What Spills Out

March 11, 2019

A man had a short temper. He seemed nice enough until he lost his temper, and then, he could inflict emotional pain with his words. The outbursts would come with the frustrations and accidents of life, and those kinds of moments always come. In his book, After You Believe, N.T. Wright tells this story.

A famous preacher had a friend who was well known for his short temper. One day, at a party, he asked this friend to help him serve some drinks. The preacher himself poured the drinks, deliberately filling several glasses a bit too full. He then passed the tray to his friend. As they walked into the room to distribute the drinks, he accidentally-on-purpose bumped into the friend, causing the tray to jiggle and some of the drinks to flow over the brim and spill. “There you are, you see,” said the preacher. “When you’re jolted, what spills out is whatever is filling you.”

When you are jolted, what spills out reveals your character. In a discussion about unclean foods, Jesus makes the same point.

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20–23, ESV)

That is why Jesus talks about trees and their fruit. (Matthew 7:15-20, 12:33-37). A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. Somehow, I don’t think Jesus is giving a lesson on tending orchards. He instructs us to “make the tree good.” Jesus’ solution for behavior (“fruit” in Jesus’ parable) is to transform us on the inside (“make the tree good”). When our character is transformed to be more Christ-like, we don’t have to worry much about the actions that spring from such character. After all, good trees (people) produce good fruit (behavior).

This really is God’s plan. When Jeremiah prophesies of the new covenant, it is about “the law written on hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). When Paul summarizes the big picture of what it is all about, he says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29, ESV, my emphasis). We are to be like Jesus.

Character transformation is a lifelong process. We must cooperate with God to allow Him to change us on the inside. It takes God’s word. It takes prayer. It takes effort. It takes time. When you are jolted, what spills out?


The Transforming Pattern

November 11, 2016

When children first learn to print, a pattern is placed before them of how the letters are to be formed. They practice forming the letters by copying the pattern. In the process children are transformed from not knowing their letters to knowing and printing them.

Patterns can be transformative. I believe that Christian living is to be transformative. One term that expresses this in the New Testament is sanctification. It can refer to the process of becoming holy as well as the result of becoming holy. Is there a pattern for becoming more holy? Listen to these passages that I think give us the pattern that we are to copy and learn until like the child copying letters it becomes a part of us.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23, ESV)

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11 ESV)

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13, ESV)

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14–15, ESV)

So what is the pattern? When I hear the gospel I learn of the seriousness of my situation as separated from God, but I also learn of God’s love and Christ’s love in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Prompted by this love, I want to follow him daily. Following him daily means that I will also deny myself and die to myself daily. This self-denial means that I will consider myself dead to sin and I will be working at putting to death the deeds of the body with the help of the Holy Spirit. I will also consider myself alive to God, and I will live for Jesus’ sake. This means putting on the positive qualities that God wants me to have.

  • Because of love, I will follow Jesus daily.
  • I will deny myself, die to myself daily.
  • I will live for God and live for Jesus daily.
  • I will rely on the help of the Holy Spirit in this process of sanctification.

When we do this, life will never be the same. This is a transforming pattern.


Habits of Holiness

February 21, 2014

The agenda no doubt was to criticize Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes noticed that Jesus’s disciples failed to wash their hands before a meal. The Mishna recorded the tradition that this ritual required a minimum amount of water equal to the volume of one and half eggs. This was definitely about ritual and not hygiene! Jesus countered with the legal loophole used by the religious leaders for declaring something dedicated to the temple, and so unavailable to be used for the care of aging parents. They were criticizing about a tradition of the elders; he was convicting them about the Law of Moses. (See Matthew 15:1-20.)

Following this exchange, Jesus addressed the crowds with a proverb: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11 ESV). This led his disciples to note the Pharisees were offended by Jesus and to request further explanation of the proverb. Jesus’s reply stressed holiness is developed from the inside out. His reply gives us a glimpse into the habits of holiness.

Be careful with God’s revelation. Jesus noted that the Pharisees were blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit. God will uproot what he has not planted. In pursuing holiness and a relationship with God, truth matters.

Be careful what you say. What comes out of our mouths in Jesus’s proverb must refer to what we say. What we say reflects what we are thinking. What we say foreshadows what we will do. The connection between deeds and words is found in Paul’s discussion of sexual immorality and covetousness (Ephesians 5:3-5). Right in the middle of these two themes, Paul warns about the wrong use of words. Some kinds of talk defile. Some kinds of talk sanctify.

Be careful what you think. In Jesus’s explanation of his proverb, he goes further and warns about evil thoughts. Paul also reminds us to think about good and honorable things (Philippians 4:8). Some kinds of thoughts defile. Some kind of thoughts sanctify and make holy.

Although the good news may intervene and change our habits and destiny, God still uses our habits to develop holiness. Someone has wisely said:

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.