Life’s Greatest Challenge…

I’ve spent the past few weeks learning to love again. I say again. It may be for the first time, but I rather hope that it’s simply a reset of love. I have learned that love from the biblical perspective—that sacrificial, self-denying love—is first, the greatest characteristic that is displayed by those called disciples of Christ. I’ve also learned that love is also the greatest commandment as Jesus himself affirmed that we are to love God and love others. What I’m learning more and more is that love—transformative, life-giving love—is also the greatest challenge I will face as a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus tells me as much in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7. Most times, it’s enough to let scripture speak for itself:

43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5: 43 – 48 (New Living Translation)

The Transformative Power of Love

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has called his disciples together and said, “Come here and sit down. Let me tell you what life will look like as my disciples.” Jesus is seeking to give his disciples a new worldview—not so much new as corrected because Jesus wasn’t making new laws for his disciples but correcting some false assumptions about the law as it had evolved through the years.

Jesus would say to them, “You’ve heard it said…,” yet it’s like Jesus was recalling other parts of the law—parts like Leviticus 19:18–“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Or, perhaps Exodus 23: 4 -5–“If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.” Jesus was saying, “Let’s remember what the Law really says, and I remind you that we love everyone—even our enemies.”

Hard words, indeed! Love God? Sure. Love our neighbors? Working on that one. But, love our enemy? How do we do that? More importantly, why would we do that? Because Jesus knew that love–biblical love–is the most transformative force in the universe.

A little girl was given candy by her friend. She got home to show her mother, and mother said, “Your friend was really sweet.”

“Yes,” said the little girl, “she gave me more, but I gave some away.”

Mom said, “Who did you give it too?”

The daughter said, “I gave it to a girl who pushes me off the sidewalk and makes faces at me.”

“Why in the world would you do that,” the mother asked?

“Because I thought it would help her know I want to be kind to her, and maybe then she won’t be so unkind to me,” the daughter replied.

Perhaps Solomon knew something about the transformative power of love when he wrote “If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25: 21 – 22).

I’ve learned that love–any love–requires an emotional engagement. If I love God with all my heart and soul, that requires emotional engagement. If I would love my neighbor, I must be moved with compassion (or pity), and that’s an emotions. If I would love my enemies, it’s really no different. It’s likely only to be that I hate them, but guess what? Hate is an emotion! The truth is our engagement may not necessarily be a positive one, but at least it’s a starting place.

Love is a Decision

Beyond connecting on the emotional level, I’ve also learned that love is a decision of the will. It is a decision of the will that transforms the heart. It is a victory of over our rational and our natural instincts. In Jesus’ day, the natural and rational had taken over the law. The Law was used for revenge and retribution. If we were to read the surrounding passages of scripture we’d hear all that “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” talk. That’s our natural inclination. Jesus wants to elevate us to a different level. He wants to elevate his disciples to God’s level, and he knew our love for even our enemies would do just that.

Corrie ten Boom shares this true story:

     “It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

     He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” He said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

     Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

     As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

The love that loves our enemies is not a natural thing. It is a supernatural thing. It comes only from God, yet it comes when we act in obedience to his call on our lives. See, we don’t have to like it to be faithful, we just have to do it.

If love is a decision of the will, I have to make three decisions to be obedient to Jesus. First, I must decide to bless my enemies. That’s how Luke’s gospel records this account of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke 6: 27 – 28 (NIV), Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” In this same sermon, Jesus talks about “turning the other cheek,” and he introduces the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do to you. That’s what we do when we decide to bless our enemies.

Robert E. Lee was asked what he thought of a fellow Confederate officer who had made derogatory remarks about Lee. General Lee rated him to be a rather satisfactory fellow. Perplexed, the man who asked Lee the question said, “General, I guess you don’t know what he’s been saying about you?”

“I know,” Lee responded, “but, you asked my opinion of him, not his opinion of me.”

The second decision I need to make is to pray for my enemies. I am thoroughly convinced that I can’t pray for a person and hate them at the same time. It’s impossible. William Barclay says, “The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray for the man we are tempted to hate.” While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us. I must decide to bless my enemies, and pray for my enemies.

Finally, I need to decide to forgive my enemies. Forgiveness, like love itself, is a choice. As Corrie Ten Boom gave testimony, forgiveness was transformative, not only for the relationship between her and the guard, but inside herself. Why is that so? Because forgiveness is what makes us “perfect.” The word Matthew uses for perfect is teleios, and it doesn’t mean without flaw or blemish, as we so often use it in English.

While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us.

The word Matthew uses means “brought to completion, mature, full-grown.” We are made in God’s image. We are made to be like God, and when we love our enemies we are acting like children of God.  The Bible teaches that we realize our full humanity only by becoming more and more like Christ. The one thing that distinguishes us and makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for people, no matter what they do to us. We realize our humanity, we become perfect, when we learn to forgive as God forgives and love as God loves.

Bambalang

That’s exactly what the people in the village of Bambalang, in Cameroon, Africa discovered. Pastor Pius Mbahlegue tells the story in March, 2011, the village had a dispute with a neighboring village over traditional burial rights. The rival village attacked. 300 homes were burned, and 3,000 people were displaced. The residents of Bambalang were unable to return to their village until the Cameroon military came and drove the rival villagers out.

The Bambalang residents returned and found nothing left. Even their rice field had been burned. The attack began on a Sunday and lasted through the following Thursday. As the villagers returned to worship the following Sunday, it was the very day planned to dedicate the Gospel of Luke which had been translated into their native language. As the residents read from Luke’s Gospel, they came to chapter 6:27 and read of loving your enemies.

One resident, upon reading the words in her own language said it was like a dream, that the words were for her and for her village, and with that the villagers made the decision to overcome hate with love, and to love the rival villagers with the love of Christ. Thus, began a transformation in them, and in their relationship with the rival village. As one villager said, “I can’t hate them and not forgive them because I would want people to forgive me.” 

I’ve learned a lot as I’ve sought to reset the love in my life. I’ve learned that love is, indeed, hard work. It’s hard work to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. And, it’s hard work to love my neighbor as myself. As hard work as those two loves are, there is no harder work than loving my enemy. It is, perhaps, this life’s greatest challenge.

Until next time, keep looking up…

2,500 Miles in the Wrong Direction…

If I might use the superlative “great” in reference to the AMC series Breaking Bad, I don’t think it would be out of place. Breaking Bad was a great series with great characters, a great storyline, great actors, great dialogue, great drama and a great and tragic ending. That’s a lot of “greats,” isn’t it? One great scene that sticks in my mind is the last episode of the series. Walt and Jesse, his former partner in crime, stand face to face, and Walt is just ready for his life to end, and he taunts Jesse to do the deed. It’s a great ending to a great story.
jonah3The ending to the series Breaking Bad is so incredibly similar to the scene in which the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, finds himself at the end of the book (Read Jonah 4 here). I think I can use the same superlative “great” to describe Jonah’s story. As a matter of fact, the author of the book of Jonah uses the word “great” no less than fifteen times in the fifty-eight verses of the book. There is a “great” city. There is a “great” wind and a “great” storm. There are sailors with “great” fear. There are “great” people. God is “greatly” displeased, and there is “great” calamity. There is also “great” joy, and we must never forget there was a “great” fish that was part of Jonah’s story. We find Jonah sitting outside the city of Nineveh wishing for his life to end. Jonah is angry, and he challenges God to just kill him, already! If anyone ever needed an “attitude adjustment,” it was Jonah. So, how did Jonah get there?

Jonah was one of the “minor” prophets of the Old Testament. He’s best known for being swallowed up by a great fish, but there’s more to the story than that. Jonah’s journey begins when God calls him to “go down to Nineveh and preach.” But, Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and he certainly didn’t want to preach to them.

What does Jonah do? He hops a ship and goes 2,500 miles in the opposite direction. He wants to get as much water between he and the city of Nineveh as he can. God calls, and Jonah doesn’t answer, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” He put it in high gear and hightailed it to a place called Tarshish.

It is Jonah’s hightailing response you are most familiar with. You may remember that when he hopped that ship that God went with him, and the story goes there was a great wind and a great storm so that everyone on the ship thought they would perish. Jonah slept through the storm until finally the captain woke him up and challenged him to pray to his god for deliverance as all the other sailors were doing. Jonah eventually admits that he’s the cause of the storm and implores the sailors to throw him overboard to save themselves. Very noble wouldn’t you say? See, it’s not that Jonah is unconcerned for people in general. It’s just the Ninevites that he has a problem with. He was thrown overboard by the sailors and was swallowed by a “great” fish. Three days and three nights of severe indigestion caused the fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land, and wouldn’t you know, it was on the same seashore from which he left. Right back where he started from, and still confronted by God’s call to “go to Nineveh and preach.” So, what’s a guy to do standing on the seashore smelling of fish? “Alright,” Jonah says, “I’ll do it, but I won’t like it.”

Jonah goes to Nineveh, which is so large that it takes three days to cross it (that’s about sixty miles for those of us with pick-up trucks). Jonah arrives on the edge of the city and begins to deliver the shortest sermon in history—one sentence—five words in the Hebrew and eight in the English translation: “Forty days from now, Nineveh will be destroyed.” There are no flowery speeches, no illustrations, no three points and a poem. Short, sweet and to the point.

Someone said, “There’s no such thing as a bad short sermon.” That’s not true! I’ve heard some bad, short sermons. Jonah’s, however, was a great short sermon. It was great, not because it was short, but because it was effective. Jonah didn’t get a third of the way across the city before the people of Nineveh started repenting. They started putting on sackcloth and ashes, and what’s more, even the animals felt the power of Jonah’s message. Even the King, who heard the message second-hand, was touched and commanded the whole kingdom repent and turn to God. WOW! Billy Graham had nothing on Jonah! The problem was that such rousing success only served to make Jonah angry.

Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh because the Ninevites were the mortal enemies of Israel at this time in their history. The Assyrians were known for their extreme cruelty to the captors, and Israel had experienced that cruelty often during the years of the minor prophets (circa the 5 – 8th centuries B.C.). Assyrian records brag of live dismemberment wherein the victims were often left with only one hand so the Assyrian attacker could shake it before the person died. Another practice was making parades of heads, requiring friends of the deceased to carry them elevated on poles. Jonah really had no desire to go to Nineveh for obvious reasons. He might well have expected to be arrested, tortured, or become training fodder for the Assyrian army until they got tired of him, and led him through the city streets to hang as an act of national pride and unity.

Not only were the Assyrians enemies, but they were Gentile enemies. Do you know how much the Hebrews hated Gentiles? The daily prayer of the Hebrew man was to thank God they were not born slave, female or Gentile. The Gentiles were not God’s chosen people. They were not special like the Israelites. Surely, Jonah didn’t expect that God really wanted him to go to Nineveh?

Actually, Jonah knew that’s exactly what God wanted him to do. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh, literally went 2,500 miles in the wrong direction, was swallowed and vomited out by a great fish before he finally consented to go because, in his own words, “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God.” Imagine! Jonah’s bad attitude is because of God’s grace and mercy, and it’s so bad that it throws him into such a deep depression that he despairs his own life.

“I knew you’d relent, Lord.” “I knew you’d save them, Lord, and I just didn’t really want you to do that!” “They deserve to die for their wickedness and evil ways!” Imagine Jonah saying that, and never stopping for one moment to consider the same gracious and compassionate God had saved him from the belly of a fish not many days before.

In his anger, Jonah leaves the city and sets up camp on the off chance that the Ninevites show their true colors and revert to their evil ways, or God might wise up and destroy them anyway. Underneath his little brush arbor, God decides to give Jonah an attitude adjustment. A vine grows and provides shade for Jonah. “Ah, cool,” he thought, but the next day, a worm comes and destroys the vine while a scorching wind begins to blow. “Awe, man! Just let me die!” exclaims Jonah.

But, God said, “You’re angry because a vine died, and yet you didn’t make it grow or tend it?” The Lord continued, “Look Jonah, there’s a city down there with 120,000 people that I care about, not to mention the animals. You should care about them.” God lets him know that he misses the point totally.

Jonah’s attitude is laughable if it didn’t sound so familiar. A gracious and compassionate God—what a depressing thought! Until, of course, we are confronted with our own enemies and we come face to face with the realization that the same God who is gracious and compassionate to us seeks to be gracious and compassionate to them, too. As those called to follow Christ, we must put feet to our faith, and that is where the rub comes, especially when we realize the desire of God’s heart is to use us as vessels of His grace and compassion even to our enemies.

How do we do that? Listen to what Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount:

43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.    Matthew 5: 43 – 45 (NLT)

Loving our enemies may never be easy, and our attempts to avoid doing so (though probably not met with encounters with great, stinky fish) will always be met by God’s persistent call to obedience. Giving up deeply held resentments will be the hardest part, but our failure to do so will likely result in heaping anguish and pain on ourselves—not the least of which might be depression not unlike that which Jonah faced. That’s the attitude we need to break. We need God’s attitude to be our attitude. We need to see God’s perspective. Otherwise, we’ll just keep running 2,500 miles in the wrong direction.

A gracious and compassionate God! What a depressing thought!

Until next time, keep looking up…