Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Bitterness and the Before and After Photos"

Text: Ephesians 4:17-32

Hebrews 12:12-15

 

Lucy Van Pelt is angry with Charlie Brown for cutting her from the neighborhood baseball team. So she tries to make his life miserable, which seem to be Lucy’s mission in life, baseball notwithstanding.

In frame one as Charlie Brown is in his windup about to release a pitch, Lucy yells out, “Hey, who told you that you could pitch?” In frame two, she continues her verbal tirade: “You pitch like my grandmother, Charlie Brown! Why don’t you give up? You couldn’t pitch hay! Why don’t you go back where you came from?! Boooo!!!” In the third frame, Lucy sits alone on the grass looking tired and disheveled. In the final frame, she trudges away muttering: “It’s hard work being bitter.”

            (Read Ephesians 4:17-32)

            The second half of the 4th chapter of Ephesians can be summarized this way: Once you were in darkness, now you are light. Live as children of light. Paul is communicating to the church at Ephesus – and to us – that in accepting Christ, there follows a change of life – a spiritual change of life. This spiritual transformation is an internal state. But it does not remain there. This inner- change manifests itself in some very visible external changes: how the Christian views life, how the Christian relates to people, how the Christian handles problems, how the Christian responds to weakness and sin in the lives of others.

            As we read the 17th through 32nd verses of Ephesians 4, it’s like looking at classic before and after photos like the ones we see in weight loss, or facelift, or muscle-building advertisements. Verses 17 through 19 summarize the darkness typical of Gentiles; Paul’s somewhat sweeping way of saying, those who have not yet received Christ as Lord and Savior, whose minds and hearts are as yet untransformed. He describes their alienation from God as akin to wearing the garments of hard-heartedness, insensitivity, impurity, immorality, and greed.

            Verse 20 begins a transitional section which Paul begins: “That is not the way you [that is you who have heard about Jesus] learned Christ!” The apostle insists that the Christians at Ephesus “put away” the old nature, like removing a layer of mud-caked clothing. Then put on the new nature. Reclothe yourselves, Paul admonishes, with clean garments befitting those of a new internal state.

            Just as Paul has cited qualities of the B.C. [the before Christ] life, he now cites qualities of the transformed life – the A.D. life. What we read a few moments ago is like the after photo. Hardly looks like the same person. Now instead of falseness, there is truth. Instead of dishonesty and lazy gain, there is honesty and industrious labor. Instead of low and vile talk, there is good and upbuilding speech. These are the outer signs of an inner transformation.

            In the last two verses of this 4th chapter, Paul concludes with a before and after capstone: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice…” That’s all stuff of the before photo. That’s the mud-laden garment which does not belong wrapped around one who has said “yes” to Christ. The after photo looks like this: “….. be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” The before photo could be captioned “enemies of the soul,” for all these lead to ignorance, bondage, and ultimately death. By contrast, frame two – the after photo – might be captioned “friends of the soul;” those qualities which lead to joy, abundance, life.

            For the rest of this morning’s message, I’d like us to focus our attention on that enemy of the soul which is carried around by way too many folks – unbelievers, and too often, believers alike. It is no accident that Paul lists “bitterness” first, almost as a background in the before photo. For it is bitterness which provides the spiritual context for all the others: “wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, malice.” Bitterness, whatever its origin, is a crushing load so many of us choose to drag around,like a big old bag of rocks. Some of the bitterness we’ve perhaps only carried around for a shortwhile. This is the opportune time to drop it where we stand. Others spend a lifetime hauling that useless freight – much harder to drop for it’s become more attached. For what do we carryit? We need to ask, for what?

            One day, two monks were walking through the countryside. They were going to a nearby vil- lage to assist with bringing in the crops. As they walked, they noticed a woman sitting at the edge of a stream. She was upset because there was no bridge to get her across on her own. “We will carry you across if you like,” the first monk kindly offered. “Thank you,” the woman replied, gratefully accepting their help. So they joined hands, lifted her between them, and waded the stream. On the other side, they set her down, and she went her way.

            After they had walked another mile or so, the second monk began to complain: “Look at my clothes. They are filthy from carrying that woman across the stream. My back still hurts from lifting her. I can feel it getting stiff.” The first monk simply smiled and nodded his head. Another mile up the road, the second monk griped again: “Oh, my back is hurting me so badly, and it’s all because we had to carry that silly woman across the stream! I cannot go any further because of the pain.” The first monk looked down at his partner who was lying on the ground moaning. “Have you wondered why I’m not complaining?” he asked. “Your back hurts because you’re still carrying that woman. But I set her down two miles ago.”

            Lucy Van Pelt is right. “It’s hard work being bitter.” But so often, we walk miles, go on for years, decades, lifetimes, dragging around that bag of rocks. And who is it hurting? The one we feel bitter against? Hardly. Comedian Buddy Hackett once confessed in one of his more serious moments: “I’ve had my share of arguments with people, but I’ve ceased carrying around grudges or becoming bitter. While I’m carrying the grudge, they’re out dancing.”

            Bitterness can break our backs spiritually. We somehow feel justified in our bitterness, and from a worldly point of view, maybe we are. After how she treated me! The way he spoke to my kid! What she did on the job! The trouble they got me into! Darn straight! I have a right to be bitter. But Paul’s teaching is both spiritual and imminently practical: Take off that wrap. It’s cloaked with mud and weighs a ton. And underneath it lies the mantle of wrath and anger; the vest of clamor and gossip; the shirt of slander; the undergarment of malice. This is not clothing befitting one who is a follower of Christ. You wore these clothes in the before photo. You should not be wearing them now.

            Let’s all think real hard about this…… Is there one person we can bring to mind who we carry a load of bitterness over: ex-friend? ex-spouse? in-law, co-worker? fellow student? fellow church member? How long has this bitterness been seething and festering: a few months? a few years? a decade or two? How’s that working for you? Sure, maybe we’ve become accustomed to and comfortable with this load of rocks we drag. But while we’re dragging, somebody’s dancing. We carry bitterness long enough, and we become a bitter person. And believe me, we wear it like a muddy overcoat. Bitterness wraps itself around our words, our attitudes, our actions, everything about us.

            Paul says, Put it away! It only makes sense! Take it off. Reclothe yourself. If not for the sake of your adversary – who, by the way, you are bound by the Word of God to forgive – take it off for your own sake, sanity, and well-being. And how much lighter and happier you’ll feel. Bitterness, like envy, anger, greed, malice, won’t resolve itself. We must make a decision motivated by a new posture of spirit which Paul calls “the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Might we make our daily prayer for this shedding of old clothing specific: “God, I’m still mad as a hornet at so-and-so, about this or that. Help me out of this mud-caked coat. I’m tired of wearing it. It’s hard work being bitter.” One sleeve at a time, the Lord will help you put it off, along with every underlying layer of musty clothing of the old nature.

            Paul then moves us deftly into what we’ve numbered chapter 5 with a final admonition: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

 

            We’ll just love the after photo!