Selected highlights from this sermon.
A good conscience leads to love and joy. A bitter conscience is consumed with deeply-rooted wrongs and is continually defiled by them.
We need to rid ourselves of bitterness. We must approach God in prayer and admit our sin of bitterness. And through faith in Jesus we can be set free.
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So I begin today with a question. How’s your conscience doing? This happens to be number eight in a series of messages entitled The Power of a Clear Conscience. And there are ways that you can test your conscience. Our key verse is found in 1 Timothy 5 where it says, “The aim of our instruction is love that flows from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
So let me ask you, how’s your love quotient? On a scale of 1 to 10, how are you loving, and did you love this week? Where are you on that scale? Another way we can test our conscience is to ask the joy meter. How is it doing? On a scale of 1 to 10 how is your joy today, and how has it been this past week? The power of a clear conscience!
We can think of a conscience as the window to the soul, and you and I know that when a window gets smudgy, when it gets dirt thrown onto it, light is hampered. And in the very same way when there is smudge on our conscience, when we have a defiled conscience, the light does not get through very well.
There are many reasons why people live with a very restless heart, a restless conscience. One reason may be because of anxiety, and there are plenty of things to be anxious about. Another is because of guilt, and as you know, many messages in this series of messages dealt specifically with guilt as it relates to our relationship with God. But there’s another reason, and that reason is bitterness. And I don’t believe that it’s possible to have a clear conscience that is free of offense unless we deal with the bitterness that may be lurking within our hearts. And that’s what we’re going to do today.
You know, the Bible says in the book of Hebrews (and I won’t turn to the passage) in chapter 12, “Beware lest there be in you a root of bitterness that springs up and many people be defiled.” Two very important things about bitterness! First of all, it has roots, very deep roots. Some of you today are struggling with bitterness because you were brought up in an abusive home. You had parents who shouted at you, perhaps abused you. There was alcoholism. There was disarray, and so within your heart there is a great deal of resentment and a great deal of bitterness with very deep roots.
You know out on the farm one of the things that we learned was that if want to pluck up a weed, we can’t just cut it off. We have to get to the roots. And today, by God’s help, I want to show you how you can deal with the very root of bitterness.
So that’s one thing that we learned. The other thing is that it spreads, that you have a root of bitterness and thereby many people be defiled. May I remind you of a very basic truth? And that is that whatever you don’t forgive and lay down, you will pass on. That’s why children, brought up in these kinds of homes where there has been abuse of one kind or another, spread it to the next generation, and the next generation to the next generation. Whatever you don’t lay down and forgive you’re always passing on, even if you don’t think you are. That’s why the title of this message is Lay It Down. And I’m going to give you instructions as to how to do that.
Now as I was thinking about the various kinds of situations that need forgiveness, four came to mind. There are many more but let me simply give you these four.
The first thing that I thought of was indeed to be brought up by abusive parents, and you’ll notice that in my notes I talk about four different kings. Hezekiah was a good king. He has a son whose name is Manasseh. Manasseh does more evil than all the other kings before him. And then Manasseh has a son named, Amon, who is also evil and follows in the train of his father. And then suddenly – boom! There is Josiah whose father was Amon.
What do we learn from that story of the Old Testament? Well, very briefly, one thing that we learn is that good parents sometimes have evil sons. But the lesson I want you to take home from it is here you have a good son with very evil parents. Do you know what Manasseh did? He sacrificed one of his sons to the pagan god Molech. Now how would you like to have a grandfather who sacrificed one of his sons to the pagan god? You have a father who does essentially the same thing, who follows in his father’s footsteps, and now you’re the son, and yet Josiah followed the Lord.
From my heart to yours today, you do not need to be defined by who your parents were. You can break the cycle, and we’ll give you help on how that can be done. (applause) So first of all, we have to forgive parents at times. And secondly, we have to forgive siblings. I think of the story of Jacob and Esau, but we’re going to skip that story except to say that here are twins. And Jacob tells lies. He tells lies to the father who he thinks is dying. He steals from his brother, and there had to be forgiveness.
We must hurry on, and that is to talk about unfaithful relationships in marriage. In the Old Testament there’s the book of Hosea, and Hosea is asked to marry a woman who turns out to be a prostitute. And then after she is married, she goes from lover to lover, and eventually she ends up as a slave and she is auctioned off to the highest bidder, and Hosea attends the auction. And he outbids everybody. The Bible says that he bought her back for 15 shekels of silver and a bushel and a half of barley. Now imagine that. And we’re not saying for a moment that you and I need to follow Hosea. That was a very special assignment God had for him except to take say in this sense that it is possible even for marriages to survive unfaithfulness.
Now you say, “Well, how do we reconcile?” I’m so glad that you are thinking of these things, because the next message in this series is probably going to be the most important as I outline the whole business of reconciliation. When do you need to reconcile, what do you need to confess and when? We’re going to try to work our way through that interesting scenario, but here’s the point: Even unfaithfulness can be forgiven and couples can move on.
But number four I think is the most important in my illustrations, and that is anger toward God. In 2 Samuel 6 (and we won’t turn to it) they are bringing the Ark back to Jerusalem. They put it on a cart. The cart is going along. The oxen are pulling it. They stumble, and a man by the name of Uzzah steadies the Ark of God and God strikes him down. And the Bible says that David was angry. He said that he was not only afraid of the Lord but he was angry. He was so angry that he said, “God (I’m paraphrasing, of course, as to what I think he was thinking), if that’s the way You are going to do things, I’m done. I’m not bringing the Ark to Jerusalem.” So they took the Ark somewhere else.
“I mean, you know, if that’s the way you are going to overreact and deal (I’m sure they all thought it was an over-reaction. It really wasn’t because they weren’t carrying the Ark the way in which God has prescribed.),” David said, “I’m done. I’m not bringing it to You.” Now eventually David got over it because, very interestingly, a couple of months later, he does bring the Ark back and he brings it back in the proper way that God asked it to be carried. But frequently in the Psalms you have David angry with God, and he needs to “forgive” God.
Now I know that when we talk about that we have to put forgiveness in quotes because strictly speaking God doesn’t need forgiveness. But I am absolutely certain that throughout this large crowd (and the larger crowd that is watching or listening) there are many, many people who need to lay down their bitterness and their anger toward God. In fact, I would say that virtually all other anger is ultimately traceable to anger against God. Anger because of His lack of care!
Right here in the front at Moody Church I remember distinctly a woman coming up to me. And she was angry and she was crying. And she was saying, “You want me to believe and to trust God, and God is my heavenly Father. I was abused when I was a child. What kind of a father would watch that going on and do nothing about it? And God could have done something and He didn’t do a thing. How can I believe in God?” Anger because of lack of care!
Anger also because of refusal to answer prayer! Here you have a young pastor (and I’m talking about a situation that
happened long ago), dying of cancer. His whole church prays, “Oh God, please heal him.” God doesn’t heal him. One woman said, “I’m never going to bother God with another request again. Why should I? If He didn’t heal that young man after all that prayer, I mean, I don’t want to be hurt again. I’m out of here. Have a good day, God! I’m going in a different direction.”
Then you have issues such as physical and mental limitations – perhaps a physical genetic problem. It could be blindness. It could be the inability to be able to walk. It could be some very debilitating disease, and you say, “Well, why can’t I be like everybody else? I mean, why did God give me this card? This is the card that I have been dealt.” And at the root of it all is anger toward God, and we say to ourselves, “I’m not following Him. Look at what He did,” or “Look at what He didn’t do.”
Now this could be a separate message, but I have a word for you today. If that’s where you are at, if that’s why you may be backslidden and you may not be in fellowship with the Lord today, because you feel that God has dealt with you unfairly, may I simply remind you that your ability to believe and to trust God in the midst of these circumstances brings about great faith and great honor. But also let me give you a word that could be transforming. Elizabeth Elliot said this: “Acceptance brings peace.” Would you lay it down?
We don’t understand God’s ways. I like the King James translation of Job 33 where Elihu says, “Why do you strive against the Almighty. He gives not account of His matters.” God’s not telling us all of His hidden purposes, but don’t strive against God no matter your dilemma. And what will happen when you accept that and bow to the sovereignty of the Almighty, God will begin to pour grace into your soul, just like He did David’s in some of the Psalms where David would almost lash out at God.
“Where are you? You’ve deceived us,” said the prophet Jeremiah. “You said one thing and you did another.” And yet what did God do in the midst of all these kinds of attitudes toward Him? When they accepted it and bowed, He poured grace into their souls. And He will do that for you too if you are angry with God.
So we’ve mentioned abusive parents. We have mentioned also siblings, marital relationship and anger toward God. And now all of you who have a Bible (or a cell phone or an iPad), I want you to take your Bibles and we’re going to deal with some issues here today. So let’s get right into the text in Ephesians 4 where the Apostle Paul deals with this, and then we’ll give you some specific instructions.
Ephesians 4:25-27 says, “Put away falsehood, and let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” Tapas! In other words, don’t give him a foot in the door. That’s the idea, because if you give him a foot in the door he’ll take over the whole room. And now he becomes very, very specific. Verses 29-30 say, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”
If you are here today with resentment, anger and bitterness, you are grieving the blessed Holy Spirit and that tells me that your conscience is not entirely clear.
No Christian can grieve the Spirit and have a clear conscience, and that’s what we are after. And then it says this: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” He’s saying, “Lay it down.”
Let’s look at these words. Bitterness: it’s the same word that is used in the book of Hebrews – a root of bitterness.
Then wrath: That word refers to outbursts of anger. It’s like a pit bull. You know, “I just tell people what I think,” and so you fly off the handle and you discipline a child and you beat the child. And then maybe later on you say, “Well, I’m sorry. Let’s move on.” But something is lost. It’s the pit bull kind of anger.
The next word that he uses actually is the word wrath. I should have said wrath refers to the pit bull kind of anger. Anger, which is mentioned here in the text, is more passive. It’s more like the cobra. It’s the anger of the soul. It’s well under control, but everybody knows that you are essentially angry. And you may pride yourself and say, “Well, I never said anything bad. I just kept my mouth shut.” But you are seething and anyone around you is picking up all of these vibes, and in little ways that anger leaks out in your relationship with your children, with your mate, with your family or whatever, and many people thereby are defiled. I could give some illustrations but we must move on.
Clamor is public outburst. Slander is to defame someone. And then malice! Boy, Paul just lays one term on another, on another, on another. It’s as if the Apostle Paul is saying, “I’m making sure that nobody is going to have any wiggle room on this.” And then he says, “Put it away.” And I’m saying another way to say, “Put it away,” is “Lay it down.”
Now let me begin, before I give you some specific instruction, by saying the reason that we come to a message like this, with all of our preconceived notions and all of our rationalizations, is this. We say, “Well, I can’t lay it down. I can’t minimize what that person did to me.” Let me remind you that when you lay it down you’re not minimizing what that person did. And that person may be miles away from you, and yet controlling your life and destroying you. And that’s why the Bible says you don’t have to do the vengeance. God will take care of that. That’s what Jesus said when He was betrayed and when He was mistreated. When He was reviled He did not revile in return but committed Himself unto Him who judges righteously. Jesus said, “All of these attacks I’m giving over to My Father because I’m going to trust Him to deal with it.” And He still hasn’t dealt with it. Those issues will finally be dealt with in the Day of Resurrection and judgment, and Jesus said, “I’m fine with that.” Blessed are you, my dear sister and my brother, and my teenager, if you’re fine with that too. You are not minimizing the evil that was done.
Now there are some counselors, and I’ve heard them say, “Well, you don’t have to forgive until you feel like it.” Well, to quote the words, and it’s not theological, “Good luck!” You’re never going to feel like it.
Now, we’re going to give you some specific instruction and this is a message, you know, that you need to take home. One of the disappointments for those of us who preach is the realization that there are many people who listen who say, “Well, isn’t that interesting?” And they may leave and they may think about it again during the week, maybe once or twice. It may come back to them, but basically the message is left at church. This is not a message that you can leave here at the church and profit from it. This is the kind of message where when you go home you find a quiet place (and if you say there is no such place where I can go, then pray that God will give you one), and where you are at least an hour or two with God, and you say, “This is our time together, oh God.” And what we’re going to do is to deal with the root issues and buck up from the roots, with God’s help - the root of bitterness, which springs up, and thereby many people are defiled. So this is a message you do at home. You listen now and then you take it home and you deal with it there. You can’t deal with it quickly.
Now let me begin by emphasizing again that the Bible says, “Do not grieve the blessed Holy Spirit.” And if you are a believer, you don’t want to do that. But some of us do grieve the Spirit by sin that has not been confessed, by bitterness that we will not acknowledge and we will not deal with it. So let’s begin.
You’ll notice that the Apostle Paul says, “Be kind one to another (verse 32), tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” You’ll notice that there is reciprocity. Boy I haven’t used that word in years. I’m glad it came out correctly. I wasn’t planning to use it, but you notice he says “forgiving one another,” and we’re going to talk about this next week when we talk about reconciling broken relationships. But here’s what I would like to give you as steps to follow to get at the root of bitterness, which may be legitimate in a human sense because you’ve been sinned against. And by the way, some of you who are listening are the ones who have done the sinning against. We’ll deal with you next week. See if you can survive that long.
Number one, be honest. Admit the truth. Don’t lie. You see, what happens is we justify our feelings for so long that we even forget the fact that we have the feelings. Oh yes, I’ve forgiven. You know, we’ve buried the hatchet. Yeah, but the trail to the hatchet is very, very well traveled, and the hatchet is very shallow. And so what we do is we tell ourselves, “Yeah, I have forgiven,” but what we do sometimes is we shut down emotionally. And as a result of that shutdown we are really not honest with ourselves, especially those of you who are dealing not so much with the pit bull anger where there is this expression of anger, but rather the cobra type where it’s deep, and it’s down, and it’s slow, but it’s there and it leaks out. Ask God to show you the deep root of the anger. And be honest. Remember that others may see what you don’t see. Our ability to see ourselves the way others see us is a divine gift, but especially the way God sees us, and the issues we need to deal with deep in the soul.
You know, the odor of a skunk (just to choose an animal that might bring many memories to your own heart, as it does to me, a farm boy) as far as we know (and I don’t know the research on this) may smell very, very good to him. To him it probably smells something like - well there used to be (I don’t know if it’s still in existence) Chanel No. 5 (something like that). He doesn’t notice it.
What kind of odor do you and I sometimes give off that we do not notice, but those around us do? And it may be for many different reasons. One reason is smoldering resentment. Be honest. Admit it.
Second, grieve the loss. Some of you have lost your childhood, because of the way in which you were treated as a child. Some of you have had a destroyed marriage because of the unfaithfulness of a spouse. Why wouldn’t you grieve the loss? You are grieving what could have been. Wasn’t it John Greenleaf Whittier who said, “The saddest words of tongue and pen is simply this; it might have been?” It could have been different.
God has given you some kind of a limitation, some kind of a trial, and it destroys your career and all, and you wanted to do this thing, and some physical infirmity came in between you and your dream. Weep! Why not? If you lost an arm you’d cry. So what we need to do is to become very, very honest as we think about the regrets of yesterday, and the worry sometimes about tomorrow. Could we, in moments of silence before God, be honest? And by the way, I read that the best cure for loneliness is silence before God.
And then, number three, we have to remember why Jesus was abused. I’m in the text now. “Forgive one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you.” Now think for a moment about Jesus, who is really the author of the whole thing, and the One who we worship, and the One who we love, who is our Savior. What did Jesus endure? Well, a friend betrayed him. He was deserted by His followers. He suffered for what He didn’t do because our sin was laid upon Him, and He bore our iniquity. And catch this! He even suffered under the hands of God. “My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?”
Now follow carefully. You and I oftentimes have been the victim of injustice. We’ve been the victims of those who have tried to destroy us. We’ve all been there in one way or another, but that was not our choice. We just happened to be where we happened to be, and people just did what they did. But Jesus would not have had to be there. This was his voluntary choice because He said, “I so love the people whom God wants to redeem that I will die on their behalf. I will give My life. I will make the ultimate sacrifice for them.” Why? “It’s so that You, oh Father, can set them free because I want them to be free from their sin and from the natural consequences that we might expect, and I want to redeem them.” Now think of that!
“Be tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you.” That’s the standard. Do you know that if you can’t forgive, if you absolutely say, “I can’t forgive,” I have to question whether or not you have been redeemed because the sin that you and I have done against Christ is much greater almost certainly than sins that have been done against us.
The key to forgiveness is to understand the wonder of God’s forgiveness, and then what we do is we simply say, “I’m going to lay it down.” In fact, that is very important. The first step to forgiveness is to be forgiven and to realize the importance of Jesus Christ’s mercy toward us, and we forgive accordingly. Does Jesus forgive you more than once? Oh, aren’t you glad the answer is yes? In Christ, we forgive others.
Now, reconciliation is a separate issue that we’ll deal with next week, but forgiveness, the laying down of bitterness – may God grant us the ability to do it!
You know, I’m told that rattlesnakes sometimes bite themselves. And I looked this up on the web, and if it’s on the web, it must be true. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s true. Not everything on the web is true. I hope you realize that. Nobody knows if it is because of anger, or because of fear, but a rattlesnake bites itself.
My friend, today, if you harbor bitterness, you are biting yourself. You’re not changing your enemy. You are not changing the situation. All that you are doing is you are perpetuating the venom, and the Bible says, “By that, many are defiled.” And I’m saying, “Stop it! Lay it down!”
You know, there is a story that I may have told you years ago about a professor whom we shall call Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith was known in his classroom for having object lessons for helping the people learn in creative ways. One day he put a target on the wall and he said, “Now I want everybody to get out a sheet of paper. And what I want you to do is to draw a picture of the person you dislike the most – the person that you hate. Draw a picture.” Well all of the students thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, some of them said, “Give me more than one piece of paper because I don’t know who to choose. There are plenty of people that I hate.”
Then he said, “We’re going to put the pictures of these people on this target that I’ve put on the wall, and then I’ve got all of these darts, and what you can do is to take some darts and throw them as hard as you want at the person that you hate.” Well, what an exciting assignment! There was plenty of opportunity for this, so the kids, one by one put their picture over the target. And they were just really enjoying throwing these darts (these little spears) as hard as they possibly can.
And then when everybody was having a great time and enjoying themselves, he went over and he pulled the target off the wall, and behind it was a picture of Jesus. And the kids were stunned. Both of His eyes were gouged out. His cheeks, his chin, his neck were all gouged out. I mean the best way to describe it is to say the face of Jesus was mangled. And then he said to them, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these,” Jesus is saying, “you’ve done it unto Me.”
Angry parent, you may be angry with the father of your child. You may be angry with the person who robbed you of your virginity. You may be angry for all kinds of different reasons, just as these students were. But every time you throw one of those darts and you shout in anger, you’re not only doing it to your child, you are doing it to Jesus. “Therefore,” the Scripture says, “be tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” Jesus shed His blood. His body was nailed to the cross. All of it was voluntary on His part so that you and I could be redeemed and we could experience forgiveness. And then He gives us plenty of opportunities to forgive in return.
Blessed are you who go to the root of your bitterness. Forgiveness is both an act and a process. That’s why I say in the notes, “Lay it down, and then if it comes back, lay it down again.” But each time it has less power. Lay it down! Lay it down! Lay it down! Be free in Jesus who redeemed you.
And now let us pray.
Father, I’m thinking of people who have lived with bitterness and anger for years. The roots go down very, very deep. Would You help them, Father, to lay it down? I’m thinking of betrayal. I’m thinking of situations of promises that were broken and people that were misused and thrown away like the peelings of an orange. And today that’s the way they feel. I pray that in Your presence they might receive and rejoice in the greatness of Your forgiveness and Your love for them, and then in turn, grant others the same grace that You gave them.
And for those who are listening who have never trusted Christ as Savior (this seems to be all very foreign to them), help them to know that Jesus died for sinners so that we could indeed be forgiven and receive forgiveness from His hand.
And help us now as a church, as we remember His death, to be deeply grateful that He died for us, and sets us free.
Whatever God has talked to you about, would you take this sermon home with you, and you respond?
In Jesus’ name we thank You, and help our people, and help all of us. Amen.
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