Why is it that we allow little things to destroy our most beautiful relationships?
The Song of Solomon describes King Solomon’s love for the Shulamite girl. Solomon, as a young man, comes in disguise to the Shulamite’s family vineyard, wins her heart, and ultimately makes her his bride. In chapter 2, the Shulamite girl described a recent happy visit paid by Solomon one day in the spring of the year.
But even this most exquisite marriage relationship had its share of bumps and bruises. Each partner was still a human being with a sin-prone heart. Each one did things to hurt their mate, and each one felt hurt in some way. Chapters 3 and 5 include examples of this. It was the little issues or “foxes” that were spoiling their otherwise happy relationship. Small issues became a big hindrance in this couple’s pursuit of total oneness. Solomon said it this way: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes” (Song of Solomon 2:15).
You don’t have to know much about foxes or vineyards in order to understand this verse. Foxes are mostly meat eaters. They eat mice and rabbits and birds. But they also eat fruits.
There are a lot of grape vineyards in the land of Israel. In the early spring, the foxes bite off the new shoots, and they also chew away at the roots of the vines. If they don’t kill the vines, sometimes they eat the fruit as it develops. That’s why foxes are considered pesky animals, and the grape-growers constantly had to catch them and kill them off. There was an unending warfare carried on against the foxes in Bible times.
When you think about it, a little fox doesn’t really seem all that dangerous. Foxes are small animals (only about 20 inches long). The average mid-East fox weighs only about eight or nine pounds. Even though foxes are quick and skillful, foxes are not strong like a coyote, nor are they dangerous like a bear. You can’t compare a fox to a huge animal like a bull elephant in Africa that can trample down whole fields in just a few hours. Foxes are relatively small animals, and yet the little fox is capable of doing terrible damage. They burrow and chew in a vineyard until the vines wither and become unproductive.
The point of the verse in Song of Solomon 2:15 is that just as Solomon and the Shulamite girl were beginning to enjoy each other’s company, she received word that foxes had gotten into the family vineyard, and she had to leave and tend to the problem.
The little foxes are an example of the kinds of problems which can disturb or destroy a good relationship. These simple words from the Song of Solomon get right to the heart of the whole matter of spiritual growth, especially to the matter of interpersonal relationships.
What chews away at our lives? What hinders our marriages? What tarnishes our testimony as a congregation? Most often it is not some gross evil, or deep dark depravity; more likely it’s a few little foxes that are running loose and doing their destructive damage! In this lesson, we will look at a few of “the little foxes.” This list of foxes is taken from the book Radical Commitment by Vernon Grounds, published by Multnomah Press in 1984.
The Bible declares that the human will is deeply perverted. It is determined to serve itself, to please itself, and to exalt itself. One of the marks of society in the days just before Jesus comes is that “men shall be lovers of their own selves” (2 Timothy 3:2).
Self-centeredness is only a little fox, but it can cause a tremendous amount of damage to a life, to a marriage, to a family, and even to a church. But what’s so bad about it? What can be so damaging about a “me first” attitude? After all, we tend to think that it’s not a vile sin like child abuse, or adultery, or taking a human life.
The “me first” attitude is just a simple, common weakness—call it pride, or ambition, or egotism—it’s only a little fox; it’s not a rampaging bull elephant! Yet terrible damage can be done by a self-centered spirit.
The self-centered person is like a character in a story written long ago: “Edith was a little world—bounded on the north, south, east, and west—by Edith.” Change the name to Sam or George or Jim or Janice or Ralph or Harold—it makes no difference. The all-controlling attitude is “me first,” but not only first, also “me last,” and “me always.” I count; nobody else does. What I do is right; what others do is questionable!
The Gospel Herald many years ago printed a statement, “How to be Perfectly Miserable.” Among the list of twenty statements were the following:
The little fox of self-centeredness chews away at our spiritual vitals, so that we soon become a difficult person to get along with. We need to repent of the sin of self-centeredness, and deny self (Matthew 16:24-26). We need to follow Jesus in all aspects of life. We should purpose to go out of our way to be friendly to others (no matter who they are)—open doors, pass a plate, go the second mile—even for those who don’t agree with you. Let’s make it a point to stop lamenting about how others are treating us!
The self-centered spirit chews away, like a little fox, at the roots of our relationships with other people. It can make a marriage miserable. It can create civil war within families. It can breed disharmony in the church. It can bring misery into the individual life. One thing is certain: the more death to self-centeredness that we experience, the more fully the Lord Jesus is able to live His life in us!
This little fox is also able to do untold damage. Again, it may not impress us as being anything too serious. What’s so desperately bad about a little bit of bitterness, a tinge of a negative and a critical spirit?
Bitterness is not a harmless little fault. The writer of Hebrews in essence says, Be careful that no root of bitterness should begin to grow and make trouble for you. We are to “Look diligently, lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).
Bitterness! Smoldering resentment! An angry, negative, hostile spirit! That kind of attitude eats away like an acid at the heart of good relationships between people. It brings with it jealousy, bickering, and controversy. Bitterness is a sin of tremendous proportions!
Vernon Grounds, in the book cited above (Radical Commitment), tells about an experience that John Claypool and his sons had many years ago. Claypool was a businessman, the father of identical twin boys who from very early in life seemed inseparable. They dressed alike, looked alike, and did almost everything together.
After they were through school, they took over their dad’s business, and they worked together so harmoniously that people in the community pointed to their relationship as a model of how people should cooperate with each other.
On one particular morning, a customer came into their store and made a small purchase. The brother who served him took the dollar bill, put it on top of the cash register, and walked along with the customer to the front door and chatted with him for a while.
After a few minutes, he went back to put the money into the drawer. But the dollar bill was gone! So he asked his brother, “Did you put a dollar bill into the cash register drawer?” His twin brother said, “I didn’t see any dollar bill.”
The first brother was surprised. “That’s funny,” he said, “I distinctly remember that I put it on top of the cash register.” A little later, he asked again, “Didn’t you take that dollar bill and put it in the cash register?” This time the brother answered with some feeling, “No, I told you before that I didn’t see it.”
Tension developed between those two brothers over that one single issue. Every time they discussed the matter, there were additional charges. The bitterness between them grew stronger and stronger, until eventually they broke their partnership. They split the store right down the middle, with each brother owning his half. The community was drawn into the quarrel. For twenty years the two men, the business, and dozens of other people were troubled by feelings of anger.
Then one day a stranger drove into town. He came to the store which had been divided down the middle, walked into one side, and said to the white-haired owner of the store, “How long have you been in business here?” When the owner told him that it had been for many years, the stranger said, “Then I’ve got something I must get squared up with you.”
“Twenty years ago,” he said, “I was unemployed and homeless, wandering around the country. One morning I jumped off the freight train I was riding, here in your town. I walked down a back alley hoping to find something to eat. Through the open door of this store, I saw a cash register with a dollar bill on top. Nobody was there. Only two men were up front. So I sneaked in and stole the dollar bill.”
He went on to explain that he had since become a Christian, and now his conscience was bothered by guilt. He had come to make restitution. He decided to return to this area where he had committed a number of wrongs, confess his theft, and pay whatever the store owners thought was due them!
The white-haired owner listened with tears running down his cheeks. When he gained his composure, he said, “Come with me, I want you to tell the same story to my brother.” He walked into the other half of the store, and before long those twin brothers were weeping in each other’s arms! There had been twenty years of hostility, twenty years of resentment, and twenty years of harsh bitterness—all of it over a simple misunderstanding!
Our churches have people like that—people who harbor resentment, perhaps not as dramatic as this particular case was, but the resentment is still there. It involves one person against another, one family against another, and feelings of bitterness because of resentment about old wounds. The disagreements are sometimes misunderstandings over inheritance money, differences over theological convictions, or jealousy over things that fifty years from now will be meaningless. May God deliver us from being bitter and resentful! May He help us to refuse to let the little fox of bitterness invade our lives!
Forgiveness is the act of granting pardon to another person in spite of his insulting remarks, his short-comings, and his errors. Forgiveness, in the Bible, refers both to God’s pardon of our sins, and also to our willingness to give release to others who wrong us.
We are to forgive others, even as God has forgiven us: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). In Luke 6:37, Jesus says, “Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.”
God has forgiven us of much more than we can fathom, and therefore we should never withhold forgiveness from those who wrong us. Yet it isn’t always easy to forgive.
Lewis Smedes tells of a husband who deserted his wife, and ran off with another woman who was very attractive. He married the woman and seemed happy with her. They were received into church membership by an accepting congregation, and one day he called Jane (his former wife), and asked her to be glad with him! He said, “I want you to rejoice in my new happiness; I want you to bless me and my new wife.” And she said, “I want you to burn in hell!”
I’m not repeating that conversation to justify what Jane said; she was wrong, of course. But it’s not easy for a wife to forgive a married partner who ran off with another woman, especially when he expects his former wife to approve that action. It’s not easy for parents to forgive the drunken driver who failed to stop for a school bus and killed their seven-year-old son. It’s not easy to forgive the man who rapes your sister, or the pusher who sells drugs to your daughter, or the church member who talks about you behind your back—but we must do it!!
Every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). If we want God to forgive our sins, we must be willing to forgive those who sin against us. To be forgiven by God (and each of us desperately needs God’s forgiveness), we must forgive—and even show kindness—to that person who has wronged us. The Lord will give special grace to go the second mile even toward those who insult us and mistreat us.
To forgive someone does not mean we excuse the sin. True love does not try to make sin anything less that what it is. Forgiveness does end the bitterness, anger, and resentment which frequently build up following an offense. To forgive does not ignore the wrong. Forgiveness does mean we value the relationship more than the hurt that was caused. To forgive does not mean we forget. Forgiveness does mean we choose not to dwell on an offense. Sometimes there are lingering reminders we can’t control, or perhaps scars that will not soon be forgotten. Forgiveness means we release the desire for revenge to the Lord. (For a fuller discussion on the topic of forgiveness, see Booklet #375, The Importance of Forgiving Others.)
Thoughtlessness is a lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others. In Genesis 40, we read about the butler and the baker, both of whom were in the same prison where Joseph had been placed, and both of them had a dream. They were disturbed about their dreams, but Joseph was able to interpret what they had seen—and told them what would happen to them in the future.
Joseph said that within three days, the king will call for both of you; the baker will die, but the butler will be spared. Then Joseph pleaded with the butler, by saying something like this: When you are released, please remind Pharaoh that I am here in jail; I did nothing to deserve this sentence. Please remember me!
Just as Joseph had prophesied, the men were released from prison; the baker was put to death, and the butler was restored to his former position. But Genesis 40:23 says that the butler promptly forgot all about Joseph, never giving him a thought. The butler was thoughtless.
Thomas Carlyle was a famous Scottish writer. He married a young lady whom he dearly loved (her name was Jane Baille Welsh). But Carlyle was thoughtless, absorbed in his own activities and pursuits. He often thoughtlessly treated his wife as if she were hardly more than a servant to minister to his wants. Later in life she was stricken with cancer, and confined to bed for a period of time before she died.
After the funeral, Carlyle went back to the empty house. He was discouraged and grieving, and was thinking about the woman he had loved and married many years before. One day soon after her burial, he went upstairs to her room, and sat down in the chair alongside the bed upon which she had been lying for several months. He realized that he had not sat there often enough during her time of illness. While he was musing, he happened to notice her diary. So he picked it up and thumbed through its pages. One entry caught his eye. This is what it said: “Yesterday he spent an hour with me, and it was like being in heaven. I love him so much.”
Carlyle turned a few more pages and began to read again. This time it read, “I listened all day to hear his steps in the hall, but now it’s late. I guess he won’t stop by any more today.” Carlyle read a few more entries, then placed the diary by the side of the bed, and rushed out to the cemetery where his wife was buried. He got down on his knees and cried out, “Oh God, if I had only been more thoughtful.” Carlyle later wrote in his diary, “Oh that I had you yet for just five minutes by my side, that I might tell you how much I love you.”
Thoughtlessness! It can lead to terrible regret!
My friends, if there is something you want to tell someone you love, don’t thoughtlessly wait until death sweeps them away!
I hope the message today will challenge all of us to fight more vigorously against the little foxes that spoil a noble life: the little foxes that include self-centeredness, bitterness, unforgiveness, and thoughtlessness. It could be that the first step we need to take in this war is to apologize to a wife, telephone an offended brother in Christ, or visit a neglected older person. If we give diligence to drive out the little foxes, our lives will become more fruitful gardens for the glory of God.
BIBLE HELPS | Robert Lehigh, Editor | PO Box 391, Hanover, PA 17331 United States of America