STUDIES IN BIBLICAL ETHICS No. 11 May 19, 1996
We are finishing up our consideration of the law of God as a foundation of our ethics and its summary in the two great commandments. Last week we considered what the words “as yourself” meant in the second great commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.” We said that it is a moral duty to love yourself, but not in an idolatrous way and that this proper commitment to your own well-being must be extended as well and equally to others.
Tonight I want to elaborate that thought. What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself, to consider his interests, or hers, as equal to or even greater than your own. That latter, stronger way of speaking, is found in Paul in Phil. 2:3: “…in humility consider others better than yourselves.” There is the true antidote to the wrong kind of self-love and the proof that my childhood Sunday School class (JOY) knew better than Erich Fromm!
But rather than consider the demand of the second great commandment in general, I want to apply it to one particular aspect of Christian ethics, namely, forgiveness. What does the requirement to love our neighbor as ourselves mean with respect to the forgiveness we owe to those who mistreat us, even terribly mistreat us.
We know, of course, that this is in fact what the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves entails, because the Scripture says this plainly and the Lord Jesus himself made it a special emphasis of his ethical teaching. And the reason it is such a good way to study the obligation of the second great commandment is precisely because it is the maximum demand that this commandment places upon us, the very pinnacle of its obedience, the way in which Christians are to be so clearly and plainly distinguished from non-Christians in their behavior.
It is not always put in the very same way, but the obligation is all the more impressive for that!
Matt. 5:43-48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ [That is, we are talking about what it means to love your neighbor as yourself!] But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons 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 brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Luke 6:27-36 Luke gives the same teaching in a more elaborate form. “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you [the second commandment again!]. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them…. But love your enemies, do good to them, and led to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful [see there the appeal to self-love also?].”
Rom. 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
So Paul did himself, 1 Cor. 4:12-13: “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.”
1 Peter 2:18-23: “Slaves submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God…. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps….When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats…”
1 Peter 3:9: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
And, many other texts like those. And not in the NT only as if this were a new feature of biblical ethics. The OT puts it more simply, but no less effectively for that:
Exod. 23:4-5: “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it.”
Let me begin our consideration of these demands with an example that Cornelius Plantinga uses to illustrate the complex and difficult questions that swirl around this commandment to forgive and to treat our enemies with love, respect, and goodwill.
[CT April 29, 1996, p. 31] “Suppose that you are a lonesome, middle-aged woman who has finally met a suitable man. He speaks gently, laughs musically, and reads widely. He walks you slowly through spring air that is laden with the scent of lilacs and points out the nesting habits of finches, particularly of the yellow ones. He relishes a good Sunday sermon and can later recall whole swatches of it while he cooks your dinner. He is almost unimaginably attentive. This charming man fills you with such a sense of promise, with so much trust and love and longing, that you never do ask why he wants to arrange a joint banking account while the two of you are still on your honeymoon. After he cleans you out, disappears immaculately, and then shows up on a most-wanted list (six aliases, two previous convictions for similar offenses), you face a terrible truth. You have been betrayed, and you never saw it coming.
Now some questions. What would have to happen before you could forgive this louse? Would he have to repent? Suppose you never see him again. Could you forgive him anyway? As a Christian, must you forgive him? How soon? For his sake of for yours? What if you try to forgive him, but can’t? May your pastor, sedate in his wisdom and serene in his marriage, urge you to forgive? Doesn’t that just add a load of guilt to your trauma?
Anyhow, isn’t forgiveness too good for traitors? Isn’t there something almost unjust about it — something that trivializes the offense and encourages the offender to repeat it? May people just go around hurting other people, changing their lives forever, and then nonchalantly accept forgiveness for all the litter they leave behind?
Suppose you eventually do succeed in forgiving the litterer. Does this mean you must take him back into your life somehow? Does it mean you would not testify against him at his bigamy trial or acquiesce in his imprisonment? Does it mean you like him better than you used to?
When you forgive a person, what is it that you actually do? Do you make a move against one of your emotions? Which one? Do you shut a file in your memory? How so? … Do you take a vow of some kind? Out loud and in the presence of the traitor? What is the basic machinery? If your nine year old asks what she must do to forgive somebody who humiliated her at school, what do you say?
Well, so far Cornelius Plantinga. But he laid out the questions well, did he not?
I don’t propose to answer them all or even to answer any of them in just the way Prof. Plantinga posed them, but let me set out at least to summarize both the “how” and the “why” of biblical forgiveness, especially the forgiveness we extend to our enemies.
I. Let me begin with the “how.”
I do that on purpose, because, it seems to me, too much is made of the “how” when, in fact, that is not really the issue, not really the problem, at least not the fundamental problem.
It seems to me that the Bible addresses the “how” of forgiveness, even the forgiveness of enemies, in very practical ways that are wonderfully illuminating in a general way. However, like all other areas of biblical ethics, as we have already seen, much is left to the individual and much depends upon the motive and the intention of the heart. The one who truly hungers to forgive finds his way forward, the one who has to be convinced that he must do it always finds his problems in execution.
As C.S. Lewis put it: “The hard sayings of our Lord [and surely that we must forgive our enemies is one of those hard sayings] are wholesome only to those who find them hard.” My experience is that people who easily and completely agree that, of course, we are to forgive our enemies but then have a hundred questions of detail regarding just what forgiveness means, who is the enemy, how is he to be forgiven, when is he to be forgiven, etc. are people who really have not felt the force of that commandment at all and do not really want to forgive for Christian principles. Those who know how hard the saying is are those who see most clearly what it means and what it will cost them in repentance and spiritual trouble. But they are the ones who really want to forgive and want nothing in themselves to stand in the way of that forgiveness.
Let me then suggest five ways to think about how to forgive an enemy, five approaches that are all clearly represented in the Bible’s teaching.
1. The first is the words “as yourself” in the commandment.
For an honest, sincere, Christian heart, how clarifying this simple perspective is. You are to extend the same forgiveness to your enemy that you would want extended to yourself under similar circumstances. Let me see: would that be half-hearted, grudging, arrogant forgiveness that makes clear that, so far as you are concerned, the debt has not been paid and you are still being charged over and over again in the other’s heart; or would that be a full, sincere, warm-hearted, well-intentioned forgiveness that is communicated so as to make perfectly clear that you are no longer condemned over and over again in the other’s heart, but that there is mercy genuinely extended to you.
Forgive as you would want to be forgiven. And over and over again answer your questions as to “how?” and “to what extent?” by simply reminding yourself that you are to treat this person as you would want to be treated if you had committed similar crimes. And, of course, a real Christian knows how capable he is of committing similar crimes, no matter what the crimes may be! Given the same influences, the same opportunities, the same background, the same misfortunes, what might your heart lead you to do?
2. The second is to eschew, forswear vengeance, to renounce revenge.
And, of course, because we Christians know that all our behavior is considered both as the acts we perform and the thoughts and attitudes that produce those acts, we must renounce revenge in our hearts as much as we renounce it as an act we desire to perform against someone.
Rom. 12:17,19: “So not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
Honest Christians will know how much is being asked of them here. How many times and in how many ways we murder in our hearts individuals who have offended us in some way, who have misused us or, perhaps only have not served us, as they should, or, perhaps only as we wanted them to. Murder them over and over again in our hearts, all the while protesting our having forgiven them completely.
This is what forgiveness will require when it is extended to someone we regard as an enemy. It will require us to guard our hearts, to subject our thoughts to God’s law, to refuse to think hatefully or with superiority about others, no matter how bitterly and with what difficulty and violence such thoughts must be put down, must be murdered themselves in our hearts. The best men and women of the church’s past, the most expert in the ways of godliness and the spiritual warfare will tell you what it costs, what time and what energy and what determination, and how you will hardly believe what expedients, what means, what cost in pain and sweat and tears is required to take vengeance out of an offended heart.
3. The Third way of forgiving an enemy is to bless and not to
curse your enemy.
This is a point the Lord regularly made, as in the verses I already read to you. Paul makes it as well:
Rom. 12:19-21: “Do not take revenge…On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is, of course, the example our Savior set for us when he prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers, the very example that Stephen followed so beautifully when he did the same for his murderers, among them no less than Paul himself. Who is to say that it wasn’t that prayer that, when answered, brought Paul into the service of the gospel.
It is not enough simply not to take revenge, one must seek to bless, to help, to love. As in the OT, to look out for his donkey and to do him some service and kindness even though he did you harm.
4. The fourth way of forgiving an enemy is to refuse to surrender
I offer this as a separate thought about the forgiveness of an enemy because my experience has taught me that this is a special area of difficulty.
James saw this clearly enough when he wrote (1:19-20) that “man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”
Of course, there is a certain kind of anger that is entirely appropriate and holy; we see it in the Lord’s case. It is one thing, however, to be angry on behalf of God and his Name, it is another thing to be angry on one’s own behalf. Then it is much, much harder to believe that the anger is really righteous and not, as it appears to be, simply the defending of one’s own honor or the exacting of mental revenge. “Anger,” as one put it, “is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it,” and the love that bleeds the easiest and the most is self-love. So when we find folk who have been harmed by others constantly referring to these texts and justifying their anger as righteous, it is not hard to see that there is a fire burning within them that will consume all possibility of true love and forgiveness for the enemy.
“Anger,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “is the anaesthetic of the mind.” And what it numbs is precisely the ability to see ourselves in relation to this great obligation to love others come wind, come weather, and to love them in defiance of all they have done — just as Christ loved us.
5. The fifth way of forgiving others, according to Scripture, is
to turn the matter of justice and retribution over to God and,
with it, the matter of the vindication of your own name or
This is what our Savior did and, in so doing, charted the path for us.
1 Peter 2:23: “When they hurled their insults at him he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
1 Pet. 5:5-6: “All of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
Paul did this. “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done.” The imprecatory psalms, remember, always leave the judging and the punishing to God. You needn’t worry about contributing to injustice: God said “I will repay!” Leave it to him.
And this is liberating for the person who has been terribly wronged. The Lord knows all of what has happened to you; he could have prevented it, indeed, had he chosen to do so. However mysterious his ways may be to you, they are good and righteous altogether, as a matter of fact. And he has promised to vindicate all his children at the proper time. Leave it to him.
And if you will seriously reckon with what sinners must eventually receive from the Lord, his wrath and the misery of hell; or, even in the case of the Christian who has harmed you, the dismay, the shame when he looks on the one whom he has pierced, it will go a long way to taking the pleasure out of your vengeful thoughts and to making it easier to leave the matter and its issue in God’s all-capable hands.
Isa. 26:3: “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.”
There, then, is the “how” of the forgiveness of an enemy — whatever kind of enemy.
But, now, the “why!” And here is where the Christian finds the power to do what unbelievers do not and cannot, really love an enemy.
1. First, we are to forgive as our Father in heaven does, to
treat our enemies kindly as he does the wicked.
This is the argument our Savior used. Your heavenly father is kind to the just and the unjust and you are to be like him. In how many ways does he not treat men as their sins deserve. If you are to be his true son or daughter then the same thing must be said of you.
This is one of the great ways to show your family resemblance and to pay honor to your Father. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
Luke 6:35-36: “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
That should be enough. God treats people who have been bad, even who continue to be bad, with great forbearance, patience, and kindness. And, therefore, so should we. Period!
2. But, there is a second, still more powerful consideration or
motivation for the forgiveness of enemies. And that is God’s
forgiveness of us.
Col. 3:13: “…forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Here is the foundation, the unassailable argument, the unimpeachable motive. Christ has forgiven us a mountain of sins committed against his infinite majesty. Will we not forgive sins committed against us — especially we who have been forgiven and know that we do not deserve it at all? Here is the argument to use with yourself always when struggling to forgive. Do I think that my sins against God are not as great as these sins against me? If I think so, can I be a true Christian at all? Can I really have any understanding of God’s saving grace or my own guilt? If my sins would have sent me to hell forever…, and yet I have been forgiven and shown mercy, what is it to me if someone has committed sins against me? And can I love God’s mercy if it does not make me merciful?
We are so ready to think that someone’s sins against us are far worse than ours against God, but, take care, brethren, that comes near to blasphemy! [The recent debate at Covenant College over a speaker who defined racism as “prejudice + power” meaning that blacks cannot commit the sin. As Christian psychologists seem as well to have argued that some people’s trauma renders them incapable of guilt for certain types of anger or unbelief. But, then, can that believer any longer say “of whom I am chief?”]
No brothers and sisters, biblical ethics are not simply what most people would take to be being nice to people. There is a grandeur here, a scandal here, a way of life that will always seem utterly absurd to the world. We must teach our children this. There is that in their lives that must appear to unbelief to be completely foolish, even wrong and unjust. For we are followers of Christ and he taught us to love our enemies, really love our enemies in his name. There is not nearly enough of this wonderful and terrible foolishness in Christian living and teaching today. We must get it back.
A Turkish officer raided and looted an Armenian home. He killed the aged parents and gave the daughters to the soldiers; keeping the eldest daughter for himself. Some time later she escaped and trained as a nurse. As time passed, she found herself nursing in a ward of Turkish officers. One night, by the light of a lantern, she saw the face of this officer. He was so gravely ill that without exceptional nursing he would die. The days passed, and he recovered. One day, the doctor stood by the bed with her and said to him, ‘But for her devotion to you, you would be dead.’ He looked at her and said, ‘We have met before, haven’t we?’ ‘Yes,” she said, ‘we have met before.’ ‘Why didn’t you kill me?’ he asked. She replied, ‘I am a follower of Him who said “Love your enemies.”‘ [Wainwright, Doxology, p. 434]
If God should grant us a number in this church, perhaps of our children when the grow up, of whom similar stories might be told, I think that then we could call ourselves a Christian church.