Saturday, March 25, 2006

The last shall be last

After years of trying to train my kids not to fight over being first in line at the dessert table, we recently encountered an interesting twist. They were fighting over being last.

That's right, instead of arguing about who was going to be first, they began arguing over the right to be last in line. And they apparently thought this would get them big kudos from Mom and Dad.

This new phase was only slightly better than the first. Instead of selfishly seeking the first plate of dessert, they were selfishly seeking the last. It struck me that it is possible to be selfishly selfless. How paradoxical is that? We can do wrong by doing right with the wrong attitude.

It may make a funny illustration, but it's a serious problem for Christians. Getting together with other believers can be an awesome and uplifting thing to do. But if it's done in order to check it off our list of Christian duties for the week, it's pointless. Or if it's done to illustrate how "spiritual" we are, it's similarly futile. We're doing a good thing with the wrong attitude.

In a recent discussion of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, it became increasingly obvious to us that the overriding theme of his lesson was that the heart is where the real battle is. In the familiar series of "You have heard," followed by "But I tell you," we learn that the thoughts and intents of the heart are at least as important as the outward manifestations of them.

Murder is bad. But murder begins in the heart, Jesus says. Charitable deeds are good. But make sure your heart is in the right place when you do them, because if you are doing them to be seen of men, you get your reward as soon as you get the desired pat on the back. Doing them from the heart is what God wants.

The same could be said of so many of the topics Jesus discusses in this sermon. Fasting can be a good thing done for the wrong reason. Even telling the truth can be done in a boastful, condescending, or hurtful way.

This may come as a complete surprise, but even the command to love, which is the ultimate of God's commands, can be obeyed for the wrong reason. Yes, it is possible to be kind for the express purpose of irritating someone!
    Romans 12:19-21 - Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NIV)
Here, Paul is saying that showing kindness to an "enemy" will give him a major guilt trip. Now, it may be tempting to want to give our enemy a guilt trip, but that is not the goal of expressing our kindness. Of course, we shouldn't stop being kind to our enemy, but we certainly shouldn't relish the thought of heaping those coals of fire. Instead, we should relish the thought of showing our forgiveness and compassion, even if we don't believe it's being reciprocated.

In short, brothers, let's do good from the heart, not simply to get kudos from God or men. There's no point in being selfless if we're doing so with selfish motives. In that case, Jesus' axiom is turned on its head, making the last come in last right along with the first.

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