May 12, 2013
It’s amazing how much rides on a few simple attitudes.
I. Selflessness (Colossians 3:12)
II. Forgiveness (Colossians 3:13)
III. Love (Colossians 3:14)
One of my favorite experiences with great parenting occurred twenty or more years ago when our girls were little. We were visiting friends who had more kids than we did, and there may have been a third family. The adults were visiting inside, and most of the kids were playing in the back yard, with the normal screeches and yells. But at some point every parental ear in the room noted an increase in volume and intensity, with some anger and frustration. Before any of the other parents could move, the dad of the family we were visiting walked to the back door, pulled it open and yelled ‘be good.’ Then with an air of pretended satisfaction he closed the door and returned to the conversation.
But it’s not a joke when I tell you something similar for our family series this week: be nice! This is not a trite platitude, but a serious goal. I’ve been working with family and marriage issues all my adult life, as a pastor, counselor, elder and a friend. But I think it was Gail who first put this truth into words “so many people would be so much better off if they would just be nice to each other.” The opposite of this is being ugly to each other. It’s like a disease. As a friend of mine used to say ‘that family’s got a bad case of the uglies.”
In Illinois 20 years ago Gail and I knew this kind of family. The wife was a worrier, complainer, victim, convinced she never did anything wrong. The husband was arrogant, and totally dismissive of his wife. They had a little boy and a baby girl, which added to the tension. So they had the most outrageous accusations, guilt slinging, nasty words and tearful tantrums Gail and I had ever seen. It was ugly; disastrously selfish. But if you and I look within, I think we find that we too are innately selfish; even salvation hasn’t cured this.
Yet the practice of being nice is possible for us as God’s beloved children. And it’s amazing what a few ‘be nice’ changes in us can do for our families. Our text in reveals three life-changing ‘be nice’ attitudes; selflessness; forgiveness and love. Colossians 3:12-14 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Bible Immersion Camp last weekend was great. It’s always good to get away to the peacefulness of the farm, and wonderful to see kids engage with Scripture and find that God really speaks. Our Scripture was Colossians and some, including my daughter Tina, picked this text as their application and really dug into it.
As we studied, we learned that Paul wrote to believers in Colossae he’d never met, to tell them how excited he was by the reports of their faith and how he was praying for them. He also wrote to magnify the Lord who had saved them, and to warn them against some false teaching he knew they were exposed to. Finally, in chapters 3-4, he wrote to give practical advice for Christian living.
Even here Paul grounds his instruction in the Gospel. Verse 12: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” clothe yourselves with compassion, etc. These instructions only work for a specific group of people, those God has chosen, loved, and made holy To address relational issues in your family, before assigning blame, listing complaints, or taking action, the very first thing to do is to establish or reaffirm your dependence on God’s grace.
The people of Colossae were selected by God for salvation. We’ve noted often that while we are responsible, and must chose to trust in Christ and depend on him for salvation, yet God is sovereign, and he chooses who will be saved. The truths are not contradictory but complementary, each expressing a necessary part of the overall picture. But Paul’s emphasis here is God’s work, not ours. Even being nice is about dependence on grace, not human works.
Paul says that in addition to being chosen we have been made holy by God. In telling us we’re already holy and then calling us to be nice, Paul is simply counseling us to be what we are. As a believer, in God’s sight you are holy and blameless through Jesus. Now, in dependence on God, live up to what he has made you.
You are chosen and set apart, but most important, you are dearly loved, beloved. God has loved you from all eternity, with an incomparable love so strong, so desperate that to ensure a relationship with you he was willing to suffer the shame, the punishment and the separation of the Cross in the person of Jesus. Let me make my point carefully: the instructions we’re about to study will only work for believers, because only believers have the grace from God, and the dependence on God, which makes such behavior possible.
The critical question is: are you trusting Christ as your rescuer and king? Have you given up on yourself, admitted your sin and your need, and thrown yourself on his mercy, believing he died on the cross for your sins and rose from death to make you new? Only if you’ve been thus saved can you be nice in any deep way. I want to give you a moment now to process this. ‘Without your sacrifice, rescue and strength, King Jesus, I am helpless to live the way you call me to.
So what does this living look like? Verse 12: Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Paul has already described putting off and putting on in verse 9:
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” The visual is great: taking off layer after layer of dirty, muddied clothing, and then finally actually taking off the skin itself, and putting on new skin, a clean self. And over that new skin we deliberately put on new clothing. We put on selfless attitudes and behaviors.
The word ‘compassion’ is two Greek words which would literally be translated ‘bowels of mercy’ or ‘a gut of mercy’ The first word refers to your guts, the place where the Greeks felt your emotions were located, as in a gut feeling. The second is the common word for mercy, the mercy God shows us, and the mercy we are to show to one another. So this is a gut feeling of mercy. You and I are called to cultivate this by expressing deep concern for the needs and feelings of the other people in our family. We are to apply compassion.
And as we’ve said often, Jesus models this. This word is used of Jesus over and over in the Gospels. Matthew 15:32, "I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days with nothing to eat.” Mark 6:34 “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them.” To be like Jesus is to feel compassion, and then to act on your compassion for the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs in your family.
It’s helpful to ask ‘what is the opposite of this compassion?’ I guess it’s indifference: knowing someone is hurting and doing nothing about it; going on with your life, your agenda, not letting the feelings, emotions, or even physical hurts of your family get to your heart or behavior. I’ve seen this kind of indifference in families, and it’s painful. We are meant to care about each other; it’s God’s design. Indifference is ugly; deep niceness is actively compassionate.
One thing this looks like in a family is listening and caring. Husbands, let me address this specifically to you, though it applies to all. Your wife wants you to listen and to care about what she says and how she feels. She may be struggling with something she knows you can’t solve: she doesn’t even want you to solve it. But still she wants you to listen, to try to understand, and to care how she feels. I know my marriage has been a lot richer in those times when I have listened to my wife’s heart and cared about what she was feeling.
Second, put on kindness. This word is the source of this sermon’s application: kindness is being nice to people. It’s doing nice things for people in your family; being polite to them; seeing where they need help; thinking of their convenience. It’s putting other people first, meeting their daily needs, and doing it ungrudgingly and without bitterness.
And the opposite of being nice is being selfish. You know what this looks like in the family because you’ve done it; so have I. It’s taking the last one. It’s pouring only for yourself. It’s letting someone else clean up. It’s walking by someone who needs a hand. It’s making unreasonable demands to satisfy your ego. It’s spending unreasonable money to satisfy your wants. Only when we begin to get a handle on selfishness can we begin to be nice to our families.
Of all the ‘niceness’ and kindness stories I know, the one I love nearly the best is Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s short story ‘In Memory of L.H.W.’ I don’t have time to even sketch it, but the hero of the story, Lem Warren, is a person of the most humble and extraordinary kindness. You ought to read it. You can get the book Hillsboro People free at several places online, including Kindle
Lem Warren epitomizes kindness and humility. This is the essence, the heart of selflessness. Philippians 2: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Humility means letting others have credit, the honor, the starring role, the last word. It means recognizing that I might be wrong, not putting myself above others.
Jesus is the ultimate example: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” “Your attitude husbands, wives, children, parents, should be the same as Christ Jesus who made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!” When was the last time you sacrificed yourself for someone in your family? When was the last time you did something so entirely selfless, that there was no possibility of being noticed and thanked? When was the last time you gave of yourself not for someone who had earned it, but for someone who was being really yucky? Your role in your family is to imitate Christ’s humility.
Compassion, kindness, humility. To these add meekness or gentleness, especially gentleness of speech. Scripture teaches that carefully spoken words encourage and build up. Gentleness of speech focuses on the other person, on their needs, and, if correction is needed, on touching with a feather. It asks questions that show you’ve been thinking and praying for others. It speaks more often of others than of self, listens to stories rather than tells them, and values opinions.
The opposite is harshness - a rock on which many a family has foundered. Harshness causes great pain. It hurts to be corrected harshly, to be directed harshly, to be treated roughly with anger or yelling. If you don’t test yourself any other way after this morning’s message, test yourself, test your speech, for harshness. And if you even think ‘that might have been harsh’ – it almost certainly was.
Richard Dunagin tells a story of winning some goldfish at a school carnival, and rather than buying a new tank for $70, he bought an old yucky one for $10, and cleaned it up with strong soap. But the fish died, and he found out it was the residue of the harsh soap he had used that had killed them. He says: “Sometimes in our zeal to clean up our lives or the lives of others, we use "killer soaps" condemnation, criticism, nagging, anger. We think we're doing right, but our harsh treatment is hurting.” Harshness of speech is ugly, hurtful.
The last quality in this verse is patience. Patience is always at the ends of these lists, because it doesn’t mind waiting to be talked about. Impatience, on the other hand, always minds waiting, always wants to be on its own timetable. Even with a family member who struggles to be ready, harsh impatience makes it worse. Some of you probably experienced that coming to church this morning.
But the harder patience is waiting for change. Your husband, your wife, your son, your daughter, your mom, your dad, they are working on character qualities. Maybe one of them is harsh, maybe one has a short temper, or is self-centered, or is vain, or prideful. Remember that change is hard, and impatience won’t help them get there any faster. Think of how patiently God nurtures you toward change; show that same kindness. Consider the example of Jesus and Peter. No matter how often and how badly Peter blew it, Jesus kept patiently correcting him, forgiving him, loving him, and testing him. Until finally, with the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter began to change.
So your role is simply to be nice, to be unselfish in your family. I’d like you to pause before we continue and write down one of these unselfish qualities that you most feel the need for at this moment, and make it an undertaking of prayer and application to practice that quality this week.
In verse 13 we see that we must also imitate Christ’s forgiveness. Verse 13: Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
To bear with each other means to put up with each other. In any family there are going to be some things that grate against us, annoy us or make us uncomfortable. Even the best of families knows this to be true: In families with difficulties, these things are amplified like sound in a megaphone, until the flaws of those around you become like nails scratching on a blackboard. How does Paul say to deal with these things? He counsels us to bear up under them, to put up with them, to overlook those behaviors in your family that are simply different, or even irritating but not really sinful or harmful. But often we are called not to overlook, but instead, to forgive. Forgiveness is a core Biblical discipline for believers, especially in the family.
Can I say that any more strongly? Families are wrecked, ruined and destroyed because of an unwillingness to ask forgiveness, an unwillingness to forgive. Look again at the verse: “If one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” The Greek is structured so as to explicitly assume that there will be, at least occasionally, a cause of complaint, a ground for blame, between believers. Certainly this is true within a family. Each of us has rich opportunities to forgive and deep needs to be forgiven. That’s why I’ve long said that the ten most powerful words in a family are “I’m sorry, I was wrong, would you please forgive me.”
That’s why Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother not seven times but seventy times seven. He told the parable of the unmerciful servant to show that as we have been forgiven greatly, so we must forgive. And he modeled forgiveness, even to the thief on the cross – even to us. But someone will say, “I just can’t do it.” Well, it wasn’t trivial for God either. It cost him the death of His son. Andrew Murray wrote a prayer that helps: To forgive like you, blessed Son of God! I take this as the law of my life. You have given the command; give also the power. You who had love enough to forgive me, fill me with love and teach me to forgive others. You who gave me the first blessings, in the joy of having my sins forgiven, will surly give me the second blessing, and deeper joy of forgiving others as you have forgiven me.”
There’s so much more I could say about forgiveness in the family, but instead let me tell an old but true story from the life of a nurse. “The hospital was unusually quiet that bleak January evening. I threw a stethoscope around my neck and went to check my newest patient, room 712. Mr. Williams looked up eagerly, but dropped his eyes when he saw it was only his nurse. I pressed the stethoscope over his chest and listened. Strong, slow, even beating. There seemed little indication he had suffered a heart attack a few hours earlier.
He looked up: "Nurse, would you call my daughter? Tell her I've had a heart attack. A slight one. She’s the only family I have." He brushed away a tear. "Of course I'll call her," I said His face was tense with urgency. He was breathing fast. "I'll call her the very first thing." I turned up the oxygen. As I left he spoke "Could you get me a pencil and paper?" I dug a scrap of yellow paper and a pen from my pocket and set it on the bedside table.
I walked to the nurses' station. Mr. William’s daughter was listed as next of kin. Her soft voice answered. "Hello Janie, my name is Sue Kidd. I’m a nurse at Bay Front hospital. I'm calling about your father. He was admitted tonight with a slight heart attack” "No!" she screamed, startling me. "He's not dying is he?" "His condition is stable at the moment," I said, trying to sound convincing.
"You must not let him die!" she pleaded. “My daddy and I haven't spoken in a year. We had a terrible fight on my 21st birthday, and I left. All these months I've wanted to go to him for forgiveness. The last thing I said to him was, 'I hate you." Her voice cracked. I breathed a prayer. "Please, God, let this daughter find forgiveness." Janie sobbed, "I'm coming. I'll be there in 30 minutes." I tried to busy myself with a stack of charts, but I couldn't concentrate.
I walked quickly to 712, but when I opened the door. Mr. Williams lay unmoving. I reached for his pulse. There was none. "Code 99; Room 712; Code 99; Stat." I sounded the alert for a cardiac arrest and then leveled the bed, turned up the oxygen and began to compress his chest. "O God," I prayed. "His daughter is coming. Don't let it end this way. Not in bitterness and hatred." Doctors and nurses poured into the room with emergency equipment. I connected the heart monitor. Nothing. Not a beat. "Stand back," cried a doctor as he placed the defib paddles. But there was no response. We tried again and again, but Mr. Williams was dead. One by one the response team left, grim and silent. A cold wind rattled the window, pelting the panes with snow.
When I left the room, I saw a young woman against the wall by a water fountain. A doctor who had been inside 712 only moments before stood at her side. Such pathetic hurt reflected from her face. I introduced myself as the nurse who had called her. "I never hated him, you know. I loved him," she said. Suddenly she whirled "I want to see him." I squeezed her hand as we walked into the room. She leaned over the bed and buried her face in the sheets. I tried not to intrude on this sad, sad good bye, but as I backed against the bedside table, my hand fell upon a scrap of yellow paper. I quickly read it and thrust it toward Janie.
It read: “My dearest Janie, I forgive you. I pray you will also forgive me. I know you still love me. I love you so much. Daddy” As she took it in, her tormented face grew radiant. Peace began to shine in her eyes. "Thank you, God," I prayed, looking up at the window. A snowflake hit the pane, and melted away, gone forever. Life seemed as fragile as that snowflake. But thank you, God, that though there is not a moment to spare, fragile relationships can be mended.
Let me give you a moment to pray about who in your family you might need to forgive - or to be forgiven by.
Verse 14: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Paul told Timothy that “the goal of our instruction is love, from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Certainly the goal of these instructions is love that grows ever stronger in our families. Love isn’t just feelings toward those in our family, though praise God if we have those feelings.
Love is more; it’s attitudes and behaviors, the power of true niceness: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness. These things are love, and like facets on a diamond, they combine together into something of perfect unity and beauty. These things are love - that’s why so many of them appear in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patience, love is kindness. Love is to not envy, to not boast, to not be proud. Love is to not be rude, not be self-seeking, to not be easily angered, to keep no record of wrongs. Love is to not delight in evil, but to rejoice with the truth. Love is to protect, to trust, to hope, to persevere.
Husbands, you are called by this text to abandon pride, abandon anger, and love your wife and your children gently and unselfishly. Mothers, you are called by this Scripture to choose kindness, to choose patience, and to forgive complaints as Christ has forgiven you. Children, you are called to live for the others in your home, to serve and to forgive both your siblings and your parents.
All of us are called to have a constant mental picture of what it means to be nice, to ask ourselves often, am I being compassionate, kind, selfless, gentle, patient. Am I forbearing and forgiving the faults of my family? Am I showing love, showing Christlikeness? And I believe it’s possible for each of us to begin to live this way. Why? Because these things are not only love, they are also the fruit of the Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit of God himself, at work in those whom he has chosen, made holy, and dearly loved, who can help your family grow. He gives love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Let me close by circling back to the idea that in families, you are supposed to be nice. And really, we all know what that looks like. As Robert Fulghum famously said, we all learned it in kindergarten. He says “These are the things I learned: 1. Share everything. 2. Play fair. 3. Don't hit people. 4. Put things back where you found them. 5. Clean up your own mess. 6. Don't take things that aren't yours. 7. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. 8. Wash your hands before you eat. 9. Flush. 10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. 11. Live a balanced life - learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work every day some. 12. Take a nap every afternoon. 13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
Put off ugliness; put on niceness, and let it characterize your families.