rooting out bitterness

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Hebrews 12

We have all been hurt, sometimes in life-altering ways. And too often in ways we learn to live with in not such a good way. I think of those molested in childhood, others who have suffered physical or emotional abuse. Words inflict injury as well. James tells us that the tongue is a world of evil. Like a serpent, full of deadly poison (James 3). We carry around with us wounds, which hopefully are largely healed, or in the process of healing. But if not, can perpetuate a cycle of harm. “Hurt people hurt people.”

Oftentimes it seems that this root called bitterness plays out in people finding something wrong, something amiss and off, quick to judge others. And even when such judgments might be either largely or partially true, there is a poison in the air, which inflicts those around them. I think of what should be called gossip, or perhaps better, not putting the best construction on what’s being said or done. And unless we refuse to participate in such, we are taken in, and the problem can grow. It is sad when we can see that is where some people live. And yet we can have more of that in ourselves than we might imagine.

The text above tells us not just to look after ourselves, although that is surely where it must start. But we in Jesus, in the church need to look out for each other, as well. That means we have to guard our tongues to be sure, and work at guarding our hearts. We have to love others, including those who seem on a one track existence due to their bitterness. We all need help along the way, sometimes special help. The goal would be to root out the bitterness, get rid of that poisonous root. Otherwise it is sure to defile others, perhaps many.

Basics like prayer and loving counsel and repentance, and continuing to work against this, seem to be essential. And what is needed in all of this is an emphasis on grace (again, note the text above), no less than an air of grace in which we are careful to consider our actions, words, and what underlies that, our thoughts and attitudes. There is no other way of together following the way of Jesus.


avoiding gossip

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
    they go down to the inmost parts.

Proverbs 26

Gossiping is one of the themes covered in the book of Proverbs. It carries the idea of talking about others behind their back in disparaging ways, usually in a way that highlights their supposed character defects, or whatever perceived weaknesses they have. It often refers to something that has happened, or is going on. It ends up being a moral sickness for those who practice it, and for others who participate in that practice by merely listening. Listening and taking it in, as the passage quoted above indicates, is just as much to participate in it, as the actual gossiper, at least in how it affects the one who listens. By listening, one is affirming what the gossiper is doing.

It becomes more tricky when one just throws in some kind of slant about someone in the midst of what otherwise is normal talk. That is when one should be on guard in their heart not to be taken in, maybe ask a question, or say something which puts into question what is said, and perhaps exonerates the one who has been belittled.

To be a gossip means to have a moral sickness of heart. It is rampant in our society, it seems. Instead of talking about issues, we impugn the character of those we disagree with. And everyone more or less ends up doing that, so that it becomes a vicious cycle. And this affects those who don’t, so that they have to work at not doing the same, even while under their breath perhaps doing so.

We have to learn to hate this kind of practice, and a large part of that is to love the truth, and honesty. And graciousness of thought and speech is essential for this, as well. We should think the best of others, and when we see them fail, hope for better. We need the same grace ourselves from others.

Honesty and truth telling, and above all, being gracious in both thinking and seeking the best for others is essential. If we have a problem with someone, we should go to that person and talk to them, oftentimes clearing up a misunderstanding in the process. And when an offensive behavior persists, we should be slow to go to anyone else, of course depending on what the issue is, and what kind of help that person might need.

And we need to watch ourselves. Especially our hearts to avoid the damage which can be inflicted on others through our tongues. Instead we need to speak the truth in love and as it is in Jesus, and keep looking to Jesus and God’s good news in him, as we look at everything else. Seeing all through that, with the hope that brings for us all.

read the Sermon on the Mount

I really don’t think Christians or the Christianity in general which I grew up with (even as a Mennonite, perhaps) took seriously enough Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus told his disciples before his ascension that they were not only to be witnesses of him, to proclaim him, but to teach all those baptized from all nations to the end of the age to obey all he commanded them. The Sermon on the Mount is a centerpiece of what he taught and commanded.

I have seen gossip*, as well as unloving attitudes among Christians, rolling one’s eyes up against another, simply too common (with wonderful exceptions). We chalk that down to the thought that we’re sinners (and, “Everyone does it.”). Or we even justify it. But actually it’s disobedience to Christ, the one who says that if we love him, we’ll do what he commands. We make a big deal out of protecting ourselves with guns from any intruder, or any enemy, when Jesus tells us otherwise. We make it a priority to gain wealth, maybe get a nice slice of the pie in the American enterprise to realize something of the American Dream when Jesus tells us plainly in the Sermon that instead we’re to pursue his kingdom. And not to do that. Or what about our propensity to put hard and fast judgments on others.

From a misreading of scripture we’ve had at least one whole section of the church relegate the Sermon on the Mount either to a bygone day, or a time yet to come. Which actually ended up infecting many churches and Christians, who officially did not hold to that doctrine. And we’ve had other leaders who gave lip service to the Sermon (in the Reformation), but whose theology really had little room for it. They still lived in and imported much of what had been the norm for Israel in the old covenant.

Reading the Sermon on the Mount, and then seeing much of the rest of the New Testament to a large extent echoing as well as unfolding the teaching of that Sermon is not only eye opening, but revolutionary to one’s faith and practice. Instead we are relegated to a significant degree to get on better on our worldly way, now that we have Christ.

Words are cheap, and it’s easy to talk this way. Much harder to live it out. But we need to do just that. We need each other in this. As the Sermon along with all of Jesus’ teachings and example, and all the truth that is in Jesus becomes more and more the heart of who we are together in him in our witness to the world.

*I mentioned gossip when writing this, probably because those who see Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as important for our lives today, would at least know better than to do that. Although gossip does not break the letter of the Sermon since it is not mentioned, it shatters the spirit of it.