“The strongest person in the room doesn't win the fight," she said, "it’s whoever's the meanest…”
I was fifteen years old when my aunt taught me that. Her words of wisdom became something of a mantra for me. “Don’t start a fight unless you're meaner than the other guy.” As a consequence of embracing this mantra, I got into a lot of fights. That's the way it goes. The old Adam lives to fight.
Then old Adam was brought into the Church, called to walk in the way of God's grace and peace.
God's Word calls old Adam away from the fight. God calls old Adam to pray against himself for peace, lower his fists, and receive the blows. "Turn the other cheek," old Adam. "Love your neighbor as yourself, and in this way you'll pour hot coals on an enemy's head." "Walk in love," you stubborn sinner, "and love by serving." "Over come your enemy with my love in Christ Jesus," God says, "then you'll live long in the land the Lord your God's given you."
They're easy enough phrases to hear and write, but the words don’t dull the rage inside old Adam. Rage we all experience every day. We hate to be bullied. We can’t be powerless. We can’t not get up again. We'd rather die than give someone else control. That's how old Adam, the original sinner, rationalizes his meanness.
But what do we do with that rage when our husband or wife, or children, or congregation threatens us, judges us, tries to bully us? What will we do? Do we grab the threat by the hair, drag him outside to the parking lot, and beat him until he stops? Is that what we'll do?
That’s what old Adam knows must be done. Not for his benefit, but for the weaker brother. He's got to fight for justice, to protect others from themselves. Old Adam isn't mean for his sake. He's got to put them down. They're a threat to everyone.
That familiar feeling comes naturally to old Adam. Tunnel vision. Time slows. Clarity. Do it! Then old Adam smiles, turned his back to the weaker brother, and walks home. And there, alone, crouched on the edge of the bed, the Spirit of God convicts him of his sin, and makes him weep repentant tears. Old Adam grinds his teeth. He cuts gashes into his palms with jagged, blood-stained finger nails. And old Adam is made to pray over and over again: “Why do I keep doing this?”
"Because," says the Word, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made complete in weakness.”
Old Adam and the new man in Christ war against each other, but the Spirit has old Adam in a headlock and won't let go. The meanest man on the block isn't old Adam, he discovers, it's God.
We can lie to each other though. We can say that since we've been brought into the Church life's been easy. That conversion was a life-changing moment. That we're Christians, people of peace now. All that rage, and meanness, and fighting is behind us. There's nothing left of old Adam but scarred knuckles.
But, Salvation doesn’t come in a dream and there’s just as many people in the churches as outside who think we’re here to be used as spare parts. We're Christians, yes, but we're weak-willed Christians. The new man in Christ is nothing more than a dumb sheep who waits to be slaughtered.
We hear the insults, or curses, or accusations, but we don't fight them anymore. We walk away. We go to the Lord's Table. We pray with our pastor and our brothers and sisters in Christ. We wait to be slaughtered with spouses, and children, and the rest of the flock. Why? Because there's a power greater than ourselves at work in us. The Strength of God made complete in the suffering and bloody death of Jesus. The Strength of God, the straight-up foolishness of God, that's made complete in our weakness, in old Adam's death, in our death.
What more can we expect? As St. Paul wrote, “I die daily.” That's God’s baptismal promise to each of us. "To live is Christ, and to die is gain."
Or, as Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
But, we don’t want to die for anyone, except maybe our children. Even then, we want to fight for them. We're good at it. We're all well practiced in the art of meanness. The old Adam dies hard, after all.
That's why day after day, week after week, the Lord leads us by His Word and Spirit back to the font, and to the table, and to the pulpit. Wash, rinse, repeat.
There's usually not a one time, life-changing moment, when all the mean dries up inside old Adam. Instead, every day we're changed by God's love in Jesus Christ.
The faithful, loving, kindness of our heavenly Father changes us. He's patient. He's slow to anger. He abounds in steadfast love. Our God, who says, “If you want to grab anyone by the hair, grab mine. If you want to beat someone, beat me. I won’t fight back. I’ll bleed for you. And when you’re finished, I’ll get back up. I can’t leave you, because I can’t abandon myself. I named you as my own at Baptism. You're mine now, and I AM yours.
That’s God's grace. That’s what Jesus means when he says there's only One who's good, and that's God. That’s God's gift-giving Way. That's Jesus laying down His life for us. And despite old Adam, Jesus leads us by His Spirit to lay down our lives for His own, as when we pray: “Thy will be done… for thine is the power… Amen.”
We don't have to be the meanest person in the room anymore. We're not. That title rests on the One who shouldered all the sins of the world, God's furious anger, and hell, and he didn't do it for himself. He did it for us. The One who comes to kill old Adam and raise up a new man in Christ in his place. A new man in Christ who embraces the Truth: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made complete in weakness.” AMEN.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.