When Jesus said to love our enemies

When Jesus said to love our enemies,
it wasn’t just about winning people over with the love of God,
it wasn’t just about us finding the peace of God in times of trouble,
though it does that too.
It also transforms us. 
When difficult circumstances rip deep into our heart,
Jesus calls us to respond with his own attitude of love and grace,
moulding the deepest parts of our heart into the image of God.

Love narrower

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Is the bible the only basis for morality?

It is a popular argument in evangelism: without an absolute moral standard handed down from God, all we ever have is an ‘anything goes’ moral relativism. ‘Good’ is simply whatever seems right to each individual. People’s idea of what is right and wrong may be exact opposites. Here is an example of this sort of argument.

While it may sound like a great argument (it’s not1) it simply isn’t what the bible teaches. It’s also pretty insulting to non-Christians too, especially with American Christians voting in such large numbers for a racist, sexual predator like Trump, an irony that isn’t lost on non-Christians.

But the bible is much more positive about other people’s moral understanding. Paul tells us that even without the Mosaic Law, Gentiles who don’t know the bible, show they have God’s law written on their hearts Rom 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires… 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

More importantly, the bible doesn’t teach the commandments as the absolute basis of morality written in stone… well maybe written in stone, but not the absolute basis.

moral-absolutes-3-capture

Paul describes the Old Testament Law as a child’s tutor Gal 3:24. There is a deeper moral principle the commandments themselves are founded on, a deeper magic as Aslan put it. Rom 13:9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Jesus himself said all of the Old Testament commandments are based on two great commandments, to love God and love your neighbour. Matt 22:37 NLT Jesus replied, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’e 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”.

Since we seem to find ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ so difficult to understand, Jesus explained it another way. Matt 7:12 So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them… Again Jesus tells us this principle sums up all of the commandments in the Old Testament …for this is the law and the prophets. But this principle, the Golden rule, or ‘do as you would be done by’ is found in one form or another throughout the world’s major religions and in a lot of our philosophies.

Does it somehow take from Christianity that ‘do unto others…’ is found in other religions?

It shouldn’t. We are all created in God’s image, remember how Paul tells us even Gentiles without the OT Law have God’s law written on their hearts.
Jesus didn’t have a problem with it either. When a Jewish theologian asked Jesus what loving you neighbour meant, Jesus picked an example from outside Judaism, a Samaritan, motivated not by the Jewish Law, but by the gut-wrenching empathy that he felt towards the man bleeding dying on the road to Jericho.

The Golden Rule isn’t based on divine revelation, it flows from our human capacity for empathy. It is how we are made, how we evolved, how God created us. We see someone being suffering or being mistreated, the empathy centres in our brain signal to us how we would feel in the other person’s place. And it’s not just a mental response in our brain. The sensations of deep emotion are sent down the vagus nerve telling our heart to beat faster, our stomach to tighten and our intestines to feel as though they were being tied up in a knot. The way we are built, seeing the pain of a fellow human resonates through our body.

We talk of our heart going out to someone, it may be a metaphor but it is based on the human physiological response when we empathise. The word Jesus used for the Samaritan’s compassion (the tongue twister splagchnizomai) comes from the Greek word for intestines. The Samaritan felt compassion for dying man deep in his very guts.

This is how we know we should treat others as we would have them treat us, to love the as we love ourselves. When we see their suffering, we feel it deep in our gut as though we were suffering it ourselves. We know in our hearts they are a person just like us with feelings like ours to be valued as we value our own life.

Which is why a compassionate humanist or atheist can have a much deeper, much more mature moral understanding than a Christian whose moral framework simply a rule based. And as a friend point out to me when we were discussing this, that was Jesus’ point in the parable of the Good Samaritan talking about the religious people, the priest and the Levite, who walked by, while the Samaritan was the one who stopped and helped his fellow man.

Our understanding of justice and human rights is based on this. We recognise injustice because we wouldn’t want to be treated that way. We know treatment that is fair and just when we see it, and we recognise treatment we would cry out aginst ourselves. This understanding of justice and injustice is shared across all cultures by every religion and none. The only limit to our concept of justice and human rights is the limit of our empathy. For more on the limits of empathy and how it is manipulated by certain politicians to spread hate, see my blog Listening to right wing politicians can turn you psychopathic.

Another moral basis Christians use

This one is closer to the empathy based loving you neighbour as yourself. We love and value our fellow man because they are made in God’s image. Martin Luther King used this as an argument for human rights. In fact, it is used in the bible to prod religious people who are less than perfect in the way they treat others. Prov 17:5 Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker. James 3:9 With (our tongues) we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. This is a pretty good basis for treating people decently, far better than simply following rules because God said so. But like rule following, this moral basis is limited to people who believe in God and believe he created and loves us.

But God wants us to go further than rule following, or loving people because God loves them. God wants us to love others as we love ourselves, because we recognise them as people like us, who have feeling like we do, and we feel it ourselves when they hurt or suffer injustice.

Is there anything that sets the bible and Christianity morality apart?

The Christian version of the Golden Rule is one of higher versions, teaching the positive side of ‘do unto others’. Most other versions only teach the negative side, don’t do what you wouldn’t like done to you. Basically, the higher version of the Golden rules say “help you neighbour when he falls because that what you’d want yourself” the lower version says “don’t kick him when he’s down, you wouldn’t like that yourself”. While the lower version is most common, the higher version can be found also in religions and philosophies like Taoism, Jainism and Islam.

One thing that sets Christianity apart is that God not only calls us to treat our neighbour with love and compassion, but he also demonstrated this love and compassion himself, by becoming human and laying down his life for us in the greatest act of sacrificial love and compassion.

Which of course leads into the biggest difference about Christianity, that our whole relationship with God is based what Christ has done, rather than our own, frankly terrible, efforts at doing the right thing. For a Christian learning to love others better and use our God-given empathy and compassion flows out of that as we walk in relationship with Jesus and are transformed by his Word and his Holy Spirt within us.

And lastly

For those who don’t believe in God the evolution of morality and a sense of justice raises the disturbing suggestion that our material universe comes prewired for it. It is not just humans who evolved it either. Empathy and an understanding fairness keep emerging in social species once they develop sufficient brain capacity. We see it in animals as distantly related as birds, dogs and capuchin monkeys.

They could try to dismiss morality and justice as random side effect of evolution, instincts that are beneficial for group survival but of no intrinsic meaning. But to do that they would have to abandon the fundamental importance of compassion justice and human rights that from the very centre of their being3 their own empathy and compassion is telling them is real.

Either that live with the cognitive dissonance that the basis for justice, morality and the rights of others seem to be written into the fabric of the materialistic universe as deeply as the laws of mathematics, just waiting for organisms sufficiently developed to recognise them.

Notes

1 A major problem with the argument for an absolute morality is, (as any well informed atheist will tell a Christian who tried to use it), it had a massive hole punched in it way back in the time of Plato. It is called the Euthyphro dilemma, where Plato pushed the problem of arbitrary morality one step further back. “Is goodness (piety) loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” If God really liked when we tortured kittens, would that make torturing kittens moral? Which spins off into further philosophical questions, but it is enough to show that this popular evangelistic argument doesn’t work.

How to pronounce splagchnizomai

3 Via the vagus nerve.

Don’t look down

We had the pleasure of having Keith Warrington teaching us in church this weekend. One of the questions he asked was “how does the bible teach us about God” and passed around bunches of postcards we could use as illustrations. I picked:

empire state of mind article-2206050-0059AA091000044C-332_964x756

As Keith showed the card around the room there were groans, intakes of breath, groans and exclamations of “I feel sick”.

A simple photo looking down on New York rooftops would not have done that. But because there were people sitting out on the girder high above the streets below, we put ourselves in their place and felt the deep emotional response, what we felt about being in their situation ourselves.* It isn’t just a response in our heads. This reaction was signalled by our brain down through our body along the vagus nerve until we felt the reaction in our very guts.

That is why we associate intense emotions like being in love with our heart. You heart goes pitter-pat, skips a beat (there is medicine for that now), you suffer heart ache. Deeper  emotions can be felt as butterflies in your stomach, being love sick, having your stomach in knots. These aren’t just metaphors (though the butterflies aren’t real), your brain is using your whole body as a sounding board to express your emotions. If the emotional turmoil is strong enough you can end up having to rush to the loo.

With empathy and compassion we feel the same responses, only for other people’s suffering. We react the way we’d feel about being in that situation ourselves. This was how the Good Samaritan reacted to the man he found beaten up and dying on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The Levite and the priest had more important things to do and just passed by, not the Samaritan. But he didn’t just think, “that’s terrible I must do something”. He felt the compassion for the man deep down in his guts. That is what the Greek means, it’s the verb splagchnizomai from splagchnon intestines. This is what loving neighbour means. Jesus told the parable to illustrate loving our neighbour and who qualifies as neighbour Luke 10:25-37. This is the compassion and empathy we are called to throughout the bible. Exodus 23:9 Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. Deut 10:19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Quotes from the NIV) The very phrase ‘love you neighbour as yourself’ calls us to put ourselves in the other person’s position and feel things from another persons perspective.

This kind of love should grow in our lives as a fruit of being filled with the Holy Spirit.* It is one of God’s highest priorities, if not the highest priority, as he begins to transform our lives into the image of Jesus Christ. Paul lists love first when tells us the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:22,23. It is at the end of his list in Colossians but described as ‘above all’. Col 3:14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

How does this help us know  God better? As we learn more about love we begin to understand the love God has for us, and for others. It resonates more deeply with us when we read about the deep compassion Jesus had for people in the Gospels, especially the outcasts and marginalised. But more than that, what we read about God and about Jesus simply makes more sense as we begin to understand it through eyes of love.

I like to think of empathy as a superpower   🙂  Unlike invisibility or bending space and time, it has the advantage of being real. But a real superpower comes with limitations. It isn’t mind reading. We don’t feel a disturbance in the Force as if millions of voices are silenced. We are simply imagining how we would feel in someone else’s situation. It is often pretty accurate, or at least enough to tell us the other person is in desperate need. But if you look at those men sitting on the girder having lunch, they aren’t bothered by it at all. They don’t feel the way we would about such a precarious perch. Which is why, when we have the opportunity, instead of simply rushing in with all our good intentions, we should listen to people too. Often that is the thing they need most.

So just how powerful is this ‘superpower’ of ours? The Good Samaritan’s empathy saved a life. Compassion can pull someone out of the depths of despair or transform a whole society. But for our compassion to move and change others, it has to move and change us first. His compassion moved the Samaritan to kneel down and begin cleaning and binding the man’s wounds…

 

updated June 6 2016

*We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking because love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that this kind of compassion is limited to Christians. Remember Jesus used the example of a Samaritan, whom the Jews would have regarded as heretics, to show what compassion and loving our neighbour means.

 

Into the Heart of God

In an earlier blog The heart of God I looked at the relationship in God between the Father and Son, not the quiet serenity I expected, but sheer exuberant joy and delight. In Prov 8:30 we get a picture of Christ before the creation of the world, saying of the Father: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.

What I realised after I wrote that is astounding. This is the very relationship God welcomes us into through Jesus. John 17:21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

I’d understood since I was a young Christian that I was accepted in God through Christ. I knew that I was loved and welcomed. And this was very important to me as I struggled with Chronic Fatigue, to realise again that my relationship with God didn’t depend on anything I was able, or rather unable to do. I was a child of God through Christ’s death on the cross, nothing of my own efforts or achievements would add or take away from that. Now as children of God, his Spirit is working in us, transforming us to be more like Jesus, but our acceptance as his children is total and complete.

But God the Father doesn’t just welcome and accept us, he delights in us with the same wild exuberant joy he delights in Christ. Of course it was there in the bible all along, I’d sung the chorus enough times: Zeph 3:17 The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.

father-child-1578002

And yet thinking about all this, I had to ask, how can God rejoice over us as he looks on the mess, the pain and sin of our daily lives and relationships?

Our relationship with God is founded on Christ’s death on the cross, we keep having to keep going back there. Jesus didn’t just bear our sins there he bore our sorrows and pains too. Isaiah 53:4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. When we are struggling with hurt and pain with circumstances we cannot bear, we go back to the cross to find Christ bearing it all for us, and with us. God can rejoice over us with pure delight because he has met us in Christ at the cross to bear all our sins and grief.

Listening to right wing politicians can turn you psychopathic.

The biggest difference between psychopaths and the rest of us is that psychopaths have no empathy, they see people in pain but they don’t feel that pain themselves, the way we flinch when we see someone hit their thumb with a hammer. Psychopaths aren’t all mass murders but can be successful surgeons, salespeople, CEOs and bankers, though perhaps that wasn’t the best idea.

This blog came about when I was trying to read up on the difference between empathy and compassion.* I came across research on what our brain scans look like when we feel empathy. As you might expect, psychopaths didn’t show an empathy response to people suffering, but neither did ordinary people if they thought the person suffering was cheating or was not ‘one of us’.

https://www.cogneurosociety.org/empathy_pain/
…the second wave of empathy studies has shown that this natural capacity for empathic resonance can easily be blocked – not just in psychopaths – but in all of us: Simply because we think someone was unfair or is not belonging to “our tribe”.

Right wing media and politicians justify attacking the poorest and most vulnerable in society, the people most in need to our empathy and compassion, by portraying them as benefit cheats and scroungers, or building up a picture of ‘us and them’ with them portrayed as a threat to us, our own tribe. David Cameron talks of supporting ‘hard working families’ even though the cuts hit many of the poorest working families. Worse still, this in-group excludes the most vulnerable in our society, the unemployed the sick and disabled who are not only outside his ‘hard working families’ tribe, but are constantly portrayed as scroungers and benefit cheats. The Labour party has bought into this rhetoric too by promising to reduce welfare without asking the very basic question how much welfare we need to take care of the poor and vulnerable in our society.

Immigrants are even easier to portray as not belonging to ‘our tribe’ even though it comes with the obvious problem of promoting a racist divide between ‘real Britons’ and foreigners, rather than being our neighbours, part of the rich tapestry that makes up our society, and fellow human beings. Immigrants are also portrayed as taking away jobs from locals (though immigrants create more jobs than people born here). They are constantly being portrayed as a drain on the benefit system and the NHS, so called benefit and health tourism, even though immigrants make a net positive contribution to the economy and pay more in the tax system that funds benefits and the NHS than they claim.

These politicians build support by creating an enemy who they blame for the problems in society, then promising to punish the out-group it has portrayed as outsiders or cheats. The Conservatives use the cuts in funding for the poorest and most vulnerable to pay for tax breaks to the sort of person they really do consider ‘one of them’, the very rich.

And to get you to agree with their harsh and cruel treatment of the poorest and most vulnerable in society all they have to do keep repeating the rhetoric that switches off your natural empathy towards them and turns your response psychopathic. The more you hear the sick described as ‘scrounger’s and the unemployed described as’ lazy’ and ‘benefit cheats’, and blamed for the crash that was cause by banks and big business, the more you hear all of your country’s problems blamed on a ‘tidal wave’ of immigrants, the more you hear the rhetoric repeated by people around you, the less you will be able to feel for them emotionally when you see them being abused. You can still fell empathy and compassion to members of your own tribe, in fact they rely on the compassion and concern you have for your own people, that can be solved by attacking and punishing the scroungers and keeping out foreigners. It is just the out-group, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the immigrants, you will respond psychopathically to. And you will have little or no idea your mind has been twisted that way.

The claims don’t need evidence, they just need repetition, that is what builds and reinforces nerve connections in the brains. “There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.” William James. For those with the stomach for it, here are some Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines.

America’s Religious Right

Writing from across the Atlantic it explains one of the strangest phenomena in the USA, conservative American Christians can be the most caring and compassionate people. They are followers of Christ who taught us care for the poor and love for our neighbour even if the neighbour is foreigner like Samaritans. Compassion for the poor and care for immigrants are taught all through the bible. Yet right wing American Christians vote for tax cuts for the very rich and cutting benefits for the poor, they cry out to deny them health care and demand busloads of child refugees to be turned back at the Mexican border. Part of it is belief in the rhetoric of ‘trickle down economics’, that tax cuts for the rich create jobs and that it is welfare rather than not enough jobs that stops people finding work. But none of this rhetoric would work if American Christians saw the suffering these policies cause the most vulnerable in society, and felt the pain. But to put the psychology and brain scans in biblical terms, their hearts have been hardened.

You don’t need to be a Christian to act morally to others, you just need the empathy to understand other people’s pain and how you actions affect them. Do the 16% of ‘nones’ thinking of voting UKIP realise how Nigel Farage’s rhetoric has stripped them of their ability to empathise, and that they think about immigrants their brain responds psychopathically?

The warrior gene, when society needs warriors

This ability to turn off empathy is a natural reaction that allows groups to defend themselves in wars against genuine threats. In fact the genetics behind psychopaths such as MAO-A the warrior gene, is thought to be selected for this reason and is switched off if children are raised in a stable loving environments.

While this psychopathic reaction is advantageous in times of genuine war, it is terrible for making peace, it leaves people baying for the destruction of the enemy with no regard to cost to the enemy or themselves. Worse the inability to empathise leaves you unable to understand the other side’s point of view, a point of view that is as legitimate to them as yours is to you. Because it is only through understanding how they feel, their fears and how they feel they have been wronged, can we come to a lasting understanding and peace.

There have always been unscrupulous politicians that have know how to blame the ills of society on a vulnerable group and build support and political power by attacking them. Communist regimes used it to justify their ‘re-education’ camps for the “enemies of the people”. Islamic extremists justify their vicious attacks on innocent people by calling them crusaders and infidels.

We now know a bit more about what is going on in our brains when we listen to the words of politicians and media who sow division and hate.. A diet of rightwing media slandering and alienating a whole community affects the brain on a deeper level than any pretence in it of rational argument, it takes our capacity for empathy and dials it down all the way to psychopath.

In 2000AD graphic novels the Judge Dread character Mean Machine has a dial on his head that turns from 1 Surly, through 2 Mean, 3 Vicious all the way up to 4 Brutal, the problem was it kept getting stuck at 4. Thing is we all have a dial like that that can make us treat people as though we are psychopaths, and without us realising, and without even overtly preaching hate, politicians and media can make us think and vote like psychopaths.

MeanMachine2

*while empathy is feeling what others feel, compassion is more a realisation that people are suffering and wanting to help.

Update May 2nd 2015

Just had a letter about this published in the latest New Scientist. It’s the 2nd letter on the Letters page.

Jesus’ hardest message

What was the most challenging message Jesus spoke?

It wasn’t ‘love you enemies’ though that is close. It is one we agree to every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. We often agree blindly, like ticking yes on a software licence without reading it, though the prayer is very short and usually not in small print. Matthew 6:12 NLT and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.

In case we missed the point, Jesus goes on immediately to say: Matt 6:14 If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Jesus repeated the challenge when Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive. In answer Jesus tells the story of the Unforgiving Servant. He is forgiven a huge debt by his master but shows no mercy to a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount (a bit like bailed out banks foreclosing on mortgages.) Matt 18:32 ESV Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34  And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
Jesus concluded the parable saying: 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

Did Jesus contradict the Gospel message that grace is free gift?

Does our salvation depend on our ability to forgive others? How can this fit with the Gospel that says God’s forgiveness is a gift, one we can never pay for? It is Christ’s death and resurrection that redeems us, there is nothing we can do to earn it. So how can it come with a hidden price, worse still a price so many broken and hurting people simply cannot pay?

It would mean the only one who would make it are those who had an easy life, who can forgive because they never really suffered that much. Meanwhile the abused and mistreated are excluded because there is more hurt in their lives than it is humanly for them to forgive. That doesn’t sound like Jesus who came to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed Luke 4:18 (WEB). Yet it is this same Jesus who heals the broken hearted who demands we forgive.

The love of God in our hearts.

I think the answer is found in the nature of the Gospel itself. It is not simply the promise of forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. It is the nature of the life Jesus freely gives us.

The gospel isn’t simply having our sins forgiven, it is God pouring his own nature, his love and mercy into our lives. If we then refuse to forgive someone else, we are refusing the new life God is offering us. God’s love and grace is free, but if we want it in our life, it has to have our whole life. We cannot compartmentalise, we cannot shut off areas of our life where God’s love and mercy cannot reach, cannot heal, cannot flow through in mercy and love to others.

The Gospel is God freely welcoming us to be his sons. But to be a son of God is to accept the amazing free gift of God’s own nature transforming our hearts. Sons of God are called to love others as God has loved us, to be merciful and forgiving as God has been merciful to us. The reason Jesus commands us to love our enemies  is …so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven Matt 5:45.

This isn’t about earning our salvation or earning sonship, it is about our willingness to accept all that God’s free gift of sonship entails. The demand Christ makes is still there, but the transformation was never something we could do on our own. It is the transforming of God’s love in our hearts that enables us to forgive when we ourselves are powerless to.

There is a difference between “I will not” and “I cannot”.

We can refuse completely to forgive, but if we do, we are refusing God’s mercy a place in our lives. But when the broken hearted and wounded are confronted by Jesus’ call to forgiveness and cry out to him in pain, ‘Lord, I cannot’, when we give the hurt and pain to him, we are allowing Christ to work his healing and grace in our lives, know he will lead us into a love and forgiveness we cannot produce ourselves. And Jesus gently leads us to his cross where he himself bore our pain and suffering. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows Isaiah 53:4.

This has no timetable for this. Healing may be instant or it may take years. Especially if we are hurting from deep betrayal or years of abuse

People who don’t know better may try to rush you or ask why you aren’t over it already. Abusers too demand rapid forgiveness, so they can carry on with their manipulative behaviour unchallenged. But God works in his own time, all that matters is that you have given it to him, and are following him as he leads you though the healing process and learning to forgive.

The demand that we forgive is not meant to enable an abuser to carry on abusing. Sexual abuse needs to be reported to the police. If mistreatment isn’t going to stop, get out of that situation. Jesus came to set prisoners free. While love and forgiveness can bring restoration to broken relationships, Jesus tells us if people who abuse us refuses to listen, refuse to change, we should treat them as an unbelieving Gentile or a tax collector working for pagan Rome, Matt 18:17.

How is this forgiveness?

The Sermon in the Mount isn’t just about forgiving those who are willing to reconcile with us. Jesus was talking about loving and forgiving enemies and persecutors. Restoring relationships, allowing the person back into your life depends on them repenting and changing their behaviour, and you trusting that they really have changed. But you can still forgive them and love them if they don’t. When Jesus said to treat people who don’t repent like tax collectors, we should remember how Jesus treated tax collectors.

Loving our enemies

We have the power of God’s grace and love transforming our hearts, but there is also something very practical in Jesus’ command love for enemies. He doesn’t ask us to feel love or feel forgiveness, but to treat these people with love. If they curse you, answer them with a blessing. Those may not have been the sort of words that come out at the time, but you can still pray blessing for them later. If someone hates you, can you do something good for them? If they abuse you, you can get before God and pray for them.

Matt 5:44  But I say to you,
Love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
45  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.

We find a longer list in the Sermon on the Plain.
Luke 6:27  “But I say to you who hear,
Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
28  bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
29  To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.
30  Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back
31  And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.…
35  But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
36  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Because while you allow God’s love to flow to them through you, his grace is transforming the hurt and pain your heart too. The acts of love towards enemies Jesus commands us to perform bring the transformation in our hearts.

When we cannot feel love for those who hurt us, when we cannot feel forgiving, cannot feel anything other than hurt and anger, we can still act out God’s love for them, praying for them, praying Gods blessing on their families, blessing them with acts of kindness however small, when we do we are not only being a channel of God’s love to them, we are allowing God’s love and mercy into these areas of hurt and pain in our lives, and slowly the healing takes place in our hearts. And we are living out what it mean to be a child of God

Don’t be discouraged if years later the hurt comes flooding back. Roots of hurt and bitterness go deep and take time to heal. See it as God’s timing to go back to the pain and continue to work his mercy and grace. Just keep responding to the hurt and anger with blessing and prayer, committing them to God’s love and mercy.

And if you cannot, give the ‘cannot’ to God’s hands, give your inability to love and forgive, to let go the hurt, to God’s mercy and love and he will lead you through healing in his time.

Conclusion

The world was horrified when 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS. Yet Coptic Bishop Angaelos astounded the world by saying “The only way forward is to forgive… I think as Christians that’s our mandate, it’s what we do. I don’t see it as being difficult” I don’t agree that it is easy, but it is our mandate, it is the life Christ calls us to.

There are two mistakes we can make with the challenges Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount. One is to water them down or say they don’t really apply to us today.

The other is to be overwhelmed, condemned knowing we can never measure up. But we were never meant to do it on our own. It is what Christ is calling us to, being his disciples is the journey there with him. We can begin that walk of faith with Jesus with the simple act of obedience and pray for those who abuse you…