“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends,how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48 NLT
The Christian life is more about the journey than the destination. It’s a journey where day by day, and step by step, we are being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ. As we are conformed to His image we begin to look, and sound, and respond more like Jesus, to the people and circumstances of life. It doesn’t happen overnight.
That is easy to see because some of Jesus’ teaching seems practically impossible—Love Your Enemies? Be Perfect—these commands might as well be instructions to climb Mt. Everest, or swim to Hawaii. I just can’t do it, I am unable in every way except my desire to please Him.
Tolstoy, the great novelist, discovered the teachings of Christ and the high standard of God’s ideal, he dropped everything to follow Jesus’ teaching to the letter. It was a futile attempt, for he could never achieve the self-discipline required to keep God’s standard. But to his credit, he never stopped trying, and in a letter written to a critic late in life Tolstoy wrote this:
What about you, Lev Nikolayevich, you preach very well, but do you carry out what you preach? This is the most natural of questions and one that is always asked of me; it is usually asked victoriously, as though it were a way of stopping my mouth. “You preach, but how do you live?” And I answer that I do not preach, that I am not able to preach, although I passionately wish to. I can preach only through my actions and my actions are vile… And I answer that I am guilty and vile, and worthy of contempt for my failure to carry them out…
“Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies. If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side!? If it is not the right way, then show me another way; but if I stagger and lose the way, you must help me, you must keep me on the true path, just as I am ready to support you. Do not mislead me, do not be glad that I have got lost, do not shout out joyfully: ‘Look at him! He said he was going home, but there he is crawling into a bog!’ No, do not gloat, but give me your help and support.” (The Religious Writings of Tolstoy)
The words of the apostle Paul echo in our mind as we hear the desperation in Tolstoy’s voice?
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Romans 7:18
Isn’t that how we feel much of the time? “This is too much, it’s too hard, I can’t do it!” But then we read Tolstoy’s encouraging insight: “If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side!?”
If I know the way home, and I am going in that direction but staggering and falling and stumbling along the way, does that make it any less the right way? And of course, the answer is, no. I am on the right path. It might not be pretty, it might not be all that you think it should be in my life. But it’s the right way. It is the right path. And I am on it in spite of my success.
But how do we do it? How do we “Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?” In an age of and militant terrorists, persecutors, killers, pedophiles, and those who flaunt immorality in your face just to get a reaction? Love them? Forget it!
We all have the unconscious tendency to populate heaven with only the people whom we like and who are like us. There are people we neither expect or really want to make it to heaven. And we tend to avoid thinking about the implications of loving them, of reconciling with them, or even of them reconciling with God. These are the bad guys, the villains, the enemy.
But Jesus wasn’t trying to shock us when He said to love our enemies, He was teaching the things that He lived – the commands of Christ were born out of His own lifestyle. His heart of love for people is that none would die in sin, not one, but for all to come to repentance. This is the Gospel of love and reconciliation, and it is the true way even though the messengers are ill-equipped in the flesh to walk it out perfectly.
So, by His grace, I begin to see people as God sees them. In the power of the Holy Spirit, I begin to treat people as I have been treated by God. He died for me while I was still a sinner, He loved me before I loved Him. He demonstrated His love for me by coming to where I was and sacrificing His life for me. And I begin to see that these commands are not only the standards for kingdom life, but they are also the way God lives. This is how he treated me.
He caused the sun to shine on me when I was in full rebellion against Him, on those very same days, Billy Graham was fasting and praying, yet we received the same gift of warmth from God. God is consistent, both in His justice and in His grace – can I be anything less?
We all stand on a level playing field before God – none of us has or will be able to ascend to the throne of God in our own strength and goodness. And having realized that, I fall into the arms of grace with the rest of Christ’s followers and keep staggering toward home. Just because I stumble doesn’t mean it’s the wrong path.
God, give us the grace to love as You love, help us remain on Your path, following in Your steps.