Saturday, August 22, 2015

Love Your Enemy? How About Just that Person Who Annoys you?

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.--Matthew 5:43

Richard Wurmbrand was a humble man and a man whose life should humble us. In the Cold War era following World War 2, Wurmbrand was a Lutheran pastor in Romania where he spent 14 years in prison simply for being a believer in Christ and preaching the gospel.

During the 20th century Hitler's Nazi Germany garnered most of the attention as the locus of political evil in the world. All told World War 2 cost 53 million lives, including the 12 million who died in Hitler's concentration camps. But global communism slaughtered over 90 million, mostly hidden in the gulags, shuttered away from the view of the world. Hitler screeched his venom publically. Communism, in every country it enslaved, stealthily and secretly sent nearly double the number of Hitler's victims to their graves, facts that only emerged after communism collapsed across most of the globe.

Of all the communist hell holes on earth, Romania was one of the worst and it was here that Richard Wurmbrand spent 14 years being beaten times without number, nearly starved to death and repeatedly put into freezing rooms barely dressed and left until near death. His communist tormentors tortured him and other prisoners with malicious glee. His wife was also imprisoned for three years of hard labor. Other family members were murdered by communist officials. Years later, after his arrest and emigration to the west, Pastor Wurmbrand testified before the U.S. Senate about his years of captivity, and he shed his shirt to show the committee the terrible scars on his torso from his torture.

Pastor Wurmbrand would have been justified, by most standards, for hating his captors. He would have been justified in longing for revenge, or inwardly delighting in the knowledge that one day they would descend to the fires of hell for their wickedness. By most standards.

But not by the standards of Christ whom Richard Wurmbrand served. So it is humbling that he wrote in his biography, "Tortured for Christ":

There is a human level on which communism must be utterly fought against. On this level we have to fight against Communists too, they being the supporters of this cruel, savage ideal. But Christians are more than mere men; they are children of God, partakers of the divine nature. Therefore, tortures endured in Communist prisons have not made me hate Communists. They are God's creatures; how can I hate them?

He goes on later:

The Christian teaching is clear. Communists are men and Christ loves them. So does every man who has the mind of Christ.

Pastor Wurmbrand describes how his fellow Christians in prison would be returned to their cells after a session of torture and would immediately begin praying for their tormentors. Sometimes the very men who had tortured them were themselves later accused of a crime against the state and imprisoned with Wurmbrand and other prisoners. The Christian prisoners would come to their defense, shielding them from retribution by other prisoners out of their Christ like love for these, their enemies.

These testimonies leave us, cozy Americans, comfortable Christians, with no frame of reference in that we have never even come close to such persecution. We cannot fathom such treatment and so, lacking perspective, we magnify and vilify what is only trivial as though it were heinous oppression. Christians in America view mere criticism as "persecution" simply because they have never faced the real thing.

There are ill winds stirring in America, although what they portend in the near future are still far from the treatment of Christians behind the opaque borders of communist prison-nations and under Islamic regimes. Christian businesses are being penalized into bankruptcy for standing by biblical marriage standards, because they will not participate in ceremonies which violate one of the basic sacraments of the church for millennia. Terrible and unjust, yes, and one could not be faulted for wondering if this is merely the beginning. Yet for now, at least, a far cry from the Soviet gulag.

But Pastor Wurmbrand's story provides an example of how we Christians should respond to our "enemies" in America. Some scenarios come to mind.

The culture wars for starters. For two generations now, conservative Christians have fought battles to uphold moral principle such as protection of the unborn. And certainly a prophetic voice was called for to stand in the gap for justice. Some, in their zeal, have demonized their cultural/political opponents with bombast and hyperbole. But as Dr. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Council of the Southern Baptist Convention has said:

The Scriptures command us to be gentle and kind to unbelievers, not because we are not at war, but because we’re not at war with them (2 Tim. 2:26). When we see that we are warring against principalities and powers in the heavenly places, we can see that we’re not wrestling against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). The path to peace isn’t through bellicosity or surrender, but through fighting the right war (Rom. 16:20). We rage against the Reptile, not against his prey.

Can we love, say, Planned Parenthood officials peddling baby parts, or other of our spiritual and cultural opponents, knowing, as Pastor Wurmbrand did, that Christ Himself loves them and died for them as he died for us? Can we love like the family members of those slain in the recent South Carolina church massacre and declare that we forgive like they forgave the killer of their loved ones?

Let's consider a milder scenario of someone who has not killed or maimed anyone, but perhaps someone amongst family, friends, co-workers who may have done us wrong: slandered, cheated or taken something precious from us. Do we have the capacity to see them as Christ sees them and to love them? When we are wronged at this level, can we, as Christ did from the cross, forgive them?

Too difficult still? Well then one more scenario. Can we love the neighbor who leaves his garbage cans out long after trash day? Or who lets his dog bark continuously? Can we love and forgive the family member who makes unthinking remarks that bring hurt unintentionally? How about the co-worker whose incompetence makes our work more difficult or has annoying habits or an obnoxious voice that scrapes a nerve? Or the guy who cut us off in traffic? Maybe not technically our enemy, but can we love them, the seemly unlovable who are simply annoying, not menacing?

Of course we can't, at least not with this woefully inadequate carton of flesh in which we all dwell. Rather, the power to love at this supernatural level comes from the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God in our relationship with Christ. Our role is to be in submission to His leading, to desire to have the mind of Christ, and for that we must be willing to let the Spirit soften and humble our hearts.

Only then can we respond to provocations in Christ likeness, with patience and kindness, not returning invective with invective but with gentle love. Our reply can be firm, but tempered with compassion because we see the need in them rather than the offense in us.

All of this is not to say that there are not times when, because of abusive relationships, we should not separate ourselves from those who harm us or our loved ones. We do not have to volunteer ourselves for abuse. Nevertheless, even in the separation, we can pray for and have compassion for those who are captive to their fleshly passions and to the will of him who is the enemy of all humankind.

If we are to carry out our mission as ambassadors for Christ as Paul described us, we must love more than just those who are easily lovable. We must love the unlovely and unlovable, even those who persecute us, just as Christ did. Our battle is not with them, but as Russell Moore points out it is with the principalities and powers at work that manipulate them. Seen with those eyes, our attitudes and actions in love will win more hearts for the Kingdom of God than combativeness on issues big and small.

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