Searching for Wisdom: Love

Luke 6:27-36 and 1 John 3:16, 18; Matthew 5:43-45

Some years ago, when I was serving as a seminary professor, one of my students asked me three questions that have remained indelibly etched in my mind, questions that returned this week to pose a challenge to me as I’ve been reflecting on recent events in the United States and abroad.

My student prefaced his questions by telling me that Muslims in an area of his home country of Nigeria had tortured and blinded eight pastors. This was just one example, he said, of the continuing enmity between Christians and Muslims that dated back to the 1950s. Today, religious violence in Nigeria is dominated by the Boko Haram insurgency, which aims to impose Sharia law on the northern parts of the country. Boko Haram militants have burned down churches, destroyed Christian villages, and displaced millions. Sad to say, some Christians have retaliated, over the years, with similar acts of barbarity.

Today, in the United States and elsewhere around the world, we see growing enmity, deepening civil unrest, increasing violence. The specter of terrorism hovers over us like a ponderous dark cloud. And in our personal daily lives, we may be dealing with betrayals, lies, backbiting, thievery, aggression, rumor mongering, and any number of other conflicts. In the midst of it all, we shake our heads. We wring our hands. We cry out to God.

So what were my student’s questions to me, his renewal and evangelism professor?

How can I love? When I return to my country, how can I reach out in love to those who are mistreating, those who are killing, my people? How can I love them enough to share the gospel with them?

Love, love, love. The gospel in one word is love. Love your neighbor. What peaceful, gentle, undemanding words these seem to be. Thinking of love only in this way lulls the senses. Sweetness, gentleness, peace, the absence of conflict -- this refrain sounds more like the hallucinogenic hippie movement of the 1960s than Jesus’ teachings on love. Jesus’ words were far more demanding. They required a greater quality of love; a greater scope of love; a real, deep, genuine love.

When Jesus taught us of love, it was: "Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you." That kind of love is harder to grasp. It’s easier to explain Jesus’ words away than to live out those demands. We would rather define love as being nice to people. Being nice, after all, is a whole lot simpler. All we have to do is wear a smile and speak politely. What we wear deep down on the inside need not bother the calm surface of our words and actions. We can play at love very easily by defining love as being nice.

We can act loving by being nice, without ever loving in the least. Those of us who are better actors can rise to a higher standing within our communities for pretending to love. We can put on our smiley faces and act loving towards everyone, all the while knowing that love is a goal far beyond our grasp.

How can we get to the something that is more than being nice? How can we possibly love our enemies? In Jesus’ words and life, love was no sentimental feeling, nor was it the maintenance of a façade of being nice. Jesus expressed love in the context of service and there were times when -- in love -- Jesus was not nice at all.

After all, he confronted the Pharisees with their substitution of tradition for God’s commandments. He healed people publicly on the Sabbath, creating an uproar He could easily have avoided with a simple dose of privacy. He went so far as to call the Pharisees a brood of vipers, a family of snakes! He overturned the tables of moneychangers and vendors who were cheating worshippers in the temple and shouted, "It is written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer but you have turned it into a den of thieves.'" Such actions don’t sit so well with our definitions of love. Jesus was not always nice. And, indeed, there are some behaviors, actions, characteristics and people the Lord actually hates.

In Proverbs 6:16-19, we find a list of these: pride, lying, murder, evil plots, those who love evil, a false witness, and those who arouse conflict and spread strife. Notice again that the passage includes people. In fact, Psalm 7:11 tells us that God is angry with the wicked every day. Is there a sense in which God loves everyone? Yes. Does that preclude God from also hating wickedness and evil? No. So if God hates, are we permitted to hate as well?

Yes, we are allowed to hate those things that God hates; indeed, this is very much a proof of a right standing with God. In Psalm 97, verse 10, we read: "Let those who love the Lord hate evil." The closer our walk with the Lord, the more conscious we will be of sin, both within and without. The more we understand God's attributes and love His character, the more we will be like Him and the more we will hate those things that are contrary to His Word and nature.

We should understand here, however, that "hatred of evil proceeds from love. The great hatreds of sin among prophets, reformers and martyrs have always been characterized by this pure flame and passion of love for humankind. All thought of self was consumed in their intense sense of justice." Because they loved people, because they loved their cities, because they loved their countries, they faced the evil, they defied the wrong. 1

And so it was -- to the utmost degree -- with Jesus. "Because God so loved the world, the Son of His love came down from heaven to live a life of daily protest against all its suffering and shame. This, then, is the one note and test of any hatred of evil by which we may search our conduct: does our sense of wrong proceed from love? Does our rebuke of any evil express love?" 1

Love disciplines. Love confronts. Love holds accountable. And love loves one’s enemies, serving their best interests, regardless of their reactions. Love calls all to righteousness. Love does not leave people in their sins.

Do good to those who hate us? Bless those who curse us? Pray for those who mistreat us? In the process of being God’s expression of love for humankind, Jesus didn’t worry about keeping up an external façade of niceness. He was not overly preoccupied with "keeping the peace" at all costs.

Our desire to avoid conflict is not always in our best interest, nor in the best interest of the larger body of Christ. Where there is conflict, we are called to serve God’s love, following Jesus' own example of service and sacrifice. We do good to others, we bless others, when we call them from sin to salvation.

Jesus not only taught about sacrifice and loving one’s enemies; He also lived it by giving Himself for us, by dying in our place on the cross. Romans 5:10 tells us that we, sinners all, were enemies of God, hostile to God, alienated from God, separated from God, by our evil thoughts and actions, but we were reconciled to God through our acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice in our place.

This is where the rubber really meets the road for most Christians. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. This sounds great when we read it or recite it, but most folks are not too keen on the idea of loving one's enemies when that idea has to be put into action. And when we are living for Christ, we will have enemies.

Jesus made the statement, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you." If those who are living contrary to God are praising you, this should send up red flags. The world hates those who follow truth. The world hates the real Jesus Christ who died for sins and calls people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). The world loves a watered down Jesus who allows them to live in sin and never judges or condemns their actions. Any Christian who lifts Jesus Christ high, will draw fire from the world.

Look at 2 Corinthians 2: "For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one, we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life."

To those who have received Christ and are being saved, the one who lifts Him high will be a sweet fragrance. However, the one who has rejected Christ and has chosen to pursue a life leading to destruction will hate those who live for Christ because they are an aroma that reminds them of death. They are the smell of death to those who are unwilling to choose life. Each time you lift up a standard of truth, it reminds the culture of death -- which a great many in the world have embraced -- of the choices they are making and they hate to be reminded. Rather than change their direction, they would rather stamp out any remembrance of the destiny they have chosen.

This is why the world hates the true follower of Christ. It is equally important to understand what we should do in response to the hatred targeted against us as the world lashes out against God.

Jesus taught our principle response in Luke 6. Hear it again: Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. But I say to you who hear: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. Do not seek vengeance. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love.

In the ancient Greek, we find several words for love. There is phileo (a friendly love, a companionable love); eros (romantic love); and agape, a benevolent goodwill, a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love. This love keeps on loving even when the loved one is unresponsive, unkind, unlovable, and -- in our estimation -- unworthy. Agape desires only the good of the one loved. It is a consuming passion for the well-being of others.

We are told to approach our enemies with this agape, no matter how they treat us, no matter how they insult us, and again, whether or not we believe they deserve our love. No matter what their actions, we are never to allow bitterness against them to invade our hearts.

We must pray for our enemies. In my experience, it’s easier to agape someone who has hurt you or is threatening you or hates you for no good reason, if you pray for them. Because when you pray for them, God often opens your heart to seeing people the way that God sees them, rather than the way you see them.

How many of us are really practicing this clear teaching of scripture? This goes against everything in our human nature. How can I love and express my love toward someone who is trying to destroy me? I can’t. I can’t, but the Spirit of God working within me produces the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. This is how I know that I am following Christ and that His Spirit is working within me. Even a mature Christian still has human nature jockeying for control, but we have been given the power to be led by the Spirit instead of submitting to and being driven by that fallen human nature. If our eyes are on Christ, we will deny ourselves and our human desires and submit to Him.

Some years back, I remember the governor of Florida received bullets taped to a letter threatening his life if he did not stay the execution of a man who had murdered two people outside of an abortion clinic. The letter came from someone claiming to be a follower of Jesus. Where do you find justification for this in scripture? Not from Jesus and nowhere else in the Word do we find justification for a personal vendetta that gives Christians the right to seek vengeance against their enemies or God’s enemies.

Now Ecclesiastes 3:8 tells us "there is a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace." What there is no time for is vengeance.

Now I should clarify that this is not a sermon about whether Christians should be soldiers (Romans 13:4 suggests they should) and I might note that I would argue there is such a thing as a just war when it is waged by a legitimate authority (a government or state, not private individuals); when there is a reasonable belief that victory can be achieved; when there is a just cause (the defense of innocents and freedom against direct aggression); and when there is a just intent (the establishment of peace, freedom and justice and the goal is not simply the destruction of the enemy). 2

But God declared: "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay." It is a sin for Christians to try to execute vengeance. We have been COMMANDED to love our enemies, to pray for our enemies and to do good to our enemies. It is not a suggestion; it is a command. 

We read in Ezekiel 33:11 that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Rather He wants these to turn from their wickedness and live.

Without Christ, we would be in the same boat as our enemies. James 2:10 states that if we break one point of the law, we are guilty of breaking all. Who is not guilty? Jesus stated that the two greatest commandments on which everything else is based is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. The only thing that separates me from my enemy is the mercy and grace of God. Again, I am commanded to pray for my enemy so that he or she can experience that same release from the burden of sin.

Psalm 86:5 states: "For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You."

How hard it is to love those who spitefully use us, who try to harm us, or who work to destroy our reputations! Even so, we are commanded to do this very thing.

In Acts 16, we see that Paul and Silas were beaten and cast into prison. God sent an earthquake that shook the gates open and set them free. The guard who mistreated them saw the gates opened and was about to commit suicide rather than face the penalty of allowing the prisoners to escape. Paul and Silas could have determined that he was deserving of death and this was God’s judgment against the jailer, but instead, they showed compassion to preserve his life. He was moved by this and repented. Paul shared the love of Christ with the jailer and his family rather than condemnation. This entire family was saved and the jailer washed the wounds on their backs from the beatings they had received.

We are now embroiled in a firestorm and it’s getting hotter every day. Violence is breeding violence. We would do well to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said: "Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding a deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only love can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

It is the goodness of God that leads a person to repentance and our love is the goodness of God shining through us. We should be shining as beacons of light in the darkness, reflecting the light of our Lord.

Remember, the Bible says that we were enemies of Christ when He died for us. We are required to show the same love and to offer the same forgiveness to others that God has shown to us.


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