We have observed in recent readings how Paul has stressed the importance of Christians not having certain traits that mark the ‘old man’, or fallen society. These traits concern the way we interact with one another and we noticed the emphasis that Paul puts on speech as the evidence of what is in a person’s heart. He continues this emphasis in verse 31 where he lists several wrong attitudes.
Labelling an item is very important. The advertisement industry realises it. For example, the sellers of hamburgers and French fries don’t tell you that they can increase your body weight if you eat too many. Fortunately, most people realise that is the case and they can treat the advert with a laugh. But sometimes, advertising can be fraudulent and people end up in trouble because the truth was not told.
Labelling is not limited to products, for it is also found in attitudes. For example, we are told to stand up for yourself, insist on your rights, express yourself, let it all out. Of course, these may be neutral terms, but often they are used to cover wrong responses. Each of the attitudes and actions that Paul lists in verse 31 can be given a different label when we want to defend our use of them.
If we change the imagery from labelling to that of a garden, we may see a better picture. In a garden, there can be weeds and flowers. In the garden of our soul, there are also weeds and flowers. The weeds are described in verse 31 and the flowers in verse 32. Some weeds look very nice, depending on what we call them. Each of these products has a gardener, whom we employ as we see fit at a particular time. Sometimes, we let in the devil as the gardener, usually because he comes in the guise of giving us a good garden, and we don’t realise who he is. But when he enters, he does his best to make the weeds grow and prevent the flowers developing. At other times, we call on the Spirit, and he helps the flowers grow and reduces the potency of the weeds.
Paul himself is using the imagery of old and new clothes. There are certain types of dress that we are not wear, but are to put away, not to a second-hand shop, but to the rubbish dump. No matter what label is on them, we have to get rid of ‘all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and slander’. Perhaps our wardrobes need a clearout.
The basic root of these weeds is sin, but the usual cause of them in a Christian is self-righteousness which manifests itself in pride, resentment and envy. We should search our hearts to see if any of these things are there. Bitterness involves resentment and animosity; wrath is sudden anger whereas anger describes a steady hostility; clamour describes quarrelling that is marked by shouting; evil speaking refers to slander or spiteful gossip. The attitude that covers them all is malice. This is the name of the garden or the designer label. And it is why we need forgiveness.