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Staying out of spiritual ditches

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: 2 Timothy 2:14-26

According to ESPN Magazine, Americans will bet $7 billion on today’s Super Bowl. We will go through 16 million pizza boxes, enough to construct 388,889 life-size cardboard statues of Rush Limbaugh; fans at the game will eat 5,000 pounds of hot dogs; 31 million pounds of chips will be eaten at Super Bowl parties; 43.5 million pounds of guacamole will be consumed; and 39% of American males say they will curse during the game. 61% are probably lying about cursing during the game.

In other words, the Super Bowl is also the Sin Bowl. What we do in church this morning may have little to do with what we do watching the game tonight.

Why should it? Our culture has long divided the spiritual from the secular.

Centuries before Christ, the Greeks decided that the soul existed apart from the body, that our souls were put into our bodies to punish and purify them. So, you can do anything you like with your body, so long as you are spiritual.

Do what you want on Saturday, so long as you go to church on Sunday. So long as you believe in God, pray occasionally, read the Bible some. Researchers cannot find any statistical difference in moral behavior in America between those who say they go to church and those who say they do not. And that’s a tragedy, probably our greatest single hindrance to winning our nation to Christ.

Across our series in 2 Timothy, we’re seeking to live on purpose. Well, here’s God’s purpose in a single verse (v. 15). How do we do this?

My family and I were once in Colorado on summer vacation. We drove through a pass high in the mountains and observed 20-foot-tall wooden poles along the side of the road. We could think of no reason for their existence, so we asked. A native told us that in the winter, the snow piles nearly 20 feet high. The poles tell the snow plow drivers where the road is, so they don’t drive off the side of the mountain.

We’re living in a moral snowstorm. Here are the poles to keep us safe.

Avoid godless language (vs. 14-19)

Paul begins in an odd place. But as we study, we’ll soon learn why he starts here. “Warn them before God against quarreling about words,” he commands (v. 14).

“Warn them” in Paul’s language implies that this is a sin they are already committing and must stop immediately. It is an order from God.

“Quarreling about words” means literally “waging a word war.” He’s talking about gossip—saying about people what you will not say to them. And he’s describing slander—making false or unsubstantiated allegations which attack their character. If you know someone who is repeating gossip or slander, you know someone Paul here warns to stop.

Later the apostle diagnoses the problem as “godless chatter” (v. 16), “profane empty or vain talking.” Profane language and cursing; ungodly jokes or stories; language which neither glorifies God nor helps his people.

Why is godless language so evil?

“It is of no value” (v. 14), a waste of time and life.

It “only ruins those who listen”—the Greek pictures a person demolishing a house. Godless language ruins those who speak it, and those who hear it. It is “second-hand smoke” in the soul, and hurts every heart it touches.

“Those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly” (v. 16). Solomon warns us: “Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips” (Ecclesiastes 10:12). Our words reveal our hearts.

And so “Their teaching will spread like gangrene” (v. 17). Mouth cancer only spreads.

As examples, Paul cites two men otherwise unknown to us except from his pen. But they were known to Timothy and his church so well that no further identification was needed. They “wandered away from the truth” into heresy (v. 18). The apostle warns that if it could happen to them, it will happen to us.

What are we to do?

“Avoid godless chatter” (v. 16)—”avoid” means to shun those who are speaking godless language, to refuse to participate. If you hear someone speaking ill of another person, refuse to listen. Refuse to participate. Remember that it “ruins those who listen,” that it will affect your soul. Stop the cycle of gossip immediately.

“Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (v. 19)—if you are the one speaking godless language, “turn away from wickedness.” Stop now, before the cancer spreads.

Let’s let God’s word reinforce the point:

“Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Leviticus 19:16).

“Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure” (Psalm 101:5).

“He who conceals his hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool” (Proverbs 10:18).

“Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (Proverbs 26:20-21).

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31).

“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men (Titus 3:1-2).

“Brothers, do not slander one another” (James 4:11).

“Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1).

Any questions? Avoid godless language, and you’ll avoid the ditch of the soul.

Avoid godless desires (vs. 20-22)

Now Paul moves from our language to the hearts our words reveal. He loves using metaphors taken from the culture of his day. Writing to the pastor of the wealthiest church in Christendom, he speaks of a “large house” (v. 20), a home which belongs to someone who is wealthy and powerful. Its furnishings illustrate the furnishings of our spiritual lives.

A wealthy home will have articles of gold and silver—candlesticks, silverware, fine china, expensive furnishings and rugs. It will also have articles of wood and clay—in the first century, these would be serving utensils and vessels used by the slaves, and the facilities for personal functions. Some are “noble,” some “ignoble.” One article cannot be both. To be fit for the Master of the house, the article must be clean, holy, useful, prepared for the good works for which he intends the possession.

How do we make sure we are clean, holy, useful, prepared for the good works for which God intends us? Flee the evil desires of youth, “lusts peculiar to youth” (v. 22a). Paul probably has in mind sexual temptations, insecurity, immaturity, and so on. To know if there are “evil desire” you must flee, ask your Father.

In their place, “pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (v. 22b). Measure your every action by these questions: is it right? Does it honor God? Will it promote love and peace? Will those who have pure hearts affirm it? Avoid godless desires, and you’ll avoid the ditch of the soul.

Avoid godless arguments (vs. 23-26)

Now Paul moves to the enemy’s last strategy. If he cannot get us to use godless language or pursue godless desires, he’ll entangle us with those who will. He’ll catch us with “foolish” (lacking character) and “stupid” (lacking education or knowledge) arguments.

How do you know that an argument is foolish and stupid? If it “produces quarrels” (v. 23). If it divides the family of faith. Satan always attacks the church first at the point of unity, from Ananias and Sapphira to the present. Jesus prayed that we might be one, so the world would believe that the Father sent his Son (John 17:21). He taught us, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:35). Arguments which divide the people of God are condemned by the word of God.

How do we respond to them?

“Gently instruct”: “gently” means to refuse to seek revenge, but to keep your emotions and pride in check; “instruct” means to speak the truth.

Be gracious: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). Take the high road.

Go to them: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15).

Refuse to be drawn into conflict with them: “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because they are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3.9-11).

Ultimately, seek their restoration. Pray that God will lead them to repentance, so that they come to their senses and escape the trap of the devil (vs. 25-26).

“Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name” (Malachi 3:16).

Conclusion

It comes to this: be Christlike. Ask of every word you are about to speak or hear: would Jesus say this? Ask of every attitude and desire: would Jesus pursue this? Ask of every argument you are tempted to begin or enter: would Jesus do this?

God’s purpose for every one of us is that we be “conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29). Do you find in your language or heart places where you’re not like your Lord? Where people do not see or hear Jesus in you? Where you’re outside the word and will of God? Those are the places where you’re in the spiritual ditch today.

So ask for help. Don’t try to climb out yourself, because you can’t. Here’s where Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code is at its most damaging: it is happy to make Jesus a model and example, but it refuses him the divinity and present power which can help us follow him successfully. He’s not just a standard—he’s a Savior. Your living Savior, today.

So ask him to forgive you. If you have wronged a person and confessing would help them, go to them. Ask the Spirit for the strength to get out of the muck and mud you’re in. If you’re not in the ditch, renew your commitment to the standards we’ve discovered today, lest you drive off the mountain. That’s a slippery slope you don’t want to find.

In 1865, the Secret Service was established; its founding purpose was not to protect the president but to fight currency counterfeiting. Lately it’s been busy in this regard. The new $20 bill was released this past fall, with new color schemes and background art. New $50 and $100 bills will be released next, as the Treasury continues to respond to counterfeiting techniques. But the criminals always have an answer. They “leech” the bills, bleaching out the ink and replacing it with higher currency features. Or they digitally reproduce them.

And so banks still teach their tellers to fight counterfeit bills the way they always have. They give them so much time with the real currency that they can spot a fake the moment they see or touch it.

Let us pray.