This being the month we’re prone to make resolutions, I’m resolving this year to continue a slow, personal moral evolution from belligerent to peacemaker.
Some of my earliest memories involve fighting. Even before I started first grade, I tended to respond to differences of opinion with my playmates by throwing fists.
Later, playing organized football, I made up for my lack of size (and speed, and general athletic ability) by being more aggressive than bigger opponents. I very much enjoyed hitting and getting hit. One coach nicknamed me “the kamikaze.” Another said, “That Prather, he’s not very big, but he’s a tough little (so-and-so).”
Even as a student at the University of Kentucky, when I was old enough to know better, I once managed to get myself in a fracas that pitted me against a bouncer from one of Lexington’s more notorious bars, a burly UK linebacker who later played in the NFL, and a third guy.
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Yes, religion fans, I let on to fight all three of them. At the same time. (Yes, alcohol was involved … obviously.) The best I can say about the outcome is that I survived.
I still don’t know why I was wired that way. Probably bad genetics.
I hail on both sides of my lineage from pugnacious ancestors who, as an older double-cousin put it, “never would kiss anybody’s butt.”
But then I became a Christian.
I ran smack dab into not a burly linebacker but Jesus. I’ve always found it a lot harder to obey him than to fling myself headlong at a troublemaker.
Because Jesus is the guy who said, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek.”
And, “If anybody takes your coat from you, give him your shirt as well.”
And, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who mistreat you.”
And, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
I’ve been on a Christian journey almost 40 years now, and I still wrestle with this merciful, peaceable turn-the-other-cheek stuff. It’s probably been my hardest spiritual struggle.
Not that I want to physically fight anymore. Heck, I’m 60 years old. I’m fat and diabetic and have two bum shoulders, a bad back and a trick knee. I can barely roughhouse with my 6-year-old grandson without urging him to take it easy on me.
But I don’t like having to remain calm and gracious when somebody is badmouthing me.
I don’t like waving and smiling when some yahoo cuts me off in traffic, then flips me off as if it was my fault. I want to honk my horn and flip him off right back.
In my bones, fighting remains my default mode.
Across the decades, though, I’ve made progress. Mostly, I’ve learned to override that default mode. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m way, way better than I once was.
And through all this effort over oh so many years, I’ve experienced the wisdom of Jesus’ words. As usual, he was right.
There’s so much aggression, selfishness and anger in this world. Aggression and selfishness kill friendships and wreck families. Rage over politics has split our whole society.
Much of this bad energy is rooted in our own egos. In our outsized pride.
We say, “I’m not going to let some bozo talk to me like that!”
Or, “How dare the bosses give her a raise and not me!”
Or, “Did you see that look he gave me? Who does he think he is?”
Or, “How could those evil morons not support my candidate?”
Such responses are all about us. The paradox is, they wreak havoc on us, too, not just on the objects of our irritation.
When we’re wrought up with rage or even with runaway ambition, always pushing to be first, we make ourselves more miserable than we make our adversaries.
We can’t really enjoy life when we’re always braced for battle.
So Jesus offers us an alternative. He calls us to deny ourselves.
He says, in effect, “Why not let the other person win? Why not hang back toward the back of the line and let that rude guy go first? Really, what would you lose?”
Or, “If you know your boss is trying to bait you, why bite the hook? Let that snarky remark go. Nod placidly and walk away.”
I’ve learned that to the extent I’ve tried to obey his instructions, my life — not to mention the lives of those around me — tends to be so much happier.
There’s freedom in surrendering our egos. There’s true tranquility.
As I head into 2017, then, my New Year’s resolution is this. With God’s daily help, I will try to overrule my default mode, and walk in the divine mode.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.