HOSPITAL FOR SELFISH PEOPLE
By Bill Sizemore
Let him who stole, steal no more, but rather let him work with his hands that he might have to give to him who doesn’t have. That is the advice of the Apostle Paul to the Church at Ephesus.
There’s a profound principle here that is worthy of a closer look. The apostle didn’t tell the person who had a problem with stealing just to stop stealing, though that’s usually the way we deal with our faults. We try to break bad habits and stop doing bad things.
The apostle, however, told the thieves (who apparently were attending the church) that they needed to not only stop stealing, but to turn around and go in the opposite direction.
It is not enough that the thief stop stealing, for in so doing he may still be a thief in his heart and it is after all the heart that God is after. The way to stop being a thief on both the outside and the inside is to do the opposite thing.
A thief cares mostly for himself. He thinks that he is in fact more important than the other guy, which is why he takes the other guy’s stuff. If, on the other hand, the thief works with his hands and makes an honest living and then spends that money helping others, he is attacking the very root of his thievery. He is driving a stake through its heart.
In other words, he stole because he is selfish and the way to change that is, instead of buying yourself a nicer car or fancier clothes, spend your money on someone else. Instead of buying yourself that new coat you’ve always wanted, take a poor person to the mall and buy him or her a new coat, a really nice one.
Do it happily. Find joy in it. Do it as unto the Lord, for in fact you are.
The same principle holds for a person who gossips or uses foul language. (Ephesians 4) Such a person should not merely try to stop his bad behavior. He should not play defense against his fault. He should play offense. He should attack it at its root.
The goal of a gossiper or user of foul language should not be to stop saying bad things, but to say good things. Instead of tearing people down with your words, build them up.
If you are bitter or angry, then practice kindness and forgiveness. Practice it. That word implies that you actually look for opportunities in which you can express kindness. It implies doing an inventory of people you need to forgive and actually forgiving them and saying good things to them no matter how they respond or whether they deserve it.
A person addicted to alcohol or drugs or pornography can spend all of his or her time fighting the addiction, or he can fill the void in his life and his spirit with something else. To such persons, the Apostle says (chapter five), “don’t be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” There is an opposite to your sin or weakness. Find it. Identify it, And then start consciously and intentionally doing the opposite.
This is in a word, repentance. True repentance is not just knowing that you were wrong or feeling guilty for what you did or sorry that you got caught or being fearful of the consequences you might face. None of those things are repentance. True repentance is turning around and going in the opposite direction.
That’s the principle the Apostle Paul is applying in his letter to the Ephesians. He is saying to stop what you are doing wrong, turn around, and do the opposite.
One interesting thing about Paul’s statement regarding stealing is that he makes it in a letter to a church. The Epistle to the Ephesians is a letter to believers. One rightly infers from Paul’s words that there are thieves in the church at Ephesus and people with drinking problems, and people who are bitter and people who use profane language.
How can this be, some would ask. It doesn’t sound like a very good church. Actually, Ephesus was exhibiting precisely what one should expect to find in a church. Sick people were being told how to be better, how to be more godly.
I once heard a preacher say that unbelievers looking in from the outside ought not to be surprised when they discover that churches are full of sick people. What else would you expect to find in a hospital, he asked.
One of the greatest stumbling blocks of all time is the notion that Christians are perfect or at least supposed to be perfect. Unbelievers point to the many faults and weaknesses of professed Christians and use that as their excuse not to be one. (This is by the way probably the most serious mistake a human can make.)
Many on the outside mistakenly think of the church as a trophy case or museum where one can find on display a group of people who have it all together. The truth is quite the opposite.
A good church is a hospital full of people who (for the most part) realize they are sick. If you find a church full of people who believe they have it all together and aren’t sick, you likely will not find Jesus there.
Amazing Grace is the most popular Christian hymn of all time, because it is the heart’s confession of every person who has come to the realization that they are a blind, lost wretch and desperately need the grace of God. That’s the kind of people one finds in a good church.
When the self-righteous crowd of Jesus day came to Him, criticizing Him for hanging out with the losers of society, such as the tax collectors and harlots, Jesus informed them that He came not to the healthy or those who had it all together, but to the sick. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “The whole need not a physician.”
Of course, Jesus was not implying that the self-righteous Pharisees were healthy. The Pharisees’ problem was that they could not be helped, because they did not realize that they were sick. They were sicker than most, but their sickness was the one spiritual disease for which there is no help, i.e. not knowing or acknowledging that you are sick.
In one of the beatitudes Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Notice that He didn’t say, “Blessed are the righteous.” Jesus was looking for people who were hungering for righteousness, not people who were already righteous (to be sure, there were none of the latter).
Jesus said in another place, “Come unto me everyone who is weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” If you are not weary of carrying the weight of your sins, then you are not open to the rest that Jesus offers and can’t be helped.
Jesus told a story about a Pharisee and a publican, who both went up to the temple to pray. The self-righteous Pharisee proudly thanked God that he was not a sinner like other men. The publican, on the other hand, would not even look up to heaven, but bowed his head and prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
In the story, the publican returned to his home justified, but there was no help for the man who thought he was good and didn’t need fixing.
I heard a story once of a man who sat at his window and watched in the Fall as the dead leaves fell from a tree in his yard. Most of the old leaves fell right away. The winter winds blew and the days grew colder and colder and eventually most of the dead leaves were gone.
But a few tougher ones, especially way up towards the top, hung on all through the winter. No matter how dead and dry they were or how hard the winds blew, those leaves clung to their branches as if they would never leave.
Those few remaining leaves really bothered the man. He wanted them to be gone. Finally, he bundled up and went outside and climbed the tree. He shook the branches, but to no avail. Putting life and limb at risk, he climbed even higher and tried to reach them with a stick and knock them down. But still the dead leaves held on.
Finally, the man gave up. He hated those dead leaves, but accepted that they were probably there to stay. Then an amazing thing happened. Spring came.
Spring filled the tree with new life. Tiny little leaves began to form on the branches. As if it were nothing, the life in the new leaves forced the old dead leaves off the branches.
Many of us think our job is to get rid of the old dead leaves that cling to our tree, or worse yet, the trees of those around us. We think our job is to stop doing the bad things we used to do or make others stop doing the bad things they do. But this is only partly true.
God’s way is to let new life force out the old life. Stealing is not a problem for a man who gives money he has earned to others in need. His new life is steadily killing his old one.
The man or woman who purposely speaks well of others, especially the ones he used to curse or gossip about, will find himself thinking of them differently.
The church is indeed more like a hospital than a museum. Believers and unbelievers alike should recognize that fact and expect to find lots of sick people there.
If your church is a good one, you should be getting better there. You should be finding new leaves growing on your tree and old ones dropping off. And you should eventually be getting well enough to begin helping other patients.
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But no healthy church ceases to be a hospital. New babies are always being born. Longtime patients sometimes relapse and some ailments don’t seem to go away easily.
Seeing the church as a gathering of patients who are hungering after the wellness that only God can give is a lot more Biblical than pretending that we are all well and perfect and don’t need a Physician anymore.
© 2009 Bill Sizemore - All Rights Reserved