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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Treat me kindly, please

Today we will focus on just one character trait, but one which sometimes eludes even the best of us:  Kindness.  Most of the time, we are pretty helpful people, but have you ever just looked at someone and thought, "They made this bed, let them lie in a while"?  If you have, then you are probably like me, you struggle with this attitude of kindness on occasion.  Yet, there is a fine line between kindness and enabling.  Sometimes I think we "stretch" this kindness thing way too far - almost enabling another to act in a certain manner repeatedly simply because they can count on our benevolence in the end.  So, there is a "balance" when we consider kindness - one which we might just call "tough love".

Let all bitterness and indignation and wrath (passion, rage, bad temper) and resentment (anger, animosity) and quarreling (brawling, clamor, contention) and slander (evil-speaking, abusive or blasphemous language) be banished from you, with all malice (spite, ill will, or baseness of any kind).  And become useful and helpful and kind to one another, tenderhearted (compassionate, understanding, loving-hearted), forgiving one another [readily and freely], as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32 AMP)

As we examine our passage today, we find a list of do's and don'ts which we might just have to consider to understand this idea of tough love.  So, let's dig in a little and see what unfolds.  As we might expect, when Paul was writing to the Ephesian church, he has an intent in mind - they needed to learn to dwell together in unity.  There was a lot of "melding" of different religious "styles" back in the time he penned these words - some came from the orthodox Jewish background, other new to this whole "faith" thing.  Trying to get a group of people to come together, moving all in the same direction, and then staying that way is hard work!  To this end, he pens some instructions of "family life rules" - to be in this family, we have to be diligent to keep the "rules" which allow for the family to be strong and dynamic.

He deals with some things which clearly do not demonstrate a spirit of benevolence (kindness) - bitterness, indignation, wrath, resentment, quarreling, slander, and malice.  A laundry list of "bad traits" which certainly do not lend themselves to keeping unity in they church, let alone in any other relationship experience!  To this litany of "bad traits", he offers the traits which will be "put on" in place of these "destructive" ones - usefulness, helpfulness, kindness, tenderness, and forgiveness.  This is a principle frequently observed in scripture - you "put off" one thing, you "put on" another.  To just "put off" leaves a void begging to be filled.  If it is not filled with the right stuff, it gives room for the "wrong stuff" to refill the void and even to take over more "space" than it previously occupied.

As we explore kindness, we will do well to examine some of the synonyms of this word:  mildness, gentleness, and affection.  If you see the list of "put off" traits, you might just be able to pair them up with the "opposite" trait.  For example, put off bitterness or resentment / put on affection - it is impossible to have true affection for anyone when there is bitterness or resentment in your heart.  At the root of affection is devotion - try devoting yourself to another you are holding a grudge against and you absolutely cannot do it!  Put off indignation, wrath, and malice / put on gentleness.  When you think of gentleness, you have to go right to the core of this trait - mercy and grace.  How does this "fit" as the opposite of being rather bad tempered?  Well, if you want to move toward that which produces peace in a relationship, you often have to extend a whole bunch of mercy and grace because we all do things which get at the other person once in a while!

I don't think kindness comes naturally to us - it is definitely a character trait which must be developed as the grace of God comes into our lives.  The more we embrace grace ourselves, the more likely we are to extend it to others when they most need it.  So, how do we get to the place where kindness becomes the normal way of responding to life's events and the people who create them?  It goes back to the "action" of putting off and putting on.  Much as we take off our dirty clothes at the end of the day, we must "rid" ourselves of the traits which actually do nothing to bring unity in relationships.  We choose to "put on" anger - we can equally choose to "put on" kindness.  It is like selecting the wardrobe we will wear for the day - it is a conscious decision.  We select the khaki pants, the corresponding top which compliments the pants, and then find the shoes which best complete the outfit.  It is a "package deal" - the "outfit" works because each part compliments the other.  So it is with the character trait of kindness - it fits because it compliments the other character traits it supports:  mildness, gentleness, and affection. 

We often don't change our clothes until we realize they are soiled.  The same is true of our relationship "traits" which we carry from one relationship to another - often unaware of how they have been soiled by what we have been through.  Bitterness, resentment, and the like are really "acquired dirt" - we allow the "dirt" of a relationship gone awry to get worked into the "fibers" of our life.  Before long, we are sporting filthy character "attire", often oblivious to just how dirty we have become.  When we take a good look in the mirror, we see the filth.  This is what a good look into scripture will do for us - it reveals the dirt which has become ingrained into the fibers of our character.  Equally so, it also helps to show us what needs to be put on in the place of this "soiled" fabric of our lives.  We just have to take the first look - God does the rest.  No one changes what they cannot see - so getting a good look into God's mirror will help us realize what needs changing.  Stay in the closet long enough with God and you will come out with an entirely new wardrobe!  Just sayin!