Monday, September 15, 2014

Breaking the Spirit

“No one gives up on something until it turns on them, whether or not that thing is real or unreal.”
― Thomas Ligotti
Ligotti’s statement may or may not be true, but there is something to be said for people who live consistently.

Those who have become disillusioned by Christians are among the most intensely disillusioned people I have ever met. They are the hardest to reach, the hardest to talk to about my faith, the most difficult to even know where to begin with.

How do you initiate any kind of dialogue with those who believe they have already taken the measure of your faith and found it wanting?

Solomon says:
“A gentle tongue is a tree of life …”
(Proverbs 15:4)
The Tree of Life

Actual information about the tree of life is limited to a mere seven Scripture references by my count: three in Genesis and four in Revelation.

Our Bibles are bookended by them.

The Tree of Life in Genesis

1.    We read that the tree of life grew in the middle of the garden in Eden, along with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

2.    The fruit of the tree of life was not explicitly forbidden by God, but it appears Adam and Eve never ate of it, possibly because it grew near to the one and only tree that bore fruit which had been forbidden to them. Perhaps they steered clear of the whole area until one day, well … they didn’t. But had they eaten of the tree of life, God says, they would have lived forever, for that was the natural effect of consuming its fruit.

3.    For this reason, after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God set cherubim and a flaming sword to the east to guard the way to the tree of life so that mankind could not live eternally in a fallen state if they elected to do so. 

Can you imagine us staying out of Eden voluntarily? I can’t. Neither could God.

The Tree of Life in Revelation

4.    We are not told any more about the tree of life until the second chapter of John the apostle’s book of Revelation, where we read the promise of the Lord Jesus to his earthly followers (specifically the Ephesian church, but by extension to all believers) that to the “one who conquers”* he will grant to eat of the tree of life which, he says, is in the paradise of God. That which was forbidden to Adam and Eve is ours in Christ.

5.    Next, we are told that in this New Jerusalem a river flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb, and the tree of life grows on either side of that river. (I take it, then, that the tree of life is a type of tree, rather than a single tree so large that the river passes under it.) The trees bear twelve kinds of fruit, and do so every month. The leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations.

6.    Then the Spirit of God adds that “those who wash their robes” have a right to eat from the tree of life and to enter the city by its gates. This is not true of those outside the gates. As with “conquering” and “overcoming”, the expression “those who wash their robes” refers to all in Christ, not some elite subset of his followers.

7.    Finally, a share in the tree of life is denied to anyone who “takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy”, which, given that it is impossible to have eternal life without eating from it, should provide a strong incentive to avoid the temptation to become the Holy Spirits post facto editor.

There’s much that could be said about each of these, but in addition to the seven informative references that bracket Scripture, there are four more right in the middle of the word of God, all of them among Solomon’s proverbs.

These four tell us nothing new about the tree of life itself. Rather, they all use the tree of life — something that exists in paradise where, by faith, we may anticipate it — as a metaphor for something very good that may actually be experienced in this present life.

The Tree of Life in Proverbs

Solomon tells us first that wisdom is a “tree of life” to those who lay hold of her. He goes on to say that, in contrast to a hope that is continually put off and deferred, a longing fulfilled is a “tree of life”. He also tells us that the fruit or consequence of living righteously is a “tree of life”.

Much could also be said about each of these proverbs, but what they have in common is that each suggests that certain kinds of behavior or priorities produce a quality of life that is, perhaps, a little taste of what might have been had mankind not fallen.

John Lennon imagined people “living for today”, “living life in peace” and sharing a world without greed or hunger. That was as far as his imagination took him, because he imagined a pipe dream with no heaven, hell or religion. It was a world that has never been and will never be, at least on the terms he asked for it.

Solomon, on the other hand, gives real-world advice that is actually useful rather than merely whimsical. You don’t need to change the political order of a planet or overturn national economies to benefit from his words. Those who follow his advice benefit immeasurably on a personal level in the present. Like Eden’s tree of life, wisdom, the fulfillment of hope and righteous living are things that are rare, precious and ought to be treasured and well-guarded when we find them. As Bono well said, “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me”.

But let’s go back to that final reference in Proverbs: “A gentle tongue is a tree of life …”

The Gentle Tongue

A gentle tongue is speech that is wholesome, soothing or healing. It is speech that promotes health. Like the other qualities Solomon praises, it is a characteristic that brings blessing, unity, harmony, peace and joy. It is speech that has a refreshing quality; that nourishes you rather than eats away at your conscience whenever you recall having been party to it.

It is, in its way, a little foretaste of heaven.

That’s not intended as hyperbole, and if it is, then only a very little. I think that’s really what Solomon is trying to say. How sad, then, to read the rest of the verse:
“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”
This is where consistency comes in, doesn’t it.

There’s nothing particularly shocking or disturbing about a foul mouth on a drunk slobbering at the bar. It is precisely what you expect to find. There’s little offence taken nowadays when a politician fabricates rubbish. It is anticipated and even applauded in some quarters. And no man ever had his faith in humanity destroyed by the revelation that the tramp on the street corner wasn’t really all that interested in him for his looks after all.

In all these situations, a person’s speech may be perverse, deceitful, immoderate, untrustworthy, undependable, duplicitous, dishonest or crooked and nobody bats an eyelash, because what they hear is precisely what one would expect to hear, given the source.

But a duplicitous statement, a blatant lie, an intimation of betrayal or a bit of dirt or gossip about you from a trusted friend, a parent, a partner or a loved one, a Bible teacher, an authority figure — anyone for whom such a thing was previously unthinkable? That gets a reaction, and not a reaction that is easily forgotten. As Solomon says elsewhere, “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion”. It’s the incongruity that causes outrage, and the sense of having been betrayed. Of having trusted and been let down. THAT’s what breaks the spirit.

Or, for a Scriptural example, picture the messengers David sent to the house of Uriah the Hittite to bring Bathsheba to his bed. How banal and shoddy David must have suddenly appeared to those poor servants tasked with sneaking another man’s wife into his palace — let alone the wife of a faithful soldier who was risking his own life fighting David’s war for him while he sat at home. David was king of Israel, and such things cannot be kept private by royalty. The word of God tells us they were not. I’m sure his servants knew David wasn’t perfect, but this would have been a stunning betrayal, don’t you think? Here was the sweet psalmist of Israel, the man who wrote “The Lord is my shepherd”, reduced to dispensing instructions about things such as which gate to bring Uriah’s wife in by, perhaps, and making sure anyone in the know was told to be discreet. That conversation itself was an act of perversity, let alone what came after. The dissonance, to those who knew David well and saw him every day, must have been heartbreaking.

Talk about a perverse tongue that breaks the spirit. I’m sure those servants never saw David the same way again.

“No one gives up on something until it turns on them”, but when it does, watch out.

There is great value in living for the Lord and practicing the principles he taught. There is greater value in doing it consistently.

*        Bear in mind that the kingdom of God is described in Matthew and elsewhere as being a combination of wheat and weeds, of genuine believers and false professors of a faith they do not truly possess. Those who “conquer” do so “through him who loved us”, not in their own strength. Those who do not “conquer” fail to overcome because they never belonged to Christ in the first place. In other words, we are not saved by overcoming; rather, we overcome because we are truly saved. Those who put their trust in the Son of God “eat of the tree of life”. Because of him, we will live forever.

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