The Container

After reading A Woman of Faith, Pondering the Nature of Man, my response to The Lonely Man of Faith, a friend recommended that I read Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote that we have two conflicting natures.  One part focuses its efforts on creating and achieving and the other part seeks spiritual fulfillment. In contrast, Rohr wrote that we have two major tasks in life. In the first half, we develop a strong sense of self-identity; in the second half we figure out “what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.”

Rohr described self-identity as a “container.” In the first half of life, we develop a strong container by identifying and using our skills, establishing relationships, etc. In the second half of life, we “find the contents that the container was meant to hold.” But we often don’t work on the inner task of self-examination until we fail at the external task.

I like the container analogy. Some containers, like vases, are merely decorative; others are not much to look at but are incredibly useful for holding, carrying, or storing our stuff. Some are fragile. Others, like a sturdy suitcase, take a beating and still keep the contents secure. Containers are often designed for a specialized purpose but creative and practical people envision another use. Some containers are transparent allowing you to see what is inside. Others keep their contents hidden under lock and key.

Rohr’s perspective hit me where I am now, in midlife. For several years now, I have been trying to figure out what my container is supposed to hold. It was encouraging to see how closely my journey follows the path to spiritual maturity that Rohr describes.

First Half

Learning Self-Discipline

Children are naturally egocentric. The tendency to focus on our own wants and needs, as if we are the center of the universe, must be challenged if we are to live in harmony with other people. The role of the family, schools, and other social institutions it to put limits on our “infantile grandiosity.” Having to butt up against someone else’s needs creates a “proper ego structure.” So in the first half of life, a structurally sound container is built when we learn to control our impulses, to respect the rights of others, to respect authority, to honor traditions, and to obey rules and laws.

As Rohr rightly points out, if you want someone to do a job well with no excuses, you want a person who has dealt with limits. Living with limits leads to self-discipline, time-management skills, problem-solving skills, a cooperative attitude, perseverance and reliability. On the other hand, a person who has been coddled and told they are special no matter what they do does not learn these important “soft” skills.

Rohr explains that there is a “creative tension” between laws and freedom. After all, we only internalize values if we have the freedom to test them. Sometimes people have to rebel and mess up to figure out that there are valid reasons for the rules that seemed so meaningless and restrictive before.

Developing Self-Esteem

In addition to limits, building strong self-esteem requires positive feedback and encouragement early in life. If you don’t have enough self-esteem, you will spend years trying to get approval from others, even begging for attention. When you have self-confidence, you don’t have to defend or assert your ego. In fact, having self-esteem enables you to let go of your ego and think about the needs of other people.

Rohr also noted that we need to experience failure to build a strong container for the self. Again, families and social institutions play a role in protecting children when they fall, preventing them from making the most harmful mistakes. They teach them how to fall (e.g. how to be a gracious loser) and how to learn from falling (what to do differently the next time).

Second Half

Falling Apart

The premise of Rohr’s book is that the achievements of the first part of life have to fall apart or be found wanting in some way for us to give them up. Examples of falling apart are job loss, divorce, death of a loved one, money issues, loss of reputation, addictions, etc. But I don’t think the trigger necessarily has to be a dramatic loss or an epic failure. It may be a series of small disappointments or a sense of disillusionment that grows over time.

I will never forget how I felt when my accomplishments came crashing down into a worthless heap. I had a job I enjoyed and was quite good at. I was the employee who did the job well with no excuses, proud of meeting deadlines and producing perfect reports. Then I had to work with a young man who had evidently been so coddled his whole life, he never had to follow through on his commitments. Excuses always worked for him. Conflict between the two of us was inevitable. My need for accountability clashed with his need for laxity. To make it worse for me, our boss treated him like an indulgent parent.

One day, my coworker told me that I was condescending. I knew it was true. I was ashamed of myself and felt terrible knowing that I had the power to be so hurtful. In my desire to hold up one set of good values (e.g. responsibility and trustworthiness) I stopped displaying other good values (kindness and respectfulness). I was becoming a person I did not want to be. So I quit a job I loved. I walked away. Moving forward meant letting go  – especially of my desire to fix things – and starting over.

Rohr notes that failure and suffering are great equalizers. They show how vulnerable and weak we really are. After I quit the job with the irresponsible coworker, I had trouble finding another job. It was humbling. I felt like I had really messed up. And then I recalled the words of Psalms 51:17: My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. I came to God with a broken spirit and threw myself on his mercy.

As bad as failure and suffering seem on the surface, they often reveal strengths that aren’t evident when everything goes well. We learn more and grow more spiritually by failing than by doing things right. Failure and humiliation force you to look where you might not otherwise look – inside yourself. When we fail, we see ourselves more honestly; we see our limitations. Until we find our current situation lacking or even unbearable, we will not reach out to God. We won’t admit that we can’t do it alone. We won’t admit that we need help.

This is the paradox of spiritual growth: “the way up is the way down.” Rohr calls this way of growing a “spirituality of imperfection.” The apostle Paul also understood how beneficial imperfections are for spiritual growth. He explained that “in order for me to keep from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” We don’t know what the thorn was but Paul begged God to remove it (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Opening Up to Change

Many people my age or older are unwilling to change. In the second half of life, many people long to go back to “the good old days.” Familiar ways are comfortable and as Rohr says, “falsely reassuring.” So they fight to maintain the status quo. Instead of seeking growth, they stay stuck in a never-ending quest to protect the ego by attempting to prove their worth with what they have or what they do.

Many people don’t want to stop battling the forces of evil. Rohr writes, “most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” (I sure figured that out when I confronted my coworker about his poor work habits!) The person you attack or confront will meet you with a lot of resistance because the fight is nothing more than a battle of the ego.

Rohr says that people often do not go down the path to spiritual maturity willingly. Growing may mean using a different skill set. It may mean taking a risk or a giant leap of faith. Sometimes, as Rohr says, “God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push.” And some people feel a mysterious calling that leads them down a path they would have never taken otherwise.

Recognition of my failings and the desire to be a better person pushed me to seek spiritual growth. But I have also felt a pull at work too. Several years ago, I felt pulled to write, to use a completely different, undeveloped skill. And I found that the reflective practice I follow in writing kept leading me to God.

Surrendering the False Self

Rohr says that we each have a persona and a shadow self. Your persona encompasses other people’s expectations of you, how you choose to identify yourself, and the qualities that you are rewarded for having. Your shadow is the part of the self that you don’t want other people to see. We may not even admit the bad parts to ourselves. We work really hard to maintain and present the desired image of the self to other people – to pretend that we are something we are not.

As you mature spiritually, you figure out that your self-image is just an image. It is not worth protecting, hiding, promoting, or defending. Other people are good at pointing out or revealing our weaknesses. They see our shadow self no matter how carefully we try to hide it.

It is possible to find your true self if you engage in critical self-reflection. You have to surrender the false self to find the true self. Honest self-examination is a humbling exercise. It means facing your mistakes, failings, and contradictions. The benefit of facing your hidden self is that you no longer have to fear being exposed as a fraud.

“It’s a gift to joyfully recognize and accept our own smallness and ordinariness. Then you are free with nothing to live up to, nothing to prove, and nothing to protect. Such freedom is my best description of Christian maturity, because once you know that your “I” is great and one with God, you can ironically be quite content with a small and ordinary “I.” No grandstanding is necessary. Any question of your own importance or dignity has already been resolved once and for all and forever.”
― Richard Rohr

Finding Unity & Inclusiveness

Rohr describes spiritual maturity as reaching a level of unity and inclusiveness. Quoting Ken Wilber, “the classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian.” In other words, you start off with a superior attitude towards those other sinners, then you figure out that all people are equally deserving of God’s grace. While the spiritually immature person looks down on sinners, the spiritually mature person stops with the self-righteousness. A person who is stuck at a lower level continues to be motivated by the ego, dividing the world into winners and losers. They may be religious but they practice a “tribal” form of religion that excludes people who are not like them.

What does it look like to be more inclusive? It means that you don’t wast your energy trying to prove that your way is right. You use your energy to find unity – common ground – with people who are different from you, especially those who are oppressed. You stop trying to change or fix people. You learn to be patient and understanding. You try to see things from the other person’s point of view. What challenges do they have that you don’t? What would it be like to walk in the other person’s shoes?

You stop practicing dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinkers see everything as good or bad, black or white. The mature person can see the shades of gray. You recognize that not everything is clear-cut, either this or that. You also learn to accept the “not knowing.” You don’t have to have an answer for everything.

“Wisdom happily lives with mystery, doubt, and “unknowing,” and in such living, ironically resolves that very mystery to some degree.”

One of the ways I’ve seen the spirit of grace and inclusiveness grow in me is in the evolution of my thinking about a hot button issue among many Evangelicals. Those who signed The Nashville Statement are hell-bent on resisting the growing cultural acceptance of gays and transgenders, battling what they see as evil, “a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.” I have wrestled with the issue because the Bible does say that homosexuality is a sin. But the Bible calls out many sins – murder, greed, dishonesty, adultery, cheating, slander, malice, etc. And I notice that Jesus reserved his strongest condemnation for hypocrites, for the greedy and self-serving.

I see my gay friends as multi-faceted human beings, not defined solely by their sexual orientation anymore than I am. But I wondered whether homosexuality is a choice or a genetic predisposition. Then I had the opportunity to hear a gay Christian, Christopher Yuan, speak at my church. He did not answer that question. But it was amazing to hear how God changed his life. He was expelled from dental school and imprisoned for dealing drugs. God didn’t fix Christopher’s sexual orientation just as he didn’t take away the thorn in Paul’s side. God loved him just as he is. I left his speech with the joy that comes from seeing the power of grace.

Grace is free and unmerited favor. To love your neighbor as you love yourself, you need to be gracious, particularly if your neighbor is not lovable. It takes even more grace to love your enemies and to bless those who curse you. Egocentric people would rather base the way they treat other people on merit; your neighbor has to deserve or earn your favor. But when you are filled with God’s grace, merit and worthiness have no meaning.

As you grow spiritually, you figure out that we are all in this thing called life together. We each have our own signature weaknesses or as Rohr points out, “we are all naked underneath our clothes.” When you have forgiven yourself for your own imperfections and failings, you have the capacity to forgive other people for their imperfections and failures. When you learn to accept yourself – both the good and the bad – you can do the same for others. You stop feeling the need to hang onto old hurts and resentments. You don’t see the point in wasting your time and energy on stupid fights and disagreements.

Jesus likened hypocrites to a container – to a dish that is clean on the inside but filthy on the outside. A spiritually mature person will focus on what should be inside the container and stop presenting a false image of the self.

I have come a long way in my spiritual journey, but I am still falling upward. I am still learning to joyfully accept my ordinariness and to let go of my fear of being exposed. I am still learning to be what Philip Yancey calls a grace-dispenser.

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Yearning to Be a Better Person

David Brooks said that he wrote The Road to Character to save his own soul. In looking at his own life, he realized he was too concerned with “resume virtues” and not enough with “eulogy virtues.” In telling the stories of people like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Frances Perkins, he hoped to learn how they developed character after descending into “the valley of humility.” The people he chose to write about were interesting, but they didn’t inspire me that much, perhaps because we each have our own passions and our own heroes. I found myself more interested in the idea presented at the beginning of the book – that human beings have two selves – one motivated by ambition and one motivated to seek a higher, moral purpose.
The Two Selves

In the introduction, Brooks explained an idea that he read about in The Lonely Man of Faith – that we each have two conflicting selves. The author of that book, Rabbi Joseph Soloveithchik, described two sides to our natures, which he named Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the ambitious, achievement-oriented self. He seeks status and wants to be victorious. He follows a utilitarian logic, pursuing self-interest and the rewards we expect to get from our efforts. This self keeps busy building, creating, and producing. This self asks “what’s in it for me?” Adam I nurtures himself my cultivating his strengths and fiercely guarding his self-interests.

In contrast, Adam II, is the moral-seeking self. This side of us is motivated by a desire to love others just as we love ourselves, to do good and to be good. He wants to honor creation and his own potential, which means yielding to a “transcendent truth” and sacrificing the desires of the self to a greater good. Adam II lives by a moral logic that is completely contrary to the Adam I way of thinking. He wants to produce good fruits like kindness, love, and mercy. To nurture himself, he must confront his weaknesses. To fulfill this self, he must forget his own wants and think about himself less. For Adam II, achieving humility is the greatest success; pride is his greatest failure. This self asks “what’s the right thing to do?”

I see these two selves at work in me. I want to achieve my goals and have the things that make me happy. I pursue my own wants and interests. I see the world from my point of view. I think my own thoughts. I make my own choices about right and wrong because I have the will and the freedom to do so. But the other side of me recognizes that I don’t live in isolation. I am not the center of the universe; there are other people on my planet. Other individuals have their own wants and interests, their own ways of thinking and seeing and their own free will to make choices.

It is in my best interest to live in harmony with other people even though their interests compete with my self interests and even when it is not easy for me to yield to the wants of others. So I find a calling in me to look to a higher moral code that is above my self-centered ways. It may be in my selfish interest to lie or cheat to achieve the desires of the Adam I in me. But the Adam II in me sees that these behaviors are not good. Adam II sees that the best moral choices are honesty, fairness, respect for others and what rightfully belongs to them, kindness, patience and self-control.

When we truly desire for Adam II to be the victor in the battle within the self, it is hard to understand why Adam I continues to exert so much power over him. The apostle Paul attempted to explain the struggle for power over the self (from Romans 7). I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. Paul recognized the warring sides of his nature – the inner being that delights in God’s law and the sinful nature that is always right there with him.

The Road to Character

I always liked the quote, life is a journey not a destination. It encourages me to savor my everyday experiences instead of worrying too much about where I’m going. It reminds me of the Harry Chapin song, Cat’s in the Cradle. The father was so busy pursuing the goals of Adam I that he missed out on the important things until it was too late. But when it comes to character, it is worth stopping to think about where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

A road to character is a great metaphor for the process of developing character. It makes me think about bumps and potholes. Life can throw a lot of those your way and if you’re not careful, they can do some damage – damage that points out the need for repairs. On mountain roads, you have to drive slowly because of sharp turns, steep grades, and blinds spots. Other times life goes so smoothly, you can drive on autopilot or maybe take the slower, scenic route. But on the road, you must be prepared for unexpected detours and changes in weather. Nothing focuses you like driving in a blizzard.

Then there’s the issue of getting lost if you don’t know where you’re going. My pastor asked us the other day if we have ever gotten lost while driving and if we had, if we knew why we had gotten lost. He showed us the results of a survey that showed that 45% or so of people said they got lost because of bad directions. Almost the same percentage got lost because they missed a road sign. I’ve gotten lost for both reasons and I’ve gotten lost because I thought I didn’t need directions! I foolishly thought I could figure it once I got there. I found that I had to stop and get my bearings and get the directions I needed to continue on my way.

On the website for The Road to Character, Brooks wrote that he wants to have the “moral adventures” that lead to being a better person. Now, I wouldn’t call the situations that lead to character “adventures.” An adventure sounds like something fun and exciting. I would call the situations that develop character a refining fire that takes rough, impure material and turns it into something precious and beautiful.

Sometimes character develops from adversity, suffering or struggling through something difficult. In retrospect, you can see the benefits of the struggle, just as I learned to be a better driver by driving in less than ideal conditions. Romans 5:3-4 says “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Growing up poor made me a stronger person. My ambitious Adam I self became determined to overcome and succeed. I learned the value of self-sacrifice and self-discipline. The Adam II side of me learned to not think too highly of myself and to have empathy for others. Most importantly, adversity taught me that I am not defined by external signs of success – what I have or what I accomplish – but by who I am on the inside.

Adversity may lead to character but how we respond to challenges reveal our true character at that point in time. For example, I sometimes respond to frustrations at work with a lack of patience and a desire to vent my anger. But acknowledging and confronting this weakness in me leads me to think about how I might practice better self-control the next time the network crashes on me or someone derails my work plans.

Shifting the Conversation

Besides hoping to become a deeper better person himself, Brooks said that he wrote The Road to Character because he wants to shift our conversation away from the cultural focus on external success. The hope is that we will relearn the vocabulary that past generations used to describe virtues and that we would focus more on “the internal confrontation with weakness that produces good character.” I agree. Many people don’t spend much time nurturing their moral side, confronting the weaknesses of their characters. But facing up to our weaknesses, though painful, produces moral growth – just as pruning a branch produces healthy new growth.

Indirectly at least, we are starting to have this conversation whether we want to or not. We’re talking about the dishonesty of political candidates. We’re using words that were not part of our vernacular before – xenophobia, narcissism, misogyny. We’re seeing an example of Adam I at his worst – pursuing selfish ambition, bragging about wealth and achievements while ignoring or denying weaknesses of character. Today, we’re facing cultural struggles that reveal the moral weaknesses of that culture.

Let’s talk about the kind of people we should yearn to be. Let’s talk about the seven virtues or the nine spiritual fruits – love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, patience, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Let’s talk about our weaknesses and how we can learn to be better people.

Confession Time: I will never be perfectly good.

Today at church, my pastor asked the congregation to raise a hand if we had a good week. Lots of hands went up. Then he asked, were you good this week? Almost everyone kept their hands down. But I saw a neatly dressed older man across the aisle from me raise his hand. The pastor again asked, were you perfectly good? Again the man raised his hand. All the while, I was thinking about my filthy mouth as I drove to and from work this week, in my car, alone. I was impatient with slow drivers, annoyed at those who aren’t as smart as me – the ones who don’t know where they’re going.

The pastor’s questions were the segue to our weekly quiet time of confession. I always have something to confess to the Lord: anger, impatience, unkindness, being judgmental, spiritual laziness, etc. In fact, I’m rarely finished confessing when the pastor speaks again to end the moment of confession time silence. Even if I’m only focusing on one particular sin that week, I pray about it deeply and sincerely.

I don’t personally know the man in the conservative dark suit who was perfectly good this week. Maybe he really is very pure in heart and had nothing to confess. I’m skeptical. I don’t believe anyone is perfectly good. Perhaps it’s because I know myself so well. I look in my heart on a daily basis and see how short I fall of God’s glory.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a memorial service for a woman who was described in the eulogy as an angel, a saint. Of course, that’s what a eulogy is for –  to speak highly of the departed. But the eulogy left me feeling comparatively bad because I know I’m no angel. Later, I spoke to a friend who was at the service and he said, “I always thought she was kind of pious. I wanted to go the service to see what she was really like.” He recalled a time when he referred to himself as a sinner in need of grace and the woman said, “I don’t think of myself as a sinner.” All I could say was “wow!” because I can’t imagine a day when I will ever think of myself as not a sinner.

I want to be good. I strive to be good. It would be great if there was ever a week, ever even one day, that I didn’t need confession time. My inner being delights in God’s law: love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.

But another law is at work in me, waging war against the rules I know in my mind. I know that I should be patient, kind and generous. I know I should love my enemies. I know I shouldn’t cuss at other drivers! But selfishness is right there with me making me a prisoner of the sin at work within me.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25)

Many people think they are good because they compare themselves to people who are bad. I confess that I will never be good because my standard is much higher. Thanks be to God for forgiving me even when I don’t deserve it.

Forgiven, forgiven, you love me even when I don’t deserve it.

 

 

 

 

I am not enough.

Yesterday I picked up a book at the library – Nothing to Prove: Why We Can Stop Trying So Hard, by Jennie Allen. I flipped to the back of the cover flap to read about the author and saw a photo of a beautiful, young woman. I read the intro called “Admitting Our Thirst” and the first chapter where she makes her “quiet confession” – how in so many situations in life, she has concluded that she is not enough. This confession resonates with me big time. I’ve always been plagued with self-doubt. I am certainly not an underachiever. But I have a tendency to worry too much about what people think of me. I also think that I am not enough: not good enough, not successful enough, not popular enough.

This week I went to the memorial service for a beautiful woman who sat in front of me at church for many years. Sharyl was 77 years old – almost the same age my mother was when she passed away. Sharyl called me and the others in our section “pew pals.” We didn’t socialize outside church but we were friends, chatting for a few minutes before the service or in Sunday school. Over the years, I learned that she was from Salina, Kansas, the town I lived in after college. Her family lived in Texas and she traveled often to see them, even more than I visit my family in Kansas.

The memorial service for Sharyl was long because there was so much to say about her mission work, her gift of hospitality, her love of traveling (she had achieved her bucket list of visiting all 50 states and 7 continents), and the godly example she set for her children. She was active in the church’s mission work, particularly with the Uyghur ethic group in China. She was remembered as a saint, an angel. But I was also impressed with her intelligence. She graduated with a degree in mathematics in the early ’60’s, before she married and had four kids.

I grieved Sharyl’s loss but in learning more about her life, I also found myself playing the mind game I always play – comparing myself to a good person who has accomplished much and finding myself wanting. I am not godly enough. I don’t have her gifts. I haven’t accomplished enough. I’m not interesting enough. I am not enough.

There is something comforting in knowing that someone who seems to have it all has also been tormented with feelings of insufficiency. I am not alone.

Jennie Allen said that if she were my enemy she would play mind games with me. She would make me believe that I am helpless. She would make me believe I am insignificant. She would make me believe that God wants my good behavior. She would make me numb and distract my attention from what God is doing.

If all of these mind games didn’t work, my enemy would attack my identity and make me feel like I have to prove myself. Then friends would become enemies. I would isolate myself. I would hold myself back. I would judge and condemn other people rather than love them. And I would lose my joy because I would be paying so much attention to myself that I would take my eyes off of God.

Wow. I’m looking forward to my journey through this book, hoping that Jennie’s insight will free me from my need to prove myself good enough, worthy enough, accomplished enough.

I am not enough and I am done trying to be.

 

 

 

 

 

Being Perfectly Clothed

Every day, whether I am going out or staying home and relaxing, I make a decision about what I’m going to wear that day. When I can, I opt for being casual and comfortable – blue jeans and a t-shirt are my favorite clothes. I’m not especially stylish and I don’t like to be fancy or ostentatious. The simpler the better. For work, I dress up a bit more – slacks and a blouse or sweater. I try not to wear the same outfit two weeks in a row. Sometimes I put something on and then change my mind about wearing it because the combination doesn’t look right. Sometimes my choice of what to wear depends on my mood or on the weather.

I know people who are always dressed to the nines, people who spend a lot of time and money on their physical appearance yet lack the beauty of a kind and gentle spirit. Ultimately, what you look like on the outside really doesn’t matter if you are dirty and ugly on the inside.

Yesterday, someone on Facebook posted a few verses from Colossians that explain how God’s people ought to clothe themselves:

Colossians 3:12-14 New International Version (NIV)

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Today at church, we read a few verses that also speak to the importance of being humble, gentle, patient and loving.

Ephesians 4:1-3 New International Version (NIV)
Unity and Maturity in the Body of Christ

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

The apostle Paul wrote both passages. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote that love binds the virtues of compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience together in perfect unity. In his letter to the Ephesians, he urged them to be humble, gentle and patient. He made reference to another bond that keeps the Body unified in the Spirit – a bond of peace.

Just as I don’t feel that I am clothed right if my blouse and pants don’t go together, I don’t feel spiritually right if I behave in a way that is not loving or peaceful. The clothes don’t fit; they dig into my sides and make me feel uncomfortable with myself. Being angry or holding a grudge doesn’t fit. Being mean doesn’t fit. Being selfish doesn’t fit. Being impatient doesn’t fit. When I act badly, I wish that I could take off my ugly rags and put on something that feels better.

The truth is I am never perfectly clothed. My wardrobe is often rumpled and stained with the mess of my selfishness. But just as I make every effort to clothe myself neatly and appropriately when I know I will be seen in public, I need to make every effort to be spiritually mature and to clothe myself with kindness, gentleness, humility and patience. And don’t forget to put on a coat of love.