There are some days when life feels like the first 10 minutes of a Disney movie. The sun is shining, your hair looks great, the people you cross paths with at the grocery store are really friendly, and you feel like you could just burst out into song at any moment.
Then there are days when you feel like you’re trapped in a war movie or maybe a horror flick. Everything goes from bad to worse as you deal with your own wounds and brokenness coming to bear in your relationships and interactions; or the effects of other people’s scars, hurts, and hang-ups; or the ugliness of the world playing out right before your eyes.
This year has felt a lot more like the latter.
The tricky part for Christians is that Jesus calls his followers into both kinds of days.
He doesn’t say to love the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength only when things are going well for you, or only when your back isn’t against the wall, or only when you aren’t facing a global pandemic, national tension, and an election year.
It’s an all-the-time thing.
Similarly, he doesn’t command us to love people only when we feel like it, or when they’ve earned it, when we’re allowed to leave our houses and actually see them, or when they agree with us.
It’s an all-the-time thing.
“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 makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
– Matthew 5:43-45
God values people. No matter how righteous or lost an individual may be, they are someone God dreamt up and breathed his breath of life into. You and me and everyone else.
When people are mean to us, or directly oppose us, or seem to be blind to our very existence, it can feel like the best course of action is retaliation.
But this is where Jesus’ words counter not just our culture, but our human instinct.
“Love your enemies.”
“Pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus is saying, see past their actions; care about their souls.
He isn’t commanding us to allow evil and let violence and corruption run amok. Nor is he condemning self-defense.
He’s telling us to see our enemies the way God does.
In the book of Acts, a young Christian named Stephen was taken out of the city to be stoned to death after he had just stood before the Sanhedrin (Jewish council) and preached through the Old Testament in order to show them that they had missed the Messiah.
But as Stephen lived out his final moments on earth, literally dying for the mission of Christ, he did something unexpected.
“And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he said this, he fell asleep.”
– Acts 7:60
This religious group had executed Jesus and were subsequently executing his followers. They fit the bill as much as anyone to be an enemy to Christians. But Stephen displayed the greatest love anyone could in the midst of such a tragedy. As they threw their ill-meaning rocks at his body, he threw back genuine prayers for their good to the only one who could do anything about it.
And who should be presiding over this scene, but Paul, known then as Saul, who would later pen the words:
“For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
– Romans 5:7-8
Paul was one of those people Christ died for when he was still in willful rebellion to the gospel.
And you know what?
You and I were too.
The best thing anyone could ever do for you is love you enough to rescue you from your own destruction.
And so when Jesus says to love our enemies, he’s not saying that means we should turn a blind eye to what they’re doing. He’s not saying what they’re doing is right. Love is in no way undermining the fact that God is perfectly just, and that there are very real consequences for sin on this side of eternity and beyond.
But rather than leaving them to their fate, Jesus is saying we should not give up on them in light of the gospel.
Because he didn’t give up on us.
The apostle Peter said it this way: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” (2 Peter 3:9).
If the story of Stephen sounded familiar, there’s probably a reason.
Jesus, as he was hanging on a cross dying for the sins of the world, was also dying for the sins of those who put him there – the enemies of his ministry and those carrying out their orders.
“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”
– Luke 23:33-34
Upon first reading this gospel account, it’s hard not to feel anger and indignation at the people who beat and mocked Jesus as he was becoming the propitiation for those very sins. But that’s not how Jesus saw them.
He could have called down curses upon them or proved them wrong by coming down off the cross unharmed.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he chose grace – the undeserved gift of mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and hope.
My prayer is that in this season and all those still to come we would be people who choose grace too.