I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
- THE LORD JESUS CHRIST
Is there a harder commandment in the Bible than this one? There is no escaping its force. Followers of Jesus are to love the people who not only oppose us intellectually but also people who willfully work and take pleasure in doing much harm to our bodies emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Apostle Paul, a man who spent the early part of his life murdering followers of Jesus, later found forgiveness in Jesus. Jesus transformed him and in his letter to the church in Rome echoes the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them". Apostle Peter has the same words with a new twist, "Do not repay evil for evil...but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called". Peter says this posture of love for enemies is the very essence of being a follower of Jesus.
May be it’s a colleague at work who repeatedly smears your name. They have made your life very difficult and in your heart of hearts you wish they didn't exist. May be it's a spouse that no longer fulfills his or her marital responsibilities. Perhaps it's those murderous terrorists and barbaric governments that bring terror to our spine and much affliction to followers of Jesus under brutal persecution. God's command in all of these circumstances is the same. We are to love and bless our enemies.
The weight of the biblical injunction has led some followers of Jesus to dilute it. They think the love of Jesus is merely a command we follow by doing positive stuff to people. May be even a decision we make. The claim is that we don't have to “like” people to “love” them. We just make a "decision" to love them and then do stuff that treats them consistent with our decision to love. As Dallas Willard has helpfully observed that is not love as God knows it:
God does not “love” us without liking us—through gritted teeth as “Christian” love is sometimes thought to do. Rather, out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core—which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word love. (Source : The Divine Conspiracy)
John Frame in his recent systematic work also helpfully comments in passing :
God’s love includes both affection and action, both feelings and deeds. The biblical emphasis is on God’s deeds. But the terms for compassion, pity, mercy (especially raham, hamal, splanchnizomai, oiktiro), as aspects of God’s love, connote strong emotion, as do the parallels between God’s love and human marriage (Ezek. 16:1–63; Hos. 1:2–11; 3:1–5). These emotions are, to be sure, emotions of jealousy (leading to wrath) as well as tenderness.(Source : An Introduction to Christian Belief).
Indeed, deep down we all know that it does no good at all to “love” people without liking them. If my wife told me that I love you but I don't like you, I would be deeply hurt. If we told people that we can't stand them but love them they would not accept it. Such a position in fact demeans them as God's creatures and therefore not love at all. Such a love is pure hypocrisy. We are supposed to love without hypocrisy. Which means to have real affection for others. Jim Mcneely III gives this great illustration on why real acts of love do not make a ridiculous distinction between love and liking :
When you go out to buy a gift for your child, you don't grit your teeth in the face of great mountains of dislike about doing what you must do. You are excited to buy the gift, because you can imagine how overjoyed your son or daughter will be, and you rejoice at the thought. You take pleasure in their pleasure. You delight in fulfilling their desires and wishes. You rejoice to see them grow and mature. Their joy gratifies you. You don't buy them a gift because you hope to thereby come to love them; you love them first and so buy them a gift (Source : Romance of Grace)
When God commands us to love our enemies the instruction is to love and like those who hate us and wish us harm. Not their actions, but the human person. We are not only to have an internal attitude within us that wishes them no ill, but genuine desires of affection within us that longs for the best for them. This is agape, God's unconditional love to everyone, including sinners. The love that sets aside judgement and seeks not only redemption but to crown the enemy with glory and honour.
Agape is an impossible undertaking. It is impossible for any human being, especially a creature of sin, to love their foe and not wish them ill. We rightly abhor their evil deeds and we wish to see them dead. We want retributive justice. This is our primary and dominant impulse. Yet God says love must be the dominant impulse because God is love. Indeed, it is not our job to exercise vengeance on bad guys, it is God's job. God's injunction to individuals is that we are to love and like them, as God does. What the Lord Jesus asks is simply beyond us. So how do we actually do it?
Fulfilling this command, is only possible by seeing ourselves as God sees us. That is to say all of us, including our enemies are fallen human beings. Apostle Paul writing to believers in Rome says "Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard". All of us are wicked people without exception! We are the worst abuser, terrorist, bad friend and bad boss. Deep down our hearts we are no different from those who commit the worst atrocities and persecute their own people.
Indeed without other restraints we too are just as capable of those very sins. Only the Lord knows whether if we were in the shoes of some of these people we would not have been capable of the same. Jim Andrews pointedly notes our evil capacity from birth:
The breast of every child harbors a potential beast. Those who were once precious infants have perpetuated all the inhumanities of man on other men. The awful reality is that all human beings are bankrupt from birth; it’s just that in babies that spiritual condition is temporarily latent rather than active (Source : Polishing God's Monuments)
Jerry Bridges has rightly observed that often we do not know our weakness until we are tested by external circumstances:
We may think we have true Christian love until someone offends us or treats us unjustly. Then we begin to see anger and resentment well up within us. We may conclude we have learned about genuine Christian joy until our lives are shattered by an unexpected calamity or grievous disappointment.
Randy Alcorn powerfully shares this personal illustration :
Just fifteen miles from our home, Westley Allan Dodd tortured, molested, and murdered three boys in the late 1980s. Dodd was arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes. Shortly after midnight on January 5, 1993, he was hanged. Thirty minutes after he died, the twelve media eyewitnesses recounted the experience. I felt stunned as one of them read Dodd’s last words: “I had thought there was no hope and no peace. I was wrong. I have found hope and peace in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Gasps and groans erupted from the gallery, fueled by palpable anger.
The idea of God offering grace to Dodd utterly offended the crowd that had come to see justice done. That’s when it hit me in a deep and personal way—I am part of the same human race. I’d imagined the distance between Dodd and me as the difference between the South and North Poles. But from God’s viewpoint, the distance is negligible. Apart from Christ, I am Dodd. I am Osama bin Laden. I am Hitler, Stalin, Mao. Only by the virtue of Christ can I stand forgiven before a holy God.
This isn’t hyperbole; it’s biblical truth. We’ll never appreciate Christ’s grace so long as we hold on to the proud illusion that we’re better than we are. We flatter ourselves when we look at evil acts and say, “I would never do that.” Given our evil natures and similar backgrounds, resources, and opportunities, we likely would (Source : Goodness of God)
When we see ourselves as God sees us, our response to fellow evil people around us will not be hatred and resentment but compassion and understanding of their predicament. We will realise that their ultimate struggle is our ultimate struggle. We will see that we have more in common than we know.
We will see them not only as active perpetrators of evil but also at one level as victims. The Bible affirms both their moral culpability and their helplessness. King Solomon made this point clearly when he observed, "the iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin" (Proverbs 5:22).
Our enemies, tyrants, terrorists and sadists are victims of their own actions and in every way are unable to break free even if they wanted to. They are certainly responsible for their sins, but they are also imprisoned by their actions. This reality should fill us with sorrow and compassion because we know from our addictions that freedom from sins that easily entangles us is only possible through God's sovereign work of grace in Jesus! What is true for us is true for them.
It is perhaps the helplessness of the deprived creature that leads our Lord to command us that we not only to love but also "pray for those who persecute [us]". It is only God who can change them in their helplessness. Indeed, it would seem that prayer is not only an expression of love but the catalyst of love in our hearts.
The more we pray for others the more we see them through the lens of God's grace. We begin to see them as creatures created by God and endowed with His worth. We cannot love others if we dehumanise them or think of them as lesser human beings with diminished sensibilities. When we pray for them, we stop from thinking of them as vermin, scum or cockroaches. We begin to see them as God's lovely creatures who are disfigured by sin and held captive by Satan.
Through prayer we realise that their only source of rescue, and ours, is in the finished work of Jesus on the cross and the reality of the empty tomb. Jesus is a good, gracious, and merciful Creator who paid his life for our sin and saves all who trust in him! This is the theology that destroys our hate and replaces it with God centred love for everyone.
How I pray that God enables me to remember these truths every time! I pray that when I see evil around me it drives me to my knees to pray for the perpetrators before I condemn. I pray it moves me to look at my own wickedness and thank God for the Jesus Christ! Too often, I am tempted to think less of my own sins and more the sins of other people. In the process I take for granted the love of Jesus Christ. May God help us not only to look to Golgotha but to remain there daily!
Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2015