(Note: While I wrote this article over a year ago, I find I’ve let myself get dragged into negativity by personal circumstances. It’s a strange thing to teach oneself. Just a bit of confession…)
…to be negative even if the environment is negative.
Don’t you hate it when you realize you’ve been sucked in? What do I mean? There is some fad or some product that EVERYBODY does or has. Right now, all I hear about is Twitter. I got sucked in, and I set up an account. Strangely, I don’t feel any different. I have even sent and read a few tweets. They tell me to stick with it, but I don’t want to center my life around Twitter. Some how, I’ve managed to stay fulfilled. So, while I gave into the dark side of Twitter, I still don’t have an iPhone. In fact, I don’t own a smart phone at all. I must admit that I would likely enjoy either, but I just hate paying my cell phone bill each month. The thought of paying even more repulses me. At least for now, I’m not getting sucked in.
The crowd usually sucks people in to its thought. When I taught teens in a Christian school, I was always amazed that groups of students had unique personalities. One would think that groups of students would be homogeneous. Each group has a personality just like an individual. Some are mean, some are playful, others are apathetic, and still others are engaging. Sometimes, a group is even negative. I grieved when I saw a normally cheerful student get sucked in to a negative crowd. He abandons his own personality just to be part of the group. He becomes mean and vindictive. He complains. Why? I wish I knew. Perhaps he wants to survive or just fit in. How tragic to give up a normally light hearted personality to conform to the bullies, the gripers, the wrathful, or the gossips.
While I can be critical of students, I have been sucked into the negative vortex too (as an adult!). I can remember when tensions were high over various disagreements over some policies at a Christian ministry. Slowly the volcanic pressure began to build. Sides were picked. The stories spread. Critical spirits reigned. And, the slightest little mis-step was blown out of proportion. While that environment was no fun, it frustrated me even more to get drawn into the fray. I exchanged my joy, peace, and friendliness for criticalness and negativity. I hated feeling that way! I let them get to me. I started playing at their level. Now, I can point to the short comings of others, but I must admit to my own contribution to the environment. I decided that my attitude would not be a function of someone else’s attitude. While they may bring their rain clouds, I did not need to be subject to it. Paul teaches a similar lesson in Ephesians 4:31.
Like the growth of mildew, negative and hurtful attitudes spread to others. We can find ourselves part of the problem or (at least) refusing to add to the flames. Paul writes, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Like the book of Romans in the previous chapter, Paul explains the new life in Ephesians. Specifically, he teaches on the mystery that the Jews and Gentiles are unified in one, new people of God. The Letter to the Ephesians is about unity. There are attitudes that contribute towards unity and some that hurt it. Ephesians 4:31 is about what hurts unity: negativity.
Take it away
We know the experience of smelling something disgusting in our home or car. One Saturday, I was busy running errands. Yard work awaited me, so I forgo the regular morning shower and put on a ball hat. All morning I kept smelling something sickly sweet and disgusting. Was it something wrong with the car? Was it me? Were some of my western PA neighbors burning wet leaves? What was it? When I arrived home, I kept smelling the odor. It could not have been the car or burning leaves. It was me. Specifically, it was my ball cap. Once in a while, our boy cat, CC, decides that he does not like me as much as I don’t like him. He sprayed my cap. Yes, I know, I wore a cat urine laced hat…gross. However, I did find the smell. What bothered me was that I really liked that hat! Sure, I could try to wash it, but washed hats are never the same. I considered it ruined and chucked it. Stupid cat.
What does my hat have to do with this? Paul gives a command in this passage, Ephesians 4:31. He says to the whole church, “Put away…remove…take away” this list of things (we’ll look at those things soon). Don’t try to clean them up or endure them, remove this garbage like a urine soaked hat. Just get rid of it! Get rid of these things in your individual lives and in your relationships. They just stink. They have no part in an individual or a church where there is a new life in Christ. If you find yourself partaking with this kind of negativity, lose it. I wish I could say I’ve never wallowed in this trash. Believe me: I find no loop hole when I examine my own heart.
So, what does Paul want us to chuck? He gives us a list. There is some overlap of these terms, and they can synonymous to a degree. But, let’s define each in Paul’s list of negative trash:
Bitterness, animosity, harshness: This is a dark attitude. Bitterness is common, but also one of the most useless emotions. People hurt each other. Even the closest of friends and family do so. We may intentionally hurt someone or not. But, we hurt nonetheless. The victim of this hurt enters a danger zone. He may become bitter due to unforgiveness. When we are hurt, we need to forgive. If not, we become bitter. Now, I realize that there are hurts that cut to the very soul. But when the victim does not forgive, he slips into bitterness in a vain, vain attempt to punish the accused. It never works. You only harm yourself. Joanna Weaver states, “Bitterness is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” True enough. And, while there are many great, grievous hurts, we often hold on to the small, stupid ones. Furthermore, we forget the great forgiveness granted us by Jesus. By what right do we hold an offence (Matthew 18:21-35)?
Wrath, rage: This is a very strong term. It’s sometimes used for God’s wrath. When we engage in wrath, we are placing ourselves in the place of God. It’s not our job. We have enough to do without worrying about God’s job description. His wrath is tempered by his grace. He sent his own son to die for us so that we may not face wrath. He has a right to it, but it does not belong in the heart and life of a believer. No justification will make it fit either.
Anger, wrath, jealousy: Like I said earlier, there is some overlap of these terms. Truly, there are times for anger and jealousy. God gets angry and jealous. But like many things in this world, we have twisted them to our own means. Anger and jealousy usually arise when we feel some sort of injustice or disrespect has come upon someone (or something) we love. I’m jealous for my wife and will not tolerate someone not treating her correctly. But, sometimes I become angry or jealous for my own rights or the manner I think things should be done or a perceived hurt against a friend. We warp this one to our own means, and it mixes venomously with bitterness.
Shouting, clamor: Making your point louder does not make your point better. Christ followers will have disagreements. They are ok; in fact, they should be an opportunity for God to be glorified. We can still love one another even in the face of disagreement. How much grief must it bring to the heart of God to see his children scream and carry on against one another! Sorry, there is no place for this in our churches and relationships.
Slander, abusive speech: This word is often translated as blasphemy. Have you ever noticed how words are like seeds? Some words produce delicious fruit or an amazing flower. Other words “blossom” into weeds. They are ugly. They choke the life out of the good plants. And, to make matters worse, they seem to produce even more seeds and spread around to other gardens. Each spring, our yard fills with dandelions. There are so many, it’s impossible to get them all. Even if I did get them all, my neighbor has a field full of them too. Blasphemy (slander) is a lie designed to spread around like a weed. Why is it that weeds and abusive words spread so easily?
Malice, ill will: This takes abusive speech to another level. Some so-called believers actually feel justified in their own bitterness and wrath that they feel obligated to augment and distort their point of view. Yes, they lie. It comes from the darkness in their heart. Perhaps they were wronged (or maybe just slightly), but they have no desire for reconciliation or forgiveness. They justify their ideas and spread malice. I hope you never see this from someone who claims to be a brother or sister in Christ, but you may.
Do you see all this…crap? Sorry if that words offends. You should have read what I really thought! When we find ourselves among those who live like this, refuse to be a part. We have a new nature in Christ. These attitudes may even spread to your friends and loved ones. Show them Ephesians 4:31. And by the way, Paul does not even allow for a hint of these attitudes and actions. He says to remove them all. All means all. Toss it away like an old, smelly hat. You do not have to buy in to those attitudes even though everyone else does them too. And sometimes, you will find others will follow you when you refuse to be negative even if the environment is negative.