Stop, Look, Listen: An Interlude to Examine and Strengthen Our Foundations

Stop, Look, Listen:  An Interlude to Examine and Strengthen our Foundations
Written by: Pete McClanathan

You’ve probably noticed that we’re moving deeper into the complex subject of how the Bible addresses human relationships. If taken seriously, we’re finding that the Word of God is abundantly filled with specific, practical tools.

They aren’t the tools that we typically use, however, nor the ones we might choose to learn about. If we’re honest we have to admit that it's more natural to criticize than to pursue healing; to seek our own desires than to look to the interests of others; to bear resentment than to forgive; to speak our minds than to really listen.

We long for simple solutions to justify ourselves and to bring other persons into agreement with us. (By the way, how has that been working for you?)

But we’re beginning to find that something may be involved beyond our own comfort and happiness, something that involves our conformity and service to Christ in the midst of relational struggles. We’re becoming challenged by scriptures that cause us to examine what we truly believe of the Word of God.

We’ve been warned, for example, that there is something in the act of judging others that is repugnant to God (Mt. 7:1). And we’re cautioned to take special care with how and when we judge, at the risk that we receive the same manner of judgment before the Judgment Seat of Christ (Mt. 7:2, Rom. 14:10). How, then, do we navigate our way in a world whose values are self-focused and whose practices are immersed in judgment?

We start by becoming keenly aware that we are different from the world. We belong to a separate kingdom and a king whose purposes existed long before we appeared on earth, and whose values reflect His character in ways that have little to do with the world’s values.

We would do well to make camp around that truth. If we don’t intentionally hold on, it can fade easily into the corners of our minds. The world out of which we came once shaped our thinking for many formative years. Those patterns of thought became the foundation of desires, fears, and goals. They’ve molded how we respond to life and deal with people.

They are corrupt, yet they can be powerful because they connect us to emotional memories, good and bad. People, places, and things that, albeit flawed or downright wrong, once were believed to offer comfort, pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, safety, fear, shame, guilt, peace, and self-image. They became associated with thoughts and behaviors that we once believed might help us gain the good and avoid the bad.

The Bible uses a sobering term for these attachments. The term is idolatry, and the history of God's people is a sad saga of human frailty and the heart’s tug-of-war between love and obedience to God and friendship with the world. (The frequent use of the term desires in the New Testament is parallel to the Old Testament use of idolatry).  

Simply stated, an idol is anything that we seek to satisfy the desires and calm the fears of our hearts apart from or in addition to God. Idols can involve things clearly prohibited in scripture (lust and its fruits of fornication or adultery, greed leading to cheating or theft, use of objects thought to bring luck or safety). They can take the form of excesses or misplaced priorities (hobbies, social habits, addictions, money and investments, sports . . . anything that captures our time and energies). They often will appear in the form of good things that we want too much, leading to gluttony, envy, jealousy, a critical spirit, and conflict.  

As we all know, dysfunctional thinking and toxic emotions don’t simply disappear from our hearts when we come to Christ. Yeah, the New Testament epistles are largely discussions of our transformed identities: out of the world and into Christ, and how that new reality speaks to our values, our thoughts, our words, our goals, and our behavior. Hence the meaning of scriptures such as this:

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2).

It has been said that our beliefs and actions reflect our values, just as our values direct our beliefs and actions. It is that simple and yet profound. We thus can begin to understand that the battle for the heart is the core issue of our lives. An ongoing battle it is, and one that demands our understanding lest we fail to recognize the effects of idolatry in our own lives.

For it is a poison that is easily and often overlooked. We are warned that idols can become such a part of our thinking that we fail to discern truth from error. Consider the words of the prophet Ezekiel:
“Therefore speak to them and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God:  Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of  the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.'”  (Exek. 14:4-5)

Idols become stumbling blocks that can blind us from seeing things clearly. They can and do separate us from trust in God and from fellowship with others, and they involve so much more than objects of wood or stone.

It is not the purpose of this article to dig further into the subject of idolatry, other than to introduce it as a topic that will follow us closely as we walk together. It has appeared in some prior articles such as “Thy Will Be Done: Really?” and “Friendship With the World." It might prove interesting to review those in the context of this discussion.

Many good books have been written by Christian authors, and they offer remarkable wisdom on the theological and practical connections within this subject. Some favorites that I strongly recommend are "The Peacemaker," by Ken Sande; "Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands," by Paul Tripp; "Seduction of the Lesser gods," by Leslie Williams; and "Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be: a Breviary of Sin," by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.  

The importance of these matters will become apparent as we face coming challenges from scripture. We will be confronted and tested from several directions:

We’re going to learn that the first and continuing order of business in any difficult situation is to examine ourselves and deal with our own sinful words, actions, and attitudes.

We’ll face the Bible’s emphasis on forgiveness, and we’ll ponder the obstacles that stand in our way.

We’ll be asked to address looking out for the interests of others, and what that might require us to do or forsake.

We’re going to consider the treacheries of the tongue, what they reveal about the heart, and the many related biblical warnings. None of these comes naturally. In truth, they’re contrary to most of our thinking and reacting. Change requires personal awareness and a humble willingness to submit to the authority of the Word of God. The pursuit is neither simple nor easy.

I’ve been a student and teacher of biblical peacemaking and related issues of the human heart for many years. I’ve been given many rich times of fellowship which carried the warm feeling of being helpful.

But I regret to say that the most common feelings I’ve experienced have been sadness and inadequacy. Sadness from observing the pain of personal or church conflict and realizing how wounded we are, how infected by self-interest and the poisons of the world’s system. And inadequacy over facing the entangled emotional stories that life begets, and yearning to find the right measure of questions, scriptures, and assurances to help parties find healing. All the while realizing that I, too, am among the wounded, the willful, the prideful, the self-righteous, the entitled, the compromising, the self-protective, the critical, the timid, the superficial, the self-pitying, the impatient, the greedy, the immature. How could I presume to teach or counsel others?

But I’ve found that encouragement does come from becoming aware of these things, in spite of myself. Learning to spot them in my own life. Having something to offer others who are willing to engage. Embracing the wealth of scriptures that speak wisdom to broken mankind. And clinging to the understanding that though the battle must be engaged (with awareness, discipline, and humility) I am not the author of the victory.

Recall the apostle Paul’s words after accounting his own failures and inadequacies:

“Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Rom. 7:24-25).

And Jesus’ words in Mt. 1:28-30:

“Come to me, all you labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

If you’re still interested in continuing, our next stop will be Mt. 7:3-5.

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