Sunday, January 18, 2009

Guard Your Heart

Perhaps some of you, those who are forced to watch the children stations like cartoon network, have seen the same commercial I am thinking about this morning. It has a young man sitting at the piano with an older man sitting next to him, listening. The young man is explaining how hard it was for him to learn how to play especially because everyone kept telling him to quit, including his teacher. As he says this the gentleman beside him shakes his head, closes the keyboard and leaves. But the young man said he would not quit and the end of the commercial shows him playing with the piano in such a way that you know he has mastered the instrument. The message for the children is clear.

Words can kill so many things; hopes, dreams, aspirations. Criticism contains some of the most powerful words and all of us have faced them from people who thought they had a right to judge us. Of course that is one of the greatest weaknesses in the body of Christ, self-righteous judgement. Criticism will stop us dead in our tracks, if we chose to allow it. Some of us chose to do just that; to listen to those words and allow them to shape us.

Now let us be careful here. Not everything can be labelled as criticism. Some of it is wise guidance. How can we tell the difference? We know the difference when we look at the source and the intent. We ask ourselves the questions, “Is this person living what he is talking?”, and “Does he have anything to gain from this council?” Whatever is said should agree with what the Spirit is saying to you and with what the Word of God says.

Consider Jesus in this matter. Jesus is God but he was also man. We are told that he faced every temptation we have to face. He suffered under it as we suffer under it. The words thrown at him hurt and none of us have had to face the criticism he had to face. Let’s consider just three incidents we find in Matthew 9:

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven."

At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, "This fellow is blaspheming!"

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.

In other words, they were saying to Jesus, “Who do you think you are?”

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Jesus was showing them up and they hated him for it.

Then John's disciples came and asked him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

Notice some things here in Jesus’ reaction to the criticism; he responded with patience and he taught the truth. He did not respond with his emotions but instead with the Word of God. Our emotions betray us every time in the face of criticism but the Word of God keeps us on course. It also allows us to respond as we should to those who criticize us. Look at what follows:

While he was saying this, a ruler came and knelt before him and said, "My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live." Jesus got up and went with him, and so did his disciples.

Here was the perfect opportunity for Jesus to shove it in their face; one of them needed his help. However, his heart of compassion would not allow it. He got up and went with the man and brought life to his dead daughter. Criticism should never prevent us from responding in the manner that the Spirit compels us to respond in.

Now turn to Matthew 12. Here again we find Jesus being attacked by criticism. First his disciples break, not the Law but the current addendums to the law. There were many man-made laws put in place to better define what they figured God meant by “work”. First the disciples dared to harvest a bit of grain to chew on. Then Jesus actually dared heal someone on the Sabbath. The hated him so much that they plotted to kill him. He moved on from there but he moved on to continue his work, including casting out demons. It is here again that some of the harshest criticism is levelled at him:

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons."

How much more could he take? How much more could you take? If we do not learn how to respond to these things in the proper manner they will change us; filling us with bitterness and hatred. Jesus responded by knowing who was criticizing and knowing their intent. He always responded with teaching and with the Word, He did this to protect the tenderness, openness, and compassion of his heart. He would not allow bitterness to enter in.

In this case he taught several things but for me the most significant is this:

"Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

This says a lot to me about those who criticize but also about the way we respond to them. Let’s just set aside the critics for a moment because I think we can all understand how this applies to them. Consider for a moment how this applies to how we respond. It can open our eyes to what is found in our hearts. Remember that we cannot do anything to change another person’s heart. The only thing we can change is our own. So we cannot change their criticism but we can change what we do with it. Jesus was unable to change the hearts of those who attacked him but he made sure that his heart remained true and that he responded according to that heart.

The greatest danger of criticism is what it can produce in our heart, the way it can change our heart, and the way it can shape our response. If we do not respond to these things with the Word of God then we are responding with our emotions. Only the Word can keep our hearts true to the course, to our calling, to our purpose. Remember that it is out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. If we allow these things to produce hatred or bitterness our response will come from these things. But if we have guarded our heart our response will come from God’s compassion for everyone. Forgiveness will keep our heart tender. Mercy will be our strength. Compassion will be our response. Listen to the words of King Solomon from Proverbs 4:

My son, pay attention to what I say;
listen closely to my words.

Do not let them out of your sight,
keep them within your heart;

for they are life to those who find them
and health to a man's whole body.

Above all else, guard your heart,
for it is the wellspring of life.

Put away perversity from your mouth;
keep corrupt talk far from your lips.

Let your eyes look straight ahead,
fix your gaze directly before you.

Make level paths for your feet
and take only ways that are firm.

Do not swerve to the right or the left;
keep your foot from evil.

Solomon had learned something in his lifetime; the heart is the wellspring of life. From it we drink and it affects the health of our entire being. Guard it he says.

Jesus gives a warning that most people consider to be aimed at those who criticize but I see it aimed at all of us:

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

So the danger of criticism is much greater than the fact that it can stop us from completing our purpose. That is only part of what we can allow it to do. Perhaps the greater danger is the effect it can have on our heart if we do not deal with it properly. We must weigh what is said, not by the words but by the people who are saying it. Only after we have considered the source should we consider the words and then only by weighing them against the Spirit and the Word of God. But regardless of all this we must never allow those words to produce other carless words from us. Guard your heart!

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