Max Lucado once told a story of a group of guys counting down the days until their much-anticipated fishing trip. They could feel the yank of the rod and hear the spin of the reel as they wrestled the white bass into the boat. And they could smell the fish frying in an open skillet over an open fire. Finally, they were off! They got their late, unfolded the camper, and went to bed dreaming about fishing. They woke up and strangely it was stormy and rainy. No big deal they thought, they would play games and hang out until the storm blew over. They woke up the next morning only to find out that the storm hadn’t blown over yet. They began to get on each others’ nerves. They began to notice personality flaws in one another. They began to be very critical of one another. Sadly the next day brought the same storm as the previous two. By this time they were at one another’s throats until one of them suggested they just pack up and leave. They all agreed that they were ready to leave! They wanted nothing more to do with one another. One thing became very clear from that weekend: “When those who are called to fish don’t fish, they fight. When energy intended to be used outside is used inside, the result is explosive. Instead of casting nets, we cast stones. Instead of extending helping hands, we point accusing fingers. Instead of being fishers of the lost, we become critics of the saved. Rather than helping the hurting, we hurt the helpers. When those who are called to fish don’t fish, they fight. But note the other side of the fish tale: When those who are called to fish, fish—they flourish!”- Max Lucado
We are either on a mission for self or for God’s kingdom. Following Christ is an invitation to die-to-die to self, but in that dying, the other part of that invitation is that we truly find life and learn what it means to really live. If I am on mission for self then much of my purpose, meaning, and significance will come at your expense, however, if I am on mission for God’s kingdom then much of my purpose, joy, and significance will come through your flourishing. Therefore the way I am able or unable to get along with others has much to do with who I am on mission for. When you’re on a common mission it’s so much easier to look over minor irritations. When we are not on mission, I think we look to gravitate towards unnecessary drama in hopes of finding our mission there.
Notice in Ephesians 4:22-32 the pattern that Paul lays out for us. He tells us to put off certain habits that reflect our old way of life in exchange for new habits that represent our new way of life as Christians. Our new self is most clearly revealed by the exchange of old habits for new habits. Many of us adopt a slightly different mindset without realizing it, and that is our new self is most clearly revealed as we try real hard to kick our old habits. But this is an incomplete and insufficient way for the new self to be most clearly seen. He is telling us that in order to dislodge one habit, we must replace it with an opposite habit. Our heart’s affections will be kindled for either dark, hurtful habits, or our heart’s affections will be kindles afresh for godly habits. We often stop short asking how the affections of our hearts can be set ablaze for godly habits and instead simply focus on what to stop doing. Edward Chalmers, a pastor in the 1700’s once said: “Seldom do any of our habits or flaws disappear by a process of extinction through reasoning or “by the mere force of mental determination.” Reason and willpower are not enough. “But what cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed…The only way to dispossess [the heart] of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.”
Many of us have different habits that we might not feel like we will ever be able to get rid of and therefore habits that will forever hinder our relationships with others. I believe the answer to this and our hope is that these habits will be dislodged because a greater love will move in. When I was dating my wife, my habit was to go to the gym every day after work. One day that all changed. Our love began to grow, and one day she had a mini-crisis that entailed having to put her dog of 14 years down. I was at the gym when she told me this. I immediately knew I needed to leave to be with her and support her. I began to spend my afternoons and evenings with her rather than the gym. My heart discovered something of more value and beauty than working out in my wife, and as a result, one habit was dislodged and replaced by another. Instead of fixating on what I was losing, there was something of much greater value that I was receiving.
In verse 25 the habit that Paul is urging to be dislodged here is lying, and it is to be replaced with telling the truth, but he goes a little further by reminding us that we are one body. In other words, you aren’t independent but interdependent. If my heart can see you as someone who I am interconnected with and on a common mission with, hopefully, my heart will overflow with love to the point that I see speaking the truth to you as something of far greater worth than deceiving you. Do you see how more compelling of a reason this is for telling the truth rather than me just telling you to stop lying?
In verse 26, the habit to put off is sinful anger while the habit to put on is communication. On one hand we are not to hold it in for fear of confrontation, but on the other hand we are not to unleash on someone. Be angry is a command, but sin not means my anger is to be responded to in a certain manner. For those of us who may air on the side of fearing conflict and keeping it in; what we often fail to realize in the moment is that the momentary peace we achieving through refusing to confront a conflict is a very false peace because that peace is predicated upon me not being honest.
Once again this is a call to action that will consist of acting contrary to our immediate feelings by being willing to put on a set of characteristics that is a response to the good news we have received. The hope is not going to be found in some magical way my feelings suddenly become warm and fuzzy towards someone I am angry with or who is angry with me, but the hope lies in putting on the habits that represent my new self, and as I do I am living into who I truly am my affections will begin to follow. We must view our feelings as the bumper on our car rather than the steering wheel of our car. They are not meant to be the means by which we are guided to our destination but rather that which follows the direction our car is being steered in.
Many of us have the process backwards and out of order when it comes to trying to exchange habits in our lives. We often want to wait for a feeling before we act before we put on certain characteristics of our new self. What we might fail to realize is that the action will produce the feeling, not the feeling of producing the action. Some of us never act or put on areas of our new self because we are waiting to be guided by our feelings. The feelings will come, but they typically follow the action first. While we can debate all day long, which came first, the chicken or the egg, there is no debating what comes first between the action and the feeling.
Let’s look at one more example in verses 31-32. The habits we are to put off here are bitterness and slander, and we are to exchange these for compassion and forgiveness. When talking about how we get along with others, we must never discuss this apart from the cross and the role that plays in our relationship with God. These are not two separate concepts, but rather, they are intricately intertwined concepts. Until the enormity of that good news begins to permeate every aspect of our lives, it will be like we are putting a band-aid on a massive leak on a ship that we are on rather than realizing there’s a brand new ship we can hop on that is leak-free. Because bitterness and resentment can be habits that are so hard to dislodge, we must not think we can take a passive approach on this and somehow obtain victory. We must drive home the depth of the forgiveness we have been shown, and we are going to need to begin to act contrary to our feelings by putting on gracious, compassionate, and forgiving actions towards those our hearts may currently have a measure of bitterness towards. Remember, our feelings to drive us to the destination, they follow us to our destination.
What is a current habit that you hope to get rid of? What can you replace it with? What actions can you take that will begin to stir your heart affections for the new set of habits?