The Fourth of July – a time for hot dogs on the grill, homemade ice cream and shimmering rivers of lights cascading down the night sky. But the holiday is a difficult one for Steve. When he was eight years old, his brother drowned in a boating accident on one particularly hot July Fourth. After that, the memories of summer were all bad. His family was never the same. Depression and anger – especially at God – stuck to them like mud thrown at a wall. In many ways, Steve became the victim of his parents’ bitterness.
Steve is now thirty-five years old with children of his own…children who very much like all the celebrations of our nation’s birthday, even though their Dad usually manages to spoil the day for his family by his dark moods and surliness.
When Steve became a Christian about ten years ago, God took away a lot of the depression and anger hiding in his soul. But there remains this residual darkness he just can’t seem to shake. And so he perpetuates the pain from his own childhood onto the next generation – in the lives of his own children.
Before you judge Steve too harshly, perhaps we should take a closer look at this snap shot of him – it may help us see more clearly the blurred pictures of our own lives. You see, Steve believes – and lives – two widely accepted lies.
First of all, he lives by the fundamental belief that his pain is more important than his behavior. The mid-summer holiday triggers painful memories from his past, which he believes entitles him to treat others with the same disregard his parents treated him. His dark moods hurt his wife and children, but he feels he has the right to act sullen and nasty because of his painful childhood. He excuses his behavior because of his pain.
Steve also believes his pain is more important than walking with God and obeying Him. Oh, sure, the Bible says to be kind and compassionate and build one another up according to their needs (Ephesians 4). But surely God doesn’t expect him to do that when he has so much pain! In fact, where is all that kindness and compassion when he needs it? After all, he is the one who really needs compassion. Right?
And sure, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:37-39) But Steve has some days when all he can think about is how bad his life has been. There is hardly any room left over in his heart and soul and mind for God. But God, of all people, really should understand and make an exception in his case. In fact, everybody should cut him some slack. Why, if they really understood his pain, they would give him a medal for doing as well as he does. Right?
Some of you can identify with Steve’s pain. Others of you may even be thinking his pain is a drop in the bucket in comparison with yours. Please understand we are not saying your pain is not legitimate. We’re not even suggesting that you just have to “get over it”! What we are saying is that your pain is not more important than your behavior. It is not more important than your walk with the Lord and your obedience to His Word. It has become quite popular today to have a victim mentality, and by this to excuse our behavior. (Like, “I chase after women. But I can’t help it. I saw my Mother and Grandmother fight a lot when I was young.”) And so we focus on our pain – our problems – our needs. And with the focus on them, our real needs are overlooked and even disdained. Our real need, you see, is not to focus on ourselves, but to focus wholeheartedly on God and to glorify Him in all we are and do and say. And then to love others with the kind of love we want for ourselves. This is the way that leads to joy!
Focusing on our pain makes us more and more self-focused, which is just a fancy way of saying “selfish,” which is a sure-fire way to feel miserable. This doesn’t just apply to the Steves of this world who carry around a pile of baggage. It applies to every one of us. Our pain doesn’t have to be big for us to focus on it. Any lil’ ol’ pain will do. “O.K., so I’m a little irritable; I didn’t sleep much last night.”
(Translation: Not enough sleep entitles me to be irritable.) “You’d be cranky too if you had my boss.” (Translation: Having a demanding boss entitles me to be cranky.) “Sorry I am a little testy, but I’m suffering from PMS.” (Translation: Everybody knows PMS entitles me to carry a gun.) “I don’t know why I bother with you. You never listen to me.” (Translation: If you do not treat me the way I want to be treated, I am entitled to hurt you with any critical thing I can say.)
Somewhere deep inside, well hidden from our conscious living, is our selfishness. In our self-focus, we are all like Steve. We believe our pain is more important than our behavior. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t yell at our kids for tracking up the floor we just mopped. We wouldn’t sulk when she fails to notice the chair we just fixed. We wouldn’t retaliate when he makes an off-hand remark about our cooking. We believe that anything that causes us the least little pain, entitles us – excuses us – to behave in unloving (and therefore, ungodly) ways. We must believe this, or we simply would not behave the way we so often do.
And like Steve, we believe our pain is more important than walking with God and obeying Him. God’s Word says we must “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others (even your mate) better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others (your mate’s).” (Philippians 2:3-4) Here is where we need to stop and ask ourselves, when is the last time I really considered my mate’s interests more important than my own? All too often we excuse the way we act, while judging the way our mate acts. In fact, we usually consider the things we do to hurt our mate as understandable mistakes. While we judge the things our mates do to hurt us as inexcusable selfish choices. Ooooo, we are so good at looking “to our own interests”! We can do it with our eyes closed and one hand tied behind our backs.
Like Steve, however, we have choices. We can choose to focus on ourselves – our needs, our hurts, our rights, our excuses. Or we can choose to focus on God and others. Sounds like a simple choice, but, of course, it’s not.
If we choose to stay in our self-focused mode of operation, we don’t have to do anything too difficult. It just comes naturally. But there is a warning label on this choice: BEWARE OF THE END RESULTS. On the label is a picture of an old person…bitter, alone. His favorite songs are “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, So Let Me Tell You All About It” and “Everybody’s Done Me Dirty.” No one sticks around to hear the tenth and eleventh choruses, not even his family, so he is all alone in his misery. Or maybe one or two brave souls feel sorry enough for him to put up with his cantankerousness, as long as they don’t have to stay too long. This is the picture of the logical end of self-absorption, when it has reached its fulfillment.
But supposing we choose to focus on God and others instead of ourselves, what then? Look at the manufacturer’s label on this choice. You will notice on this label a long list of impossible commands to put others before yourself – at least they seem impossible because nobody can be that unselfish. But read on, there is more: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-12) So we have to choose to obey God, but He works in us to help us keep on obeying Him. How about that? He doesn’t expect us to do this alone. He wants us to let Him work His good purpose in us.
And what is the picture on this label showing the logical end of God-and-other-focus? Again, it’s a picture of an old person. Oh….It’s Mother Teresa!
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