Friday, August 03, 2012

Practical Theology for Women: Christians who please the Lord and have peace with their enemies

Jesus famously taught in Matthew 5:10-12

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
 Now for some Christians this means that having enemies is a sign of righteousness and confirmation of election and of holiness.  It "can" be but then there's this proverb.

Proverbs 16:7
When a man's ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.

Now something that may be said here about "enemies". In Psalms we read of God delivering from enemies who are made to turn back, stumble and fall. God pursued David's enemies and broke them. David asked God to consider his many enemies and deliver him from them. The Psalmist noted how enemies would speak evil of him. Proverbs warn us to not rejoice when our enemy falls or the Lord might take pity on him and revive him.

Even within the people of God is it given that one will have enemies.  These are not enemies of the people of God but competitors and adversaries, who may well be within God's people.

Exodus 23:4-5
If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him.
If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it.

Let's just point out the obvious here, even in the scriptures it is granted in the Law that one will have enemies even among fellow people of God.

The word here, and I'm not going to pretend to be a Hebrew scholar, is "oyeb", roughly.  The word means "enemy" and indicates someone who is an adversary, someone who shows hostility.   There are going to be fellow believers that you don't really like, as any number of preachers and teachers will have pointed out already.  You are supposed to love them.  I am tempted at this point to put love in scare quotes given the seriousness with which I take some professing Christians in their use of the term love with respect to those they consider enemies.

Now let's get back to the proverb at hand, Proverbs 16:7.  It is an axiom rather than a law.  Clearly the scriptures are full of men and women who had enemies with whom there is no peace because the adversaries have set themselves against the Lord.  However, if Proverbs advises us on practical matters within the people of God then it is not out of place to observe the reality that one will have adversaries even among God's people.  If a person respects the intent of the Law and appreciate its goals then one may show kindness to adversaries in a way where one may have peace with them, or at least as much peace as could be practical.  After all, if you have an enemy and you have taken steps to secure his or her welfare it becomes more difficult for that adversary to justify harming you or speaking maliciously about you even if he or she would wish to.  And they may still do so but by showing kindness even to enemies the enemy must make his or her animosity paramount over even demonstrable gestures of good will.

This will not necessarily mean you do not yourself consider that person or party an enemy.  The scriptures don't seem to indicate that.  It is possible to bless your enemies even when you realize they will never really mean you any good. You can hope their lives and hearts are transformed but you cannot simply expect it.

Decades ago when I was in high school there was a guy who I found annoying and who found me annoying.  I considered him an enemy for all practical purposes.  I found him frustrating as I'm sure he must have found me annoying.  Teenage boys and all that.  Well, I locked on to Proverbs 16:7 in my teen years and prayed about this proverb a lot.  My prayer was that if it were possible my ways would be pleasing enough to the Lord that this guy would no longer be my enemy and that he would no longer consider me some kind of enemy.  The first years of high school nothing changed but I was at the same high school until I graduated (which I didn't anticipate happening).  By the junior or senior year the acrimony was gone and we discovered we had a few more things in common than we thought.

Now depending on what Christian circles you're in the observation here was that prayer didn't change anyone's heart but mine.  Okay, sure, whatever.  The other guy turned out to be a Christian, too, if memory serves.  I suppose it might be useful to point out that meditating on a proverb may have helped me reconsider whether this guy was really an enemy to me after all.  I don't know any more seeing as I'm thinking back on things that happened twenty years ago.  I don't deny that the proverb may have had an effect on my heart and mind toward this person.  It must have.  I also note that the prayers got answered. There's a point where the bromide about prayer changing me can end up seeming like a curiously rationalistic explanation away of what, for me, was an actually answered prayer.  :)  Chew on that for a while if you care to.

But what has stuck with me decades later is that sometimes the enemy turns out to be a fellow believer.  We live in a fallen world, as the axiom has it, and that means that sometimes our competitors or adversaries will be fellow Christians and even our own flesh and blood.  Sibling rivalry is attested as far back as Cain and Abel.  Poisoning family relationships with parental favoritism goes back to at least Jacob and Esau and then to Joseph and his brothers.  Then there's the bitter rivalry between Rachel and Leah as wives of Jacob, right?

What some Christians may need to keep in mind is that we will have adversaries even among fellow believers.  We shouldn't, sure, and we all get that, but if laws regarding how to treat enemies and their property showed up in the Torah and Jesus instructs us to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us then the reality that enemies will be around is hard to skate over.  It is also important to remember that just because we have enemies does not mean we are pleasing the Lord, especially if our enemies happen to be among believers.  Thanks to some tools like the internet and the insularity it can promote we can be inclined to justify ourselves by the enemies we make in some online setting without realizing that these people are not really enemies most of the time, but people who disagree.  They may have good reasons to disagree.  They might even be right.

Now a proverb is not an ironclad law but if a man's ways are pleasing to the Lord He can make even his enemies to be at peace with him.  This is one of those "heart check" verses that isn't necessarily about your enemies but about you.  The peace spoken of in the proverb is not a detente or a temporary cease-fire but shalom.  I'm going to trust I don't have to "unpack" all of that for you if you've read this far.

None of what I have written here is intended to be a substitute for you actually reading what Wendy wrote, by the way.

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