My friend Toby Marie Walker asked an interesting question on Facebook recently: Do you think God counts hating the IRS as a sin?
Now I DO hate the IRS as an instrument of corruption and tyranny, and equate it in my religious thinking to the jackwagons in the temple whose tables Jesus upended rather forcefully. But I also find it an interesting question to think about. I struggle with that stuff regularly – how I ought to respond to people and situations that rub me the wrong way.
JD and I were talking about Toby’s question (as you may recall, a LOT of things we write at FRN originate in some way from talking through an idea or an event or a concept) and he wondered what the biblical stance on hatred is. I didn’t even have to look it up:
‘Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.’
Jesus was not ambiguous about it. But before I go diving into the implications of those words, let’s look at them in context from the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
There’s a higher standard Christians are called to. Loving your neighbor as yourself is difficult if your neighbor is a perpetual jackwagon. It’s easier to give it back in kind, to write him off.
JD remarked that it’s hard to evangelize if people think you hate them. That’s true in religion AND politics. And I think some of us lost that knowledge somewhere along the way. So often now religion is a cultural and political dividing line – Us and Not-Us. But I don’t think Christianity was ever meant to be that. And I think all the time about how to get away from the binary trap there.
There’s an exercise I used to do a lot. Come to think of it, it probably is where I get that inconvenient amount of empathy I tend to have. But it’s the exercise of seeing a thing happen, say, a person behaving a certain way, and imagining a reason for it. That guy cut me off in traffic… because maybe he was hurrying to a job interview he really desperately needed, or his wife was in labor. That sort of thing. It’s easy to practice on strangers. If you do it enough, you might find yourself doing it to people around you, people you know, which is a step towards being more loving of your neighbor, your family, your coworkers, all the people you encounter regularly.
You’ve probably seen those inspirational quotes, ones like ‘Be kind, because everyone has a struggle you know nothing about’. They’re trite, but they’re true, too. We can watch A Christmas Carol and see how Scrooge was twisted and bent over the course of his life – how he didn’t begin life the way we found him at the outset of the story. We understand there’s a long arc there. We get this in Les Miserables, in television shows; heck, superhero storylines are jam packed with flawed characters we can empathize with because of their struggle with those flaws.
But quite often we don’t even know what our family members go through.
I think it’s rare that you find people with no redeeming value. I’m sure they’re out there, but mostly people are scared, and worried, and embarrassed, and hopeful and disappointed and confused. And they, we, do dumb things because of it. And then we double down on the dumb things. And maybe then we find people who don’t make us feel so dumb for doing the dumb things, and we like that. And we gravitate there, rather than look at the dumb thing and admit it’s dumb.
As C S Lewis said in Mere Christianity, and this always sticks with me: ‘If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road, and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake.’
We used to value that, that reflection, that honest dealing with ourselves. We embraced it culturally. And we valued people’s struggles with improvement, with redemption, and we tried to exercise a little benefit of the doubt.
I still try to do that, however imperfectly I practice it. I can testify that empathy is a habit that can be cultivated. But why would anyone want to? Especially someone religious that believes in black and white, right and wrong? As I said, so often now religion is a cultural and political dividing line. Empathy blurs those lines, and casts doubt on loyalties.
Or does it?
Here’s why empathy is a good habit for a Christian to be purposeful about.
There are some basic Christian tenets I subscribe to – there is sin, that it separates us from God, that He created us, that He is grieved about that separation, and that He made a way (The Way) for us to be more than just creations, but children, with attendant inheritances (Sons of your Father, per that passage in Matthew) to bridge that gap between where we are in our sin (separated) and where He wants us to be (reconciled to Him).
I learned all that over the years. And if I believe all that, and believe that Jesus is the means as well as the ends – that He’s how I can be reconciled, and also To Whom I can be reconciled (because Trinity) – then I have to ask ‘why me?’ What’s special about me at all, that if all that is true, that *I* get a part in it? God doesn’t *need* me, but He chose to do this for me. I always end up at ‘why?’
The only answer I can find is He sees something in me that I can’t see. Something I’m unable to imagine. And if that’s true for me, whom else is it true for? I can look at his disciples and see a long list of pretty rowdy characters. And hey, Toby, remember, nobody liked tax collectors even back then.
Here’s where that line of thought goes, I think, if you really apply it. In 2 Peter 3:9, it says: ‘The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.’
Nobody is supposed to be condemned.
Nobody is supposed to be left out.
God has a use, a purpose, a plan, for everyone. That’s a stunning, earth-shattering, mind-blowing, life-changing revelation.
Whether we agree, whether we accept, whether we reject, He gave us the choice. But the purpose was so that everyone could be reconciled to Him. Everyone is special in some way to God. I’m certainly not unique in that. Which means if *I’m* a child of God, if He made that happen for me, then everybody else is in some way facing that opportunity, that choice; the highest, the lowest, the best, the worst.
And I know this is true because in Romans 2:11 it says ‘For God does not show favoritism.’
Personally, I can’t really love people who irritate me. I suck at it. I can’t really make myself be kind when I want to be nasty. I just cannot do it. And I don’t WANT to do it. It’s too hard. And I know my own temper, and my own temperament, and I know how little self-control I have.
But when God gets involved, when I’m open to His influence, when the Holy Spirit is doing its thing within me, I find that I can hold my tongue. I can say kind words. I can keep from yelling. And I can imagine that really reprehensible people have some value to God. And I can also imagine that they may not even have been told that, that they may have had that belief crushed out of them.
*I* know how vulnerable I am in places, so I can imagine it in others. I know what a brave face looks like because I’ve worn one, so very often. And I can imagine that most people, maybe even all people somewhere inside, are a bit like me, and could be in need of things I always need. Bad as they might be, irritating as they might be. And that even some really bad people might have got that way by listening to lies about themselves, that someone bred hopelessness into them, that someone left off instilling virtue in them, or that an entire culture convinced them that giving in to impulse was great. If they are told there is nothing after this life, plenty of people will find that to be an excuse to do what they like. Lots don’t, but there’s the invitation implied in it, and some will accept it.
As to wanting to learn to exercise my own self-control (when I can, when I do it successfully), I know this: I don’t want to be the whirlwind that upends someone’s life. You never know what will stick with someone, what words they hear years later in their heads. A harsh word I say to one person might roll off their backs, but I’d be indulging in a habit I’d become less careful about over time. It might not be so harmless the next time I indulge myself in a bit of anger.
Something else all this made me think of, in my political life:
I’m all the time railing about how stupid I think people on our side can be. We have a ton of people focused on catharsis, people who enjoy being jerks, people who aren’t interested in learning how to evangelize conservatism. I hate that that’s the case.
But I don’t hate the stupid people. I hate the stupid things they’re doing. They can irritate me, but that doesn’t make them an enemy. I see the stupid things as harmful to the things they say they want. And as I thought about it, I realized that is a pretty good analogy to hating the sin, loving the sinner. If I love the people acting stupidly, I’ll try to help them get smarter. I won’t leave them in the place that doesn’t get them what they want. If I did, I wouldn’t be a loving person. If I love them, I should at least try to help them see, try to help them get closer to what they say they want.
We often see people on the other side of the political spectrum as enemies. And in this election cycle, we are starting to see people on our end of the spectrum treat each other once again as enemies. What do we do about this? Well, Jesus already said it.
‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’
But honestly, WHO DOES THIS?
What do you think it looks like when people do that, when they pray for their enemies? Let’s walk through that.
If the enemy doesn’t know about it, is the act of prayer affecting anything? Personally, I think it does. I think it does both internally and externally, because I believe God hears and God acts.
But if I didn’t believe that, or if I doubted He would act, what would be the result of praying for an enemy? Who would it affect?
It would affect *me*. It would change my position and my attitude in regards to an enemy. I would be seeking good on his behalf, regardless of his deserving it.
Which is, really, when you think about it, the definition of love. Seeking good on someone’s behalf. Not good fortune, not good luck, not happy outcomes per se, but GOOD. Seeking whatever is good for them.
It follows from that that seeking good on someone’s behalf is good for me, too. It takes me out of myself a bit, and I see the world as more than just me-centric. I know this firsthand, too. I have been so angry about something, and prayed for the person that made me angry, and I know it’s deflated that anger.
It’s easier to hold on to that anger, to insist on having that catharsis, because exerting that anger feels good. I love me some catharsis, and I always understood it. But there’s a time and place for it, and it must always be clear that it doesn’t replace an actual victory.
And people who are merely concerned with catharsis, with venting, with ranting, aren’t dumb, but they’re not thinking things through. It’s like they’re stopping at step one: “This is awful!” but they don’t make it to step two: “How do I make this less awful?” And even the folks who do make it to step two sometimes don’t arrive at step three: “Actually making things less awful”.
Recognize. Strategize. Execute. It’s a process, not a destination. Focusing on the anger, on expressing it, is easy, comfortable, and seductive. And it can be counterproductive. That’s why practicing how to love your enemies is so worthwhile to me. In the end, I find there are fewer and fewer people who ARE enemies.
Special thanks to JD for going along for the ride on this discussion, for helping me work through the right way to express these things, and the encouragement to publish them more broadly than between the two of us. I know this long post was a wild departure from my usual writing. But for 2016 my focus is going to be ‘Leave the Place Better Than You Found It’ and I thought this might be a good way to begin that journey. Hopefully there’s plenty here for you to chew on. Be sure to add your thoughts in the comments – I’m eager to see whether anybody actually read the whole thing, and on the off chance they did, what they came away with. Let me know!