BY MICHELLE WILLIAMS, GRACE ATTENDER & BLOGGER
I suddenly realized last week that I have been spending a ridiculous amount of headspace thinking about enemies. And I should specify—not like fighting enemies. The Holy Spirit has had me mulling over ways to better forgive, love and serve enemies for quite some time now. I’ve finally pinpointed the reason for my odd obsession, and I think it’s because loving our enemies is so often the stumbling block in our journey. It’s an obstacle that once we transcend it, we could just possibly change this world we’re living in.
But, wow. What an obstacle. It’s clear that human nature is fight or flight when it comes to handling enemies—and these are normal human responses in emotionally tense or excruciatingly painful situations. But I think the human condition also seems to have us making enemies out of people who shouldn’t even be our enemies in the first place. Prime example: Cain & Abel. Brothers should have no business being enemies, yet Cain killed Abel out of pure jealousy for God’s favor. And what a desperately regrettable situation, since we know through the teachings of Jesus that Cain always had God’s favor in the first place. The deception of evil is certainly a great helper if your goal is to make enemies.
We just studied the parables of Jesus in our recent Moral of the Story sermon series. These stories are so powerful because they give us a new way to be human. Jesus constantly shuts down the fight or flight syndrome in favor of a third way. If you listened to this week’s Between Sundays podcast, you heard Tim explain that humans weren’t equipped to deal with shame—it wasn’t part of the world that God originally designed for us. God didn’t intend for us to know of evil or the problems it causes. But now that we do, we must make a conscious choice to follow Jesus in doing life the way God intended.
Doing the hard work within ourselves is a crucial first step if we want to make any progress on the enemy front. Once we come face to face with our own brokenness, it becomes possible to relate to others in their own brokenness. The ways I’m about to outline must first be applied inwardly before they can be applied outwardly towards an enemy. Knowing my own journey, I can say I wouldn’t even have had any desire to change my approach towards enemies—I thought I had been doing it right all along! But then I finally woke up to all of the ways in which I practiced disgrace.
1) The way to forgive our enemies is to RSVP to God’s celebration of their return.
Forgiveness is not a pardon. Forgiving does not excuse wrongdoings. I like Oprah’s take on the matter: “Forgiveness is giving up hope that the past could have been any different."" I used to confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Many times, the two can go hand in hand, but reconciliation may not be possible or even expected in cases where an enemy has caused a tremendous amount of grief. When we truly forgive an enemy, we are simply telling God that we want him to continue to pursue that person. It’s like putting in our RSVP for the celebration of the prodigal son’s return. We don’t have to head up the party planning committee, we just promise to show up and rejoice with God when another one of his children decides to come home humbled.
2) The way to serve our enemies is to bring light to the ways in which they practice disgrace.
Tim also discussed in the podcast that Jesus often pointed out the missteps of the Pharisees to get them to think twice about their actions—and that Jesus always gave them a way to change. I think this may be the key to serving enemies well: sharing wisdom minus the transference of shame. I personally have appreciated hearing Rob Bell’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on ‘turning the other cheek,’ because it thoroughly illustrates Tim’s point. Turning the other cheek is not a passive move; it’s a move that leaves the aggressor with no option other than to slap with the hand that is supposed to remain ceremonially clean, or to throw a punch instead—which was normally reserved for those who were considered to be of equal status to the aggressor. Ultimately, the aggressor is likely to think twice before proceeding, or otherwise risk stepping outside their own realm of what they believe to be appropriate. Retaliatory violence just cannot beget this brand of self-revelation. (Jesus is brilliant. Amen!)
3) The way to love our enemies is to illuminate the pathways to grace.
The Golden Rule perfectly encapsulates this concept. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Jesus taught it and he lived it. Jesus was a human demonstration of God’s intention for this world. When we walk with Jesus, we’re always pointing people toward him and toward grace. I once received this parenting advice: When a child misbehaves, respond with, “This isn’t who you are. This is just a bad decision, and you can change a bad decision.” I imagine this is how God wants to coach us as well. And if that’s what God wants, we should align ourselves with the rest of his children in this way—even our enemies. No shame. All grace.
At this point, I feel prompted to reiterate that God never intended for us to know of evil or the problems that evil causes. Therefore, he never expected us to have to reconcile with evil and the mess that it makes—and he still doesn’t place that expectation on us. This may be why the Bible makes so many mentions of Jesus casting evil spirits out of otherwise good people. Jesus didn’t extend grace to these dark spirits; he simply cast them out and went about loving the person who had been freed. So I believe that God only expects of us to understand that good people can make horrific choices under the influence of evil. We must never lose faith that God desires justice for us even if he continues to pursue a lost child who has caused an appalling injustice at our expense. God’s heart breaks for your pain, and he wants a better world for us all. In that you can trust.
If we want to live in the world that God intended for us, we must transcend this formidable obstacle of forgiving, serving and loving our enemies. It’s the only way to make God’s kingdom a reality. It’s hard work, but we may remain in the dark until we can begin to put into practice the teachings of Jesus on loving our enemies. I may never live to see God’s kingdom built on this earth, but I know I’m ready to get to work so that maybe my children and their children have a chance.