A Pepper Grinder Post

Love Your Enemies

This post was spawned by a note from my oldest son about a response in Relevant Magazine to billboards posted by Answers in Genesis.  The digital billboards started with the words, “To all of our intolerant liberal friends,” which then faded to a large image of a cross and the words, “Thank God for freedom,” before finishing with the URL for Answers in Genesis.  Basically, Relevant took issue with the billboard because Jesse Carey, the author, felt it created a confrontational us versus them mindset.  In a passage which sums up the article quite well, Mr. Carey said, “Here’s the problem with fighting a culture war: Every war needs an enemy.  Battles must have a ‘them.’  But when it comes to the Gospel, there really is only ‘we.’”

Part of the Relevant article’s argument was that when Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, that ruled out a billboard like the one described.  Today I want to look at Matthew 5:43-48.  What does it mean to love our enemies, and how could Jesus ask us, with a straight face, to be perfect as the Father is perfect?  Here is my translation of the passage.

You’ve been told, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  But I say: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so you will be children of your Father in heaven.  For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will that get you?  Don’t the tax collectors do the same thing?  If you only greet your brothers, what are you doing that’s special?  Don’t the Gentiles do that?  You are to be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.

One interesting point is that the Old Testament never commands us to hate our enemies.  Jesus was clearly speaking to the way sinful people applied the Old Testament teaching, rather than to the way it was given.  The people heard the command to love their neighbors and cheerfully decided that it was fine to hate their enemies, since they weren’t commanded to love them.

row housesBut what about this love business?  Even loving our neighbors sounds like quite a challenge (some neighbors more than others)--how could we ever love our enemies?  I used to be firmly in the camp of those who saw commands like this as designed to show us that we cannot follow Christ’s teaching without God’s help.  I would still be the last person to say that we can love our enemies in our own strength, but, after studying this passage, I am not convinced that the bar is quite as high as I used to think.  Even though the love described is agape love (which many of us have heard is the kind of love God has for us), it is important to remember the difference between modern ideas of love and the ideas from both Old and New Testaments.  Our society so often sees love as an intense emotion, but from the way the Bible talks about love, it is clear that the two crucial elements of Biblical love are decision and action. 

This makes a lot of sense, if you think about it.  How could Jesus command his followers to love if it were an emotion rather than an action?  How could someone decide to feel love?  What we can do is decide to act in a loving way.  We can treat the condescending coworker the same way we would if he were someone we really liked.  We can decide to show kindness to the “friend” who’s been spreading rumors about us. 

The way we show love can often be in small actions.  The one specific example Jesus gives of showing love in this passage is in greeting people.  So, saying, “Hi, how are you?” to a person you wouldn’t normally associate with and then being prepared to listen to the answer is showing agape love.

This might sound hypocritical, but I don’t think it is.  Hypocrisy would be greeting someone warmly, even though you are planning to screw them over.  What I’m talking about here is making a decision to show kindness, even if you don’t feel like it.  You might even find that your feelings toward a person will start to change as you do this, though that is just a nice fringe benefit.

rocky hillOne thing which struck me when I read this passage was that, in commanding us to love our enemies, Jesus assumes that we have enemies.  I got the feeling from the Relevant article that we shouldn’t think of anyone as our enemy, since we are all just fellow travelers, in need of a savior.  This is an appealing idea, but I don’t think it matches either real life or the Bible.  In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul tells us that “all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (NET)  In some places, this may involve being killed for refusing to renounce Christ; in others, it takes the form of snarky comments about your lifestyle, or people acting like you’re a moron because you don’t share their materialistic, naturalist presuppositions.  Whatever form the persecution takes, it is persecution, and the people doing it are our persecutors and our enemies.  Not that we should treat them like enemies—the whole point of this passage is that we shouldn’t.  But I don’t think that acting like there is no difference between us and the people attacking us fits with what Jesus says.

It may well be that some people who are acting like enemies will stop acting that way if we treat them well.  That would be wonderful, but I think it is naïve to assume this will always be the outcome.  The fact is, if we are truly trying to follow Christ in all our life decisions, many people will not like us, no matter how we act.  They will see Jesus (mixed in with our imperfections, unfortunately), and they won’t like us because they don’t like him.  In my own experience, sadly, this happens as much or more in the church as in the rest of the world.  My wife and I have eight kids whom we have always homeschooled,  and my wife stays home with the kids.  No matter how much I smile and act non-threatening and accepting, just those three facts (to say nothing of other decisions we have made because we felt God guided us to them) are enough to make many Christians start backing away as fast as possible with fake smiles glazed on their faces.  (For the record, I am not saying that a Christian HAS to have a bunch of kids or homeschool or have his wife not work, though I would say Christians should be genuinely willing to do any or all of those things.)

I’m straying from the point of the passage, though.  The point is, there will be people who treat us badly, and we should treat those people well and pray for them.

Fair enough.  That doesn’t sound easy to do, but it doesn’t sound totally unreasonable, especially with God helping us.  But then Jesus finishes off this part of the discourse with the words, “You are to be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.” Wow.  The bar just got raised from three feet to 30,000 feet.  This was the line that used to make me certain Jesus was showing us that we could not possibly meet God’s standards apart from his righteousness.

But what about the Greek word teleios, which I’ve translated as perfect?  Certainly some passages where the word is used sound like they mean what I think of when I hear the word perfect.  These are usually passages where the word is describing something pertaining to God.  But here are some other passages where the word is used, with the word the NIV translated from teleios in italics.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature (1 Corinthians 2:6)

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Corinthians 14:20)

There are several other passages like these in the letters of Paul, as well as James and Hebrews, where the context makes it clear that what is in mind is not perfection, but maturity.  Finally, I want to quote another passage from the gospel of Matthew where the same Greek word is used.  This is the passage sometimes referred to as the story of the rich young ruler (even though he is not described as young in any of the gospel accounts).

Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."  (Matthew 19:21, NIV)

Rocky MountainsWould this man really have been perfect if he had sold all his possessions and followed Jesus?  There were other people who left all they had and followed Jesus, and they clearly weren’t perfect.  I am not even sure how I would translate the word here.  I think I might go for complete or fulfilled.  The ruler’s search to find the path to serving God wholeheartedly would be complete, even though he, being human, would still make mistakes.

So what does it mean in our passage?  It’s confusing, because we are told to be teleios as our father in heaven is teleios.  If it were just talking about us, I would want to translate it as mature or complete.  If it were just talking about God, I would go for perfect.  I think I’m actually going to go for the meaning of mature or complete.  If we say the passage has the meaning of perfect, without any flaw, then Jesus is commanding us to be something we can never be while we live in these bodies.  On the other hand, if we go with mature or complete, God IS both of those things, even though he is also without flaw. 

After writing this I was thinking, “I ought to go back and change my translation to say, ‘You are to be mature, just as your father in heaven is mature.’”  I couldn’t quite bring myself to do that, though.  Somehow, when I hear mature, it just doesn’t sound as hard as it should.  Jesus is asking us to do things which go directly against our human nature, and I don’t believe we can do these things without his help.  This sounds different than just acting grown-up (which is how mature tends to sound to me).  I now think Jesus is setting the bar very high, but not impossibly high.

So what about the question with which we started?  The article from Relevant magazine would have us not confront our enemies, but engage in dialogue with them, and stop viewing them as enemies at all.  This is certainly an appealing message, and I think there is an element of truth in it.  However, I have two big problems with it.  One is in the assumption that we should not see anyone as an enemy.  As I mentioned earlier, Jesus clearly assumes that we DO have enemies.  He doesn’t tell us they aren’t enemies, but are our fellow travelers.  He tells us to show love to them in tangible ways, despite the fact that they are our enemies.  The other problem is the assumption that love excludes confrontation.  If this is so, then many people in the Bible who are held up as examples of righteousness (including Jesus and the Apostles) were not loving.  Looking specifically at Jesus, while he could be gentle and tender with people, there were other times when he seemed to seek out confrontation.  I believe he was always being loving.  Some people needed gentleness; some needed to be brought up short.  He gave each person what he or she most needed, because he loved them.

sky and treesDoes this mean I’m going to send Answers in Genesis a big fat check so they can put up more billboards?  Well, no, not actually.  My problem with the “intolerant liberal friends” billboard is its target.  Think about Jesus for a minute.  When he was saying the most scathing things, to whom was he talking?  Was he talking to Romans, Samaritans, tax collectors, or prostitutes?  Nope.  He was generally talking to the most respected people in Judaism.  Think about Paul.  He has some pretty harsh words for fellow Christians or people who at least claimed to be following Christ.  But when he goes to Athens and talks to pagan philosophers, he doesn’t throw around a lot of invective.  He tells it like it is, but he isn’t offensive.  The problem I have with the Answers in Genesis billboard isn’t that it’s confrontational, but that it’s confronting the wrong people.  If they wanted to post some provocative message aimed at Christians who were following the easy accepted faith rather than taking a hard stand for Christ, I would think they were following in the footsteps of Jesus and Paul (though I have certain doubts as to whether a billboard can take the place of direct communication).  But to post a billboard directed to their “intolerant liberal friends” (who I assume are not believers) seems more like Jesus putting up a provocative sign directed at the Romans.

Do you want to reach out to an intolerant liberal?  (And yes, I totally agree that many people who would call Christians intolerant are incredibly intolerant themselves.)  I would skip the billboard.  I would talk to  him and do things for him that I would do for someone I cared about.  If he did something bad to me, I would try to do something good in return.  I would also be honest.  I wouldn’t hide the fact that Jesus claimed to be THE way, THE truth, and THE light, or that I am God’s child.  I think that’s what Jesus is saying to do.


*Photo Credits: rooftops in Singapore by , photo of Rocky Mountains by .