When I was in third grade, I went to my first overnight camp, and one of the things I remember from that week is hearing a story called The Tale of the Two Wolves. In it, an old Cherokee man is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continues, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thinks about it for a minute and then asks his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather simply replies, “The one that you feed.”
I got to thinking about this recently. Many of us have heard the adage, “You are what we eat.” But I would say the same goes for the news we watch, the soundbites we listen to, and the message we believe about the world. They can impact how we interpret things and even how we feel. That’s why it is important to be mindful about what is going in, because as is often the case, what goes in, is what comes out.
Related to this, there’s a part in the gospel of Mark where Jesus is talking to his disciples about what is clean and unclean. He tells them it’s not the food they eat that defiles a person but rather what is in the heart. We often take these words to mean that food doesn’t matter and the heart does, and as a result, this passage doesn’t disturb us that much. But the thing is, this passage should disturb us.
Because Jesus isn’t saying that if we just get in touch with our hearts, we will find true happiness, meaning, and fulfillment. After all, what if the feelings that we find when we examine our hearts and that define who we are currently are ones that turn out to be murderous, adulterous, envious, and other things of that nature? Jesus isn’t saying that since these feelings are in our hearts, they are validated. In contrast, he’s saying that we have a problem, and that problem runs right through us. Not only that, it’s not a problem we ourselves can fix.
However, the good news of the gospel is that this is exactly what Jesus makes possible for us, and all we have to do to receive it, is open our hearts to him. It’s not the opening of our hearts to Jesus that makes God love us or forgive us, but it is through the opening of our hearts that we are transformed by these gifts.
This good news isn’t the same as someone saying God loves you just the way you are. But it does mean that in Christ, we get to start fresh each day. That God doesn’t hold our mistakes against us. And that God doesn’t expect us to be able to save ourselves in the first place.
This is the promise that is bestowed on us in baptism, and that Luther encourages us to claim afresh each day. It’s the promise that the grace and love of God go with you wherever you go, no matter what you do and no matter what anyone says about you.
It’s the promise that always, we begin anew, and that even when we mess up, our mistakes don’t have the final word. And it’s the promise that though we are indeed sinners, we are also saints, and the Spirit of God lives inside us.
The fact that this is the case still means it is up to us to decide how we will live, or, to go back to the imagery of the story of the old Cherokee man and his grandson, which wolf we will feed. Each day, we get to decide if we will put more effort towards gratitude or jealousy; kindness or judgment; generosity or greed.
Whatever kind of thoughts and actions we decide to feed will indeed bear more fruit of the same. But there’s no doubt that our lives will be more full, more meaningful, and more gratifying when we choose to “eat” of the fruits of God’s Spirit over others.