Contrast helps us to see better, more clearly. Contrast also helps our minds to differentiate that which is true from that which is false. Writers often use contrast to illustrate a principle or a point and to convince readers of their position. The Apostle Paul often uses contrast to make the truth he is communicating easier and more accessible to his readers. His letters are chock full of contrasts meant to teach, encourage, exhort, and admonish his them.
I would like to take a brief look at such a passage. I believe that Paul’s use of contrast can inform our thinking and open our hearts and minds to God’s sanctifying work.
Please consider with me Ephesians 4:31: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice all deal with our relationships with others, and Paul’s words remind us that becoming like Christ inside will affect our behavior on the outside. In the next verse we read, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Paul has set before us two paths, one toward love, peace, and Godliness, and the other toward tension, strife, and godlessness.
Paul is writing to believers, about their corporate life as the body of Christ. At first glance, his admonitions seem unnecessary—why would believers foster hurt and resentment instead of opting for forgiveness and a more gentle approach to their spiritual brothers and sisters? But I have been living and ministering in the church for enough decades to know that Paul’s words are painfully relevant. As self-focused sinners, it is all too easy to nurse the offenses we have encountered and seek to protect ourselves from those who have hurt us.
One of the things that this contrast emphasizes is that these two sets of relational attitudes are mutually exclusive. We cannot be angry, bitter, and malicious while at the same time practicing forgiveness and exercising kindness. And herein lies an important clue to taking Paul’s words to heart. Because we are sinners living and working with other sinners, we cannot avoid pain and hurt, anger and resentment. But if we exercise forgiveness and maintain a focus on God’s grace and mercy towards us, we will be able to love even in our pain and anger. We cannot deeply change our feelings merely by an act of will, but we can direct our will toward the redemptive work of forgiveness. And forgiveness will then enable us to offer others—even and especially those who have hurt us—tender hearts.
There is another blessing to be found in the point and counterpoint of this passage. While the approaches described in these two verses are mutually exclusive, Paul’s words can represent an encouraging picture of cause and effect: as we put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice, we are more able to exercise forgiveness, approach others with a tender heart, and treat others with genuine kindness. And then as we forgive, cultivate a tender heart, and deal kindly with others, we find it easier to resolve our negative emotions and put aside hostility.
I am very well aware that I desperately need to be forgiven and treated with gentleness and kindness. And, I very much want to offer that to others. May we take Paul’s words to heart and be richly blessed.