Monday, April 23, 2012

Loving Your Enemies Is Easy To Do In Sunday School

Orthodoxy and orthopraxy (right doctrine and right practice) are so very easy when sitting around the table in Sunday school. When it is neat and tidy we are so at ease with what the Bible teaches us. We read the Bible, affirm what it says and parrot it back on demand. When we leave the comfortable confines of the church building or the theology conference? It gets far more difficult.

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.


Jonathan said...


Thanks for writing about this. I know first hand how frustrating and often difficult it is to stand on the particular position you hold. In your words I hear the echo of things I have said, thought, and felt over and over again.

I find myself greatly encouraged today, so thank you.

Debbie said...

"I take an absolutist position...." That made me chuckle. It's absolutely shocking to see you take an absolutist position! ;)

Not wanting to get into an argument about this topic, but here are a couple things to think about....

Jesus is the ultimate example of loving our enemies. Yet when He drove the moneychangers out of the temple, I imagine everyone there would have described His behavior as rather violent. A shepherd's rod may be used to guide a lamb, but may also be used to break its leg (again, a rather violent action) so it won't keep wandering into danger.

A lack of violence does not equal loving someone, any more than a kiss equals loving that person (think Judas). I think the key is that loving someone means doing what is best for that person, regardless of how one feels about it. Does the shepherd enjoy breaking a leg? No, but he does it to protect his sheep.

It is a much more complex situation when many people are involved, as in someone threatening my family (how do I do what is best for each individual at the same time?), but it still applies. Is it more loving to knock someone out, or stand by while he kills someone - an action with long-lasting, potentially devasting effects on his life and spirit? If it were my son holding the gun, I would do whatever it took to stop him from murdering someone - yell, scream, beat on him, break his arm, etc. (though I can't picture myself doing all that). Should I do less for an intruder I don't know?

Arlan said...

I agree with you on this. People can find bits here and there to suggest normal self-defensive violence, such as Jesus' instruction to his disciples that each one should carry a sword. But the evidently misunderstood him (and certainly not for the first time), for he rebuked and even rescinded the actions of the disciple who put his sword to use.

The strange thing is that although the absolutist position best fits the New Testament teaching and example, it is not an explicit teaching. You might say it is explicit in "love your enemy," and I agree with you in principle; but all of the commandments are summed up in love and the apostolic writers still emphasize some particulars (murder, idolatry, sexual immorality, etc).

A complete abstinence from lethal force fits the apostolic witness in a time when there were plenty of reasons to take up arms. But it does not appear to be a point of contention; the Greek, Roman, and Hebrew cultures recognized a difference between murder specifically and judicial/martial killing, and none of the recorded scripture takes pains to explicitly forbid both.

The God who is love will kill his enemies. Non-violence is not a matter of love per se so much as a witness of grace and service; the particular expression of God that Christ bore in the flesh.

Arthur Sido said...

Arlan, would you say that it is possible to love your enemy while engaging in violence against them? Even in the cross we see the opposite, God responded to His enemies not with violence toward them but by violence for them and toward Himself.

Arthur Sido said...


I make no apologies for taking absolutist positions but I also try to remain open to being wrong on an issue. This is one of those.

I see the Jesus in the temple example a lot and on the surface it sort of makes sense. When examined more deeply though it raises the question we should always ask when studying Christ: why was He doing what He was doing, or saying what He was saying? Jesus never operated in a vacuum, He was never a victim of His circumstances. The cleansing of the temple was not a random act, it was a deliberate act that carried greater meaning for the religious authorities of the day that spoke to how their worship had lost its original meaning and it was a fulfillment of Scripture.

I guess I trust that Jesus is better able to discern when a scourge is appropriate than I am. After all Romans 12 speaks of the Lord as the avenger and Jesus is that Lord.

Arlan said...

Some would say you cannot love your children and discipline them (physically). I think this is wrong. Along with this, I believe Jesus was behaving with godly love when he cleansed the temple and when he rebuked the pharisees. Neither of those cases would seem like love to most people.

I made a sudden diversion to note that God will kill his enemies because he will. Some of the present forms of peace churches seem to have forgotten this. God destroyed the world with flood, Sodom and Gomorrah with fire, Egypt with plagues, Canaan with war, and Uzzah (OT), Annanias, and Sapphira (NT) by his own hand. Evil will be punished. The enemies of God will die. "Vengeance is mine," declares the Lord.

But, as I said at first, I agree with you. The Law given by Moses was a testament against us, which provided a penalty for so many sins that every person falls under judgement. But not all guilty were judged. David lived, although under the penalty of death.

In fact, we all live, even though we are under the penalty of death. This is intrinsic to the gospel message. You have no "right" to your life. You have a right to punishment, to death. God's forbearance in allowing us to continue in our worldly, fleshly life is an image of his forbearance in providing us his spiritual life. Creation (and the Creator) were subjected to suffering so that we might live.

So then, a Christ-like non-violence is not a denial that there is evil and it is not a denial that evil should and will be punished. Christ-like non-violence is an admission of guilt - of the guilt that Christ bore. If he took my penalty of death than he also took yours.

The lives and welfare we are called to defend by the world are only the fleshly lives that will soon perish anyway. True life cannot be touched by man. In not defending our wives and children by the power of death, we do not deny our love for them; rather, we profess God's love for them. He who made them first live in the flesh is able to keep them alive by His Spirit. The wicked one who would harm our families will either be covered by the blood of Christ (and his sin against us passed over) or he will surely face the second death that we have no power to impose.

Arlan said...

We love our enemies because that is what Christ did and taught while he was here in the flesh. Imitating this is part of what makes us Christ-like, Christian, as distinct from God-fearing who were never called after the name of Christ. Non-violence has a specific reference to the revelation of Jesus Christ (his presence in the flesh). Rather than being an eternal attribute of God (which Love is), non-violence is a role/message/word/witness to convey and emphasize a specific aspect of his work.

The sacrifice of lambs and bulls did not produce righteousness. But it pointed to the need for atonement. The practice of non-violence does not product righteousness. But it points to the abundance of grace.

Have I clarified my meaning?