A reporter was interviewing an old man on his 100th birthday. “What are you most proud of?” The reporter asked. “Well,” said the old man thoughtfully, “I am most proud of the fact that I don’t have a single enemy in the whole world.”
“What a beautiful thought. How inspirational!” Said the reporter.
“Yeah,” Said the old man, “They all died years ago!”
Wouldn’t it be great if none of us had any enemies? Would it be great if no one ever offended us, got on our nerves, was horrible to us, or said anything unkind? Wouldn’t it be great if there were no assholes in the world?
But that’s not the way things are.
The impossible Christian ethic
It’s a provocative image, the photo above — don’t you think? How does it make you feel? If you’re a Christian, did you find yourself reacting to this man’s headpiece as much as you found his gesture distasteful?
More importantly, do you love this man?
Like it or not, there is a point at which Christianity completely diverges from all other religions and ethical systems and even the default position of the average human heart. It is found in how Christians are supposed to react to people who are horrible to them. Jesus said it first in Matthew 5: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Nice one, Jesus!
In reality, no culture, society, or group actually follows this principle — including most Christians. In fact, the default mode of the human heart is not to love our enemies but to retaliate. You don’t even have to think about it. It’s involuntary. When someone hurts you, you don’t think to yourself, “That hurt! I think I will retaliate.” No! It just happens! It is our natural response.
Sigmund Freud once said, “One must forgive one’s enemies… preferably after they have been hanged.” This is really another way of saying, “Of course I’ll forgive them once I’ve killed them.” And when someone hurts you badly, this is how most of us really feel. Then, Jesus comes along and says, “No! Love your enemies! Forgive them!”
What? Really? Jesus… no, you must be kidding! How is that even possible?
Breaking forgiveness into baby steps
The Apostle Paul continues Jesus’s call-to-arms with regards to loving and forgiving our enemies. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he pens this monumental challenge to believers in Romans 12:14–21:
In other words, Christians are supposed to be kind to assholes. Fortunately, there are plenty in the church that you can practice on!
In all seriousness, though, those who want to call themselves followers of Jesus must come to terms with the command of Jesus to love our enemies. In the passage we just read, there are five very practical, but not necessarily easy, steps that, if applied, will help us. These practices represent the way that, as Christians, we should respond be people who are you-know-what. Here they are:
Number 1: Bless and do not curse
The first practice is found in verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” The word bless here literally means pray — pray God’s blessing down. This might seem counter-intuitive, but I think there is an excellent reason why Paul tells us to pray for our enemies.
Have you ever tried to hate someone and pray that God will bless them at the same time? It’s tough. Impossible even. Try as you might, you just can’t continue in your full-blown hatred while praying. So, in a real, practical sense, prayer is the starting line of the journey towards loving your enemies.
Remember, the real purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind, but to change your heart.
Number 2: Give up your right to revenge
Besides praying, Verse 19 says you should also forgive your enemies— defined as “surrendering your right to take revenge.”
Not exactly. A commonly repeated phrase used by many people, not just people of faith, goes something like this: “I’d like to forgive, but if you knew how badly such and such a person had hurt me, you would understand why I can’t. I just can’t forgive!”
However, what if forgiveness is not a feeling but an act of the will — able to be granted before it is felt? Perhaps the best way to explain this is with a true story.
Eric Metaxis, in his book, ‘Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness,’ recounts the story of Corrie Ten Boom — a remarkable woman of faith. During World War 2, she and her family had been arrested for hiding Jews in their home and sent to a concentration camp in Germany. She survived several months there, but she witnessed the deaths of her father and sister. After the war, Corrie Ten Boom went back to Germany to preach the message that God forgives.
One day as she was preaching about forgiveness, she looked up and saw sitting in the congregation the very guard who had killed her father and sister. At the end of the service, this old concentration camp guard came up to Corrie Ten Boom. This is how she recalls the conversation:
“He stood in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are forgiven!’
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course — how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors, and my blood seemed to freeze. ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out — ’will you forgive me?’
And I stood there — I whose sins had, again and again, to be forgiven — and could not forgive. My sister had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there — hand held out — but to me, it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’
I knew it not only as a commandment of God but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war, I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies could also return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still, I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”
It’s a powerful story, isn’t it? You know, if Corrie Ten Boom had punched that guy in the face, I certainly wouldn’t have been holding her back. In fact, no one would begrudge Corrie Ten Boom for refusing to forgive, and yet she found a way.
She considered the example of Jesus Christ — a completely innocent man — who found himself being executed by the most brutal form of corporal punishment that humankind has ever invented, with nails through his hands and feet and a crown of thorns upon his head. Though he was innocent, he still managed to say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
This would have been as preposterous to the casual onlooker as it is to us today! Yes, Jesus sets the example.
An important disclaimer
I will add an important disclaimer at this point: Choosing to forgive does not excuse the offending behavior, nor does it mean allowing people to walk away without facing the consequences of their actions. Rather, it is a decision to surrender your personal right to take revenge — something that we can choose to do despite feelings to the contrary.
I realize that the church has been guilty of using Christ’s instruction to forgive and love our enemies, to keep people locked in abusive relationships, and to excuse all kinds of abhorrent behavior. This was not the intent of Christ’s command. If you find yourself in an abusive situation, then know that you can leave with the full blessing of God!
Number 3: Try to preserve the relationship
The third practice that Paul gives us in Romans 12 is found in verse 18? “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If I were to paraphrase this verse into modern terms, it would go something like this: Don’t avoid your enemies. They may not want to see you, but as far as it depends on you, try to stay in a relationship with them.
I’ve heard people say, “I’ll give up my right for revenge, and I pray for them, but I still want nothing to do with them.” However, when someone says this, what they really are saying is: “I am going to punish my enemy by withdrawing my presence from their life.” This is actually a passive-aggressive form of retaliation. But Paul says, do what you can to preserve and restore the relationship. Do everything in your power.
Another disclaimer: There are some situations where it would be reasonable enough to have nothing to do with your enemies — such as abuse situations. No one, especially God, expects you to stay in a relationship with your abuser. However, in your average, run-of-the-mill relationship breakdown, Paul’s invitation to do what you can to preserve the relationship is good advice.
Number 4: Wish them well
It doesn’t get any easier from here. Not only does Paul instruct us to bless them, pray for them, forgive them, and don’t avoid them. We must also will their good. Verse 20 says, “ If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”
Even if your enemy is no longer in your life, until you can wish your enemy well, you cannot say that you have forgiven them in your heart. Mark Twain once said, “The only real way to destroy an enemy is to make him your friend.” This leads to our fifth and final practice.
Number 5: Oppose them with love
The fifth practice that I think Paul gives us in Romans 12 might surprise you. I think that Paul suggests that we are to oppose our enemies. That’s right! I said we should oppose our enemies! If a person is wronging you, you must oppose them. It’s very unloving to let people go on hurting other people, and it is not Biblical to sit by and do nothing. If a person is wronging you, you should stop them — not with violence and hatred — but in humility and love.
We are to oppose them with their good in mind. Romans 12:20 says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
What does this strange little phrase mean: “To heap burning coals on their head?” There is actually a fair bit of debate about what this little phrase might mean, but one suggestion is this: In ancient times, when a city was besieged, the people of that city would throw down burning liquid or coals onto their enemy to prevent them from scaling the walls. I guess if your hair is on fire, it’s hard to use your sword, and I guess if your face is burning, it’s pretty tough to aim your bow and arrow.
The principle as it relates to loving our enemies is this: When you oppose your enemy with love, they find it difficult to keep on attacking. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Does that mean we sit by and say nothing? No! But our answer must be gentle and humble.
No one said it would be easy
According to the Bible, this is how we show love to our enemies:
Pray for them.
Refuse to take revenge.
Do what you can to preserve the relationship.
Wish them well.
Make them feel ashamed of their actions by being super kind.
It’s so easy to say, but it is much harder to apply in reality. Some of you might be reading this and thinking to yourself, “You don’t understand what I’ve been through! Some of the things that have been done to me! You have no idea!” And you’re probably right. No one said it was easy to do this.
But whenever I consider the difficulty of forgiving my enemies, I am often drawn back to a quote wrongly attributed to Buddha (that more likely has its roots in Alcoholics Anonymous):
Yes, there are two excellent reasons to love and forgive your enemies. Firstly, it might just change your enemy into a friend. Secondly, refusing to forgive affects you more than it affects the person against whom you are holding the grudge.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pray for some assholes.
This post was previously published on Backyard Church.
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