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Welcome to The Merciful Life Series. I’m so glad you’re joining us today. Whether this is your first time listening to The Celebration of God, or you’ve been with us since the beginning, I’m honored to serve you by equipping you for the work of the ministry.
And lest you think that “the ministry” is something that only pastors do, let me assure you that God has commissioned all of His people to do the work of the ministry.
If you’re new to this show, I encourage you to listen to our Introductory Series so you can better understand how The Year Long Celebration of God works. And I would also invite you to listen to our What is Worship Series as well as our Grow Your Worship Series. I believe you will be very glad you listened to those. You can find links for both of those series in the description of today’s episode.
And — before we begin — perhaps you may not have known that I am available to travel and speak. In case that idea interested you, I speak at churches, camps, schools, conferences, and conventions. I speak on a wide variety of subjects, but I always do it from God’s Word.
If you would be interested in having me visit with your organization or group, check out AMBrewster.com for more information.
And — as always — we have free episode notes, transcripts, and mercy resources available at CelebrationOfGod.com.
And now let’s dig deeper into what it means to live a merciful life.
As a biblical counselor and a student of anthropology and psychology, it never ceases to amaze me how predictable mankind is. Really, it’s so easy for us to view ourselves as individual and unique and original. And — to a degree — I believe those things are true, however, when it comes to how we respond to difficult people and situations . . . let’s just say there’s nothing new under the sun.
Generally speaking, there are about three ways that people will respond to difficult situations.
This includes all the related concepts like anxiety or worry or being disconcerted . . . you know, all the words we like to use in order to avoid saying “fear.”
This too includes ideas like feeling down or depressed or discouraged or blue.
Fear and sadness are very common negative responses to difficult situations, but the most common response is . . .
And this one has the most vocabulary associated with it: annoyed, furious, aggravated, ticked, enraged, put out, frustrated, outraged, offended, irate, irritated, antagonized, cross, incensed, infuriated, sore, and vexed.
Now, I love having a big vocabulary. I think it’s valuable for lending precision to communication. However, I also think that Christians like to avoid admitting when they’re responding sinfully to a difficult situation by avoiding the “Bible words.”
Instead of saying that we’re angry at God, we’ll say we’re just frustrated. Instead of admitting that we’re fearful when God says not to be fearful, we’ll claim to be just concerned.
So why am I talking about how people respond to difficult people? Well, within a conversation about how followers of Christ can be more merciful, there are some important foundational biblical concepts with which we need to start.
1. Difficult situations reveal our true character.
Whether we’re talking about Eve or Cain or Noah or David of Joseph or Paul or Jesus, when we see how they react under pressure, we’re seeing their unfiltered hearts.
Dr. Jim Berg often uses the teabag illustration. When you put a teabag into hot water, what’s inside the teabag comes out. The flavor in the water was not a result of the hot water; instead, it was a result of what was in the teabag.
We humans like to blame our salty, sassy, and sarcastic responses on our situations. But Jesus says that what comes out of a man not only comes from the heart, but it’s also what defiles the man.
It’s also been said that you don’t truly know someone until you’ve fought them. I’ve found this to be true in a physical sense as well as a verbal sense and a mental sense.
Under pressure, people act differently, and when they’re pressed hard enough, they will reveal their ugliest selves. This ugliness is not a result of the pressure — as in, there would be no ugliness if there were’t pressure — the ugliness actually is a result of the fact that it’s harder to pretend when you’re under pressure than it is to pretend when everything is comfortable. Therefore, the ugliness that was always there is just easier to see in high pressure situations.
Now before you get all defensive on me, you know what I’m saying is true. You’ve seen it happen countless times. Everyone is on their best behavior on a first date, when meeting the parents, and at a job interview. And that same person can quickly reveal their ugly sides when they no longer have anyone to impress. I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve counseled where one or both of the spouses will admit that the other was so amazing and sweet until they got married, and then everything changed.
On the flip side, a woman can be yelling at her kids but instantly switch to her professional voice when answering the phone.
Every serial killer has people in their lives that say, “He seemed like such a nice guy.”
And we’ve all potentially known people who seemed sweet and patient, but under stress they do a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation. My wife calls it “pulling an Anakin,” which is a reference to sweet little Anakin Skywalker who becomes Darth Vader.
You’ve also likely experienced the inverse. You’ve potentially known someone who was sweet and kind, and they became even more sweet and kind when pressure entered their lives.
Trust me when I say that who you are under the worst stress and pressure is who you really are. And the same is true of me. In difficult situations I often experience fear and sadness and anger because — in my flesh — I’m a fearful, depressed, angry person.
And — once again — this shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows the Bible. Our righteousness is as filthy rags. We can’t please the Lord in our own power. Everything good about us is a result of God’s grace, and the rest is our fault.
This is why we mustn’t excuse our behavior when things are rough. We talk of having an “off day” or being “out of sorts” or excuse what’s going on by saying, “I’m just having a bad day,” all the while hiding our sin behind carefully curated vocabulary words.
But the more biblically accurate description of such events is, “The real me is coming out because this situation is so difficult that I’m having a harder time controlling myself with the Holy Spirit’s help.”
That’s the first foundational truth we need to grasp. Our annoyance and irritation and frustration and aggravation is not a result of the situation in which we find ourselves or the person with whom we’re interacting. Those responses are coming from our own sinful hearts.
2. You can’t put on righteousness until you’ve put off sin.
As we’re talking about becoming more merciful, it’s going to be imperative that we first work to put off responses that are unmerciful.
Ephesians 4:22-24 commands, “Lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and . . . be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”
This series is — Lord willing — going to help us renew our minds, put off unmerciful behavior, and put on merciful responses.
But in a conversation about anger, it’s also important to acknowledge that . . .
3. Anger isn’t always a sin.
Statistically speaking, I would say that the vast majority of the anger in our lives and in our world definitely is sinful. However, the Bible is very clear that it is possible to be angry in a way that pleases the Lord.
But on this series we’re not really going to discuss righteous anger. We want to focus on laying aside the sinful anger so as to become more merciful.
So, with those first two foundation stones . . . the facts that difficult situations reveal our true selves and we need to be just as concerned with putting off sinful behavior as putting on Christ-honoring behavior, let’s address the fallen tree lying across our paths.
Don’t difficult, unkind, sinful people deserve wrath?
That my friends is true. We all deserve wrath. First and foremost, we deserve God’s wrath — not only in this life, but also in the next.
Romans 1 clearly states that God’s wrath “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
Second, I would also argue that we deserve man’s righteous wrath.
Proverbs 6 reveals a difficult scenario in which a man commits adultery with another man’s wife. Verse 29 says, “Whoever touches her will not go unpunished.” And then verses 30 through 35 compares someone who steals food to someone who steals another’s wife. The most interesting contrast is that people generally have patience with someone when they steal food because they’re hungry, but in regard to someone who steals another’s wife, verses 34 and 35 say, “For jealousy enrages a man, And he will not spare in the day of vengeance. 35 He will not accept any ransom, Nor will he be satisfied though you give many gifts.”
My friends, all sinners — including us — deserve wrath.
So how does mercy interact with the fact that all people deserve wrath?
John 3:36 reveals both sides of the issue: "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
God’s wrath is appeased when men trust in the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf, but God’s wrath sits heavily on those who reject it.
And though that truth is a sobering wake-up call for unbelievers and a glorious promise for believers, I think we often use this thinking to justify our wrath. “Well, they’re obviously unrepentant, so I get to set my wrath on them.”
The problem is that God’s wrath is never sinful as ours often is, and God is also the ultimate authority Whose right it is to punish sin. But that’s not our job.
So, instead, we should turn to a passage like Roman 12:17-21 for instruction about how to treat people when they sin against us. It reads, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord. 20 ‘BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.’ 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
It’s not our job to punish anyone, so though righteous wrath may be appropriate in various situations, and — as we learned before — is perfectly merciful, sinful wrath is never merciful. James tells us that the wrath of man never accomplishes the will of God.
Therefore, whether a person “deserves” wrath or not, God calls us to be merciful.
Now, so far all of this has been introductory. So let’s review.
Because we’re followers of Christ, we must be merciful as He is merciful. This includes being loving and compassionate and gracious. But because we’re human, our most natural human response to stressful situations is anger. And this happens because we’re selfish people who don’t want to be uncomfortable, and we like to punish people for making us uncomfortable, so we take vengeance, and — as James teaches in chapter 4 — we fight and quarrel.
It’s all a result of spiritual adultery which is self-worship.
But, as we mature in Christ, Ephesians teaches that God wants us to renew our minds — to have the same mind as Christ — and so put off evil and put on holiness.
So, as we return to Ephesians 4:25-32, we will see a number of behaviors we’re supposed to lay aside and the appropriate responses we’re supposed to make part of our lives.
In addition to not lying and stealing, in verses 31 and 32 we read, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
Verse 31 is a list of unmerciful responses to difficult situations, and verse 32 is a list of merciful responses to difficult situations.
So, in this series, we’re going to discuss how to mercifully withhold the sinful reactions, and we’re going to react mercifully as Christ does with us.
But instead of studying Ephesians 4:31 from beginning to end, we’re going to work through the verse in reverse order.
Why are we going to do this? Well, each of the merciless responses in verse 31 grow from the previous item in the list. Dealing with malice is going to require that we deal with our bitterness. Obviously, there’s more work to do if a person is given to malicious behavior, but — inevitably — the heart of bitterness will have to come up.
So, let’s finish today’s episode by talking about what it is to be malicious. I pray you will honestly search your own heart and submit to the Holy Spirit as we discuss this. Don’t give yourself the benefit of the doubt and move on. Be honest.
1. The Definition
Merriam-Webster defines the word well: “having or showing a desire to cause harm to someone.”
Is a murderer malicious? Of course she is, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who’s malicious has or is going to kill someone.
Here’s the key — it’s all about intention — a malicious person is someone who wants to hurt the thing or person whom they perceive is the source of their discomfort.
Now, right away, we should recognize that the main problem is a thinking problem. We’re angry because we’re thinking incorrectly. If we understood our present discomfort biblically, we would realize that God is sovereignly allowing the testing and trials of our lives for the purpose of helping us be drawn to God and conformed to the image of His Son. That testing is designed to produce steadfastness and maturity. That’s something about which we shouldn’t be angry; that’s something about which we should rejoice!
So, clearly, a malicious individual doesn’t understand how life works. They’re living in a darkened, futile world, alienated from Truth, and they respond by desiring or actually physically attacking the perceived source of their discomfort.
So, let’s zoom into your life. Have you ever thrown something something because it didn’t work. Have you ever kicked something that that isn’t performing well — like a car? Are you a brawler? Have you been known to pinch and slap and bite when you haven’t gotten your way? Have you ever broken anything because you wanted to hurt someone’s feelings or make life difficult on them? Have you ever vandalized something out of anger? Have you ever spat unkind words at someone who was correcting you? Have you ever engaged in road rage? Maybe you slammed your hands against the steering wheel or did your best to cut someone off or yelled at them even though they couldn’t hear you.
Whether it’s comfortable to admit or not, all of these are examples of a malicious heart.
I know that middle school and teenage violence is clearly a problem, but I’m constantly amazed by parents who seem to tolerate their toddlers’ violent physicality. I understand that the child’s pushes and slaps and kicks and tantrums don’t hurt or cause that much damage. I understand that when they throw their toys, nothing gets broken. And I understand the culture’s tendency to stereotype young children and say things like, “They’re in a phase,” or “That’s how the terrible two’s act,” or “Boys will be boys.”
But, my friends, the problem is that the child literally wants to hurt something. Think about that. This little person wants to overpower the adult, they want to scare the people in their lives, they want to enact violence. They are malicious, and too many parents don’t see it for what it is, and — what’s worse — they practically ignore it because the child is so small they can be handled with no bruising or bloodshed.
Does that describe the younger you?
I bring up this idea of malicious children so that we can do a couple things:
And, yes, some of those people grow up to be looters, and rioters, and murderers, and others grow up to have a tongue that feels like the thrusts of a knife. Proverbs 12:18 reads, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
And do you remember Jesus’ words from Matthew 5 where He says that someone who abuses another with his words is just as guilty as a murderer?
And . . . left unchecked, that same attitude in the toddler is what motivates the brawler, the vandal, and the murderer as they get older.
Back in 2019 I researched Charles Manson because it was the 50th anniversary of his murder of Sharon Tate. As distasteful as it may sound, I research things like that because I’m always trying to get a better understanding of the kind of child who becomes a terrible adult. And, you know what? Believe it or not, Charles Manson didn’t start as a delusional psychopathic murderer with a messiah-complex, he started as a delusional angry, violent child with a messiah-complex.
But let’s be honest, we all have delusional messiah-complexes when we believe that our way is better than God’s way. As a child, Manson was described simply as a liar who always blamed others for anything he did that was wrong, “and was so determined to be the center of attention that he’d deliberately misbehave while the grownups were around.”
His older cousin, Jo Ann remarked that “You could whip him all day, and he’d still do whatever he wanted.”
Take that description by itself, and you can probably think of many people that describes — maybe even yourself.
And though I know how absolutely terrible it is to imagine a small child one day becoming the monster Charles Manson became, we have to be honest with ourselves. Every terrible adult started as a child.
And the malicious choices of our present day likely took root when we were young as well.
So, where’s the hope? What’s the application to our lives?
2. The Application
Lord willing, as you’ve matured in Christ, your malicious tendencies have decreased, but don’t act as if they’re completely gone if you still find yourself wishing harm on others.
Social media is aflame with people telling other people to die or threatening to do things to them. The workforce is full of people trying to trip people up so it affects their job performance. Families and schools are too often jam-packed with young people taking their own vengeance and doing wicked things to each other in the name of self-defense.
I’ve even seen malice alive and well in the church when we secretly wish harm on those who cross us.
And — as a biblical counselor — I see it in marriages. Yes, I’ve known men and women who have physically abused each other, but far more often than that, I see men and women who try so hard to hurt their spouse with their words.
That is malice. It’s a sin. And it needs to stop.
A. God wants us to renew our minds.
We need to see our desire to cause someone pain as wicked and selfish and controlling and hateful and unmerciful and hypocritical.
I say hypocritical because we would never tolerate it if anyone used our malicious justifications against us. Someone does something to us that was undeserved, and so we lash out at them because “they deserve it.” But — biblically speaking — they don’t deserve it. So, since we did something to them they don’t deserve, are they now allowed to lash back out on us the same way we did to them?
Once we’ve started seeing our sin the way God sees it, some of us may need to get some serious help.
B. God wants us to take responsibility for our sin.
If you have ever hit someone in anger — a stranger or a family member — you need to take responsibility for that. There may be legal consequences you need to bear.
I refuse to protect people who break the law. God instituted government specifically to reward the righteous and punish evil doers. In America, it is illegal to hit people without legitimate cause, and I believe one of the best things for God’s people is to receive the just and merciful consequences of our actions when they are meted our by appropriate authorities.
Don’t hide from that. God wants to use that experience in your life to bring you healing.
See your sin the way God does, take responsibility for it, and . . .
C. God wants us to be built up in Him.
We need to walk in the counsel of God. We need to call people into our lives to speak the truth in love so that we are built up into Christ. We need a multitude of counselors and disciplers and friends.
We need to recognize where we’re spiritually weak, and like the person in James 5, we need to invite people to minister to us and pray for us.
So, whether you struggle with physical abuse or you’re verbally abusive or you repeatedly find yourself wishing harm on others, or you lash out physically when things don’t go your way, you need biblical counseling. This kind of thing is very difficult to overcome by oneself. In all my years counseling people, I have never met someone with an acidic tongue or violent tendencies change overnight all because of one podcast episode.
This is why God has not only commanded His church to be involved in each others’ lives, but He commands us to get help from God’s people.
If you are a malicious person, you need to submit to God’s definition of your desires and actions, you need to accept the consequences of them, you need to be discipled in God’s truth, and . . .
D. God wants you to be merciful.
Put off malice, and put on mercy.
Instead of seeking another’s harm, God wants us to be kind, tender-hearted (another word for compassionate, which is another word for merciful), and He wants us to be forgiving.
Instead of trying to punish people for what they do to you, God wants you to trust Him — the ultimate authority — to mete out any legitimate consequences. And He wants you to love them in return. He wants you to be merciful.
So, are you merciful?
Well, you’re not if you seek others’ harm. You’re not if you use your body or your words or your money or your possessions to make other people’s lives difficult. You’re not if you seek vengeance. You’re not if you refuse to forgive.
I believe most people are far more malicious than they realize, and I know for certain that it’s completely unacceptable for a child of God.
Therefore, I pray that you and I will be honest with ourselves, and as our minds are renewed in God, we will seek to put off our malice and put on mercy.
Please share this series on your favorite social media outlets, and never hesitate to reach out to us at Counselor@CelebrationOfGod.com. We would be honored to serve you if you realize you have a malicious streak and you want to put it off.
And then join us next time as we seek to better know, love, and worship God and help the people in our lives do the same.
To that end, we’ll be discussing mercy that withholds slander.
The Year Long Celebration of God is a discipleship experience designed to equip followers of Christ to better know, love, and worship Him as they help others in their lives do the same. We exalt God, teach His people how to practically worship Him every day of the year, and train them to disciple others.
Whether it's a small group, church, classroom, one-on-one, or community relationship, this resource is guaranteed to draw people closer together as they draw closer to God.
AMBrewster is the creator of The Year Long Celebration of God and host of its podcast.