Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behaviour. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.
Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT
That’s a pretty comprehensive list of negatives. Paul listed “bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander” and then almost as an afterthought, and just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, he added “all types of evil behaviour”. I wonder what prompted his thinking? Perhaps, as he languished in his prison cell, he remembered his friends back in Ephesus and thought about how they lived. Perhaps he was thinking, “I remember that lady with the blue robe – she was a very bitter woman”. Or, “I wish Sparticus (would that be the name of someone in Ephesus?) wouldn’t erupt in an angry rant every time someone disagreed with him”. Perhaps Paul found himself holding his tongue when he heard the way they spoke about each other. But from his prison cell he found the freedom to write about it. Somehow his suffering added weight to his message. His message was relevant in his day and is still relevant today. It is timeless. Human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries. So often our behaviour is learned from our circumstances. So a child watching an angry father might copy his behaviour. Another child hearing a gossiping relative might think that they can do the same. Others might see the trolling on social media and join in, trying to outdo the vile comments left by someone else. As an aside today, I wonder if Paul would have had a Facebook page or a Twitter account? If he had the posts would have been amazing, I’m sure. Regardless of what behaviour we learn from others, though, sometimes the ways we speak, the emotions we display, the ways we react – they are all driven by the sinful person we are inside.
Anyway, Paul encouraged his readers to replace all their negatives with the word “instead”. And the second of our verses today sets out the ways in which we should behave. Instead of being bitter and angry we should be kind and compassionate. The word “tender-hearted” is used. There is a man living near me who had a horrendous upbringing, being brought up in acute poverty with a mother and ten siblings. But now in his retirement, he helps out with feeding and caring for a few animals on a small-holding near him. He is a very soft-hearted man, and I pointed that out to him yesterday. His response was that he was soft with animals but not with people. A man tender-hearted by nature but hardened by exposure to a life of contact with people displaying “evil behaviour“.
How are we with our fellow members of society? Are we pilgrims secure within hard walls that we have erected to protect us from the hard knocks in life? To prevent the barbed comment and nasty insinuations from hurting us? Or are we tenderhearted, feeling the pain of others? Allowing, in a spirit of forgiveness, “harsh words and slander” to wash over us? Responding with kindness and love, compassion and mercy? That is the Jesus way. When nails were hammered into His hands He responded with “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). He loved His enemies even to the end. So what else can we do? We can only echo Jesus’ love for others in the way we face into life. Interface with those around us. Forgiving others as Christ has forgiven us.