About six or seven years ago I was coaching a club basketball team made up of seventh and eighth-grade girls (Hannah was one of them). We were good. No, let me clarify, we were very, very good. We played about eight games and won them all easily. It had little to do with coaching and a lot to do with young ladies who loved the game and had played a ton. Coaching them was easy because they were already advanced (many went on to be a part of some of the best high school basketball Melba has seen). In one particular game, we were playing a very feisty team, and winning. At halftime, we were up by twenty or so and started the next half with another run. A timeout was called and the opposing coach began to yell at me and accuse me of using very bad and unsportsmanlike tactics (I won’t mention what he said here). The refs stepped in and tried to bring peace and we awkwardly made it through to the end. Near the end of the game, I was told I would be escorted out because the opposing coaches (both large men) were apparently talking about a parking lot meeting with me to settle things. And thus, the story of the only time I’ve ever been escorted out of a gym!
It’s odd to me to recall the event because it brings a mixture of emotions. I was flabbergasted by the accusations (which were horrible and entirely untrue), intimidated by the threat of violence, and somewhat humored by the situation. I did live with a little anxiety that I would have an encounter with those men some random day and receive retaliation for coaching such a good team, but it did not occur (or at least hasn’t yet).
I’m not used to being hated, but Jesus was. We read many stories in the Bible about the imminent threat of violence to Jesus. People wanted to beat him, stone him, kill him. Yet as Jesus went from town to town, person to person, and taught the truth of the Gospel, he shared how we should respond to those who are our enemies (those who have, or who want to, wrong us)….
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:43-48 NIV
Many things Jesus teaches are astonishing, and many seem difficult, but this one may be the most so. Jesus says that we are to love and pray for those who oppose us. If someone wants you killed, Jesus says to love them, pray for them. If someone spreads lies about you, love them, pray for them.
How does that sit with you?
If you think, as most of us do, on a human level, you may say that it seems entirely wrong, unfair, or impossible. It may even seem foolish or unwise to you. I suppose if you’ve never been hurt it would not be too difficult a concept, but if you have been, and it has been severe, you may find yourself wanting to skip right on by these words.
Look at the reasoning Jesus gives. He doesn’t talk about feelings and He doesn’t justify the behavior of the wicked. Rather, Jesus turns our attention to our Father and His behavior. Jesus says that the Father blesses all the people of the earth. That each is given life and time and sunshine and rain. In other words, Jesus says that the Father works good things for all people. Life and breath are in us all. The opportunity to plant and cultivate a productive life is given to all. If a person makes a poor choice or poor series of choices, the Father does not, at that very moment, end the person’s life, but rather continues giving life-sustaining work and thus the opportunity to praise the Giver of life itself.
It would have been a powerful sign if the coaches who were yelling at me and planning evil against me had suddenly been stricken mute or started to gasp for air (as though Darth Vader were using his distant choking power) right? Yet that isn’t our Father, and that is a very good thing.
As we saw last week, the outward actions of evil (murder, adultery, etc) come from a corrupted and sinful heart. The seed of that sin (we often call it sin nature) is in all of us. The anger that rolled into hatred that day came from the same seed of jealousy, anger, and brokenness that exists in me. If God were to bring swift judgment on such men, surely He would need to include me in that judgment as well. For even though I did not act out on the sinful seed in the same way, its existence in my life is just as repulsive whether it is hidden or exposed. It is repulsive because it is the opposite of who God is and how He created us to be.
The call to love our enemy and pray for them is actually a call to see the truth behind the evil that exists in each one of us. Haven’t all been tempted? Haven’t all fallen short of perfection and sinned? Are not all deserving of judgment? Yes. But now that we are following Jesus into this new life with a reborn spirit and heart, we must look on others in mercy the way God has looked upon us.
I do not know the story of those coaches. I do not know their hardships or sufferings. However, I do know that, as human beings, God is patient with them just like He has been with me. I do know that, just like I was, they are slaves to sin and manipulated by the father of lies. I do know that, just like the people who wanted to kill Jesus, they just don’t at this moment see that Jesus is here to make them new. I do know that the Father is pursuing them in hopes that they would be saved. I do know that if they turn and repent and receive life through the grace of God that is offered because of Jesus, they will be saved.
So how do we love our enemies and pray for our persecutors? We, like our Father, take a perspective based on eternity rather than the temporary. In other words, we hope and pray and act towards the best for everyone, and the best is that they would be set free from sin and be given the Holy Spirit of the Living God to make them new and righteous. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it means swallowing your pride or overlooking offenses, but isn’t that what Jesus did for us???
As Jesus says, when we begin to take that perspective, we begin acting like our Father, and it will not go unnoticed.