I belong to a spiritual formation group that meets on Monday mornings. Five women gather on Zoom, first because of COVID restrictions and now because it is just easier to meet without traveling. We follow an outline provided by Renovare which focuses on the seven spiritual disciplines as outlined by Richard Foster in his seminal book, Celebration of Disciplines: Contemplative (The Prayer-filled life), Holiness (The Virtuous Life), Charismatic, (the Spirit-Empowered Life), Social Justice (The Compassionate Life), Evangelical (The Word-Centered Life), and Incarnational (The Sacramental Life). Each week each of us shares our experiences (and sometime adventures) with one (or more) of the disciplines.
All of us are political animals, so the last few years of American politics have been very difficult. Especially after the events of January 6, our discussions often focus on how we as Christ-followers should respond to the divisive and mean-spirited nature of political actions and discussions.
Recently, hoping for inspiration, I began reading a new book, Following the Call, Living the Sermon on the Mount Together, published by Plough Publishing House and edited by Charles E. Moore. It features essays by more than a hundred of the most well-known and well-read Christian authors who have lived and written during several centuries.
Last week I was reminded about my attitude toward people with whom I seriously disagree. Now I was struggling with my anger and disgust and contempt with the actions of Vladimir Putin as he made war on the country of Ukraine. I began reading new section of Following the Call and found these words of Jesus in Matthew 5:21-22:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with brother or sister will be subject. Anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool! will be in danger of the fire of hell.'” (p.94)
The first essay on this topic of anger was written by Dallas Willard, a writer and theologian who changed my life years ago. I eagerly read what he had to say about anger. He first pointed out that the Aramaic term “raca” was current in Jesus day “to express contempt for someone and to mark him or her as contemptible.” He points out that “‘raca’ may have “originated from the sound one makes to collect spittle from the throat in order to spit” (an appropriate sign of contempt, I thought).
Willard then differentiates between anger and contempt:
“In anger I want to hurt you. In contempt, I don’t care whether you are hurt or not. Or at least so I say. You are not worth consideration one way or the other (bolding mine). We can be angry at someone without denying their worth. But contempt makes it easier to hurt them or see them further degraded. . . . . The intent and effect of contempt is always to exclude someone, push them away, and leave them out and isolated. . . . In the course of normal life one is rarely in a situation where contempt is not hovering in the wings. And everyone lives in terror of it . . . . Contemptuous actions and attitudes are a knife in the heart that permanently harms and mutilates peoples souls. (p. 95-96)
I cannot begin to describe how convicted I was by these words, I do not want to put a knife in anyone’s heart! So much so that when our Monday morning meeting came, I could not wait to share Willard’s words . . . and confess.
A long discussion followed about how we avoid contempt, how we deal with our sins of contempt, how we live in an evil world where contempt seems so appropriate. We struggled with all of it. Then one of the members of the group remembered a prayer she had read about the situation in Ukraine by the Rev. George de Vuyst, a missionary in Ukraine with the Christian Reformed missions agency Resonate Global Mission who is currently on home service in the U.S. The entire prayer is beautifully meaningful, but the lines that struck our group were:
“Lord, we pray for Vladimir Putin. We pray that you would change his heart and work your miracle of salvation in his life. If he continues in his wicked ways, we pray that you would restrain his evil and have mercy on those who suffer because of it.
I was so thankful! This was an answer to my dilemma: a meaningful prayer which will help me avoid the sin of contempt, a prayer which calls up on God to do what all my contempt can never do for anyone: change his heart, work your miracle of salvation, and restrain his evil. All my angry thoughts and words of contempt will never restrain anyone’s evil; only God can do that. My contempt will only harm me. I must leave this to God – and work to help the victims of evil instead instead of cursing those who cause it.