By Pastor Glenn Pease
John Holliday, the peppery founder and editor of the Indianapolis News, stormed in the composing room one day determined to fine the culprit who had spelled height without the silent e, making it hight. And investigation led to the original copy which he discovered he had written himself. His response when he found he was the maker of the mistake was, "If that's the way I spelled it, then that is correct." For the next thirty years that was the way it remained spelled in the Indianapolis News.
Back in 1922 the clocks were advanced 20 minutes in England. One man in Coventry, England refused to accept this loss of 20 minutes in his life. So he kept his watch for the old time. He was always 20 minutes behind everyone else. As a result he was fired from half a dozen jobs, but he never gave in. He said, "They won't beat me. I'm going to die 20 minutes late to show them I was right."
It is supposed to be a virtue to stand alone against the world, fighting for your conviction. In some cases it is a virtue, but as these examples illustrate, it is not always a virtue, even though it may take a lot of courage to do it. Instead, it can be a vice called stubbornness which makes it nearly impossible for people to admit they made a mistake. This vice is so prevalent in our fallen human nature that it is one of the primary causes of preventable suffering in our world. The widespread reality of stubbornness is made evident by all of the words men have devised to describe it. These are just a few of the more familiar: Headstrong, inflexible, unyielding, obdurate, obstinate, opinionated, perverse, pig-headed, and mulish. We are dealing with a major problem of human nature.
Jesus, as the Great Physician, is deeply concerned about the prevention of suffering. In this Sermon On The Mount He deals much with the cause and cure of unnecessary suffering. He is our Creator, and, therefore, is the most qualified to diagnose our problems and prescribe remedies. In this passage of verses 21-26 He is focusing on this vice of stubbornness, and its power to destroy relationships, and produce enormous unnecessary suffering. It is unnecessary in that if we follow the doctors advice it can be prevented. First we want to focus on the diagnosis that the cause of much unnecessary suffering is-
Jesus make it clear in v. 20 that Christian righteousness must surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees. The reason this is so vital is because their legalistic righteousness produces stubbornness, and stubbornness is not a channel through which the love of God will flow. Legalistic religion actually brings out the worst in man, for it enables him to be stubborn and feel good about it, for he is made to feel his stubbornness is a form of loyalty to God.
The Pharisees were inflexible and would not bend. Jesus was doing wonders for people. He was healing them, and enriching their lives, and they loved Him for His compassion, but He had to break some of their rules to show all of this love. Instead of admitting that their legalism was too harsh and unloving, they began a plot to kill the man who would dare to make them look bad. They stubbornly refused to admit they were in any way wrong. It was Jesus who was wrong, and He must die. Stubbornness put Jesus on the cross, and it has filled the world with much suffering.
If only the Pharisees were guilty of stubbornness, Jesus would not have had to preach on it in this great sermon. But Jesus knew this would be problem all through history. If we could write the history of Christianity fully, and the sorrows of church conflicts and splits, we would see that the majority of the suffering Christians have inflicted on one another has been due to stubbornness, and a refusal to admit that one does not have a monopoly on the truth. Do Christians have to pay a penalty for being stubborn? Yes! Jesus gives an example here of the man who is being taken to court. Jesus urges him to admit his guilt, and settle the dispute out of court. If he persists in his stubborn refusal to admit his mistake, he will end up in prison, and have to pay the full price for his folly.
Jesus is saying, the stubborn refusal to bend and seek a compromise solution is not a virtue, but a foolish vice that leads the stubborn Christian to suffer what could have been prevented by a different spirit. As we read the history of the church we can see that Jesus knew what was ahead, and how much unnecessary suffering Christians would have to endure because of their following the legalistic Pharisees. Stubborn legalism which refuses to bend and compromise with a Christian brother is a rejection of the teaching of Christ in this passage and others, and this rejection has led Christians to much unnecessary suffering. Christians have refused to leave their offering to God, and go to be reconciled with their brother. They cling to their offering, and like the Pharisees, they feel they are pleasing to God even as they reject His plan and will.
Thomas Muentzer was a Lutheran pastor who despised Luther, and he became a radical leader of the Anabaptist in the reformation period. Luther, Calvin, and Swingli were convinced Christians should work through the government for Christian goals, but he said this was a compromise with the world. He said the only way to go is to despise the world and its governments. He set up his own government and made war on everybody. His stubborn refusal to cooperate with other Christian leaders led to one of the worse judgments in history. Christians killed Christians and Muentzer was decapitated and his head placed on a stick. He had to pay the last penny, and many godly people were slaughtered by other godly people because there was no room for compromise. When Christians will not bend, they often have to be broken.
The paradox is, Muentzer was not radical enough for others. Conrad Grebel was even more legalistic than he. He felt Muentzer was compromising with the Lutherans by introducing German hymns into the service. He wrote to him warning him of his compromise with the anti-Christ by permitting singing of hymns. We could go on and on reviewing the legalism of Christians that led to suffering which was easily preventable. Fortunately, after much folly and tragedy, a leader by the name of Meno Simons took over and led the Anabaptist to a more stable life. The Mennonites were named after him, and they became a people who have made a marvelous contribution to Christianity and to the world. The learned to admit their mistakes, and to follow love rather than legalism, and the result was the elimination of so much preventable suffering.
History demonstrates clearly the truth of what Jesus is teaching. If a Christian develops a stubborn spirit which refuses to admit it can be wrong, and make mistakes, it will lead to unnecessary suffering. In other words, if the wisdom of Christ's teachings are not applied, but men insist on their own stubborn way, they will suffer for their folly. This is suffering that God does not will, but He will not prevent it, for if He did He would not be allowing men the freedom of their will. If a man will not cooperate with the light God gives them, he will have to pay the consequences for walking in the dark.
Here is a window through which we can see a whole new perspective on suffering. Jesus gives us an insight that explains so much that would otherwise be a mystery as to why good people suffer. Jesus says, much suffering is not of Satan, or of God, but is man-made due to his refusal to recognize his own stubbornness. Dr. Ernest Liggon in The Psychology Of Christian Personality writes, "If the Psychologist were asked to name the two major sins, from his point of view, he probably would name fear and anger. They form the basis for most of our unhappiness. They are impossible to integrate into a healthy personality." These are the two primary causes for stubbornness that Jesus deals with in this passage. Fear of admitting you are wrong and have made a mistake is where stubbornness begins. We will not go to our brother and apologize for we fear we will lose face. It is degrading to the self to have to humble yourself and admit you were wrong.
Anger goes along with this, for we are angry at those who confront us with our sins and mistakes. We get mad at those we injure, for they threaten our security, and so instead of confession and compromise, which can lead to forgiveness we fight to the bitter end. Jesus says it is bitter indeed, for it is all preventable suffering that does not need to be. Judgment does not take place only at the end of history. It is a process running all through history. You pay the penalty today for your spirit of stubbornness. Everyday you refuse to soften, and confess your weakness, is a day in which you suffer the consequences of broken relationships, suppression of fear and anger, and both internal and external hostility. In other words, there is no peace where nobody wants to surrender.
The Christian has escaped the condemnation of God, for by faith in Christ he is assured a place in heaven, and escape from the doom of the lost. But this does not mean he escapes from the judgment of life. If a Christian builds on the sand , his house will fall as flat as that of an atheist when the flood comes. No matter how good a Christian a person is, they cannot ignore the laws of life and relationships, and escape the consequences. A stubborn Christian will suffer, and reap what he sows. What this means is, there is a whole world of unnecessary suffering that Christians endure because they do not obey the laws of the Sermon on the Mount. It is not good suffering, and suffering Jesus wants us to endure to become disciplined and strong. It is sheer waste, and of no value to God or man.
In the story of the Prodigal Jesus illustrates how stubbornness leads to so much preventable suffering. The younger son stubbornly insisted on having his own way. He took all his inheritance and went off to really live. He blew it and knew it when he was broke, and no longer had a friend. Had he not been so stubborn he would have gone home right away and admitted his folly, but he had to suffer more as he resisted doing the sensible thing. He fed the pigs, and ate with them, but fortunately he had a limit to his stubborn streak. He realized he was being stupid and he went home to pleasure instead of pain.
Then the elder son revealed his stubborn streak. He refused to join the party and enjoy life, for he could not bring himself to forgive his younger brother. He refused to listen to his father's logic. He was stubbornly determined to nurse his grudge for all it was worth. If he had to be miserable, and add to the misery of the whole family, so be it. He was not about to bend and compromise his convictions that once a scoundrel always a scoundrel. As we know, the elder brother represents the Pharisees and their legalistic rejection for mercy for the sinner. They have got to pay for their sin, and that is all there is to it. That stubborn rejection of forgiveness led them to lose the joy of salvation, and it added burdens to thousands of lives. All of this was preventable suffering if men would only have the mind of Christ.
This is a disturbing insight into suffering, and many Christians hate it so much they refuse to admit this is a reality. They prefer to see all suffering as either God's doing, or Satan's doing. This keeps life simple, and they always know who to thank, or who to blame. This aspect of suffering is a real pain to deal with because it means a lot of suffering is our own fault, and we can't blame the devil, and we can't thank the Lord, for to do so is to imply that he is the author of the very foolishness he seeks to help us avoid.
Suffering is a complex subject, but like it or not, it is much easier to get a more honest and complete picture if we recognize at least three categories.
1. The kind that you can see is for good. It strengthens people and lifts them to a higher level in their walk with God.
2. The kind that is senseless and does not seem to have any relation to good or evil. It just is, and it is a mystery.
3. The kind that is evil, and is a matter of judgment. This can still lead to good as men turn to God, but the suffering itself is due to human folly, and the good that comes from it is not worth the cost, for God does not will it, which He would do if the value outweighed the price paid.
This last category is what we are dealing with in this passage. It is suffering that Jesus rejects. It is unwise, and He does not even hint that there might be good to come out of it, for it is folly to go this way and stubbornly refuse to admit and confess your mistake. Jesus does not say He will come and bail you out. He says, if you end up in prison in your stubborn folly, you will sit there till you have paid in full. Jesus is warning believers that God will not bail them out of where they have no business being due to their stubborn will.
Vance Havner, the evangelist and author, writes, "Stubbornness breaks more hearts, wrecks more homes, divides more churches, fills more hospital beds and suicides graves than any other form of iniquity, for the root of most troubles is an unbroken self." The sad and scary thing about this whole business is, stubbornness seems to cut you off from the compassion of both God and man. Jesus does not condemn the accuser that has a stubborn brother thrown in prison. The assumption is that he deserves it for not settling the issue out of court. The poor guy has by his stubbornness gotten himself into a fine mess where neither God nor man is willing to help him. He is not open to grace at this point. The only favor he can win is merited favor. He has to pay the full price for his folly by himself. This very unpleasant picture makes it clear that one of the greatest curses that a Christian has to endure is the curse of a stubborn spirit. Jesus prescribes a cure for this dreaded disease of the soul. There is an antidote to stubbornness that will enable us to escape its terrible consequences. The cure is found in-
Socrates said, "Know thyself," and this is excellent advice, but it falls short. Jesus goes a step further and says, not only know thyself, but then be willing to act on what you know. It is important to know that you have it in you to be proud, selfish, and stubborn. But if you do not admit these traits are having a negative effect on your relationships, and if you don't take preventive action, your knowledge is of little practical value
Jesus says, if you know your brother has something against you, don't be proud and stubborn, and say, I'll wait to see what he does. Go now and submit to the fact that you have not been what you ought to be as a Christian brother, and admit it to the brother. If he is stubborn, and will not accept your apology, that is his battle, but for you to escape responsibility you must be honest and confess to your measure of guilt.
Paul says, "God will work in all things for good with those who love Him and are called according to His purpose." This means, even when you blow it, and make blunders that are harmful, it is still the only way of wisdom to go, confess, and submit yourself to the mercy of others. God can bring good out of it, but if you do not obey, then the evil consequences will be magnified, and you will miss the chance to reap any good from your mistake.
John Stewart Blackie, a celebrated Scottish professor, was unusually irritable at the opening of one college term. "Show your papers," he commanded as applicants lined up at his desk. One lad held his paper awkwardly, and professor Blackie bellowed at him, "Not in your left hand loon, in your right." The boy muttered something but did not shift his paper. "The right hand you loon!" He shouted again. Trembling, the lad lifted his right arm to reveal a stump. Professor Blackie jumped off the platform and flung his arm around the boy's shoulder and pleaded, "Laddie forgive me," as he fought back tears of remorse. He said, "I did not know laddie."
He had made a colossal blunder in his ignorance, and had added unnecessary suffering to the world. But when he saw his folly, he immediately submitted to the reality of his guilt. Speed is a factor here, for Jesus says quickly settle the matter and do not postpone it. He could have ignored it, suppressed it, tried to justify it, and in many ways stubbornly refuse to submit to his responsibility. This could have magnified the needless suffering ten times over. But he submitted to the facts, and he responded with an honest spirit of sorrow for his guilt. The result was, three dozen boys saw this spirit of honesty and humility, and they gave him their love and loyalty so that for professor Blackie it was one of the best years he had ever had. What could have led to many broken relationships led instead to many beautiful relationships. Much unnecessary suffering was prevented by his choice not to be stubborn, but to be submissive.
Jesus has a high view of the power of the human will. All through this sermon He makes it clear that we can choose between the wise and foolish way. We can choose to control our anger, or let it run our life. We can choose to control our pride, or be stubborn and let it ruin relationships. We can choose to control our lust, or hate, or worry, and all of our negative emotions, or we can yield to their power and pay the price. Jesus is saying, you don't have to be what you are, for you can choose to be what I want you to be, and do what I want you to do. Our stubborn spirit may be like a wild bronco, but it can be broken and brought into submission to the law of love in Christ.
The theme of this Sermon On The Mount is, be aware of the presence and power of your sinful stubborn nature to lead you astray, and be ever struggling to bring your rebel nature into submission to Christ, and to His teaching. If you heed Christ's point in this passage, you will recognize that a loving spirit does not wait for a matter to be legal to do it. If you owe a man a hundred dollars, you do not wait for the law to force it out of you. That is legalism, and not love. Love says, I will choose to do what is right, and what is my obligation. I may hate to do it, but if it is right, I must choose to do it. If I have to be forced to do it, it is not a free choice, and then it is not a matter of obedience to God at all.
What Jesus is saying here amounts to this: Those who are legalists and let the law be their guide will be dealt with according to law and not grace. Those, however, who respond to do what is right and just before it becomes a matter of the law will be dealt with accordingly, and will be the objects of love and grace. Loving people will be loved, and legalistic people will be treated legalistically. You reap what you sow is the point. You get what you give, and will be treated by others as you treat them. The stubborn will face stubborn treatment, and there is no escape, for it is the law of life that God has written into the nature of things. Be submissive and surrender to others in a humble and loving spirit, and the worst of offenses can be worked out, for people will always find a way to give a break to those with such a spirit.
The legalist waits for the law to decide what is right. The righteousness that exceeds that is the righteousness that does what is right before the law has anything to say. True righteousness does not need the law, for it is pre-law, and does the loving thing without the law. Those who wait for the law to do what is right do only what they are forced to do. Loving people choose to do what is right. Legalist are stubborn, but loving people are submissive. They see what is right and they do it. The submit to the law of love.
Since prevention is the goal of Jesus, and that is the purpose of most all of His teaching, we can test our interpretation and application of His teaching quite easily. All we have to do is determine if our approach prevents or provokes sin and suffering. If our approach adds to life's sorrows, then we can be sure we are following a legalistic rather than loving way. If we persist in this way, we will add to the total of our own and other's preventable suffering.
The school of hard knocks is not all bad, even if the school colors are black and blue. Some hurting can be helpful, but Jesus is saying, if you take the course in needless knocks, that is your choice, and not the way He is leading as your guidance counselor. If you take that course, all you will learn is the costliness of being stubborn rather than submissive. All of this forces us to face up to the reality of our great gift of freedom. It is that which makes us in the image of God, and capable of being Godlike. Yet, it is that which makes us capable of defying God also, and becoming Satan-like. It is a scary truth, but we might just as well take hold of it and deal with its implications, for it is the reality in which we live.
You will not be forced by God to do His will. You must choose to go His way and be wise. You are free to be stubborn if you choose your own way. Jesus warns us, but He will not stop us if we choose to suffer needlessly. This means the Christian must be perpetually evaluating his life, and asking the obvious question-am I suffering in ways that have nothing to do with Satan's attack or God's will, but because of my own stubborn decisions? It is hard to swallow, but this is one of the major causes of suffering in this world. It is the goal of the mature Christian to stop this preventable suffering.
A blind man was observed getting off a train, and as he walked down the isle he bumped his hand on one of the seats. He adjusted his hand by lifting it higher, but still bumped it on the next seat. He then adjusted it so that he never hit another one. The observer said, "If only I could see like that blind man." You don't have to keep suffering the same bumps and knocks of life that you often do. You can adjust your walk and your attitudes, and escape so much of life's preventable suffering.
The greatest example of all preventable suffering is the greatest suffering, which is to be lost and separated from God and His eternal kingdom. This is the worst suffering that man can ever experience. Yet, it is all preventable by choosing what God has given as an alternate destiny that takes us to His presence and eternal kingdom. "To as many as received Him (The Lord Jesus Christ), to them He gave the right to become children of God." The stubborn who refuse will lose God's best, and pay for their own sin. Those who submit to Christ as Lord will prevent the folly of such unnecessary suffering, and so for time and eternity, the wisest thing anyone can ever do is to surrender to Jesus, and eliminate as much as possible preventable suffering.