Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Who are we supposed to love?

A Christian friend asked this question, " As a Christian, do I have to be 'loving' ALL the time to everyone? I really do not believe so, especially in light of all the 'nastiness' that goes on in our big, bad world."

The answer to that question is yes.  God wants us to treat one another in loving ways all the 
time.  We are supposed to treat everyone with kindness and respect.  
It seems that Jesus cut to the chase when He commanded us,  His followers, to love even
our enemies.  Of course we will love our friends and the people who treat us in loving, kind 
ways.  We will also tend to hate our enemies and treat them unkindly.  Love for our friends 
and hatred of our enemies are assumed.   It is the easy way to live.  We are nice to nice 
people, and mean to mean people.  Listen to what Jesus says, though. These words from 
the Sermon on the Mount are recorded in both  Matthew  and 
Luke.  [see the bottom of this post where I attached the two passages.]

My friend asked about how to treat others, given the fact that many people are just plain mean and nasty. Here is what I think is the truth, even though I do not always act right myself. I think that most people know that we should not retaliate if someone is mean to us. 

The fact that people are nasty is no excuse for our being nasty in return.  If we are nasty back at people who are nasty, then doesn't that make us  like the nasty people we are judging?  Yes, I think that it does.  We are all in the same nasty boat of ugly humanity, and we all should fight the tendency to be mean to mean people.  No, we may not all do the exact same things. Yes, some excel in nastiness to the point of actually being evil.  Yes, justice demands that criminal nastiness and evil be punished.  Not all of us are criminals.  However, all of us are capable of being nasty and mean spirited.  It's part of the human condition, and we are all human.  We need to appeal to one another's better angels so that we can learn to not give in to those urges to be mean to others.  Again, I am not holding myself up as an example of how to always be nice to others.  I am holding up Jesus' words as the standard by which we should measure our own actions, and judge ourselves first and foremost. 

Down at the bottom of this page - as I said earlier -  you will find  the words of Jesus as He addressed those who were listening. He was speaking to a large crowd of people.  In any crowd  there are some who are paying attention, and others who are not.   Some actually listen, and then reject the message outright.  So, Jesus is talking to those who are actually paying attention and who want to accept His message.  If that is you, then hear His words.   That is, pay close attention to them, and act on them.  

Here are some questions that may be helpful to ask as you read these words from Matthew and Luke.  Who are our enemies?  I can think of several categories of enemies.  First, there are national or ethnic enemies.  At this point in time, many of our countries are at war with Islamic extremists.  Some of these extremists have declared holy war on the West.  We all know what has happened in recent times.  People have been killed in the name of promoting the Islamic religion. In fact, many point out that more Muslims have died at the hands of their fellow Muslims than Christians have died at the hands of Muslim extremists.  The holy war is not just against the West, but against any moderate leaning Muslims who refuse to go along with the holy war being waged. It is a very sad situation to say the least.  

It would be easy to view all Muslims as our enemies. It would also be easy to want to see Muslims mistreated for the actions of a few. It would be especially easy to want the extremists to suffer the same fate that othes have endured at their hands. All of those reactions are the wrong ones, of course.  Yes, we can and should defend ourselves if our lives are threatened.  

However, Jesus tells us that we should bless our enemies. We should pray for our enemies.  We should do good to our enemies without expecting anything in return.  Our enemies are potential friends. Our enemies are created in God's image. Our enemies are in many ways just like us.  

I think that the way the West handled Germany and Japan after WW II is a good example of blessing our enemies and doing good to them.  No, we have not always done such a good job of it, but I think of how these two former enemies are now some of our closest allies.   How was that accomplished?  After the war was over, we blessed our enemies and did them good, not evil.  We helped rebuild their countries.  

Many have argued, and I think correctly so, that the way Germany was treated after WW I pretty much left them wide open to elect a man like Hitler as their leader.   Because Germany was not blessed, and because other countries sought to punish Germany after WW I, the leaders felt free to act on their baser  instincts.  

The Geneva Convention, even though it also can be misused, is a good agreement. Even in times of war, nations should not seek the total destruction of their enemies.  Things like torture or the killing of civilians should not be tolerated.  When someone goes beyond what is acceptable, then there should be consequences.     

Then, we also have political enemies it seems.  In the US, both parties are at war in a way.  No, we are not killing one another in the streets, nor are we going to begin to do that.  It is a war of words, and it can get pretty nasty.  How are we supposed to treat our neighbors and fellow citizens who have different political views from our own?  We are supposed to be civil.  In fact, often families, neighborhoods, and  even churches are divided when it comes to politics.  It we want to get along, we need to leave our strong political opinions at the door, so to speak.  Then we can have sweet communion.  We do not have to give up our strongly held convictions, but we may want to limit our expression of them so that we can get along with others in our group.  

That does not mean that we cannot vigorously debate and discuss certain issues in an appropriate context.  Debate and discussion are good things.  If done right, a person is able to then sort through the arguments and come to their own conclusions on any given topic. For political discussion,  I like a one hour program called Fox News Sunday.  All the members of the panel are interesting and likable.  There is a variety of opinions expressed.  Both men and women participate in the discussion.  Here is the link to Fox News Sunday.   

So, we have national enemies and political enemies.  We are to love them, pray for them, and treat them well.  

We also have personal enemies.  I think that includes people who are mean to us as well as people who have actually committed crimes against us or victimized us in some way.  Now, maybe we think that the word "enemy" is too strong a word to use for all those who are mean to us.  I don't think that it is.  In the context of Jesus' words here in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Him divide people into two categories.  We have friends - people we love - , and we have enemies.  Those who mistreat us are included in the enemy category.  

How do we treat our personal enemies?   We bless them.  We pray for them.  We do good to them.  So, there is no group of people - national enemies, political enemies, or personal enemies - that we are to hate.  How is our love to be shown?  Notice that Jesus is not primarily talking about warm fuzzy feelings. He is talking about how we act towards others.  We do good to them.  We pray for them.  We give to them without expecting anything in return.  We show them mercy.  

Of course, we may not want to choose to socialize with people who are actually mistreating us, at least until they quit mistreating us.  We may not have them over to dinner every Sunday like we would our friends or family.  We may put up certain boundaries and limits on how often we have contact with an enemy.  

When we do have contact, Jesus tells us how to act.  We show mercy. We show compassion.  We extend the hand of friendship.  

How about those who have committed crimes against us?  Of course, we have every right, and even the responsibility, to prosecute criminals.  It can even be argued that overlooking really bad behavior - especially criminal behavior -  in others is actually unloving. It does not help the criminal, and it certainly does not help the criminal's victim or victims.  There are limits, though, on what we do to criminals. The rule of law should never allow for revenge.

Recently, a friend of mine shared how she and her husband reported their own son and had him put in jail for his involvement in using and selling drugs in our community. It was not an easy thing for them to do, but in this case, it was the only loving option they had.  How could they have claimed to love their son, and to love their neighbors if they allowed him to continue to do damage to himself and to others? 

Christians have been divided over what to do in the case of our country going to war.  I am on the side of what is called just war theory.  That is, a country has the right to defend itself if attacked.  It is a complex subject and open for debate, but suffice it to say that I don't think that Christians have to be pacifists.  Some are.  Most are not.  I am not in favor of religious wars, of course, even though such wars have been fought by Christians.  

Someone  recently asked about Paul's words to the Judiazers spoken to in the book of Galatians.  How could it be a loving thing for Paul to do to tell them to go ahead and castrate themselves if they wanted to preach circumcision as part of the Gospel message.  I say that it is an act of tough love.  Paul could have let the false teachers continue to heap condemnation on themselves, or he could confront the false them.  Such confrontation would give them an opportunity to repent. (Read the book of Galatians to see what I am talking about, here, esp. Galatians 5:12)

It's obvious that Paul was showing love for the truth of the Gospel and love for believers when he spoke the truth to the Judiazers.  He spoke the truth in love, just as we are supposed to do.    (Ephesians 4:15) 

Is this kind of love of our enemies easy?  No, of course not.  Loving our friends and hating our enemies is easy. Anyone can do that.  If we want to lay claim to the title of "Child of God" , then we need to act like our Father in Heaven.  If we don't want to act like Him, then we cannot call Him our Father.  

How do we do this?  We submit to Jesus, and ask for the enabling of the Spirit of God. It is not natural to love our enemies in the way that Jesus tells us to.  

Do I do this all the time?  No!  Of course not!  For me, this is a daily battle.  

Am I writing this to lay a guilt trip on myself or others?  NO!  Of course not. I am writing this as an exercise in clear thinking for myself first, and then for anyone who cares to read it.  It is not meant to be authoritative or even an exhaustive treatment on the subject of love.  

Can you accuse me of not practicing what I preach?  Yes!  I  accuse myself of my own hypocrisy. 

Can you accuse Jesus of not practicing what He preached?  NO WAY!  He actually lived this way.  Christ in me is my hope of being and doing better.    

Are we supposed to be perfect in the sense of not making mistakes?  Well, yes and no.  The idea of perfection, here, it seems to me has to do with maturity.  It has to do with growing up and acting like an adult.  Maybe it has to do with putting on our big girl panties and overcoming some of our personal, inward struggles.  Maybe we could say that as often as not, we are our own worst enemy.  

I feel like I am speaking strongly here.  You may not need this. I need it. I need to talk to myself using strong language. Otherwise, I don't pay attention to what Jesus has told me to do and to be.  So, if you don't like the way I have said it, that doesn't matter. If you don't like how Jesus said so clearly that we are to love our enemies, well I can't help you there.  You'll have to take it up with Him and see if He'll change things around for you.       

Luke 6
  27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 

28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 

29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 

30Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 

31Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 

33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.

34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 

35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 

36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Matthew 5

Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Notice that here Jesus does not tell us to forgive our enemies.  We are to love them, show them mercy, lend to them, and the rest, but no mention is made of forgiveness.  Interesting.  I'm not sure what that means, but it is interesting.

Maybe forgiving is not the be all, end all that we believe it to be.  Maybe forgiveness doesn't cover all that loving our enemies, or even our loved ones, entails.