We spend a lot of time on blogs arguing over issues that exist within the gray areas of theology – doctrines that folks who love God and love his Word have disagreed about for centuries. But there are some issues that are absolute and clear in the Bible, but are often simply ignored. Too many disregard the clear teachings while we obsessively dipute the gray areas.
I’m asking you to consider one of the clear teachings of the Bible today – a common and consistent theme in the words of Jesus and the writings of the Apostles. Let’s look back to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Matthew 5:44
Simple words. If you have an enemy, show love to him. If someone persecutes you (angers, aggravates, insults, slanders, abuses, etc), pray for him. Not much of a question what these words mean, is there?
Well, there’s one question. What is an enemy? Here’s a simple definition. “Someone who causes or attempts to cause you harm, or at whose harm you would rejoice.” Has someone tried to harm you? That’s an enemy. Is there someone you’d like to see take a beatdown (verbal or otherwise)? That’s an enemy. Does someone slander you, spread lies or gossip about you? That’s an enemy. Have you ever read a post or comment that verbally skewers someone and you get just a little rush of glee? That’s an enemy.
And Jesus has a command which applies there – direct, unequivocal, unquestionable. You are MUST love that person. It is an obligation. God demonstrated his love by sacrificing his son for unworthy sinners. Christ demonstrated love by dying in agony on a cross, bearing the eternal wrath of God against us and our wickedness. We must demonstrate our love by showing kindness and seeking to be a blessing to even those who have sought to hurt us. Love your enemies. Couldn’t be any clearer, could it?
Paul builds on this instruction in Romans 12.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17–21
Two words appear together throughout the New Testament. Patience and kindness. Patience is “makrothumia” – being slow to get angry and strike back. It means that we must put up with and overlook the offenses of others committed against us. Instead of striking back in vengeance, we are to be kind – to feed our enemies, to give them water, to meet their needs in love.
This entire passage is about love and how it responds to enemies. Look at some of the clear teachings Paul gives here.
- We are not to ever repay another with evil for their evil. Another person’s sin NEVER justifies or excuses my own.
- We are to let God settle scores and not try to settle them ourselves. Never avenge yourself. When someone says hurtful thing about me, I do not have to answer back. When a friend betrays me, I do not have to balance the scales. When someone spreads gossip or slander about me, I am neither required nor authorized to answer back. God is the avenger and defender!
- Make every attempt you can to live peaceably with others. If it is not possible to live at peace, make sure it is not because you are not willing.
- We are to seek concrete ways (feeding, giving drink) to bless, strengthen and help those who are our enemies, those who have sought our harm.
- Going back to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:44 (which seem to be in the back of Paul’s mind here), we should actively and continually pray for those who are our enemies.
Here’s a simple truth: it is not my job to straighten everyone else out. It is my job to serve God, love others and let him bring justice. Even when another Christian is doing evil, it is not my job to fix him. Confront him in love? Perhaps. But it is not my job to be the Holy Spirit to convict or correct.
Peter approached Jesus with a question in Matthew 18:21 (I would so love to know the backstory of that question). How many times did he have to forgive a brother who sinned against him? Seven times? That would be pretty magnanimous, wouldn’t it? But Jesus raised the bar, again. No, he said, “seventy times seven” was the godly position. I don’t think he was advocating keeping score and counting to 490. He was saying that it is our obligation to continually demonstrate forgiveness to those who have hurt us. Jesus then tells the story of the Unmerciful Servant. Forgiven of great debt by his master, he refused to forgive another of his small debt. Because of his unforgiveness, the king threw the man in prison until the debt was fully paid.
Then, Jesus ended the parable with these chilling words:
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:35
If we refuse to pass along the forgiveness that God has given us, we will dwell in the debtor’s prison of unforgiveness ourselves.
Jesus was even more straightforward in the Sermon on the Mount.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:14–15
If I refuse to forgive my enemies who have wronged me, and instead I return evil for evil, sin for sin, gossip for gossip, insult for insult, I cannot ask God for that daily cleansing that I need.
In Ephesians 4:32, Paul tells us to forgive others “as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Jesus suffered for the sake of those who were unworthy, guilty, deserving nothing from him. And that is exactly how we are to love and forgive. No one is worthy of forgiveness. By definition, if they need forgiveness they have done something sinful and deserve to be punished. But forgiveness is the choice to act like Jesus instead of following our angry nature.
Look at Paul’s words to the Colossians.
If one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Colossians 3:13
The word translated complaint means an offense. This passage applies when someone has genuinely harmed you, sinned against you, abused you, betrayed you; when there has been a real, egregious, sinful offense committed against you. Paul tells you exactly what you must do at that point. Forgive! As Christ forgave you. No wiggle room there. We are required to forgive those who have hurt us.
We talk a lot about unity in the SBC. Forgiveness is the fuel that drives unity. We will never reach a place where we stop offending one another. Calvinists will offend. Non-Calvinists (by whatever term they self-identify) will offend. Traditionalists (in the cultural sense) will offend. The more “hip” among us will offend. That’s the way it is. We are sinners. Sinners sin. Sin offends.
The question is not whether I will sin against you or you will sin against me. The question is what we should do about it when we sin. And the answer is clear. Forgive. Be patient. Show kindness instead of vengeance. Return good for evil. LOVE!
And that is the hardest thing in the world to do. I’ve completed several marathons in my life. They are difficult. If my wife is to be believed, delivering our four children was difficult. The balance beam looks incredibly difficult to me. But these pale in comparison to the difficulty of forgiving someone who has hurt me, abused me, sinned against me or somehow offended me.
It is, in fact, supernatural and can only be done in the power of the indwelling Spirit of God who produces the fruit of love, peace, patience, kindness and all of the others in me. It is, perhaps, the greatest miracle that any of us will ever see.
And, frankly, I walk way too often in the works of the flesh and way too seldom in the fruit of the Spirit. How about you? Do you fret and fume instead of forgiving? Do you plot revenge on your enemies instead of releasing the offense to God?
The Matthew 5:44 Challenge
I would issue you a challenge. I did this years ago, before I even began blogging. I compiled what I called my “Matthew 5:44 List.” It was a list of people who were my enemies. Church members who had tried to undercut my ministry, spread lies about me, slandered and insulted me. Thank God, it was not that long of a list – perhaps 8 or 10 names over 25 years of ministry. I put them in my prayer list and began to pray regularly (well, semi-regularly to be honest, but I did pray for them.) I prayed that God would bless them and strengthen them. I prayed that God, in his timing, would show me ways to show definite love and kindness to them.
So, here is the Matthew 5:44 challenge.
1) Compile a list of those people (in blogging or in real life) who could honestly classify as your enemies. People who have tried to hurt you in some way. Anyone at whose harm you would rejoice. Be honest.
2) Begin praying regularly for them. Again, these are not Psalm 109 prayers in which you pray “against” them. No, you are praying for them, for God’s sovereign hand of blessing to rest on them. You are praying for good to come to those who have done you evil.
3) Look for ways to bless them. By your words or your actions, even if you are still angry at that person, even if deep down you’d like to blast them, look for ways (under God’s hand) to serve, to bless, and to demonstrate kindness.
4) Realize you are not God. That is so important. I’m not the Holy Spirit. It’s not my job to make someone else see his sin. Perhaps I can confront him (in a spirit of love, not anger), but only God’s Spirit can convict. And it is not my job to change him. God works to conform us to the image of Christ. I wonder if our anger and attempts at vengeance hurt that process. I don’t know. But I know that I need to not try to be anyone else’s Holy Spirit. My job is to obey God – to love, forgive, and show kindness.
5) Realize you cannot be at peace with everyone. Some people are filled with anger and hate – even Christian people. Paul realized this in Romans 12:18. “As much as it depends on you,” he said. If someone refuses to live at peace with you, you are not God. You cannot force him to change his attitude.
On the other hand, don’t use this as an excuse. “Its his fault.” “He started it.” “I’m only responding to what he said.” Childish and ungodly responses! We are called to take every step we can, to “make every effort” to maintain the unity of the Spirit.
6) Don’t give up. God works, but sometimes it takes time.
A Story of Love and Forgiveness
I’m going to close with a true story. My dad was pastor of a church that had one of the meanest, most devious skunks you’ve ever seen in a Baptist church. This man had it in for my dad almost from the minute my dad started his pastorate there. Year after year this man worked to spread rumors, undermine my dad and cause him pain.
Then, toward the end of dad’s years at that church, this man had a terrible stroke and became bedridden. It would have been easy for my dad to sit back and gloat that God had finally dealt a blow of vengeance against the man who had caused him so much pain. But he did something else. He went and sat with that man on a regular basis and took care of him so his wife would have some time off and could do some shopping, etc.
I was in that area a few years later and saw that man, still in a wheelchair. He beamed when he saw me and couldn’t say enough about what a great man my father was. You know, he was right. Dad did not fight the man, but when he blessed him, the hardened heart was melted.
My friends (and even a few that may go on my list!) God could not have made his will any clearer. We are to love even those we do not like, even those who have hurt or offended us. We must forgive them as Christ forgave us. We must be patient with the dolts and kind to the wicked.
And when we obey him, he works in mighty power to change hearts!
I seldom delve into the business of prediction, and when I do I am often wrong. But permit me to get bold here. If we would take the Matthew 5:44 challenge to love and bless our enemies, we would see the power of God in ways that we have never imagined.