One of the things that disturbs me most in life is having to drive down a backwood road in Southeast Georgia behind a truck (and it’s always a truck!) going 20 miles under the speed limit with black smoke pouring out of the tail pipe. It’s not simply the fact that I know that the carbon monoxide is knocking a few hours or days off my life. Neither is it merely the fact that I can’t pass him on this particular stretch of road. What bothers me as much or more than both of those things is that it would literally take two minutes for the driver to check the dipstick to see if there was oil in his car, and it would take 30 minutes to change the oil. Add to that the fact that it wouldn’t even take an entire minute for him to look at the speedometer, and in the rearview mirror, to see if he was selfishly holding someone up. Yet, as I confess my frustration, I find an analogy for my own life. Too often I find that I am the driver of the truck with the black smoke billowing out of my spirit. What I need more than anything is to pull over and do a spirit-check.
There’s an account in the Gospels in which Jesus has just sent the disciples into a city of Samaria in order to receive Him while He was on His way to the cross. When the city rejected Christ, James and John come back with black smoke billowing out of their hearts. Luke tells us:
It came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:51-56).
Though James and John had reached back into the Scriptures in order to justify their response, Jesus tells them the problem and the solution: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” The heart was the problem; the Gospel was the solution. What the Savior says to two of his chief apostles has implications for us in almost every situation in which we find ourselves in life. It is actually quite possible for us to be actively engaged in Gospel ministry and yet to have a heart that is contrary to the Gospel. It is possible for us to care about justice and yet have a bitter and vitriolic spirit. It is possible for someone to care about holiness while having a heart that is silently (or vocally) delighting in the fall of a brother or sister in Christ. The same brothers who Jesus rebukes for wanting the destruction of others rather than the salvation of others will, in due time, reveal that they were also using Jesus to get to the top (Mark 10:37). If two of the choicest apostles of Jesus could need “a spirit-check,” I certain need to pull over before I say, write or do just about anything.
It’s interesting that in the account of Luke 9:51-56, James and John have not actually said or done anything to hurt someone. It is what they say to Jesus that reveals what spirit was in them. As the old saying goes, “the matter of the heart is the heart of the matter;” or, as the Proverbs remind us, “Above all things keep the heart, for out of it flows the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23).
There are so many applications of this principle that even the world itself is not big enough to contain all the volumes that would have to be written. Here are a few basic categories of application that I believe will help all believers:
1. Before you draw conclusions about someone, based on something that they have said or done, check your spirit.
I have many times taken something that someone has said and read it in the worst possible light. Others may struggle with the opposite problem. I have witnessed many who see clear facts about some particular problem in someone’s life or teaching and they read it in the best possible light. We are called to read everything through the lens of Scripture–not through a hyper-critical lens of the worst possible light, or the optimistic naiveté of the best possible light. If we would stop to check our spirit, we might find that what we have witness or heard is not nearly as bad as we think, or vastly worse that we wanted to admit. The Proverbs have some much to say about this. For instance, Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him.” Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, It is folly and shame to him.” It is actually quite possible to “answer” a matter in your mind and heart before your hear the totality of the facts.
Add to this the fact that Scripture tells us that “love covers a multitude of sins” and that “it is the glory of man to overlook a transgression.” This should factor into our heart responses toward all others–especially within the household of faith. In Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 we read, “Also do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. For many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others.”
2. Before you speak about anyone, check your spirit.
The Bible is replete with warnings about jealousy, envy and hatred that manifests itself in gossip, slander and division. A heart that is silently harboring any of these sinful motives will necessarily overflow with sinful words and responses. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” The Gospel is the cure for this. When we realize how sinful we are, and of how much Christ has forgiven us, we will be quick to pray for others and guard against speaking evil of them. If we fall, we will go to the Lord and then to the people we have spoken to and/or about to seek forgiveness (1 John 1:8-2:1). This is a prime time for a spirit check.
3. Before you write about anyone, check your spirit.
The rise of the internet has revealed how many hearts there are with black smoke billowing out of them. You can hardly scroll through Twitter of Facebook for 2 minutes without coming across another blog that is systematically seeking to destroy the reputation of a minister who has fallen into sin(s). This does not mean that we are never to speak or write about the sin of others, but, boy oh boy, had we better check our spirits before we do. I get the feeling that far too many have the spirit of James and John when they write about this minister or that ministers. Of course, false teachers, prosperity-Gospel ministers and consumeristic church ministers are subject to public warning and uncovering.
4. Before you decide to give up on someone who has sinned against you or in public, check your spirit.
We are all far too ready to write someone off when they sin against us or fall in public. Charles Spurgeon noted how many will throw others that they once esteemed under the bus when they fall because they esteemed them for the wrong reasons. He wrote:
He who is still flattered by the companions of his pleasure can little guess the wretchedness which will be his portion should he become poor, or slanderously accused, for then one by one the parasites of his prosperity will go their way and leave him to his fate, not without cutting remarks on their part to increase his misery. Men have not so much power to bless by friendship as to curse by treachery.
The sad reality is that many of us esteem others for the wrong reasons. The Psalmist noted that “men will praise you when you do well for yourself.” This is not an approving statement. It is an observation about the fickleness of the praise of men.
King David knew this better than anyone. When he was victorious in battle against the Philistines, the people praised him. When Saul chased him, they turned against him. Long after David fell into sin with Bethsheba and killed Uriah, he was being pursued by his own son Absolam. One of the striking details of the narrative of that period of David’s life is that while so many turned against him, there was one man who supported him without selfish motives. We are told in 2 Sam. 19:31-39 that Barzillai the Gileadite provided supplies for David while he was fleeing from Absolam. When the king wanted to repay him for his kindness, Barzillai would not receive any reward. He was so selfless that he told David to reward his servant if he felt as though he needed to give something back in return for the kindness. It seems that Barzillai was a man who was in the practice of “checking his spirit.” He didn’t help David when all was well and when David was on top. Barzillai seems to have been a man who understood the Gospel, because he acts in such a way as to show that he who is forgiven of much loves much.
The Gospel cures us of the black smoke of our hearts. Whenever we are tempted to draw conclusions about others hastily or unjustly, whenever we are about to speak about someone else, whenever we want to write something about someone’s sin and whenever we have decided to give up on someone who has sinned against us or in public, we must check our spirits. It takes one minute, but will make all the difference in the world to us and those around us.