Like the Air that I Breathe

So much sharpness in the world today:
bare tree branches that pierce the sky
like forked lightning,
zebu horns poking the air
like staples,
headless palms erect as straight pins.
Hawk wings slice the atmosphere,
machetes crack through vines,
bike spokes whirr.
Even the blades of grass
have a cutting edge.

If air were solid it would be in rags—
knifed, torn, poked to bits.
Instead, intangible, it yields, evades,
readjusts, moves into new spaces,
stays whole.
Rigidity has its price.

Words cut, too:  sharp retorts, 
assumptions gouging holes
in my assurance.
Quills of self-defense and anger
hook deep into my heart.
All too solid, I bleed.

I must learn the art of 
reframing the jibe,
evading the rancor,
yielding the unessential point.
See the razor edge for what it is:
just one side,
and useful in its place.
Surround the perpetrator 
with empathy.
Move into spaces of emptiness
left in the wake of the thrust.

Do what is necessary
for life and healing,
like the air that I breathe—
like the One in whom
I live and move and have my being:
love my enemy.

Ever get an email or text message that reveals what someone really thinks about you, and cuts open your inner being so that it bleeds? Ever want to lash out at them in return with equally sharp accusations? Or maybe they are standing right in front of you, someone you love or a coworker with whom you have a long cordial history. The strike may come out of the blue, or it may have been fizzling for a while, heating up, then suddenly explodes.

I wrote the above poem over 20 years ago, and moving forward in learning to love those who oppose me is still my constant prayer. I keep finding new ways that I am being challenged to apply this essential command. Lord, help me!

Anger is our natural response to being threatened, put into our beings for good purpose: protection from danger. There are times when anger is justified, as when you see someone attacking another person, doing something truly wrong and harmful. We are told to defend those who are being oppressed. What matters, the Word teaches, is that we respond in ways that are aligned with his principles when anger rises.  We are told:

to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. 25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. (Eph. 4:1 NIV)

When we are angry at evil, we must not commit sin ourselves and “give the devil a foothold.”

When Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he first underlined essential characteristics of those who are “blessed,” and went on to say that anyone truly belonging to the kingdom of heaven had to be more righteous than the religious leaders of that era. They were careful to obey the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law. Jesus was challenging not just actions but what was taking place in the heart. True law-abiding citizens of his kingdom answer to a higher judge, a council that is not just the Sanhedrin when Jesus was speaking, but the heavenly kingdom’s judge.

21 “You have heard that it was said to an older generation,’Do not murder,’and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council,and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell. (Matt. 5:1 NET)

Jesus quoted the law, the added “but I say” . . . and each time he added the “but” what came next was Messiah filling in the meaning of the law. Anger will indeed be judged. Was my angry reaction caused by a real or imaginary wound to my self-righteousness or to my wishes? Maybe that person did intend to hurt me; malice is almost always contained in angry words or acts.[1] But then how about my response? Did it contain malice too? Did I want to hurt the person who just hurt me? That motivation and its consequence is what will be judged!

Jesus went on to give two examples of how sinful it is to show contempt, which purposefully degrades another person. It could start with an insult, it could move on to a cruel put-down (“You fool!”). Murder, then, is not just about the outright killing of another human being’s body. In God’s eyes, it includes cruelty, or intent to inflict damage, through words.

Is there any hope for us as humans? Our only hope is in Christ, and in the empowerment of the Spirit to help us become more and more like him. Nailed to the cross he asked the Father to forgive the criminal crowd. And how many of us angry humans has he forgiven since then, bringing us into his kingdom when we come to him with sincere hearts that long for transformation?

Outside the heavenly kingdom, his kingdom that is among his people right now, the horrible cycles of anger and contempt continue. Inside the kingdom, we are given instruction on how to live in a totally different way. As Dallas Willard puts it:

“But the answer is to right the wrong in persistent love, not to harbor anger, and thus to right it without adding further or imaginary wrongs. To retain anger and to cultivate it is, by contrast, ‘to give the devil a chance’ (Eph. 4:26-27) . . . The delicious morsel of self-righteousness that anger cultivated always contains comes at a high price in the self-righteous reaction of those we cherish anger toward. And the cycle is endless as long as anger has sway.”[2]

Ah, showing love. We can go round and round debating possible positive motivations, but in the kingdom it comes down to love. “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus will go on to say (Mat. 5:44), because then you will be acting like your Father’s children ought to act—like him! And when we think back to the beatitudes that formed the basis for this talk, the other time we will be “called children of God” is when we are peacemakers. Applications of that are in the rest of this section on living out the spirit of the command not to murder: reconciling with a brother or sister who has something against you, even attempting to reconcile with someone who is taking you to court.

Our Father is God, and God is love. He breathes life into our bodies, and his unending life and love into our souls. The more we get to know him, the more we can learn to be like him. He is not rigid, but responsive. His ultimate purpose is to bring unending life to human beings, and he showed the astonishing depth of his love for broken people by coming to earth to rescue us by giving himself up as the once-for-all sacrifice (John 3:16; Hebrews 10:10). We are to be like him, loving our enemies, and loving each other. We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:18). We are also to love each other in the Family of God as he has loved us (John 15:12). In fact, all of the commands that God gave are summed up in this one command to live a life of love for those around us (Rom. 13.9; Gal. 5:14).

It is no small calling! It is the ultimate calling: live for the One who is love, and, therefore, love others.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (New York: Harper Collins Publishers),148-149.

[2] Ibid. 151.

Published by Linnea Boese

After spending most of my life in Africa, as the child of missionaries then in missions with my husband, I am now retired and free to use my time to write! I am working on publishing poetry and on writing an autobiography. There have been many adventures, challenges and wonderful blessings along the way -- lots to share!

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