This week, Faith in Real Life discussed the fourth chapter of Ephesians, in which Paul encourages the church to live with grace and bear with one another when angry. We are reminded that if our identities are safe with God we do not have to take anything personally.
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
This passage can be viewed as a first century version of faith in real life. Paul has spent the first three chapters speaking theologically and now in the the fourth, he gets practical. Paul enjoins his readers “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
Paul wants readers across all generations to understand the spirit of love. Jesus offered a new way. We are all one body. We live in relationship. We need each other. We are expected to build each other up and refrain from hurting one another. Any injury to any part of the body diminishes all of us. These are high standards and these beliefs fly in the face of secular achieving and valuing–where it is every man for himself and where who is the greatest is the goal and measure of worth. And when we live by these beliefs, we treat each other differently.
Whether it is in our political dialogue or our interpersonal conversations, we have to ask the question—Do we want to be right or do we want to be in relationship? They are very different goals and unfortunately, the more heated our conversation, the more likely we are needing to be right. If we need to be right, we can only connect to those who agree with us. Any other discussion becomes polarized instead of respectful. Christianity is relational. Christianity is about love and regard. Agreement or rightness come a distant second to a Christian’s responsibility to the one body. In these verses, Paul offers some real life guidelines to help us love as God loves us.
Unfortunately, even these ‘rules for conduct’ get tricky when they are applied to particular situations. Putting away falsehood and speaking truth to our neighbors seems like a no brainer. But beware the person who begins a conversation with: “I’m just being honest.” It just as likely that their honesty is a rationalization for saying something hurtful. Honesty is critical and sometimes conversations are painful, but, as Christians, we have an obligation to examine our own hearts when we engage. We are asked to speak truthfully out of regard for another instead of speaking to re enforce (or coerce) our own point of view. How many times have you heard the comment—or spoken the words: “You’re just like…..” The comparison may well be truthful but why is it being made. As often as not, the comparison is meant to diminish rather than build up. Such ‘honesty’ does not reflect our call to be one body. Paul calls us to be honest out of care and regard. Honesty that is not from a place of love and in the service of love becomes a weapon.
The same guidepost applies to our expression of anger. The use anger must also be expressed from a place of love and in the service of love. Anger is an ordinary part of life and it can be used to destroy and it can be used to build up. It can be used to protect our ego It can be a way to assert ourselves and be respectful of one another. Used as such, it becomes part of the pathway to relationship. Unfortunately, anger can also be used to tear down and to disrespect. The question is, how do we use it? When our anger is used to destroy, it is sinful. It does harm to ourselves and others. Paul calls us to look inward to see what we are trying to accomplish. When it is our ego that is at stake, we have turned from God and seek to manage outcomes. We are not willing to speak our truth and wait. Instead we insist on our truth and demand agreement.
In real life, the very intensity of our anger makes it hard to be accountable. In real life, we regress when we are under stress. It is very unfortunate that it is in times of stress, we need God the most but those are the same times, we are most likely to try preserve ourselves. When our personal welfare is threatened, we are more likely to simply react, to self protect.
It is hard to be mindful of others—and harder still to be mindful of those who oppose us. It is only when we are in relationship with God that we can be freed to develop other responses. Such a relationship takes time and intentionality. We have to seek God and we have to be pointed to the way of life that sustains the whole body. That is what Paul is trying to do in these verses.
I often see couples who are deeply and divisively angry. In each case, their feelings can be justified but their anger is destructive. Sometimes they are aware of the damage they are causing—but they can’t seem to stop. This is where real life really gets difficult. We can know the right but that doesn’t mean we can act differently. Resolving conflict requires accountability but, anger, as often as not, is a way to avoid looking at ourselves—a way to avoid accountability.
In one couple I am seeing, the husband is desperately threatened by his wife’s disappointment and despair in the marriage. Instead of engaging her, he insists that he loves her and then accuses her of failing to keep her commitments. He is so threatened that he has no way to listen to her. I like to tell people, if they want to be miserable, take everything personally. But when we only make the world about ourselves, we are unable to listen and we are unable to be in relationship.
For this man, it is more important to stay married than to be connected. He is willing to settle for the form of marriage without the substance. To keep what he knows, he tries every means at his disposal to shame, discount and silence her complaints. And for some strange reason, these tactics do not endear him to her. Perhaps the saddest part is that he, too, has concerns that need to be voiced but he fears that saying them will make things worse. In this climate, there is little likelihood of resolution. They might stay married but it is unlikely they can be connected much less in a relationship that seeks to build each other up. This whole pattern is understandable but it is not ok. In the guise of survival, it is a dance of death.
Jesus wants more for us and offers more to us. Paul knows this and tries to present some pretty clear guidelines about what it means to love as Christ loved us. (Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you). Words matter. The way we say things matters. But what matters most is the spirit with which we use them. It is hard work. It is a lifetime of work. We will often fail—but it the way God calls us. Follow him.
We are God’s beloved children. Trust his love. Love one another, as Christ loved us. Let it be so.