It doesn't just so happen that this subject came up for two reasons. One is someone I know suggested this topic but the other not coincidental reason is that the most reason part of David Martyn Lloyd-Jones Studies in Sermon on the Mount sermon I read happened to be the one on this very subject. So this subject obviously didn't just "happen" to come up at all for me this week.
Lloyd-Jones opens practically out the gate with the observation that Jesus' teaching that we should love our enemies and do good to them, to bless those that curse us, and seek to be of help to those who persecute us seems at odds with Jesus Himself denouncing Pharisees as sons of the Devil. It seems Jesus pours a lot of hatred on His enemies, right? But we also have all those imprecatory psalms in which the psalmist prays for the death, mayhem, and destruction of those he describes as enemies.
David, particularly, could lay things on thick in praying against his enemies. In Psalm 3 he implores God to rise up and save him and says, "For You have struck all my enemies on the cheek. You have broken the teeth of the wicked." In the prologue to Psalm 3 we see that this was a psalm David wrote when he was fleeing from Absalom his son. Yeah, the same Absalom whom David urged Joab and the rest of his armies to not harm. The same Absalom whose death struck David with such great sorrow he lamented Absalom's death. Absalom's death hit David so hard that Joab said that if David kept carrying on in public weeping and crying over the death of a son, who killed his brother and sexually carried on in public with ten of David's concubines while forming an insurrection, that the armies that saved David would turn on him. THAT Absalom. How do we make sense of David asking that God would destroy the wicked and thank God for breaking the teeth of the wicked when the teeth that were broken were, poetically speaking, people who included David's own beloved son?
Lloyd-Jones provides a useful distinction at this point, by pointing out that the Psalms are not ultimately expressions of individual faith but are written for corporate worship and for reflection by God's people. He also points out that the imprecations in the Psalms are those that have to do with a reaction to God's name and honor being rejected or attacked. The imprecations have to do with those who destroy and batter God's people. Blessed be the man who takes your babies and smashes their heads upon a stone ... by the waters of Babylon. The Psalms, as Lloyd-Jones points out, cannot merely be read as the wish for a purely personal form of vengeance but as prayers that God's name and might would be vindicated in the midst of those who scoff at the name of the Lord and trample on God's people.
Jesus Himself said that God sends rain on the just and unjust alike. "Common grace" means that the wicked as well as the good benefit from the created order. As individuals we are called to love our enemy. Lloyd-Jones points out something that should be obvious but which, of course, may not be obvious--loving our enemy does not mean we like our enemy. Yet loving our enemy means we bless them and ask for the Lord's mercy to be extended to them rather than praying for their downfall. We cannot help but consider the example of Christ Himself who extended mercy and forgiveness to those who killed Him. Those Christians who pretend that forgiveness must be conditioned by true repentance do not realize that were this condition ever consistently applied Christ would never have died for us!
One of the stranger ironies in my life is that I have noticed the people most eager to condition forgiveness on a display of repentance have been Calvinists! Who, of all people, would be most persuaded by the testimony of Scriptures that a repentant heart is a gift from the Spirit more than a Calvinist? And yet who would seem most to demand a demonstration of in another what he knows is impossible apart from a sovereign move of the Lord in such a case? Did Christ wait for you, dear Calvinist, to make a convincing demonstration of repentance before infusing you with life through the Gospel when you heard it? I didn't think He did. Why then, in your daily life would you attempt to justify the notion that someone must prove themselves worthy of forgiveness by demonstrating conformity to your idea of "repentance"?
Well now, some may say at this point, it is one thing to forgive and another thing to be reconciled. Yeah, I get that. I get that more than you might be able to guess merely reading my blog. And yet loving enemies still brings us back to Christ. Christ chose to reconcile us to Himself while we were His enemies. Consider that Stephen as he was being stoned to death asked that the sins of those who killed him would not be held against him even after he had denounced them for being stiff-necked people who resisted the Holy Spirit. Among those who approved of us death was none other than the Paul who would one day become an apostle.
Okay, I know some Christians may be considering now, that's okay at an individual level. A certain pastor was fond of saying that pacificism and turning the other cheek is a-okay for the individual but that if you go after his family there's gonna be a fight. He'll put up with whatever indignities he feels he's going to suffer but if you go after the people he cares about he'll come after you. I've met Christians who take this line of thought and on the basis of that the question may come up, "How do I treat those people who are not just some personal enemy but who have harmed people I care about."
Well ... perhaps a useful point of instruction on this subject may come from Jesus. Jesus was asked by a certain legal expert what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked what the man read in the Law. The man replied that one must love God and one's neighbor. Jesus replied, "This is good. Do this and you shall live." But the man, wanting to justify himself, asked, "And who is my neighbor?" Thus the parable about the good Samaritan.
This man wanted to justify hating a group of people who represented apostates, sell-outs, and traitors to Judea and to true religion. In the law expert's mind it was perfectly okay to hate a Samaritan for these reasons. Christ told a parable that revealed that the Samaritan is still the neighbor. "Which of these was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?" Jesus asked. Unwilling to even name the man, the legal expert replied, "The one who showed him kindness." Jesus replied, "Go and be like that man." Jesus cuts through our pretensions to define our neighbor in a way that precludes our seeking his welfare. He reveals that if we even ask the question "And who is my neighbor?" we are seeking a self-justifying path in which our hatred can be justified. We, like that law expert, want to come to God in a way that permits hatred and seeks justification in the hope that whomever the enemy is God will destroy him.
One of the common temptations I have seen among at least some Christians is to then attempt to do some kind of end run and still find some kind of loophole. You see one of the things they don't necessarily teach in Sunday school or discuss from the pulpit is that if you live mainly among Christians the person who is most likely to end up feeling like your enemy is a fellow Christian. Certainly in Corinth there were enough betrayals and mistakes and sins happening that lawsuits were taking place. To this Paul wrote a rebuke and he emphasized it still further by writing, "This I say to shame you." That there are lawsuits at all is a sign of defeat. Why not rather be wronged? As it is you go to unbelieving courts and fight each other which is a discredit to the Gospel and to you.
Let me cite by way of a specific example that a cease and desist letter from Mars Hill met with the disapproval of numerous Christians. Any church that went through 1 Corinthians in sermons TWICE could have kept in mind the precept the apostle Paul taught, "Why not rather be wronged?" I've seen the logo in question and even though I need eye surgery I can tell you the logos don't look that similar. If there is any comfort for Mars Hill it is that unbelievers have not (yet) gotten wind of the cease and desist letter and made much hay about it. Give it time, I suppose, but here's hoping it doesn't become too huge a deal.
This is a useful case study because I am seeing plenty of Christians assume that one party is completely evil and the other party is good. There is a temptation to assume that the big bad church is the big bad enemy. I've met some Christians who have a penchant for deciding who is and isn't a Christian on the basis of personal affronts. I met a fellow who took the side of a pastor who got fired and declared that all the pastors involved in that man's firing were completely unfit for ministry. Then, a few years later, when the pastor failed to keep a promise made to help this man's family during a difficult time (as the man understood it, anyway) the man began to declare among friends that this ex-pastor wasn't even really a Christian. Huh? What just happened here? The ex-pastor, about whom this man said that other pastors firing the ex-pastor weren't fit for ministry, suddenly becomes "not really a Christian" for failing to keep a promise to this man? What did James warn us about the ways in which we judge people? What did Jesus Himself warn us about with respect to judgment?
You see there is no escape hatch in this teaching to love and bless our enemies. If we pretend that fellow professing Christians are not really Christians this does not absolve us of a calling to love them even if we consider them enemies. This does not absolve us of seeking their welfare even if they have harmed by offense or neglect people we care about. John wrote that if we hate our brother then we walk in darkness and do not know where we are going. So if we hate fellow Christians, for whatever reason, we are walking in darkness and need to seek the Light, which is Christ. If we hate people who say they are Christians and decide they are not we are not excused from loving our neighbor. In the parable about the good Samaritan Jesus did not say the Samaritan had true beliefs or true doctrines or otherwise "good" or "Christian" ethics. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, "You worship what you do not know." Even among those who are truly enemies and not even on the same team in our estimation, Christ's teaching is not somehow nullified to justify our wrath.
Now if Christians wrong other Christians that's still no good. But what we do not benefit from is keeping a record of wrongs. There's some obscure apostle named Paul who made some mention of that. But many Christians, this one included, are often tempted to keep a record of wrongs as a form of defense. Surely I don't have to explain how keeping a list of wrongs is a form of defense? It becomes the basis from which some Christians say "I will not forgive X because X has not shown the necessary signs of repentance." It becomes the basis on which some Christians say, "I have forgiven X but I can't hang out with X because X is in rebellion." It becomes the basis for some Christians to say that this or that Christian shouldn't hang out with another Christian because of some wrong. Shunning leads to counter-shunning, which at heart is pretty much the same thing.
In my own life I have often encountered situations in which people do not apologize for things they have done but more often I find that people do not apologize to me for things they have said. This has happened often enough that I actually can't remember how many times some people have said things that have hurt my feelings. Rather than say anything about it I have found out over time that even expressing my discomfort at some of the things said to and about me gets me more trouble. I find myself wishing I had not brought anything up and that there is a sense where Paul's advice sticks with me--why not rather be wronged? In many cases the people who have said the most offensive and hurtful things to me don't even remember they said any of these things. Or they may actually tell me (as some have) that I just completely misremembered what really happened and shouldn't have taken things personally. The things were meant personally and while my memory has limits some things have stuck with me.
But Proverbs says that it is a gracious thing for a man to overlook faults. Yes, it is, and so I have been slowly learning that in many cases simply putting up with things that are said about me is actually the better and more Christian path. Years ago I was spoken about in very unfavorable terms by some people I had to work with. They said my work was poorly done and my attitude to their correction was terrible. To the best of my ability and knowledge I was doing things exactly the way I was told I needed to do them. Yet I was becoming the subject of such vociferous complaint my supervisors had a meeting with me and discussed the complaints about me. I didn't attempt to make things personal or offensive to the best of my knowledge but people were getting very upset. I was trying very hard to figure out what I was doing wrong and no one could explain what it was.
Finally things came to the point where a conference call had to happen. The biggest people in the situation all had a call and I was present for discussing things. Well, to keep a long story short, it turned out that I was not only right in doing my work the way I had been doing it I was the only person in the whole region who was doing the work the right way. Now here was a perfect opportunity for me to have said "Ha! I told you I was right." I didn't. Let others praise you and not yourself, after all. So I was vindicated after about a year of complaints about my character and my work. I was vindicated by the quality of the work itself. I found that when I attempted to defend myself this was held against me. When I simply did the best work I could according to the instructions I had been given by the most important people in the organization it was those people, and not myself, who took the chance to speak up and both defend my work and clarify that the other people had been doing things the wrong way. My chief concern was not about whether or not my "honor" was being defended but whether or not the work was being done the right way.
Loving our enemies, however our enemies may be defined, is something we are only able to do if we understand the mercy of Christ and not merely in some abstract doctrinal way. To put it another way, loving enemies and serving them and doing good work despite problems is something which we are only able to do if our goal is not a purely personal sense of glory or right. If we understand our own failures before the love and holiness of God and understand the depth of the forgiveness Christ obtained for us, more than that, the love with which Christ loves us and has sought us out, then we are better equipped to demonstrate that love toward others. If Christ can forgive me then who can I not forgive?
Yet there are plenty of people who care a great deal about "the doctrines of grace" who sadly know nothing of it in their daily lives. They are like those people who profess a love for humanity in the abstract but hate everyone they know. They are like people who profess a great love for the Church or a church but they love not the real flesh and blood people in that body of Christians--they love their ideal of what that church ought to be in their own imagination and seek to bring that forth into reality.
There are people who think their concern is for sound doctrine who are concerned about their influence and popularity. There are Christians who profess a concern about social justice who are concerned about their own reputation. There are men who are eager to name-drop their important associates, pull rank within their communities to get things their way and cow any dissenters. There are men who nominate themselves to roles of influence and then get upset when things don't go their way or when their influence is insufficient to the tasks or conflicts they set themselves to mastering. And perhaps because these sorts of people are in the grip of the boastful pride of life it's the only way they know how to understand or explain sin. At the other end of things those who are consumed by doubt and fear tend to only grasp things in terms of those doubts or fears. There are many Christians I can think of who would assume that fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are basically at heart non-believers because of old-fashioned politics. If any of these Christians are actually right then they are ALL unbelievers at heart.
None of this means that Christians don't wrong each other. We wouldn't even have the epistles of Scripture if no early Christians wronged each other! Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov advised that we must love the sinner and even love his sins. Does this mean we actually love sin? Dostoevsky had seen too much of evil to have meant this in some flatly literal way. Even in the sins of fellow sinners we can see how these people are, despite their brokenness, still image-bearers of God. It is very easy to hate those qualities in others that seem most opposite or own but an unbelieving teacher of mine once told me that he noticed that in many, many cases the things people hate most in others are often the traits they must admit are in themselves. Is there a person who infuriates you because he or she pretends that nothing is wrong and won't talk about the elephant in the room?
Here perhaps we can discuss Romans 2. You who hate idols, do you rob temples? This is a phrase that puzzled me for a while but a comment by Adolph Schlatter may be relevant. He notes that there may have been Jews who, despite their formal protest against any pagan images, were selfish enough to gain money tha tthey would breach pagan taboos the pagans themselves would not break. Now if, building somewhat speculatively on this observation, we consider it axiomatic that one must hate one's enemies and that it is not wrong to defraud them then a person could justify stealing what belongs to an infidel as being permitted by God.
After all, all things belong to God and I believe in and follow the one true God therefore all things are permitted to me, particularly that I should somehow profit from taking things that others dare not use due to a silly taboo. Other gods are not really gods at all so if one takes the gold from the temple of a god which is no god then no god has been defrauded. Really? Well, Paul says no, you're still a thief. Paul warns here that if you claim to hate idols/graven images but steal gold out of temples then you don't really hate idols and graven images that much. In fact you paradoxically profit off of the very thing you claim to despise in the name of the Lord. Paul takes time to point out that there are sins that people commit where if they took idolatry seriously they wouldn't even be committing certain sins.
That Gentiles are part of the new covenant in Christ at all speaks to the reconciliation Christ accomplished for the world. Jew and Gentile are no longer enemies in Christ and both groups are guilty of sin warranting judgment from God. But God's gift is faith in Christ and Christ Himself. There were Jews who did not accept this implication of the kingdom of Christ because they did not want the Good News to extend to the enemies of God's people. There were Jews who may not have been or felt personally oppressed or harmed by Gentiles who nevertheless resented the Gentiles for the disgrace and oppression they had brought to God's people.
The Maccabean revolt was not about nothing, after all, it was about rejecting the imposition of idolatry on God's people and attempting to forbid honoring Yahweh. The scandal of the Cross is that the invitation of God has been extended to the enemies of God's people, the nations that desecrated the Temple, the nations whose leaders offered swine on the altar, the peoples who slew women and children, the traitors among God's people who helped these tyrants to rule. To fail to grasp the scandalous political and social implications of Christ dining with tax collectors and being willing to help government officials by healing their children is difficult to overstate. As N. T. Wright put it well in Jesus & the Victory of God Jesus was announcing and celebrating the coming of the Kingdom of God but one of many scandals about how he did this was he was celebrating this coming of the kingdom with all the wrong people.
We need to be careful in considering whether the resentments we harbor are on behalf of the harm caused others or resentments that are our own. The two are not the same. That legal expert who sought ot justify himself by asking "And who is my neighbor?" may never have been harmed by an actual Samaritan but he still hated them because of what they represented to him, those who wronged God's people. Jesus' implicit rebuke was no less stinging for that, "Go and be like that man." If we have been angry that others have wronged us let's not forget how often we have wronged others and if we think we haven't we're in pretty good danger of being proven liars. The apostle John warns that if we hate fellow Christians for whatever reason we are walking in darkness and the truth isn't in us. Are our enemies truly NOT Christians? The Jesus who said that if one will not listen to you to then treat them as you would a tax collector or a Gentile dined with tax collectors. He also healed the dying children of Gentiles and said that he had sheep in another flock that needed to be brought in.
If you and I cannot remind ourselves of these we should consider how seriously we appreciate the love and mercy of Christ who taught us to pray:
Our Father, who is in heaven
hallowed be your name.
May your kingdom come, and your will be done
here on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day or daily bread
and forgive us our debts
as we have forgiven our debtors.
Do not lead us into the hour of trial
but deliver us from the evil one.
I don't think I really need to unpack the significance of how our willingness to forgive indicates our appreciation of forgiveness. As David Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, unless God is working within our hearts there are things we can't do and blessing and doing good to whomever we consider enemies would be one. And if we hate people who are brothers or sisters in Christ then, well, we need to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question of how much we actually love Christ.