Getting Control

 
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We have a cat at home that is as sweet and friendly as any that ever was. As soon as you sit down, she will come up and rub her whiskers on you a few times and then curl up with her little “motor” running. If you’ve ever had a friendly feline, you know how nice it is.

But let me ask you a question: What is the difference between a cat and a tiger? Do you know the answer? It’s their size.

Don’t kid yourself. Your cat or mine—yes, that sweet little kitty—has the brain and the instincts of a tiger, and is just as cold-blooded. If I were smaller and she were larger, she would be interested in me for the same reason she loves to watch the sparrows that land on our back porch.

When Jesus talked about the sixth commandment, He said: Your size doesn’t count—if you have the mind and heart of a tiger, you’re a tiger.

Here are His actual words: “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder.’ … But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21, 22).* When somebody provokes you, if you fail to control your feelings you will demonstrate such attributes. We are naturally prone to do evil.

Most of us, of course, know the solution to human relationship problems.

If people would just be nice to us, we would have no trouble being nice back to them. The real question is: Can you be kind and generous to someone who has hurt you? And can you really love someone who has wronged you?

Some people think that Jesus’ teaching on the sixth commandment is an extreme example, not intended to be obeyed, except maybe by a few saintly souls who live by themselves somewhere on a mountain top.

But I strongly disagree. There are at least three important reasons Jesus’ wisdom is a lot more than just a fluffy fantasy— it’s actually the only practical and sensible way to live.

1. It’s the only way to break the chain of violence.

Jesus’ plan is best because the only alternative is the dom ino effect, an endless chain reaction of getting even. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is a recipe for disaster, because violence cannot be cured by more violence.

We wonder why other people are so slow catching on, but this principle applies not only to family feuds and suicide bombers; it is also true when it comes to “mini-violence”—the verbal cutting and slashing that most of us engage in from time to time. Somebody has to make a conscious decision to break the vicious cycle, to swallow their pride and overlook the offence.

And Jesus is telling His followers to be that somebody.

A friend of mine who is a marriage counsellor, says that some of the most destructive fights start over trivial things: “If you weren’t so disorganised you could help me find my keys.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve lost them again!”

And off they go! Neither one is willing to break the chain, so the situation quickly spirals out of control. The apostle James had precisely this in mind when he wrote: “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” (James 3:5).

Passive-aggressive behaviour, such as the silent treatment, turning our backs on someone or pouting is no less selfdefeating than screaming. No matter what form it takes, unkind, mean-spirited behaviour will only generate more of the same.

2. It’s the only way to maintain selfcontrol.

When we respond to ugliness with anger and a desire for revenge, we hand control of ourselves to someone else. We are letting them push our buttons and determine our feelings, attitudes and reactions. Jesus wants to free us from this tyranny and give us back our autonomy as well as our peace of mind.

Until we make the tough decision to actually do this, we are only reacting, not acting. Jesus’ method enables us to say to another individual: “You cannot force me to hate. I refuse to let you embitter my life. I am not willing to spend my days absorbed by anger.”

Reactive behaviour is one weapon in a power struggle, usually wielded to control the other person. By being ugly to you, or by shunning you and withholding love, I am going to punish you for something I don’t like and force you to behave the way I want.

Active or assertive behaviour and boundary setting as practised by a Christian have nothing to do with hatred and revenge, and much less with domination.

They are an attempt not to control someone else, but to establish self-control.

They are a declaration not of independence, but of autonomy. Independence means withdrawal and turning our back on the other person, and may itself be a reactive behaviour. Autonomy recognises the value of interdependence. It does not reject a relationship in which we can help and willingly serve each other, but it demands respect for the God-given right to govern our own life.

To be Christian means more than to stop hating. Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27, 28).

To actually love our enemies and do good to those unkind to us is the strongest and noblest expression of assertive behaviour. And it places us in a position of strength, because it means we are refusing to play their game and descend to their level. Instead of being overcome, we are overcoming them.

3. It’s the only way to act responsibly.

By saying that we must not allow our enemies to determine our behaviour and our attitudes, Jesus reminds us once again of our accountability. If we return anger for anger, ugliness for unkindness, it is our own decision to do this, because the power of choice is ours.

We like to justify reactive behaviour by blaming someone else. It seems to make us feel better if we can spread the guilt around. “I get upset easily because I’m like my grandmother (that’s where I got this awful temper).”

A man I know became entangled in a family conflict that was ruining lives.

Having been a Christian leader, I wondered how he could stumble. When I asked him, he said, “You have to realise what they did to us.” Ever since Adam blamed Eve (see Genesis 3:12), people have been giving this sort of answer.

We do not choose our parents or how they raise us. And in most cases, neither can we choose our associates. The circumstances of life bring us together, and we are stuck with them. By making us accountable for how we react, Jesus wants us to accept responsibility and stop trying to justify our own bad behaviour by pointing to someone else’s.

The golden rule has an often-overlooked word in it. It is “therefore,” and it is the word that makes all the difference.

Why? Because it connects us to the power line that lights up the golden rule and makes it actually work.

The rule says what we should do, but the words that come just before the golden rule tell us why: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (verse 11). “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (verse 12, KJV).

Why should we be good to other people? Because God is good to us.

And why should the way others treat us not determine the way we treat them?

Because God has poured out His love on us (see Romans 5:5). “Just as the Lord forgave you,” says the apostle, “so also should you” (Colossians 3:13).

Can we really and genuinely forgive people who have hurt, deceived and betrayed us? Yes, because we have been forgiven so much. How could we possibly refuse to forgive someone else?

God, through Jesus Christ, has opened the doorway for our forgiveness, so we can be forgiven without deserving it. Through this marvellous gift, God pours out all of His other gifts on us as well. When we finally come to understand and accept this truth, we have “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension” (Philippians 4:7).

This peace makes it possible for us, in turn, to offer heart-felt forgiveness to people who have hurt us, to be kind without having a selfish motive, and to love sincerely without a hidden agenda.

One of the best-selling books of the 20th century was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. A human-relations manual based on principles of selfishness and manipulation, its message is: be nice to other people, compliment them and make them feel good. If you do, they will give you what you want and help you get ahead in life. The best we can hope for from such an approach is to partially hide or disguise our naturally selfish reactions, pasting a thin veneer of politeness over them. But just wait until someone really hurts us—then all such psychological strategies will blow up in our face, and we will quickly turn back into tigers.

True forgiveness is possible only when we grasp the forgiveness we have received. When we see ourselves as forgiven sinners, our arrogance against people who have hurt us will melt away. Then we will begin to recognise those people as fellow travellers in life—individuals who, like ourselves, struggle against the power of an evil nature. Only then can compassion really begin to take the place of hatred, and true forgiveness begin to flow. There is no other way.

“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly: it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

True love is a divine gift. It comes only from God Himself.

* All biblical quotations taken from New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.