Love Your Enemies

The Ukrainian pastor could not believe what he saw. He had arrived at the situation innocently enough. A few days earlier, an elderly woman had come to his office seeking help to secure her dying son’s diabetic medication. Wanting to be the hands and feet of Jesus, the pastor secured the medicine and then brought it to the woman’s home. But when he walked into the back bedroom, he did not see just any man. He saw ‘the man,’ his former security guard. For ten years, this guard had wiped his feces on the pastor’s toast. To top off the torture, the guard had also blindfolded and then tied the pastor to the execution post. The guard demanded that the pastor recant. He refused. But instead of gun shots, curses rang out. The guard then untied the pastor, drug him across the prison floor, and tossed him out of the gate. That chapter of the pastor’s life had ended just a few months earlier. Now he stood over his abuser unrecognized and full opportunity. Here was his moment, his chance for payback, justice, and revenge. What should he do?

What would you do if you had the opportunity to get even with that one person who had destroyed your childhood, ruined your marriage, or trashed your reputation? What would you do if you had the opportunity to get even with your most hated enemy?
The Sunday school answer (of course) consists of us loving and forgiving those who hurt us. After all Jesus had told his listeners in Matthew 5:44, “But, I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Still, this is not so easy to do when applied to the real world. Jesus knew this. In Matthew 5:43, he describes the general religious approach to dealing with enemies when he states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Though modern ears get a touch squeamish around the word “hate,” they still very much tolerate the concept that characterized second temple religiosity. One does not have to go far before he or she will hear people qualifying their love for others with appeals to the concepts of negativity and toxicity. We love those who support our passions and who give credence to our hurts. On the other hand, we hate those who push unkind, toxic, and destructive vibes into our souls. We shun them because they are bad for us. They always bring us down with their criticisms and judgement. Like the people of Jesus’s day, we tend to love our friends and hate our enemies. Despite our disposition towards hating, Jesus still calls us to love our enemies. After all, God sends rain on the just and the unjust and defines love according to his extraordinary character.

What does Love Look Like?

Before we dive into why we should love our enemies, we need to grasp what this love looks like. Namely, it looks like prayer. When men and women insult us, hurt us, and harm us even though we are peaceable, we are to first rejoice for such persecution proves that we are suffering as Jesus suffered (Matt 5:10-12). But then we pray!
If we truly love someone, we should want them to know the peace and joy of Jesus. We should hope and pray that those who have tortured us with their hands and words become members of our churches. This is not to say that we sidestep the legal system when crimes have been committed. But even as our enemies wind their way through the court system, our prayer should be for their salvation. Augustine helpfully defined love’s perfection as the ability, “To love our enemies, and to love them to the end that they may be our brothers.”

At this point, some will object because of the magnitude of their opponents. They believe that this unchecked politician will destroy their very way of life. This pastor will ruin the church. Or this boss will ruin their career. Such concerns are often not unfounded. But it does not change the Jesus’s mandate to love and pray for one’s enemies. As the British Pastor, John Stott noted, Jesus prayed for the men as they drove the nails into his hands. He then writes, “If the cruel torture of the crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride prejudice or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?” None can. For the Christian only one class of people exists: those whom we love and pray for.

Sun and Rain

Such prayer-filled love is not optional. As Matthew 5:45 makes clear, all the sons of God pray for their enemies because the sons reflect the character of their Father. He makes it rain on the just and the unjust (5:45). Though many religious people assume the presence of a new car, or their recent promotion reveals that God is pleased with them, they have no biblical basis for such thought. In his love, God cares for both the wicked and the righteous alike. The farmer who faithfully loves his wife and the farmer who has as many sexual partners as he does ears of corn can both plant, harvest, and sell corn with great success. God does not wipe sinners out the moment they sin. He patiently endures their evil (and our evil for that matter) allowing the sun afresh on both the righteous and the unrighteous. When Christians pop out an umbrella or marvels at the red sunset, they should remember their father’s caring disposition to them and to those who torment them. God loves his enemies. How can his sons and daughters do otherwise?

Extraordinary Love

Moreover, the simple ability to love those who love us falls short of the essence of God’s supernatural love. Jesus points out in Matthew 5:46, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Jesus then restates the idea with Gentiles in verse 47 to help his listeners understand that even the most unreligious person will love those who love them back. Though we should love our friends, spouses, and those that share our interests. We must not boast in this love for it is common to all. Both the Christian husband wearing a tie to church and the lesbian husband wearing her black leather pants understand the importance of caring for their sick partner for both know that a happy wife equals a happy life. What sets the believer apart from the unbeliever is that the tie wearing guy should be just as ready to help his lesbian neighbor as he is his own wife. As the martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “No sacrifice which a lover would make for his beloved is too great for us to make for our enemy.” With this in mind, can we say that we truly love our enemies?

When Jesus saw us laying helplessly on the bed of life after having devoted all our energies to openly undermining, attacking, and insulting him and his loving glory, he loved us afresh. He went and died on the cross so that we might live. And then he ascended to the throne where he intercedes on our behalf. Salvation exists because God loved his enemies to the point where they became his sons and daughters. Should we not do the same?

What Did the Pastor Do?

The Ukrainian pastor knew the surpassing love of God. Instead of exacting vengeance so he could get some closure, he gave them man his medicine. And then when the mother asked, the pastor prayed for her son, he did. By God’s grace he loved his enemy.
Will you?

Meekness & Mercy: God’s Design for Interpersonal Relationships

“Its not fair.” We have all heard the expression as our kids stomp off to bed, protesting the latest perceived parental injustice. They are not the only ones.

The adults in the room have also appealed to the phrase. When our boss asks us to stay an hour late, we talk about how unfair so and so is. When Bob takes our tool, we want it back. We don’t want his; just ours. We don’t expect Sally to come to both the wedding and the bridal shower. But since we went to her wedding, we expect her to attend at least one of our events. Nothing crazy; just what we are owed. We long for fairness.

A Slap for A Slap

The God of the Bible affirms that the idea of fairness and equity should govern human legal systems. The judicial system should handout punishment that is proportional to the crime the person has committed. The punishment should consider neither the criminal’s nor the victim’s social standing (Lev. 24:17-22). Moses instructs the first judges of the new Israelite nation to do the following: “then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Punishment was never to exceed the harm caused by the crime. The justice system should be just.

Because the idea of fairness works well when applied to the courts, the religious leaders of Jesus’s day believed fairness could serve as the perfect ethic for interpersonal relationships. If the guy sitting next to you in school posts an unflattering picture of you on Instagram, you could post a Tik Tok video mocking his outdated shoes. Two videos would be excessive, but one would be permitted. If your brother bit you, you could bite him back. And if your boss took credit for your new idea, you had the right to talk behind his back for a day. Slap for slap, insult for insult, and hurt for hurt.

The Better Way

Though this idea of an eye for an eye resonates with the human heart, it stands at odds with the ethic of the kingdom of God. Instead of telling his followers to fight insult with insult, Jesus commands Christians to fight the fires of Hell with the grace filled foam of meekness and generosity. Jesus says, “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil (Matt 5:44).” 

Jesus shifts personal relationships from the ethic of fairness and equity to the ethic of meekness and generosity because this is the basis of his interactions with us. When Jesus saves, he saves through his merciful and generous love. Where he to give us what we deserved, he would dispense punishment and death. But he does not send bolts of lightening to usher us into the fires of hell the moment we think our first bad thought. He lives, dies, and rises again to pay the penalty for that evil thought and all our sins. The apostle Peter sums up the gospel writing, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (2 Pt 2:24).” Moreover, we were not actively seeking Jesus. We were lost sheep like those who walked under Jesus’s cross mocking our savior. Jesus patiently endures these insults and then brings us into the sheep fold. Jesus does not fight fire with fire. He does not treat us fairly. He does something far greater.  He triumphs over sin, enduring it and generously extending grace to overcome it.

Because of the cross, Christians should resist the urge to fight fire with fire (Matt 5:38-44).  When someone insults the believer with a slap across the cheek, Jesus tells his listeners to turn the other cheek. Instead of responding with their own pithy putdown, they quietly endure evil. If their business partner wrongfully sues to gain more shares of their company, Jesus tells the believer to quickly go to court and settle. When the government demands that you carry a soldier’s equipment for a mile or that you must give your land to the new freeway development, the Christian should go settle, going the extra mile to preserve peace. And if a friend or family members ask for $1000 because they recently lost their job, the believer writes the check without asking for repayment or giving the stink eye. The believer does not stand upon the principle of fairness, for he realizes that his salvation, his spouse, his reputation, and his stuff come from God’s mercy. Moreover, he knows that God will justly deal with all sin one day. Either the penalty for sins will be covered in the blood of the cross or it will be extracted from the wicked in Hell. God will also restore what the righteous have lost a million times over. The Christian does not have to fight fire with fire for she is a child of the king. He will prosecute vengeance and preserve our reward19

Is Government Bad?

Though the Christian should not respond to relational violence with his own aggression, he can still lay claim to government structures for protection in cases of extreme violence. Just as God instituted divorce as a merciful means of saving innocent spouses from being entrapped to an adulterer, God instituted governments to protect innocent people from vicious displays of violence. In other words, the reality that most people do not operate according to the ethic of Jesus necessitates the existence of the of government. When the ethic of non-violence fails to prevent a person from doing great harm, those in jeopardy should call the police and appeal to the justice system. Paul did as much when the Jews attempted to wrongfully condemn him to death.  The apostle Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 13:4, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Women being terrorized by an abuser can seek a restraining order and police protection. Soldiers can defend their shores from invasion. A store owner being robbed can call the police. Christians can appeal to government for help as the Apostle Paul did repeatedly. God ordained human governments for the good of his people.

But even in this sphere, the believer should not seek vengeance. A police officer who comes to a shoplifting call and pays for the teenager’s $15 of stolen food to prevent him from spending months in juvenile detention has lived out the ethic of Jesus. Meekness and generosity belong in every sphere of life, including government.

May God help us all to generously extend mercy!

Why Liars Need Promises & You Don’t

Promises exists because truth does not. We swear by heaven that this time we will do what we say because we did not follow through all those other times.

But when people use oaths, their listeners should not assume that they have entered a no-spin zone. In Jesus’s day, the religious leaders had created a whole system of disingenuous oaths that could be sworn by Al than honorable person. For example, if a dishonest painter wanted to convince his clients that he would keep his contract while having no intention of doing so, he would swear by the temple. If the owners of the home took him to court, they would have no case because his oath based on the temple was meaningless. If however the painter swore by the gold on the temple, he would have to put on his big boy pants and finish the house or face the legal consequences. That was a real oath. Confusing, yes?

Jesus was not amused by this tangled mess of words and condemned the pharisees’ manipulative games saying, “But I say to you,

“Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (Matt 5:34-37).”

In other words, Jesus calls us to reject oaths and to embrace the plain, simple, and unnuanced words of truth.

Oaths and Sovereignty

Jesus condemns the practice of swearing oaths because God is omnipresent. He exits outside of time and space, observing all human interactions throughout the globe in the now. King David famously notes in Psalm 139:7-8: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” God does not need an invitation to preside over our actions. He and his ethic remain in place regardless of whether we recognize his presence with our words.

Moreover, his ethic is an ethic of unadulterated truth. Psalm 119:160 declares, “The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.” Jesus holds his humanity and his followers to his ethic, making truth-telling one of the ten commandments. Exodus 20:16 states, “You shall not bear false witness.” The apostle Paul concurs writing,

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with it practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Col 3:9-10).”

Men and women who lie stand in opposition to the loving goodness of God. Even those who seek to excuse their sins through manipulative oaths to God will find themselves the recipients of his heavenly displeasure and eternal judgement. As Jesus notes later in the gospel of Matthew, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (12:36-37).” Idle, worthless, deceptive words will be judged by the standard of truth regardless of where or how they are spoken. Jesus is the God of truth today and forever.

The Dangers of Pinky Promises

Many souls understand the danger of swearing by God. Every time they utter a white lie and then swear by god that they are telling the truth, they peak up at the sky to make sure a lightning bolt is not on its way. To side step judgment while creating an oath, they swear on their grandmother’s grave or on their mother’s legacy as a cook that such and such is true. They may even get super series and pull out the pinky promise.

Jesus condemns all these earthly promises as well, noting that men and women, “cannot make one hair white or black.” Despite our boasts, we cannot enforce divine justice. If the boyfriend promises you that you are his one and only girl and then violates that promise the next Friday night when he takes your best friend to dinner, he is powerless to enforce the consequences of his promise “to drop dead.” While God can send floods, plagues, and armies to uphold his covenants, the sleazy boyfriend cannot. Even good promises like a trip to Disney World cannot be accomplished through human effort alone. As James notes in James 4:15, “Instead you ought to say, “if they Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” Those who make promises on their mother’s grave are foolish. And those who look for and accept such promises are equally foolish. Men and women remain powerless to accomplish their will.

Plain Speech

Instead of appealing to oaths to assure our listeners, those who know Jesus should always speak the simple truth. They should state the truth plainly in love. God speaks this way. He told the prophet Isaiah, “I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right.” Because the spirit of Christ resides in the believer, she too will plainly speak what is true and right in all settings for God reigns everywhere.

The Dress Dilemma

At this point, some Christians will raise their hand to object, noting that at times lies will do less harm than the truth. For example, if a husband tells his wife that she does indeed look fat in her new dress when asked, his date night might end right there and then. Hello leftover hotdogs! To keep the evening moving along, he lies and tells her that she looks great. Hello Ribeye! But at this moment, he has sinned against his wife, preferring himself above her. In seeking to sidestep a controversial statement, he has opened his wife up to criticism from their waitress, a coworker, and a host of other people who will also notice that her dress is not a winner. When one of them bluntly tells her the plain truth, she will be doubly hurt by her husband. She will have been both publicly shamed and lied to. The trust between the husband-and-wife fractures. The next time he tells her she looks great, he will have to swear a little oath to overcome her doubt. All this proves once again that oaths exists because the truth does not. Lies always destroy.

Are Wedding Vows Sinful?

Lastly, some sensitive souls have read Jesus’s words and concluded that military, legal, and marital oaths constitute a violation of God’s law. However, the simple swearing of an oath is not a sin. In Matthew 26:63-64, Jesus testified under oath that he was the Son of Man. Moreover, God made oaths with Noah, Abraham, and Moses.

Oaths exists because the kingdom of earth is saturated with false speech. For a sinful, broken society to function, sinful men and women in the kingdom of man must create ways to differentiate between when they are speaking falsely and when they are speaking truthfully. To create this space, they employ oaths to signify that what follows breaks from their normal pattern of false speech. With this understanding in play, Christians can take legal and formal oaths because they have already committed to the ethic of truth at conversion. An human oath simply codifies in human terms the Christian’s previous spiritual commitment to truth telling. The Christian is free to take oath. But he is not free to talk in a way that necessitates he give his listeners the assurances of promises. In her daily speech, the believer’s words should also be the simple truth. Her yes should always yes and her no should always no. May Hod help us all to speak the truth in love.