May 8, 2016

Sticks and Stones

Have you ever said—or posted—something you later regretted?  Have you ever said—or posted—something you probably should have later regretted even though you really didn’t if you were going to be totally honest with yourself?  The fact is, if you’re like most people, there’s a far greater likelihood that you have posted something online that you regretted (or at least should have regretted) than that you said something in person to someone else.  The internet comes with an aura of anonymity.  Even if you are posting something using your actual name the fact that you don’t have to say whatever you’re saying to the other person’s face gives most of us quite a bit of digital courage.  Sometimes, though, this digital courage can cross the line to something entirely more hurtful…as many celebrities have discovered the hard way.  Check this out.

Can you imagine any of the people who posted those things actually saying them to the various celebrities’ faces?  Yikes, right?  And if you’ve actually seen any of the segments yourself you’ll recognize that I had to take a couple of videos and censor them pretty thoroughly in order to keep them church appropriate.  The language of many of the tweets was entirely more…colorful than what you heard.

What is that?  Why are some people so critical of others?  Why do some people seem to look for ways to tear down the people around them?  Why do they pick and prod and always manage to find the one weak spot in their armor in order to focus their attacks there?  No, wait: Let’s make this more personal.  Why are we so critical of others…especially on the internet?  Why do we seem to look for ways to tear down the people around us?  Why do we pick and prod until we find the weak spot in their armor in order to focus our attacks there?  The fact is this critical spirit can creep its way in to any of our hearts.  And for most of us, when this happens, the most likely targets of our criticisms are not celebrities, but the people closest to us.  When we fall into this pattern we can do some serious damage.  But, let’s not fool ourselves.  The damage we do is not limited to the targets of our criticism.  When we let a critical spirit run rampant in our lives we soon find ourselves suffering from a number of self-inflicted wounds as well.  Before long the ashes of these spiritual fires begin to pile up pretty high.  And sitting in a pile of ashes is not a fun place to find ourselves.

This morning we are in the third part of our series, Beauty from Ashes.  The whole idea for this journey is that although we find ourselves from time to time sitting in piles of ashes from the parts of life we have burnt to the ground because of the decisions we have made, we serve the God who specializes in bringing beauty from ashes.  We’ve already seen this in regard to the plans that we make…or rather, the plans that we break…as well as the awful reality of broken relationships.  This morning we are going to see how God can bring beauty from the ashes of a critical spirit that does damage both in the lives of the people around us and in our own lives as well.  And we are going to see this through the lens of a story from the life of Moses during the journey of the Exodus.  If you want to follow along with me you can find this story in Numbers 12.

As you might remember, the narrative of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land begins in the aptly named book of Exodus.  The journey started off with a bang but quickly took a turn for the worse as the people demonstrated over and over again that 400 years of slavery made living with the new freedom they had really difficult for them.  Over the years of their captivity in Egypt they had generally developed a critical spirit.  They found ways to criticize, well, everything.  This had no doubt seemed to serve them well in their captivity.  It helped them circle the wagons and hold on to their tribal and then national identity.  Tearing down everything the Egyptians did may not have lightened the load of their enslavement, but it did give them a kind of power—even if only internally—that made the whole thing more endurable.  Again, this may have seemed to grant them a sense of strength throughout the ordeal, but what they did not realize is that it was poisoning their spirits.  The end result was that as they journeyed away from Egypt, able for the first time in centuries to make their own decisions about their future the ungratefulness that a critical spirit generates led them to keep finding ways to criticize and complain about, well, everything.  God gave them miraculous bread every day and they complained about not having meat.  He gave them miraculous water and they complained it wasn’t enough.  On more than one occasion they wanted to go back to Egypt.  Once after several weeks of manna they griped, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumber, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”  On and on they went in spite of the sometimes rather stern reminders God gave them of the foolishness of their attitude.

This critical spirit even infected the leaders of the people.  In Numbers 12:1 we see this: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.”  Miriam and Aaron were Moses’ sister and brother.  While Moses had grown up in the palace and then spent 40 years living a quiet, peaceful shepherd life in Midian with his wife and kids, they had been making bricks under the foreman’s whip in Egypt.  While they were supportive of their brother initially, they eventually grew jealous of his position and power as well as the relationship he had with God—especially Miriam whose first-mentioned name suggests she was the source of this criticism.

And the criticism here, while focused on Moses wife, wasn’t really about Moses’ wife.  Look at the next verse: “And they said, ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?’”  In other words, “we could…in fact we should be doing what Moses is doing.  He’s not the only one capable of leading this people.  God has spoken with and through us just like He has Moses.  In fact, Moses really probably isn’t the right man for the job.  After all, he married outside our people so maybe he’s not as committed to this whole leadership thing as everyone seems to think…”  Now, from our moderately comfortable perches this morning we can easily sit back and point out the obvious problems with Miriam and Aaron’s line of thinking here.  But let’s not overlook the fact that we do the same thing.  Our dalliances with a critical spirit may not be the same in form, but still, we find ways to tear down the people around us.  If only she was more thoughtful.  If only he was more focused.  If only she was more organized.  If only he was more dutiful.  Why we you doing it that way instead of this way?  Don’t you think this might be better than that?  Are you really the right person for this?  And then there are all the more direct approaches.

We fall to this in ways that seem totally natural in the moment.  We genuinely have questions about what this other person is doing and whether or not they are really up to the task that lies before them.  We can clearly see all the holes in their current approach to something and would be remiss if we didn’t let them know about them.  We’re truly concerned that their spiritual state may not be fully where it needs to be and we want to encourage them along those lines.  Sometimes, though, our motives are a bit baser than that.  Either way, just like Miriam did here, when we allow this critical spirit to guide our words and actions toward the people around us we fail to count on something rather significant: God knows what’s happening.

Come back to the text with me at the end of v. 2: “And the Lord heard it.”  What follows in v. 3 is an odd editorial note about Moses’ incredible humility.  “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all the people who were on the face of the earth.”  Some folks assume that this was added in later by an editor who was pretty high on Moses, but given the biblical understanding of humility as fundamentally being honest about our standing before God combined with God’s own defense of Moses in the following verses, there’s good reason to think Moses did in fact write this and was not being ironically prideful in doing so.

In any event, God heard what Miriam and Aaron were thinking, saying to each other, and perhaps preparing to say to some of the other leaders of the people which would have been devastating to Moses’ ability to lead them in the direction God wanted them to go.  Thus we have v. 4: “And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, ‘Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.’ [This was like being called to the principal’s office only a bigger deal.]  And the three of them came out.  And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.  And he said, ‘Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so with my servant Moses.  He is faithful in all my house.  With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.  Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?’  And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.”

I’m not sure that *GULP* comes even close to covering it here.  God essentially says, “Look, you can’t do this.  This is going to destroy everything that I have worked to create.  What’s more, this critical spirit is damaging your own heart as well.  And now, so that you really understand, I’m going to give you a picture on the outside of what this looks like on the inside.”  Look with me at v. 10: “When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow.  And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous.  And Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned.  Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.’  And Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘O God, please heal her—please.’”

Did you ever see the American Cancer Society anti-smoking ad with a picture of a jarringly disfigured woman and the caption, “If what happened on your inside happened on your outside, would you still smoke?”  This is kind of what happened here.  God gave them a visible picture of the damage that a critical spirit does to our heart and oh did it get their attention.  All three of them panicked.  God responded that Miriam needed what amounted to a timeout and then she would be whole again.  She took it…and she was…and then the people moved on.  But while Miriam and Aaron certainly didn’t challenge Moses’ authority again, the people—who would have been a witness to all of this—didn’t learn the lesson.  And the damage of a critical spirit would continue to manifest itself for many more years.

You see, while it’s tempting to think that our criticisms of other people don’t do much real harm, the fact is: they do.  They do harm not only to the object of the criticism, but to us as well.  The truth is: a critical spirit damages our lives.  A critical spirit damages our lives.  It damages our lives and leaves a pile of ashes everywhere we go.  It leaves the ashes of scarred and even broken relationships.  It leaves the ashes of scarred lives from the acid of our words.  It leaves the ashes of a bitter, cold, and distant heart beating within our own chest.  Now, God can indeed make beautiful things out of these ashes, but in order for Him to do that He must first deal with the critical spirit.  And in order to do that, He has to lead us to the place of understanding its roots and bringing healing and beauty from the ashes that brought us to such a place in the beginning.  That journey is neither easy nor particularly pleasant.  But if we will make it, we will experience the beauty-making abilities of our God.  A critical spirit damages our lives, but our God brings beauty from ashes.

So how do we experience this?  Well, a critical spirit generally comes from one of two sources.  The first is a place of woundedness in our lives.  The fact is: hurt people, hurt people.  If you have been hurt by someone in the past—even the recent past—and have not fully dealt with that wound, there is a great likelihood that it has become infected and is actively poisoning the way you interact with the people around you.  All your thoughts and words toward them are filtered through the lens of this wound and thus all come out dripping with bile and acid and venom.  You are critical of others not because of some conscious decision you have made, but rather because, in a sense, you can’t help it.  Hurt people, hurt people.  There is an unconscious effort on your part to tear down the people around you because even though that won’t necessarily make your pain any less, it will pull them down with you and then at least you won’t be alone.  The irony, of course, is that in inflicting all these wounds in the people around you, you will be alone because they won’t want to be near you.  Thus you will remain in your woundedness and your despair will grow even deeper.  A critical spirit damages our lives.

The second place from which a critical spirit can rise up in us is when we are jealous of someone or the people around us generally.  Jealousy can rear its ugly head for a number of different reasons.  It could be we feel like someone has something that we don’t have.  We could be in the grip of a spirit of discontentment.  Perhaps we often had to go without as a kid and so feel hatred in our hearts toward the people around us we see not having to do that now.  Whatever the reason, though, one of the primary ways jealousy works itself out is through this critical spirit.  We are jealous of what they have or even of simply who they are and so we tear them down because at least if we can’t enjoy what they have we can make sure they don’t either.  The kick here, is that the more we tear down the people around us in hopes of robbing them of their joy in the things they have or in who they are the more we rob ourselves of the same ability.  In trying to steal their joy, we wind up giving away our own.  Indeed, a critical spirit damages our lives.

So what do we do?  How do we defeat these two soul poisons and the critical spirit they cause in us so that we can experience the beauty-making powers of our God?  Each poison has an antidote and we have to take it quickly and liberally in order to begin the recovery process.  If your critical spirit is coming out of a wound that you bear, you need to get that wound healed.  You need to get to the bottom of why it is there, of what caused it, and set about dressing it properly so it can get better.  This may mean having a long-overdue conversation with someone who’s hard to love.  It will probably mean granting forgiveness…a lot.  It may mean sitting down for a while with a good counselor who can help you process through the emotions related to the wound.  It will mean seeking forgiveness for the wounds you have caused because of your own woundedness.  The bottom line is that you need to do whatever it’s going to take to get well; to get rid of this wounded lens through which you are filtering your life.  Until you do you will continue to be dominated by this critical spirit.  And a critical spirit damages our lives.

If your critical spirit is coming out of a place of jealousy, your antidote is celebration.  This is a lot more difficult than it sounds.  We are usually jealous because someone around us has experienced a good that we want for ourselves.  In order to combat this jealous spirit, we need to find ways to intentionally celebrate the successes of others.  We need to be glad for the things they have received.  If this sounds like little more than an attitude shift…it’s not.  This requires a whole heart shift.  It requires training ourselves to no longer react negatively when someone around us experiences something good.  Depending on just how well-programmed that gut-level reaction is this could take quite a bit of work.  But it can start with something as simple as forcing ourselves to make five positive comments about someone else’s success before we fall into criticism.  Often by the time we get to the fifth comment we will have forgotten about our jealousy.  Again, this isn’t easy to do, but when we take up the challenge we will be amazed at how quickly the damage done by a critical spirit will begin to be rolled back.  A critical spirit damages our lives, but a gracious and celebratory spirit will bring health and life to our bones.

Now, maybe your critical spirit is coming from another source and you need to deal with that, but whatever the source is, if you have a critical spirit you are doing damage to your whole life, most of which you will neither see nor realize until much later.  There’s a better way.  One of the things our being created in the image of God means for us is that our words carry an enormous amount of power.  We may not be able to call anything physically into existence out of nothing, but we can speak life where it does not exist.  We can speak hope where none was previously to be found.  We can speak joy into a gloom so deep there was almost no light to it at all.  We can speak peace and love where there were before only conflict and hatred.  When we follow our good God to the place of being healed and made whole from what had left us wounded and broken, we can grow in us a spirit of graciousness and kindness, of humility and respect.  And when this happens we will see rise up from the ashes of our critical spirit structures of incredible beauty and grace in both our own life and the lives of all those around us.  This new gracious spirit will restore the damaged places and bring to life the wonder and beauty of the kingdom in all the places we go.  We will not only enjoy more fully the various fruits of the Spirit, but we will also cultivate these in the lives of the people around us.  This is the place God is leading us if we will follow.  If we want to experience the beauty He has in store for us from out of the ashes left by a critical spirit, it’s the only way it will happen.  A critical spirit damages our lives.  But a gracious spirit makes us whole again.  Let us, then, take up this new spirit and experience the beauty our God has for us.