great signs of spiritual awakening in our time. Shoemaker also thought A.A. had indirectly drawn its inspiration and motivation from the insights and beliefs of the church. When Bill Wilson had introduced Sam to the convention, Wilson acknowledged that Shoemaker himself was the connection between A.A. and the church: “It is through Sam Shoemaker that most of A.A.’s spiritual principles have come.” In his closing remarks, Shoemaker said:

Perhaps the time has come for the church to be reawakened and revitalized by the insights and practices found in A.A. I don’t know any fields of human endeavor in which the Twelve Steps are not applicable and helpful. I believe A.A. may yet have a much wider effect upon the world of our day than it has already had and may contribute greatly to the spiritual awakening which is on the way.”

One of the best ways someone can be reawakened and revitalized is by applying the A.A. principle of anonymity to their spiritual life. The discussion here looked at how it was applied by Jesus in his teaching on alms giving. But anonymity is relevant to all other expressions of piety—even prayer and fasting. Don’t let your left hand know what your right one is doing! Practice your piety before God, not other people. Don’t blow your own horn.

Where could you apply the principle of anonymity to your spiritual life?

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”