by. Rev Doug Gray
Once a little girl went to a special dinner at her friend’s house. The vegetable that night was buttered broccoli, and the mother asked if she liked it. The child replied very politely, “Oh, yes, I love it.” But when the bowl of broccoli was passed, she declined to take any. The hostess said, “I thought you said you loved broccoli.” The girl replied sweetly, “Oh, yes, ma’am, I do, but not enough to eat it!” Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It’s one of those things Jesus says that makes Christians nod and say to themselves, “Oh yes, I love it, but none for me right now.” We would much rather play at life, and loving our enemies seems more like work. But I believe the ability to forgive enemies and show them compassion is one of the key ways God releases power into our lives and into the world. How can this be? How does this work? And how can we begin?
How can this be? On the face of it, forgiving our enemies is supremely unnatural. Jesus notes this when he says, “You have heard that it was said, “Love your friend and hate your enemy.” It’s the way the world tells us it should be: what goes around comes around. Revenge is a dish best served cold. And when we are hurt, striking out is often our first reaction. During the dark days of autumn, 1936, the empire of Japan invaded China through Korea and into Manchuria. Thousands upon thousands of Japanese troops poured in, bringing their tanks, bombers and a ruthless brand of extermination and torture. The Japanese feared the Chinese Christians and went out of their way to destroy their churches and kill believers whenever they had the chance. Among the believers were the president of China, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Madame Chiang. At the height of the conflict when the Japanese troops were at the walls of the capital city of Beijing, Madame Chiang rushed through the chaos to her mother’s room in the palace. Finding her Mother’s door closed she gently pushed it open. Finally, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she saw her mother in the corner of the room, kneeling in prayer. As the bomb flashes lit up the room she could see that her mother’s face was peaceful, even content. Madame Chiang rushed over to her and knelt beside her. “Mother,” she whispered. “You are so powerful in prayer. Are you praying for the defeat of our enemy? Will you ask God to crush them before our entire country is wasted? Could you pray for an earthquake to annihilate them?” The old lady smiled gravely and then gently caressed her daughter’s face. “No, my daughter. This is not my prayer. When I pray, don’t expect me to insult God’s intelligence by asking Him to do something which would be unworthy of you, a mortal.” It was a lesson Madame Chiang never forgot over the many years she and her husband spent in exile on the island of Taiwan. (Adapted from Macartney’s Illustrations) Praying for our enemies even loving them is not normal. It’s not natural. It is supernatural, and it can only happen when our hearts have been transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. It’s this kind of love that Jesus showed as He hung dying on the cross, in an agony of pain—he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It’s this kind of love that transforms lives.
How does this work? In a sense, loving our enemies works because love dodges past the walls of hatred and violence to penetrate and challenge the heart of our enemy. I know I’ve told this story a few years ago, but it’s worth telling again. Robert Baake tells a story that happened a little more than 30 years ago: a young man was studying to be a doctor in Cairo. The craziness of his residency in a downtown hospital was made harder when his father was murdered. Though everyone knew who had done it, the police could not find enough evidence to arrest the man. One day, this young resident was working in the ER when he received word that the ambulance was bringing in a gunshot victim. When the gunshot victim came in on the gurney, the young doctor couldn’t believe his luck: there on the gurney was the man who had killed his father! Shaken, the young doctor ordered the necessary, preliminary work, and then he found a phone and called his mother. “Mom,” he said, “the guy who killed dad is in the other room. He’s been shot. All I have to do is take my time and he will die. What should I do?” She paused for a moment. Then she said clearly, “Jesus Christ was a healer. You are a healer. You must heal this man for Jesus.” The young doctor did just that. You can imagine the wounded man’s surprise when he came out of anesthesia to discover one of the people who most wanted him dead had saved his life. When the young doctor explained that this is what Jesus would have done, the murderer burst into tears, confessed his crime and begged for forgiveness. The young doctor surprised himself by giving it. Eventually the two men became friends. After a time, they concluded that God wanted them to do something for the poorest people in Cairo. They could think of no one poorer than those who work in the landfills of the city. Because the Jews and Muslims have taboos about dealing with the unclean, the vast majority of the 80,000 people who work amid the utter squalor of the dumps of Cairo are Christian. These two former enemies found a small building that was not being used and started a Bible study. Their first meeting had 11 people, including themselves. Fast forward twenty years. That Sunday school class now meets in a hollowed-out hall in one of the hillsides, enough to seat 5000 at a time. The point of this story is not how great the numbers are, nor is it about the importance of going out and starting bible studies (though that is always a great thing). No, the point of this story is that forgiveness and healing between two people was the seed God grew into a mighty fruit tree that not only transformed those two souls, but fed the bodies and souls of many people since. When we love our enemies, the power and might of God is released into us and the other. It works this way, because when we love our enemies, we are loving like God. Jesus says in our passage, “When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.”
One of the challenges of our time that Christian Schwarz points out in his book, The 3 Colors of Love, is that we are encouraged to start with feeling good or loving, and to let the feelings shape our thoughts. Then when we act out those thoughts, we have our good and loving deeds. Loving feelings lead to loving thoughts lead to loving actions. It can work that way, but for most of us, the real growth comes when we start with loving thoughts—forgiving thoughts—then act on those loving thoughts, only to discover that the feelings of love follow. Think of our young doctor friend. If he acts on his feelings, the man who killed his father will never be his best friend. If we listen to our feelings, we will often not be our best selves. What we really need is to listen to Jesus Christ, to allow the still, small voice of God to change what we choose. Perhaps by letting God change our thoughts and our actions, perhaps we will find our feelings and moods gradually change too. Our goal after all is to become more like Jesus.
What makes it hard to forgive our enemies, to listen to widely divergent opinions, and to welcome people’s differences—is fear. We fear that we will hear something that will upset us or make us uncomfortable. We fear that someone will not like us or be upset with us. All of those things could happen. But since our God loves us—we can live our lives as if we had an audience of one. If we are doing what God would want, we are ok. Even better, we are loved. Why should we fear people? We can let the love of God rule our lives—that means we can forgive and we can listen and we can accept that God is at work in lives very different than our own, with opinions very different from our own. Perhaps the real blessings—the real and best play in life—are only available to all of us, if we can begin to forgive our enemies and welcome, even play into our differences.
Which brings us back to a little girl and broccoli, and to us who are sitting here. “Loving our enemies? Oh yes,” we say, “I love it. But none for me right now.” To this God has two things to say: First, a word of compassion to those who are hurt: God sees your pain. Jesus knows your pain, for he suffered unfairly too. Lay your pain at God’s feet and let his arms enfold you. Second, a word of challenge to the rest of us: Grow up! Grown-ups think before they act, and try to do the right thing regardless of their feelings. Did we think following Jesus was going to be all ice cream and cake? Let us start stretching ourselves to depend more on God’s strength. Let us relax into the security of God’s arms. We can think less about our rights and more about the people around us, yes, including our enemies. Will it hurt us to be compassionate? Jesus didn’t just die for you, but for your enemy too. Through you, Jesus wants to touch them with the same grace you received. Yeah, I know it’s hard, hard for everyone. But if it were easy, everyone would do it. Jesus loved his enemies and prayed for those who gave Him a hard time. Let us grow up in the faith today, and let God’s grace shine through…today and every day.