We read the Bible but we don’t really read it. We know the catch-phrases and the concepts but it seems that when the rubber hits the road we reserve the right to modify what we read. The words we read just sort of blur together into a meaningless mantra, something we can affirm in theory and spit back in response to a question in Sunday school without hesitation but putting them into practice is another issue all together. I was reminded of this again this weekend. The Bible gives us many commands and many examples of how we should live as followers of Christ and almost none of them are easy. Of all of the commands of Jesus, His commands in the Sermon on the Mount give us the most trouble because they are the most contrary to our natural understanding of the order of things. Nowhere is that truer than in these words:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Matthew 5:43-46)Virtually everyone loves those who love them back. That is relatively easy. You love me, I love you. When it changes to "You hate me", it becomes so much harder to respond with "I love you". To say and actually mean I love you even though you hate me runs contrary to human nature and our engrained culture. It is so much easier to divide the world into one group of people who I love that look like me, think like me and act like me and another group of people who scare me and probably hate me, people like Muslim terrorists or criminals or any of the other bogeymen that we live in fear of. It might be easier to just love those who love us but loving our enemies is not a nice theory but at the very core of what the Gospel is all about and how we live as followers. Let me explain.
Enemy love is at the center of the Gospel and a critical component of the Christian life, far more so than “going to church” or “tithing” or “voting Republican”. What makes loving our enemies so critical to understand and practice is that loving your enemies is the very embodiment of following Jesus and walking as He walked. Jesus didn’t come to give His loyal fans a helping hand, He came to redeem His sheep while they were dead in their sins, enemies of God and by nature children of wrath. Jesus demonstrated the ultimate act of loving His enemies by dying for His sheep. If Jesus only loved those that loved Him, He could have skipped the cross because none of those He died for deserved it and none of those He loved first loved Him. Just the opposite is true. We love Jesus because of the change wrought in our regenerate hearts, a change that came about because He first loved us. Jesus didn’t meet us halfway or 90% of the way or even 99.99999% of the way. He first loved us (1 John 4:19). You won’t find many church goers who would argue with that. Sure that might quibble over the details but at the core they would affirm this idea. Start to put it to the test and you start to get a different response.
I got into a fairly detailed and at times heated discussion this weekend regarding whether we are ever, as followers of Christ, justified in using violence in self-defense or the defense of others. I take an absolutist position that we are never called to use violence, even when confronted with someone bent on violence and even when “innocents” are at risk. The responses to that position were predictable, emotional and often angry interspersed with lots of hypotheticals like the old standby “what would you do if someone were going to hurt your family” presented as a trump card. Say you would do whatever it takes to defend them and you are a hypocrite, say you would not use violence to defend them and you are a coward. It is a cheap rhetorical trick designed to end a discussion without dealing with the issue.
Believe me when I say that I get it. As a husband and a father, as a man, my natural impulse when I think of my family in peril is to react violently, to protect them by any means necessary. The thought of someone so much as threatening to hurt my family makes my blood boil. That is just natural. Of course there are lots of other natural inclinations that I have that I certainly would not follow. Our focus needs to be on what Jesus taught and what He modeled, not on trying to find loopholes or hypothetical’s to excuse our disobedience. Jesus never said that following Him would be easy, in fact He promised us just the opposite. That is hard to swallow if you have a view that only extends to this life but as His redeemed sheep we should have eternity in view at all times.
Here is the real kicker. I don’t know what I would do if someone threatened my family. I am a gun owner many times over. In the heat of the moment what would I do in that circumstance? I know what I should do. I am not as certain that I would try to resolve the situation peaceably, which is precisely why John Piper doesn’t own a gun. Even John admits that he doesn’t know what he would do in that situation faced with a hypothetical intruder who in all likelihood doesn’t know Christ and I don’t know what I would do either (and for that matter in spite of the chest thumping pseudo-machismo most other men who are awfully brave behind a keyboard also don’t know. I have never had to do so but I imagine that shooting and killing another human being is not as easy as it is made out to be). Call the police? Tackle the intruder and hang on until my family escapes? Thump him with a heavy object? Shoot him in the leg? I hope I never have to make that decision and I further hope that if I did that I would have the strength to make the right decision.
I do know this. Jesus told us to love our enemies (Matt 5: 44-47; Luke 6: 27-36). Paul likewise taught us to overcome evil with good and leave vengeance to God (Romans 12: 14-21). Those teachings are as unambiguous as any in the Bible and we shouldn’t waste even a second trying to find ways to wiggle around them. We should instead actively be pursuing ways to love our enemies even if (perhaps especially if) the prevailing culture and human nature teach us something else. Loving our enemies is central to the Gospel message and the life of the disciple. It is a key component of living a Kingdom oriented life rather than a moralistic, religious life. Where we find that our personal opinions, preferences and inclinations clash with Scripture we should strive to be conformed to Christ rather than the culture.
It will almost never be popular but being popular has never been what the Christian life was supposed to be about.