It’s Character, Stupid!

In the 1992 presidential election Bill Clinton’s campaign had a slogan that every campaign employee, every political operative, every ward boss, every media consultant was constantly challenged with this slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid!” It hung on the walls of the campaign headquarters, it was stamped on letters to state committees, it was plastered on the limos and airplanes and buses used to haul the candidate and his entourage around.

What the slogan was designed to convey was the conviction of those at the top that the election would be won or lost on economic issues alone. Nothing else really mattered and nothing else was going to be allowed to distract the campaign–not ideology, not foreign affairs, not family values, not even bimbo eruptions (as Rush Limbaugh so delicately puts it)–nothing but the economy. Since there was a slight recession in George Bush’s last year, along with a rising unemployment rate, the decision was made to exploit the people’s fears of job security and hope they would vote their pocketbook. As we all know, it worked.

This morning I want to borrow the form, though not the substance, of Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan as my theme in this, the first of a series of messages on the Christian home. During this series we are going to deal with such questions as:

Why Did God Institute Marriage?

Why Does God Hate Divorce?

How Does a Man really Love His Wife?

How Does a Wife Really Respect Her Husband?

How can I Meet the Two most Basic Human Needs of My Spouse and Children?

But this morning I want to ask and answer the simple question, “What is the single most important key to having a great marriage, a great relationship with your kids, and a godly family.” I am convinced that the secret to a great family life is not the dozens of books on marriage in your Christian book store, it’s not professional counseling, even Christian counseling, it’s not seminars, it’s not technique, it’s not methodology, it’s not Promise-Keepers’ conventions, it’s character–Christ-like character. Maybe this slogan needs to go up on the refrigerator or the bathroom mirror or the dashboard of the car, only substituting your name in place of Clinton’s term. It’s Character, Charlie! It’s Character, Tracey! It’s Character, Mike!

There’s no substitute for character. If you don’t have it you will never meet the needs and aspirations of your spouse, you will never raise a godly seed, you will never even find fulfillment in your own life. But if you do have it, you will find ways to work on and resolve the idiosyncrasies and personality quirks that try even the best of marriages.

I want to speak this morning on the most important passage in the Bible on marriage and family. And what is that? You might think it would be Gen. 1,2, Eph. 5, or I Peter 3, but while those are all foundational to understanding God’s blueprint for the Christian home, I am convinced that the most important passage on marriage and family is probably Gal. 5:22,23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” But let’s read it in context, beginning in Gal. 5:13:

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature ; rather, serve one another in love. {14} The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” {15} If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

{16} So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. {17} For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. {18} But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. {19}

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; {20} idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension’s, factions {21} and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. {22} But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, {23} gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the fifteen acts of the sinful nature mentioned in verses 19-21 include virtually all of the leading causes of divorce in our country. Even more important, these behaviors are absolutely contrary to the law of God and those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

In contrast, however, there are some behaviors that are not against God’s law or anyone else’s law, for that matter. They are the characteristics and personality traits that make one attractive, productive, loveable, and pleasing to God. I am going to concentrate just on verses 22 and 23 this morning. Even that is an assignment much too large for the time we have available. As a matter of fact when Brad and I preached through Galatians in 1987 we spent three weeks just on these two verses. What I wish to do today is to look at these character traits from the standpoint of family life.

Now no doubt someone is anxious to point out to me that marriage is mentioned nowhere here in Galatians 5. I understand that. Gal. 5 is bigger than marriage; it speaks of all human relationships. There is no relationship between two human beings that is not damaged by the desires of the sinful nature or that is not enhanced by the fruit of the Spirit. None. The reason I have decided to preach from this text today is that I want us to see that a happy home is, more than anything else, the result of the character of Christ being formed in us.

Before we begin we must be reminded again that these qualities are called fruit. Fruit is not something made, manufactured or engineered. It is not the invention of a genius, or the product of sophisticated technology, or even the result of hard work. Fruit is the result of a long organic and living process–in this case a process that is the work of the Holy Spirit of God. Furthermore, if these traits are the fruit of the Spirit, then I would assume the only people who can exhibit these characteristics in their true form are those indwelt by God’s Spirit.

Oh, there are a lot of unbelievers and even a few carnal Christians out there who appear to be loving and patient and kind and self-controlled, but they remind me of the wax fruit you can buy in some of your better gift shops. Frankly some of it looks pretty good; in fact, from a distance you can’t tell it from the real thing. But when the heat is turned up, it melts. It’s only the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit in the lives of true believers that can stand up to the test over the long haul.

The Holy Spirit indwells every true believer. That’s a Scripturally demonstrable fact. But the Holy Spirit does not have control over every believer’s life. That’s an experientially demonstrable fact. The true test of how much control the Holy Spirit has over our lives is seen principally in whether the fruit of the Spirit is clearly in evidence in our daily living, especially in the home.

You see, it is much easier to exhibit these characteristics with strangers than with those who know us. It is easier to exhibit them at church, where we spend a few hours a week, than it is at school or at the office where we spend dozens of hours. The hardest place to exhibit them is in the home. So that’s the place where our examination should take place to see if love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest of these qualities are really present in our lives. Jesus said in Matthew 7:15-19, “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree produce good fruit.”

I think it is not at all foreign to this text to suggest the following observation: a person of good character cannot produce a rotten marriage, while a person of rotten character cannot produce a good marriage.

Now let’s play the role of fruit inspectors this morning, not to inspect other people’s lives, but rather to inspect our own in relationship to what we see here in these verses.

Love

There is no more important word for marriage and family than this one. So important is it that we will be devoting an entire message to it in a few weeks. But this morning I want to make a few general observations. As many of you know, there are a number of different words in the Greek language that are all translated “love” in our English Bibles. There is a love that is sensual in nature, there is a brotherly love, there is family love. But the word used here is the term agape. It not an emotional love; it is a love of the will, it is love in action. It is a love which causes a person to take the attitude, “I will do what is best for my spouse, no matter what I get in return.” Imagine how that kind of attitude could revolutionize a marriage! But do you know how rare that is in some homes?

Recently I came across a story that says it better than I can. A man named Tom Anderson wrote it of himself.

I made a vow to myself on the drive down to the vacation beach cottage. For two weeks I would try to be a loving husband and father. Totally loving. No ifs, ands, or buts.

The idea had come to me as I listened to a commentator on my car’s tape player. He was quoting a biblical passage about husbands being thoughtful of their wives. Then he went on to say, ‘Love is an act of the will. A person can choose to love.’ To myself, I had to admit that I had been a selfish husband–that our love had been dulled by my own insensitivity. In petty ways, really: chiding Evelyn for her tardiness; insisting on the TV channel I wanted to watch; throwing out day-old newspapers before Evelyn had a chance to read them. Well, for two weeks all that would change.

And it did. Right from the moment I kissed Evelyn at the door and said, “That new yellow sweater looks great on you.”

“Oh, Tom, you noticed,” she said, surprised and pleased. And maybe a little shocked.

After the long drive, I wanted to sit and read. Evelyn suggested a walk on the beach. I started to refuse, but then I thought, Evelyn’s been alone here with the kids all week and now she wants to be alone with me. We walked on the beach while the children flew their kites.

So it went. Two weeks of not calling the Wall Street investment firm where I am a director; a visit to the shell museum, though I usually hate museums; holding my tongue while Evelyn’s getting ready made us late for a dinner date. Relaxed and happy, that’s how the whole vacation passed. I made a new vow to keep on remembering to choose love.

There was one thing that went wrong with my experiment, however. On the last night at our cottage, preparing for bed, Evelyn stared at me with the saddest expression.

“ What’s the matter?” I asked her.

“ Tom,” she said, in a voice filled with distress, “do you know something I don’t?”

“ What do you mean?”

“ Well . . . that checkup I had several weeks ago . . . our doctor . . . did he tell you something about me? Tom, you’ve been so good to me . . . am I dying?”

It took a moment for it all to sink in. Then I burst out laughing.

“ No, honey,” I said, wrapping her in my arms, “you’re not dying; I’m just starting to live! ”

Now my impression is that this man’s marriage was not exactly on the rocks; it just needed a tune-up. But it’s pretty sad when exhibiting one of the fruit of the Spirit for just two weeks would cause one’s spouse to think she’s dying. But frankly, friends, I suspect many of us might get a similar response.

I probably shouldn’t share this, but this little story reminded me of an embarrassing situation in my own family. I haven’t spent a lot of money on flowers in my life, but I have frequently brought home flowers from funerals I performed. You know, there’s umpteen flower arrangements and after the funeral the family says, “Pastor, if you know anyone who might enjoy these flowers, feel free to take them.” So I would take some to the hospital, some to shut-ins, and some I would bring home. Well, one day I stopped at Dierberg’s on my way home and bought my wife some flowers. It wasn’t for her birthday or Valentine’s or anything–just because I loved her. As I walked in and handed her the flowers she asked me in a rather concerned voice, “Who died?” Well, you can’t win ‘em all.

As I said, we’re going to return to the topic of love in a few weeks, so allow me to go on to the second in our cluster of fruit.

Joy

Joy is underrated as a godly characteristic in the home. As I read books on Christian marriage I find a lot of attention given to love, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, but this one is given short shrift. But the fact of the matter is that joy sets the tone for a household, providing an atmosphere where problems can be solved and the future looks bright. On the other hand, one of the quickest ways to destroy a marriage is by means of a negative, pessimistic, and complaining spirit.

The Psalmist says, “This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.” You say, “But you don’t know the circumstances I live with.” Or “You don’t know my wife or my husband.” True, I don’t, but the Lord does, and He indicates that joy doesn’t have anything to do with circumstances. True joy is a delight in life that comes from the knowledge that we belong to God and that no matter what situation we are in, He is in total control. Joy has its source in the Holy Spirit through a vital relationship with Jesus, and it is not subject to circumstances! The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian church, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice,” and he wrote that from a Roman dungeon.

Is there laughter in your home? Is there a light-hearted spirit? Can you play practical jokes on one another without taking offense? Is there singing? Joy is something the Holy Spirit would like to bring into your home. Third, we come to peace.

Peace

The most important peace attainable in this world is, of course, peace with God. Man is naturally at enmity with God, but God Himself declared a truce when He allowed His one and only Son to go to the Cross as a common criminal to die for the sins of mankind. We can have peace with God when we lay down our arms and put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Peace with God enables us to enjoy the peace of God, which is the quiet confidence that God can be trusted with anything and everything we face.

The peace of God, in turn, allows us to be at peace with one another. Jesus broke down the dividing walls between Jew and Gentile, between slave and free, even between men and women. The Holy Spirit enables two people with different backgrounds, different desires, different ideas, and different goals to live in harmony with one another. If a battle is going on in your home, it’s not because men are inherently impossible to live with or because women are impossible–it’s because sin has violated the peace God has arranged.

But what does peace in the home look like? First of all, it involves cessation of open warfare. It means that husbands and wives and parents and children make a decision to solve their conflicts by communication and compromise and forgiveness and, if necessary, counseling, rather than by physical violence or verbal abuse. But cessation of open conflict is not the only kind of peace God wants for us in our homes. We have that kind of peace in Bosnia today, but none of us would want to go there, and we surely wouldn’t want to model our homes after the situation there.

A second kind of peace is like the peace of a stagnant pool. In this kind of home no one’s fighting because no one cares. Husband and wife are living in the same house but not engaging one another. Conflict is dealt with, not by screaming or hitting, but with the old silent treatment.

The kind of peace God wants for our homes is different from either a truce or a stagnant pool; it is the refreshing kind of peace one experiences when one goes to his favorite vacation spot and unwinds. For me it’s Beaver Lake in NW Arkansas, where my parents live, or Door County, WI, where we have spent a week of vacation each of the last three summers. I can go to either of these places and completely relax. Walking the shoreline, soaking up the sunshine, eating Swedish pancakes at Al Johnson’s restaurant with the goats on the roof, or Norwegian lefsa hot out of mom’s oven. That’s peace.

By God’s grace our homes can be like that. In fact, I enjoy that kind of peace with my wife. We don’t fight. We don’t yell at each other. We don’t ignore one another. We’re friends. And my home is a refuge from the sometimes difficult and demanding issues that I face at work.

Now let’s be honest. I have a son who turns 13 this year, so the peace I’m talking about is not absolute; it does get disturbed from time to time. But I’ll tell you this; if my wife and I are at peace with one another it makes any other disturbance a lot easier to handle.

Now the fourth fruit on this cluster is patience.

Patience

There are two principal NT terms for patience, one speaking of patience under circumstances, and the other addressing the matter of patience with people. The word for patience under circumstances is a Greek compound made up of two words, meaning “to remain under.” Sometimes God calls us to remain under a pile for a while, without giving up. Patience with circumstances is not easy and the heavier the circumstances, the harder it is to exercise patience. But the second kind of patience is even harder to exercise, and that’s patience with people. And it is patience with people that is listed here in Gal. 5 as a fruit of the Spirit.

For a definition of this term I think Reader’s Digest came up with as good a one as I have seen: “Patience is the ability to count down before we blast off.” Losing patience is a childish characteristic, but it’s amazing how many adults do it regularly, especially in the home. No doubt there are dozens of things that try your patience with your spouse–things you have mentioned a hundred times but they keep on happening–like moving your keys from the table where you put them, like taking the towels out of the bathroom to wash them without replacing them, so when you come out of the shower there’s not a towel in sight, like turning up the thermostat instead of putting on more clothes, like failing to keep hand soap at the kitchen sink. (My wife’s teaching S.S. this hour, so I can get by with this).

Now stop and think about this list or your list for a moment. How many of the things we lose patience over are really earth-shattering? Not many. Strangely, I think most of us probably handle the earth-shattering things better than the little things. God wants us to have patience with people in the little things. (But those towels really drive me nuts!)

We’re going to consider the next two pieces of fruit together because they are so similar.

Kindness and goodness

Friends, tell me, who would you rather have as a neighbor–a brilliant surgeon, a famous athlete, a great movie star, or someone who is just ordinary in every way except he is kind? It’s not even a contest, is it? The same could be asked about whom you’d like to be married to, couldn’t it? Simple kindness turn an ordinary person into a saint. Perhaps more importantly, simple kindnesses are contagious. Someone has said, “One of the most difficult things to give away is kindness, for it is almost always returned.” That’s why, of all the fruit of the Spirit, kindness and goodness may be the most effective instruments of healing for a troubled marriage. I am convinced that there are very few people so hard of heart that they can resist a persistent barrage of kindness for any length of time.

Kindness is closely related to forgiveness. Eph. 4:32 says, “Be ye kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven you.” One of the kindest things you can do for another person is to forgive him. And if you refuse to forgive the one who has wronged you, any kindnesses you do will seem empty and hollow. If a wife is holding angry feelings against her husband, or vice versa, the little kind things that make a house a home are nothing but hypocritical gestures if forgiveness does not come first. The sixth fruit is

Faithfulness

Faithfulness is loyalty to long-term commitments based on invisible values rather than immediate and tangible self-interests. Faithfulness and marriage should be synonymous terms, but sadly they often are not . The fabric of many marriages has been damaged by a one-night stand or a clandestine love affair, or even a series of such affairs. Do you know how serious this is in God’s eyes? The Scriptures tell us that God hates divorce. It is contrary to everything He planned for the epitome of His creative power, namely mankind. Yet, unfaithfulness in marriage is so heinous to Him that He grants permission to the one who is a victim of sexual unfaithfulness to get a divorce. He hates divorce, but He hates unfaithfulness even more.

It’s important, however, that we come to understand that faithfulness in a marriage is more than abstaining from adultery. It is more than a negative concept, more than what we haven’t done. Faithfulness means we are committed to being there for our spouse–body, soul, and spirit. By that definition there are probably some people who have made a tragic mistake in a moment of passion, but, having repented, actually fill the bill of faithfulness better than many spouses who have never climbed into the wrong bed.

Gentleness

Men, I think this may be the sweetest piece of fruit in this entire cluster to most of our wives, but unfortunately it is also very rare. It is not in most men’s nature to be gentle, and not a few women come up short here as well. When I think of gentleness I cannot help but go back to a letter I came across years ago, written by Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, the Bible scholar I often mentioned in our series on Romans. Dr. Barnhouse was widowed in 1944, and then a decade later he met Margaret, to whom he became engaged. He wrote this letter to himself, a few excerpts from which I would like to read:

Memo from D.G.B. to D.G.B. about Marge:

In just thirty days you are due to marry Marge. My boy, you have hit the JACKPOT, and you are in the position of a man who has never had money and is suddenly coming into a brace of oil wells. Or of a spinster who has just inherited her sister’s nine children. Or of a bull who is taking title to a china shop. In other words, you have a very valuable property with great potential that must be handled with extreme care. So stop and assess the situation.

The Bible says a husband is to love his wife. There will be no difficulty here. You love her all right, and with a love that scares you because it is so different. You loved and married before, but it was not a love that made you want to think of D.G.B. in second place while this distinctly is. The first was selfish. You were going someplace and nothing should get in the way. Now you have been someplace and you don’t want to travel alone anymore. And it is rather wonderful and a little frightening to have a love that does all this to you at your age . . . . This, then is something that must be watched, protected, safeguarded. Bull, watch out for that china as you walk in the aisles.

I think it would please the Lord if a little topsoil were taken off and the bulb allowed to flower . . . . Watch your step lest Marge become a yes-woman. Delight when she says no in a good cause. Learn to listen when her spiritual perception catches something that is even slightly off-key.

Watch the growth of her feathers. She has flown for many years with wings clipped. . . . Encourage her to soar. You know that she has great capacities and will be hesitant because of past restraints. She probably doesn’t realize the heights of her possibilities. It will be up to you to lead her gently to greater and greater heights.

Now the modern women’s movement would undoubtedly consider the whole tone of this letter to be condescending, perhaps even chauvinistic. There’s nothing they hate more than the perception that a woman needs to be treated with any special deference by a man. But 99% of the women I know would give their right arm for a husband who saw gentleness as a top spiritual priority and practiced it.

Children, too, need to be treated with gentleness. Their spirits are so delicate, so easily bruised, and great damage can be done to their futures when father or mother do not understand gentleness.

Now the last piece of fruit is self-control.

Self-control

Proverbs 25:28 says, “Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit.” Paul adds in I Cor. 9:25, “Everyone who competes in athletic competition exercises self-control in all things. Athletes do it to receive a perishable wreath; but we an imperishable one.”

What is self-control? It is the healthy regulation of our desires and appetites, avoiding harmful excesses. It is needed because we are bingers by nature. Some people binge on food, others on sleep, others on work, and others still on TV or golf. We need self-control of our bodies, self-control of our minds, and self-control of the emotions. The latter may be the most important in respect to our homes. Some of the emotions that need control are anger, resentment, self-pity, and bitterness. Solomon warned, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” When one allows his emotions to control his life, rather than exercising control over his emotions, the springs of life are polluted and great problems result.

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Giving And Receiving The Blessing

Our Scripture reading this morning is taken from 1 Peter 3:812.

“Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. {9} Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. {10} For, ‘Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. {11} He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. {12} For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’”

I would love to preach verse by verse through this passage this morning, as is my normal pattern, but today I believe that we can receive greater profit by focusing our attention on just two phrases in verse 9. You might even want to underline them in your Bible: “With blessing” and “inherit a blessing.” Actually I like the New American Standard Bible rendering better; it reads, “not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.”

Whichever translation is used, the concept is clear that God desires for each of us to give a blessing to those around us, especially our family members, and His goal for each of His children is to inherit a blessing from others, particularly our parents, but also from our spouses and siblings, as well as from our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ.

A profound book came off the religious press ten years ago, entitled The Blessing, by two Christian psychologists, Gary Smalley and John Trent. I want to borrow some of the insights of that book this morning as we conclude our series on the Christian family by focusing on “the blessing” as a crucial entity in the believing home.

By the way, I know we have not dealt with all the important issues related to the family in this two-month series. Even if we had, it is hardly possible to “fix” marriages from the pulpit, though I hope we have given you some tools to begin the process. Our hope and prayer is that awareness of our responsibility to family has been heightened, that these messages have stimulated some to talk about issues in their families that were too hurtful to address before, and that some have been motivated to seek godly counsel. I know that my own counseling load has quadrupled during this series.

Feeling somewhat overwhelmed by it all, I suggested to Paul that we begin a new series on Leviticus–that ought to cut down on the counseling. But seriously, I’m glad that so many have come forward for help, and if you have been thinking about it and haven’t gotten up the courage, you come and we’ll do our best to help you or find some help for you. By the way, it will not be ten years before we do another family series. Paul and I are seriously considering setting aside a month each Spring to deal particularly with the Christian home.

As we begin this morning, I want you to consider with me the familiar account (in Genesis 27) about how Jacob received the blessing from his father, Isaac, instead of his brother Esau. in Old Testament times the receiving of a father’s blessing was a momentous event, eagerly anticipated by the children, especially the eldest son. It gave them a tremendous sense of being highly valued by their parents and even pictured a special future for them.

The time had come for Esau, Isaac’s eldest son, to receive the blessing from his father, and Isaac had told him to go and bring in fresh game for a savory meal, and when he returned the long-awaited blessing would be given to him. However, while he was out hunting his conniving, scheming brother Jacob stole the blessing by coming to his nearly blind father, Isaac, and pretending to be Esau. In Gen. 27:3134 we read about what happened when Esau returned from the hunt:

“‘My father, sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.’ {32} His father Isaac asked him, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am your son,’ he answered, ‘your firstborn, Esau.’ {33} Isaac trembled violently and said, ‘Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him and indeed he will be blessed!’ {34} When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, my father!’”

For a father in biblical times, once a blessing was spoken, it was irretrievable. In response to his pitiful cries, Esau did receive a blessing of sorts from his father, but it was not the blessing of the first-born he had longed to hear. His cry rings out, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!”, the same cry that can be heard, though often silently, from thousands upon thousands of people today who have never received the blessing from their parents.

Now there are certainly aspects of this O.T. blessing that are not applicable today, but many aspects are profoundly relevant. The issue at the heart of the blessing is genuine acceptance. Those who have never received it often become emotionally chained to their parents’ home, unable to cleave to another person in a lasting relationship.

Perhaps the most important place to begin is to talk about the elements of “the blessing” that are the common thread from O.T. times, through the N.T., right through to today?

The Blessing that Believers Need to Both Give and Receive Consists of Five Key Elements.

Meaningful touch

Spoken words of affirmation

Attaching “high value” to the one being blessed

Picturing a special future

An active commitment to fulfill the blessing

Meaningful touch. This was an essential element in bestowing the blessing in O.T. homes. When Isaac blessed his son he said, “Come near now and kiss me, my son.” And every time a blessing is given in the Scriptures there is hugging or kissing or a laying on of hands. The act of touching is a key to communicating warmth, personal acceptance, and affirmation.

Most of you have heard the story of the little 4yearold girl who became frightened late one night during a thunderstorm, but it bears repeating. After one particularly loud clap of thunder, she jumped up from her bed, ran down the hall, and burst into her parents’ room. Jumping right in the middle of the bed, she sought out her parents’ arms for comfort and assurance. “Don’t worry, Honey,” her father said, trying to calm her fears. “The Lord will protect you.” The little girl snuggled closer to her father and said, “I know that, Daddy, but right now I need someone with skin on!” God knows that we need the comfort and security that comes from meaningful touch. That is why when we accept Christ, we gain not only a secure relationship with our heavenly Father, but we join an entire family of brothers and sisters in Christ–men and women “with skin on” who can hug us and hold us and communicate God’s love and blessing to us.

Several months ago I preached a message from Romans 16 on the phrase, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” I shared at that time how often the Scriptures speak of touching as a meaningful way to communicate love and affirmation to a brother or sister in Christ. I’m not suggesting that there are no dangers here for anyone, but I have discovered that when one’s heart is pure before God one can hug another Christian in purity. And if touch is important in the church, how much more in the home? It’s not always easy to hug a kid. Sometimes they resist it. At other times the circumstances make it unusually difficult; my son Eddie was 6′ 5″ when he was 13, and it’s really awkward to hug a kid when your arms only reach to his waist. But even teenage boys need to be hugged. Perhaps I should say, especially teenage boys need to be hugged.

Friends, thousands of Christian people are touch starved, kids, wives, husbands, elderly parents. Psychologists and medical doctors are telling us that there is a very definite physiological benefit to both the toucher and the one being touched. Would you like to lower your husband’s or wife’s blood pressure? Protect your grade school child from being involved in an immoral relationship later in life? Even add up to two years to your own life? These are all potential results of the incredible power found in meaningful touching.

Studies have shown that most promiscuous women were severely deprived of appropriate touching and holding by their fathers. In a similar study with homosexual men, a common characteristic they shared was the absence of meaningful touching by their fathers early in life. Dr. Ross Campbell writes, “In all my reading and experience, I have never known of one sexually disoriented person who had a warm, loving, and affectionate father.” I have known a few, but not many. And Moms, your hugs are important too, but Dads, yours are absolutely critical.

Have you ever noticed how often Jesus touched people from little children to grown men. Consider the words of Mark 10:1316:

“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. {14} When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. {15} I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ {16} And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.”

And Jesus met even a grown man’s need for meaningful touch when he came upon a leper who was barred by law from ever touching anyone again. Mark 1:4042 reads,

“A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’ {41} Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ {42} Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.”

Spoken words of affirmation. There’s an old saying that everyone of us used numerous times when we were growing up: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s a lie if there ever was one. The very fact that we spoke those words was an indication that we were hurt. Words have an incredible power to build us up or tear us down emotionally, and this is particularly true when it comes to giving or gaining family approval. Many of us can clearly remember words of praise our parents spoke years ago. And others can clearly remember longing for such words and never hearing them, or even worse, hearing negative words of disapproval.

I want to read a letter I received about six weeks ago from a woman in this church. It was ten pages long, single spaced, so I can only read a few selected paragraphs. In some ways it’s a tragic letter, as she shares about her own promiscuous past. By the way, she gave me permission to read these portions.

Dear Pastor Mike,

This is not an easy letter to write, but the Lord has put it on my heart to do so. Your sermon on Security and Significance moved me greatly and brought me to tears, just as Paul’s had the week before. Here I had thought that I was doing so well and life was “comfortable” and God decides it’s time to finish healing! God is so awesome and I praise Him for what he has allowed me to endure so that I might use it to glorify Him. But, it is painful and awful, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

My Dad is an Episcopalian priest and the son of an alcoholic mother. He blames everyone but himself for any problem in life he has had (and there have been many). He is incredibly bright, but he was always making someone angry and thus getting fired, so as a result I attended 6 elementary schools in 3 different states. He has an explosive temper and I remember clearly several physical fights between my parents. When I was 10 my mom just could not take the physical and emotional abuse anymore and moved us to California where she had grown up.

My dad remarried almost immediately and had two more kids within 18 months. I guess what bothered me so much was that my dad could not afford to pay $100/month in child support, yet here he goes and has two more kids. All I wanted was to feel loved, cherished and accepted by him (as well as approval). When I would visit (he was living in California by then, too) and we would go out, I would ask him if I looked OK, and he would say things lie, “well, if you like it then I guess it’s alright.” All I wanted was to be told that he loved me, that I was OK, that he was proud of me, that even though he’d had two more kids, I was still important and a priority to him. It never happened. It still hasn’t happened.

I tried to hide my pain behind a very self-destructive facade of alcohol, drugs and promiscuity. I was so desperate to feel loved and valued that I looked anywhere I could to find that.

My dad never accepts responsibility for his actions and never says he’s sorry. He has never apologized to me for all of the crummy things he has said. That’s part of what hurts me so much. I have tried to forgive him, and feel like for the most part I have. Occasionally though, like when I heard your sermon, I realize that there is still a lot of pain.

Friends, this is not a terribly rare situation. There’s good reason for the exhortation in our text to the effect we should not return evil for evil or insult but to give a blessing instead. Insults are common practice in many homes. Even where such is not common, words of love and acceptance may be lacking. A tragic misconception parents in these homes share is that simply being there communicates the blessing. The fact is that for a child in search of acceptance and affirmation, silence communicates confusion. No amount of presents, gifts, money or privileges can take the place of spoken words of blessing and affirmation.

There are, of course, many natural enemies of the spoken blessing. There is the busyness of many of our lives; there is the lack of sensitivity to the need for speaking words of affirmation; there is the tragic misconception that such words will inflate a child’s ego; and there is the most common enemy the fact that many parents never received such words from their parents, so they don’t know how to give it. We’ll talk in a few moments about what people should do if they find themselves in that category.

Attaching high value to the one being blessed. The word “to bless” literally means to bow the knee to, to show reverence to an important person. When Isaac blessed Jacob he said, “The smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed.” Now we wouldn’t perhaps use the same imagery, but in an agrarian society that was a compliment to Jacob to communicate to him how highly valued he was to Isaac.

The key here is to recognize that when words of value are only linked to a child’s performance, they lose much of their impact. Children who have to perform to get a blessing retain a nagging uncertainty about whether they have ever really received it. If their performance ever drops even a small amount, they can ask and reason, “Am I loved for ‘who I am’ or only for ‘what I can do’?” The result is that such children often become driven perfectionists, workaholics, or notoriously picky house cleaners. They go after the blessing the old fashioned way: they try to “earnnnnnn it.” But they soon find that the blessing cannot be earned or bought. It must be given on the basis of character, relationship, and intrinsic value.

I made good grades in school and my parents were good to give me strokes for that, but the words that I remember more than all others are the words of praise my mother gave me for befriending Bob Tweedie and for being nice to the little old ladies at Old Orchard Church, where my father was pastor. Bob Tweedie was a deaf boy at Lockwood Elementary over in Webster, now called College School. He moved there in the fourth grade and was put in my class. We had never had a hearing impaired child in our school, and the other kids made fun of Bob because he talked funny and called him Tweedie Pie, but for some reason I can’t even remember why I reached out to him and became his friend.

Mother not only told me that she appreciated that, but she wrote to my grandmother, she told missionary guests in our home, she told the neighbors. When other women were bragging about their children’s sports activities or grades or looks, my mom bragged about how I treated a little deaf boy or about how I was friendly to the old people.

By the way, I used this illustration about Bob Tweedie nine years ago in a sermon, and Phyllis Easterbrook came up to be after the message and said, “I think Bob Tweedie still lives here in St. Louis.” Phyllis was taking signing classes for the hearing impaired and had come across the name. The next week I did some searching, and sure enough found him living in Kirkwood. He remembered me immediately and we had a joyful reunion.

Picturing of a special future. A young Jewish mother was proudly walking down the street pushing a stroller with her infant twins. As she rounded the corner, she ran into a neighbor, who said, “My, what beautiful children, what are their names?” Pointing to each child, she replied, “This is Bennie, the doctor, and Reuben, the lawyer.” The woman believed her children had a special future and great potential before them and communicated that to them from their earliest years. No doubt it had an enormous impact on them in their formative years. The point is not that parents should choose their children’s careers or pile up unattainable expectations for them, but they should believe in them and let them know that they believe in them.

My parents affirmed a special future for me as a teacher from the time I was in the second grade. They constantly told me I could do anything I set my mind to.

Too often children hear only words that predict relationship problems or personal inadequacies. When that is the case it often turns out that they travel down the hurtful path that has been pictured for them. This can happen if they hear statements like: “You’d better hope you can find someone who can take care of you when you’re older. You’re so irresponsible you’ll never be able to do anything for yourself,” or “Why bother to study so much? You’ll probably just get married instead of going to college anyway?” What parents who say such things don’t realize is that such words are planted in a child’s psyche and can become self-fulfilling predictions.

An active commitment to fulfill the blessing. The point here is that it is not enough to just give verbal affirmation and blessing to our children; words need to be backed up with a commitment to do everything possible to help the one blessed be successful. We can tell a child, “You have the talent to be a very good pianist.” But if we neglect to provide a piano for that child, or refuse to let them play it while we’re reading the paper, our lack of commitment has undermined our message. This principle is what the Apostle James wants us to understand in chapter 2 of his letter, verses 15 &16: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. {16} If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” Nothing, of course. Such words are as useless as a politician’s promises the day after election.

There are several important aspects to the active commitment that is needed to back up our words. First, we need to commit the person being blessed to the Lord. The patriarchs, in blessing their children, always called upon God to bless them because they were sure of His commitment to them. Periodically we dedicate the young children of our families and call upon God to bless them, because we believe He is intensely concerned about the lives of those children. Secondly, we need to commit our time, energy and resources to the unique needs of the one we are seeking to bless. If you are the parent of more than one child no one needs to tell you that no two children are alike. My two are so different they could have come from different planets. Jacob had the same experience with his 12, and when he blessed them in Gen. 48 & 49 he focused on the uniqueness of each one. In fact, Gen 49:28 reads, “This is what their father said to them; when he blessed them. He blessed them, every one, with the blessing appropriate to him.”

There is one more subject I think we need to deal with this morning. What should you do if you have not received the blessing? For some here today the acceptance and affirmation you long for from your parents or spouse is out of reach because they are gone or you are divorced. For others you may feel it is out of reach because the one from whom you desire it seems to be incapable of providing it. What do you do?

Those Who Have Been Deprived of the Blessing Still Have Hope.

Begin by being honest with yourself. Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The truth is always freeing, though often painful. Many of us need to turn on truth’s searchlight and shine it on our troubled past. Only then can we be free to walk confidently into the future. Quit trying to cope through denial, and if you have never received the blessing, acknowledge the fact.

Seek to understand your parents’ or spouse’s background. Those who do not give the blessing generally never received it themselves. To understand is to pity rather than to hate. I believe it is possible for one who has never received the blessing to find healing and eventually become one who blesses others, but it’s not easy, and such people need a lot of help and encouragement.

Understand that even a curse can be changed into a blessing. In Deut. 23:5 Moses speaks to the children of Israel and says regarding the curse of Balaam, “the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the Lord your God loves you.” For some the blessing must be found in the spiritual family of God. No one knows the value of a believing church like the person who found within its numbers the affirming family they never had at home.

Let me return to the letter I was reading once more:

Eventually God put three wonderful godly men into my life. My brother Sean was the first. Our relationship began to grow into a loving and close friendship and I became aware of who God really was and what He was capable of. Here was my brother, who came out of the exact same set of circumstances and chose the other road, the right road, to live on. And even as horrible as I had been, Sean still loved me, just as God did. The Christ-like love he showed me made me realize that God is a loving, kind, consistent and caring God. Not the one I had perceived Him so wrongly to be. (She then went on to talk about two others who contributed very significantly to her recovery).

(Here is how she concludes): I’d jump off of a bridge if I knew Dad would tell me how proud he is of me! Learning to seek approval from Jesus has been a hard thing to learn and often I forget. I’ll probably always be hungry to have my “Daddy” but at least now I’m no longer destroying my life “searching” for him.

Friends, there’s a great lesson here. It is possible to get the blessing from others, even if we didn’t get it from the ones who should have given it to us.

I have focused largely upon children today, but the fact is that the elements of the blessing we have looked at apply equally to every healthy relationship husband-wife, brother-sister, aging parent-adult child, you name it. It also applies to relationships within the body of Christ. In fact, I would like to ask you to consider what a church would be like if everyone in it were bent on giving the blessing to those who are part of their forever family. It’s a sad day when people find more elements of the blessing in a local tavern or bowling alley than they do in church.

I thank God that’s not true here. There are so many here today who really believe and live the words of our Lord in John 13: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another . . .All people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Ken Medema has written a powerful song about the church entitled, “If This Is Not a Place”:

If this is not a place, where tears are understood,

then where shall I go to cry?

And if this is not a place, where my spirit can take wings,

then where shall I go to fly?

I don’t need another place, for trying to impress you,

with just how good and virtuous I am.

No, no, no, I don’t need another place, for always being on top of things. Everybody knows that it’s a sham, it’s a sham.

I don’t need another place for always wearing smiles,

even when it’s not the way I feel.

I don’t need another place, to mouth the same old platitudes;

everybody knows that it’s not real.

So if this is not a place, where my questions can be asked,

then where shall I go to seek?

And if this is not a place where my heart cry can be heard,

where, tell me where, shall I go to speak?

So if this is not a place, where tears are understood,

where shall I go, where shall I go to fly?

We started today with a reading from I Peter 3. Let me read again verses 8 & 9 of that text: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

CONCLUSION

In conclusion this morning I would like to refer to the conclusion of Smalley’s and Trent’s book which has a list of “One Hundred Homes that Gave the Blessing to Children.” I’d like to read just a few of these testimonies:

1. My parents would take the time to really listen to me when I talked to them by looking directly into my eyes.

2. We were often spontaneously hugged even apart from completing a task or chore.

3. They would always let me explain my side of the story.

4. They would take each of us out individually for a special breakfast with Mom and Dad.

5. I got to spend one day at Dad’s office, seeing where he worked and meeting the people he worked with.

6. My parents would make a special Christmas ornament for each child that represented a character trait we had worked on that year.

7. They were willing to admit then they were wrong and say, “I’m sorry.”

8. My folks wrote up a special “story of my birth” that they read to me every year.

9. They attended all my open houses at school.

10. Dad would always ask us children our opinions on important family decisions.

11. When I wrecked my parents’ car, my father’s first reaction was to hug me and let me cry instead of yelling at me.

12. My parents would tell me over and over that I was a good friend to my friends.

13. If it was really cold, my mom would get up early and drive me on my paper route.

14. Sometimes when I would get home from school, my mother would leave a plate of cookies on the counter with a special note saying she loved me.

15. My dad gave up smoking because he knew how much it bothered mom and us kids.

16. My parents would always make sure I knew why I was being disciplined.

17. When I was down about my boyfriend breaking up with me, my father took extra time just to listen to me and cry with me.

18. My father went with me when I had to take back an ugly dress a saleswoman had talked me into buying.

19. My father worked with me for hours on my soapbox derby racer.

20. My parents always went to my piano recitals and acted interested.

21. My father would let me practice pitching to him for a long time when he got home from work.

22. Every Saturday morning my father would get up before anybody else and cook us all pancakes and bacon.

23. My father would ask to talk to each of us kids personally when he called in from a trip.

24. We would all hold hands together when we said grace; then when we finished, we would squeeze the person’s hand next to us three times, which stood for the three words, “I love you.”

I am one who received the blessing from my parents and am very grateful for it. I have tried to pass it on to my own family, though I often feel like a failure. I am so glad there’s forgiveness for failure.

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