Christian Living and Relationships; Part Four
Dealing with Human Adversaries
© C. O. Bishop, 6/7/16 THCF 7/3/16
Dealing with human adversaries is an unpleasant reality, but a reality, nonetheless. Believe it or not, there will be folk who don’t like you, and the reverse is true as well. It is dishonest to ourselves and to God, to pretend that it never happens, though some personalities seem to have an easier time dealing with unpleasant people than do others. Those people are a blessing.
I read about a man who always had something nice to say about people. It was habitual, though sometimes just a matter of personal discipline. He and a friend were driving cross-country on business, when they saw a hitch-hiker. They stopped and gave the man a ride, but soon regretted that decision: the fellow smelled bad, he cursed constantly, as he complained non-stop about life in general: local politics, the weather, and everything else that came to mind. Finally they dropped him off near his home, and he grunted some sort of insincere thanks, and was gone.
The driver, less inclined to say pleasant things, turned to his friend, and said, “OK, brother! What can you say nice about that guy?” The “man of blessing” thought for a moment, then looked out the window and said, “He surely lives in a pretty part of the country!” That sort of person is a blessing to be around. But there is more to it than just saying mice things: Let’s see what Paul says.
Dealing with Human Enemies…with Love
Paul gives good instructions, here, as to how to deal with human enemies. Over in Ephesians 6, Paul points out that our real enemies are not flesh and blood people, but satanic forces that motivate the world around us. He gives us weaponry and armor to deal with those enemies. But here, he gives instructions as to how to deal with the human adversaries in life.
The underlying principle is Love, whether with believers or unbelievers: just human adversaries in general. It is unfortunately not unusual to find two Christians who behave like adversaries toward one another. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. So, in that case, even more emphatically, the underlying principle is to be Love…the Agapé Love. Jesus says so, too! (Matthew 5:44)
14 Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.
This is where it begins. You are to be a blessing to the people around you, regardless of who they are. Bless your enemies as well as your friends. Proverbs 16:7 says, “When a man’s ways please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” It begins with you committing yourself to being a blessing to those around you, even if they are a curse to you. That is a loose definition of Agapé love, actually: “Committing oneself to the good of another, without regard to how it affects oneself.” Keep in mind that this is exactly what Jesus did at the Cross. John 13:1 concludes, “…having loved His own which were in the World, He loved them to the end.” How? The word used here is agapao: He committed himself to the Cross for their sake, but kept teaching and encouraging them all the way there. And, in the midst of that course, he said “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34, 35)
Empathy and Compassion
15 Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
We tend to think of this only as “how we deal with other believers”…but what better way to deal in Love with an enemy, than to be genuinely glad when things go well for them, and genuinely distressed for them when things do not go well. This behavior builds bridges, not walls.
There was a young man, years ago at work, who was bitterly opposed to the Gospel, and hated Christians. I don’t know why he felt that way, and I was never privileged to discuss it with him. But one day, I chatted with him about some other subject, and he told me he was about to get married. I burst out “Good for you! Congratulations!” I was genuinely happy for him; thrilled for him, and he could tell it was genuine. A shy smile spread over his face… and that was the only “breakthrough” I ever had with him. The last I heard, he had moved to Indonesia, and now bitterly hates the United States. So…did it do any good? Who knows? But it was genuine, and if he ever thinks back on that, I think he knows that I rejoiced with him.
Compassion for the lost is another critical application of agapé love. Compassion for other believers is relatively easy, by comparison, but if we consider the bleak, hopeless future awaiting those who have spurned the grace of God, shouldn’t we feel even more compassion for those lost souls? Remember that God says we were all enemies of God before He saved us. If it were not for Him loving the unlovely, we would all still be lost.
16 Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.
It is easy to take the “high road” and hold yourself separate from those you think are enemies. But, again, we are to be building bridges, not walls. Look for opportunities to be a blessing to those individuals. Look for things you can do that make for open doors. It is far too easy to respond with the same unfriendly behavior they offer us, and that just confirms to them that we are the problem. It may seem unfair or unreasonable, but we are called to be peacemakers. Jesus said, in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called the Sons of God.”
So, we must avoid anything that could be seen as conceit, or standoffishness. Everyone is sensitive to that sort of thing. Try not to be too impressed with your own righteousness and piety and wisdom. When we deliberately take a “learner’s stance,” allowing others the honor of explaining their work, their expertise, their knowledge; and are appropriately impressed with the things they have to say, it puts others at ease, as they don’t see us as a rival. We need to listen as though the other person and their thoughts are important…because they are! If, instead, we feel that we have to “top” their stories, and tell a better joke, or in some way show ourselves smarter, more knowledgeable, more pious, etc. then it not only dishonors our neighbor, but it dishonors God (see Proverbs 6:16-19.)
Testimony: Goodness and Honesty
17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
“Payback” is a prevalent concept, worldwide. In some places it has been refined to a point that, whether good or evil, you must pay back your neighbor. Grace and forgiveness are no longer concepts in their culture. In some cultures, such as the Dom tribe of New Guinea, where Jim and Judy Burdett have served for the last 35 years, it has gone so far that there were no longer even words for Grace, Forgiveness, Love, etc. It was very difficult to translate the New Testament, because the very concepts of the New Covenant were missing from their culture…and so were the concepts of honesty and peace. Everyone was an enemy, and everyone was a thief and a liar.
How could you teach a person to live peacefully in such a culture? Every neighboring tribe was a blood-enemy: every stranger an enemy to be killed. And yet, 40 years after first contact was made with the Gospel, things have changed: Not only has a written form been created for the Dom language, and the New Testament translated into that language, but the people have learned to read and to write in their own language, and churches have sprung up, as people placed their faith in the risen Christ.
We recently received photos of a team of these believers, now well-grounded Bible-teachers, returning from a mission into what was once enemy territory. They had gone, by invitation, to a neighboring tribe with similar enough language to allow conversation, and had taught the foundations to faith. They call it “the God-talk”. And the people, long saturated with the violence and deceit of their own making, are yearning for something better. Peace is beginning to result. Is it still a dangerous place with violent people? Absolutely. But it was once a universally dangerous place, completely filled with violent people. Where the Gospel has penetrated hearts, life is beginning to change. A work of the Holy Spirit has begun there, however small.
Is it always possible to live peacefully with others? Nope. It takes two. But God says that as much as lies with us, we are to commit ourselves to living in peace with others.
19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
So, the rules have been tightened, for believers. We frequently think of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” standard of punishment from the Old Testament, as the minimum, and appropriate. But it was actually established as a maximum, to limit the natural human desire for revenge. In Genesis 4:23, 24 we hear the voice of Lamech (a fifth generation grandson of Cain), boasting to his two wives that had killed a young man for having hurt him. He concluded, “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, Lamech shall be avenged seventy-sevenfold.”
How interesting that he should choose that particular number to which to compare his revenge. Remember, when Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive an offending brother: Peter asked whether “seven times” was as far as he had to go, putting up with someone else’s wrongdoing, and forgiving them… provided they even repented and asked for forgiveness. Jesus said, no, that seventy times seven was correct (490 times.) So our whole natural bent toward “don’t get mad, get even” –or even “don’t get even, get ahead!” is not from God at all. It is strictly a product of the flesh.
God says that vengeance is His business, not ours. Paul says here, that we have to leave room for God to work. If we try to take vengeance ourselves we are muddying the water, so to speak, and limiting what God can do. He says “leave room for wrath”. The Greek literally just says “give place to wrath”, which is how KJV translates the passage…but the word used for wrath (Greek orgé) is almost exclusively used to refer to God’s wrath, not human anger. The NASB translators translated the passage “leave room for the wrath of God” if you have the NASB, notice that the “of God” is in italics—that is to say, it is not in the Greek text. However, I think they are probably correct that this is what is in view. Otherwise, it might have been encouraging us to “let them have room for their anger.” But that is not what is in view, here. We are being asked to “get out of God’s way, and let Him deal with them.”
So, do we just “back off” and watch, and wait, hoping to see the vengeance of God? That is what Jonah did, you may recall. He found a good place from which to watch, and was hoping to see the destruction of Nineveh. But God told him he was wrong. So, then, if we are wrong to just “hope to see the vengeance of God,” what are we to be doing?
Being a Blessing
20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
Paul says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him! If he is thirsty, give him something to drink!” If you really want “revenge”, overwhelm them with genuine kindness! Go out of your way to make sure they are comfortable, safe, and secure. Do it because God says to do so. He also notes that this will have a greater result: he says it will “heap burning coals upon their head.” I assume that it means they will be tormented inwardly by the fact that I am treating them well, and, perhaps be shamed into realizing that they themselves are behaving badly. But it is possible that it is still talking about the wrath of God, and that my treating them kindly will actually add to their eternal punishment. I hope that is not the meaning, but I am not sure.
One commentator (Alva J. McClain,) pointed out that you may drive the person to repentance, who has done you wrong, when they see that you consistently treat them as a friend, and that they will cease to be your enemy. I do not think that is necessarily true of the human heart at large. However, Proverbs 16:7 does say, “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. I do think that, in the context of “giving room for the wrath of God”, it is possible that when we commit ourselves to kindness, it allows the Holy Spirit to convict the hearts of wrongdoers.
There is an awareness of sin and guilt built into human hearts, though it can be choked and drowned out by a long-standing pattern of evil-doing. Don Richardson records in his book “The Peace Child”, that, in the degenerated cultures in Irian Jaya (same island as Papua New Guinea, but on the Indonesian side), treachery had become the very highest virtue. And, even there, they understood the concept of right and wrong, to a limited degree. But when he tried to teach the Gospel, they saw Judas as the hero of the story. They saw his treachery in “betraying Jesus with a kiss” as being the finest thing they had ever heard. Judas Iscariot was an instant hero to them. Don Richardson felt, at that point, that there was no way to break through the depravity of that culture, to touch their hearts with the real Gospel. But God had a plan already in place.
When Don and his wife had first moved there, they had established a pattern of doing good things, medical care, etc. The people saw that as something to be desired, and eventually it actually became a real problem: as the news got around, other villages wanted that sort of benefit as well, and the rival villagers were ready to kill one another for the privilege of having the Richardson family in their respective villages. Don intervened, and stated that he and his family would leave entirely; permanently, unless the warring factions made peace.
As it turned out, there was only one way to establish peace in that culture. It required that one man give his own child, a baby, to the enemy tribe, to raise as their own. All who accepted the Peace Child were bound by that social contract. Neither tribe could treat the other as an enemy, so long as the Peace Child lived. It was a very rare thing to happen at all, but it was the only lasting peace possible. And, as it happened, the people saw it as being utterly wrong, to kill the Peace Child. And God used that peculiarity to enter their culture with the Gospel, and save them.
Don and his team realized that the cultural analogy had been established by God as an opening for the Gospel. The real Peace Child was Christ himself. So, they re-taught the Gospel, this time explaining that God sent His Son, the Peace Child, in order to bring peace between God and Man. This time the people saw that Judas had betrayed the Peace Child. This time they saw Judas as the ultimate villain, not as a hero. They actually wept, and mourned, as they considered the facts: Peace with God was only possible so long as the Peace Child lived! Their only chance for peace with God had been destroyed by Judas. But when Don continued to teach, and they realized the fact of the Resurrection, they were filled with relief and joy, to know that their Peace with God not only could be established in the person of Christ, but that it was eternally so, as their Peace Child is eternally alive!
The salvation of those precious souls was entirely the work of the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit. But the foundation was laid by God’s people extending kindness to the enemies of God.
Paul’s Conclusion: Be Overcomers!
21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
Jesus said, in John 16:33, “…In the World ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the World.” We are to follow His example in this regard, as well as others. We are to “overcome the world” by faith, through obedience to Christ, and kindness to others, coupled with the simple truth of the Gospel; that the Blood of Jesus is full payment for our sins, and his resurrection is full confirmation of that fact, from God the Father. In this way, win or lose, we win with God.
Lord Jesus, allow us to walk in your footsteps, and respond to the Evil people in the World with the Grace and Goodness of Almighty God. Make us the men and women of God you have called us to be.