“DO NOT PROVOKE ONE ANOTHER”
GALATIANS 5: 25-26
June 20, 2010
Being Father’s Day, I’ll begin with telling you something about my children. They excelled at something as children, but not something that would make a Father proud. They excelled at pushing each other’s buttons. They were masters at it. They took great joy in it ... and it drove me nuts as a dad. Many a dinner conversation included such words of caution as, “Okay, Jenny, that’s enough, stop picking on your brother,” or “Josh, quit it. You know that upsets your sister.” Even today, as adults, they can still get to one another, and maybe that’s why they are moving in opposite directions across the country, one to Alabama and the other to California. Jennifer, with a certain inflection in her voice can embarrass her brother by batting her eyes and saying, “I love you, Josh.” It drives him nuts, and he often purses his lips and says, “Shut up, runt.” Josh can tweak his sister by reminding her of the time she sent a video tape to the singing group “New Kids on the Block,” pledging her undying love and devotion. He’ll simply say, “Send out any videos lately?”
Apparently, Josh and Jenn never got the memo from the Apostle Paul, who wrote,
If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another.
According to the dictionary to provoke means “to make or try to make a person angry or annoyed, “ or “to cause a reaction, especially a negative one, “ or “to offend, to incense, to enrage.” Synonyms include words like “bait,” “exasperate,” “irritate,” and on many a Father’s Day preachers preach on this subject, but primarily to dads because of the Apostle Paul’s directive in Ephesians 6, where Paul says to dads, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” but here, in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, the directive not to provoke is not only for dads, but for moms, for men, for women, even children. If we are in Christ we need to work on not provoking one another.
Of course, it’s impossible not to provoke others. Sometimes it’s unintentional, but it still happens. Few of us get up in the morning and say to ourselves, “How can I get under someone’s skin today?” Most of us have no desire to provoke anyone. Sometimes, however, it just happens. We unintentionally set someone off. I think of a local morning newscaster that used to get to Trudy. She couldn’t stand his voice. It got on her nerves, and if I happened to tune into that particular morning news program she would say to me, “Please turn to another channel. I cannot take this guy. He bugs me.” I, on the other hand, had no negative reaction to the guy. Now, does this guy get up in the morning and say, “I wonder how I can get a rise out of Trudy Meyer today?” No way. He and Trudy have never met. It is purely unintentional. Sometimes we just hook something in other folks subconscious that has more to do with them than us.
Other times we unintentionally provoke others by putting our foot in our mouths. We do not intend to do it; we are just being our open-mouth-insert-foot clumsy selves. We innocently go up to someone we haven’t seen for awhile and say, “How’s your husband?” and she says with an edge to her voice, “I don’t know. We divorced last year.” Or we say, “Don’t you just hate the way government wastes tax dollars?” only to have the person reply, “Not really. I’m a city employee.” All of us wish life came with a rewind button that we could press for such moments.
Still others times we unintentionally provoke others by our stage in life. I think back to the time Trudy was pregnant with Jenny, and she was in a woman’s group, and when it came for her time to share, she shared about how much she enjoyed being pregnant, and after the group, one of the women sternly upbraided her. She said to Trudy, “How could you be so insensitive? I am unable to get pregnant. We had to adopt our child. I have no idea what it’s like to be pregnant. You really hurt my feelings.” Trudy felt awful. She had not intention of irritating that woman.
Other times, provoking others, is not only unintentional, it us unavoidable. Sometimes, standing up for what we think is right and true, tick’s someone off. Say someone at the church picnic today, comes up to you and asks, “What’s your position on .... and fill in the blank, whether it’s abortion, or homosexuality, or the War in Iraq or the job the President’s doing, or whether we should rearrange the front of the sanctuary, well how you answer may tweak that person’s nose. We could say, “I rather keep that to myself,” but then they may be bugged that we decide not to answer.
What I’m getting at here is this “not provoking” business is a little more complicated than we may have have first surmised. Sometimes it’s unintentional and sometimes it’s unavoidable, but we do sometimes provoke others, and while we may not be able to do much about the unintentionals or the unavoidables, we can do something about reducing the provocation quotient in our relationships.
First, we can commit to learning other’s “Don’t go there issues,” and avoid them as much as possible. For example, I do not need to engage Mark in a conversation about using more inclusive language, because he thinks the entire subject is stupid and a waste of time. I don’t need to get him going. I know not to engage some of you in a discussion of the virtues of the church hymnbook because it will send your blood pressure up a few notches. By the way, every church I’ve ever been in has had a beef about the hymnbook, no matter the hymnbook someone doesn’t like it. I bet that’s why they have multiple radio stations because people simply have different tastes in music. I know not to mention that something Trudy does reminds me of her mother unless I want to get one of “those looks.” Over time we learn what sets people off. Many a time, not all the time, but many a time it’s best to avoid those subjects, those comments, in order not to provoke them.
I think of a boy named Jeremy. He was tormenting the family dog by tying a bone to a string and whenever the dog got close to the bone he would pull the string. His mother asked him, “Jeremy, why are you tormenting the dog?”
He replied, “Because I can’t find my sister!”
We know a number of things that provoke others, and Paul calls us to be the opposite of Jeremy. He wants us to consider how not to provoke others.
Second, we can reduce our provoking quotient by committing to being peacemakers rather than troublemakers.
Bruce Larson relates a wonderful story about an action-packed, feeling-intensive bus ride. It was close to Christmas. He got on a crowded bus where all the seats were taken, and he had to stand. To occupy his time, he read a book as he rode. Suddenly the bus came to a quick stop, and he accidentally struck the man seated next to him. Talk about unintentionally provoking someone. The man went nuts, despite Bruce’s repeated attempts to apologize. Then, a woman came to Bruce’s defense. She told the man how difficult it was to stand while riding. Her comments only exacerbated the situation, and then she and the man got into it. A young man sitting next to the offended man tried to calm him down. He did not succeed. Then, someone on the bus, amongst all the ill-spirited exchanges sarcastically shouted, “Merry Christmas, everybody!”
The bus came to the next stop and the angry man got off. Bruce Larson took the man’s seat next to the young man who had tried to calm the angry man down. The young man said to Bruce, “I hope you will forgive him for the way he acted. That was the worst possible time to tangle with him. He’s a bricklayer, and today he had an accident that almost cost him his hand. The foreman threatened to fire him. Not only that, but he also is having trouble with his wife.”
Bruce, said, “So you work with him? You know him?” The young man shook his head and said, “I never saw him before. I’m a college student home for the holidays. We just happened to sit next to one another, and he told me his story.”
Three people attempted to be peacemakers: Bruce, the woman who came to his defense, and the college student. None of them was all that successful, but they did their best to smooth ruffled feathers.
Let me remind all of us of Jesus words, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9),” and note what he did not say. He did not say, “Blessed are the peace lovers.” There is a big difference between a peace lover and a peacemaker. Almost everyone is a peace lover. Almost everyone wants to live a peaceful life. Making peace, on the other hand, is a different matter because it may not bring peace to us. When Bruce tried to bring peace, it didn’t work. When young Moses tried to reconcile two angry Hebrews, neither of them thanked him for his effort and told him, in effect, “Butt out” (Exodus 2:13-14). Moses’ attempt to make peace robbed him of his own sense of peace. The two Hebrews said to Moses, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?”
No matter the results, however, when we act as peacemakers, we reflect the work of God’s Spirit in us. We look and act like children of God. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.”
Then, third and finally, we can improve our provocation quotient by responding appropriately when we, ourselves, are provoked by another. One of the dangers when provoked is to escalate the provocation. It’s easy to give into our anger, instead of taking a deep breath and trying to diffuse the situation.
I think of the children who provoked their mother. After putting the children to bed, she changed into sweat pants and a droopy blouse and proceeded to wash her hair. As she heard the children getting more and more rambunctious, and not going to sleep, she threw a towel around her head and stormed into their room, putting them back to bed with stern warnings. As she left the room, she heard her three-year-old say with a trembling voice, “Who was that?”
Anger can do that to us. It can change us into a different, and sometimes unrecognizable person. When provoked we need to guard against feeding our anger. The New Testament has two words for anger. One is thumos, which is the type of anger blazes quickly, like setting fire to dry straw, but then dies down quickly. Some of you probably display this kind of anger when driving. Someone cuts you off, and you respond intensely, but then the anger is gone. It dissipates quickly. The other New Testament word for anger is ogre, which is anger hardened. It is long-lived. It’s the anger we nurture to keep it warm. It’s the anger of a college professor who votes “no” on a colleague’s application for tenure because four years earlier the colleague voted against his curriculum initiative, and Jesus comes down particularly hard this type of anger. He condemns anger that won’t forget, refuses to be pacified, and seeks revenge.
So when provoked, we can lower our provocation quotient, by “grabbing the handle” (grabbing a hold of ourselves) instead of “flying off the handle.” We can work on defusing the provocation rather than escalating it. We can say to ourselves prior to responding, “Calm down, calm down,” or we can take a few deep breaths breathing in God’s Spirit, or we can sing the first verse of “Jesus Loves Me,” before we respond, whatever it takes to “grab the handle.”
Listen to Paul’s words one more time: If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another.Amen.