by Kurt Willems
*reprinted from the Summer 2015 edition of Shalom!
THERE ONCE WAS a boy who lived in the tension between joy and pain; happiness and hurt; light and darkness. At an early age, his parents who loved him dearly got a divorce. He would go on to live primarily with his mom and visit his dad every other weekend. This happened at such an early age that he did not know anything different. Having an intact family only existed in his clouded dream-like memories.
Around the time that this boy was getting ready to begin school, his mom began a relationship with another man. She needed the financial stability, because she struggled to maintain a job and mostly relied on welfare. Soon after, this new man began to show his true colors of anger, alcoholism, and abuse. Sporadically but regularly, the man would beat the boy’s mom and would even take his rage out on the child. At home with mom and the man, the boy’s life became a constant nightmare from which he couldn’t wake up.
Along with the pain, the boy experienced joy. His dad, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and church gave him opportunities to know love. Unfortunately, the boy didn’t tell them what was happening at home because he wanted to protect his mother. Nevertheless, as he grew older he knew that the time would come when he would be strong enough, brave enough, and big enough to fight back. If this man, his greatest enemy, continued to make life hellish, a day of vengeance would come when the boy would be able to defend his mom.
There is a story in the Bible that we don’t know much about. In Genesis, immediately after Cain kills Abel, God has mercy on this murderer and makes known to all people that “anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over” (Gen. 4:15). After this, a character named Lamech enters the story and admits to having committed murder. He claims for himself what God said about Cain: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (v. 24). Notice that this story is a warning to the enemies of Lamech. Anyone who kills or tries to harm Lamech will receive vengeance 77 times worse. This is a story rooted in the fear of retaliation.
But then there came a man who taught about a way of God that was rooted not in vengeance, but forgiveness and love toward enemies. One day he was approached by a disciple named Peter who asked: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matt 18:21). Listen to Jesus’ rabbinic response: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (v. 22). Can you imagine how revolutionary his words would have sounded if you were a first century Jew for whom the story of Lamech was part of your heritage? You would be saying: so… in the same way that the story of Lamech claimed vengeance toward enemies, Jesus says this is how often we ought to forgive our enemies! Wow!
This is not the first time Jesus said something like this. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus taught the lesson in another way. He said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This would be an acceptable ethic to the Lamechs of the world. But the Jesus ethic is different: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matt 5:43-44). Jesus’ way is never about vengeance but is always about reconciliation and forgiveness. He demonstrated that in the most compelling fashion in his journey to the cross. 1 Peter reminds us: “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before 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 threat” (2:20-21, 23).
Now think back to the boy and the pain he endured in his life. How would he respond to his enemy, the man who all that pain? Eventually he would be strong enough, brave enough, and big enough. But maybe the question should not be about how the boy should respond. Perhaps a different question is required.
What if the answer is not embedded in the question of the boy’s response, but rather is rooted in this question: what has God done in response to his enemies? Then the question is: who exactly are God’s enemies? Romans 5:10 answers: “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.” But then notice how God responded to his enemies (aka: humanity). He initiated relationship with us by absorbing the violence of evil through the obedient action of his Son Jesus! Jesus not only taught forgiveness (which has the ultimate goal of reconciliation); on God’s behalf, he reconciled his enemies to a properly centered relationship with him. He could have fought back. Jesus was strong enough, brave enough, and big enough, but instead of retaliation, he chose the cross. We, who were the enemies of God, have been reconciled by the faithful action of Jesus!
Let’s return to the boy in our story. He finally became strong enough, brave enough, and big enough to fight back. By this time, the man was far removed from the family that he had once hurt. Even so, in the back of the boy-turned-young-man’s mind was the thought that if this enemy ever were to creep back into the picture, he could now fight back. But then this boy-turned-young-man had an encounter with Jesus that changed the question from how to respond to how God has responded. God through Christ’s faithfulness offers forgiveness to reconcile his enemies to himself. Having received such a generous and restorative gift, the young man came to realize that he could not help but give it away, even to his childhood enemy. God’s attitude and action toward his enemies not only served as an example for him, but also became the overflow of his heart. How could he not pay forward the generosity that he had experienced from his heavenly father to forgive this quasi-earthly-father?
The boy, whose name is Kurt, eventually (with God’s help) decided to let go of vengeance and to extend forgiveness. I let go of the need to be ready to defend, and chose to learn to love my enemy. Because of this, I have been able to pray for my childhood enemy. I have been able to wish God’s best for him. This is not always easy and at times in my journey the temptation has been to return to hatred and un-forgiveness. However, as I grow into the love of God, I cannot help dreaming of the day when my childhood enemy will experience the reconciling love of Jesus and will encounter the possibility of turning enemies into friends.
So, who is your enemy? A co-worker, a boss, a relative, an abusive person from the past, a spouse? Or perhaps your enemy is a group of people: conservatives, liberals, terrorists, gays, non-Christian religions? Can you imagine the possibilities if you chose to respond to your enemies out of gratitude for how God has responded to us? Can you envision the healing that could take place in your life and in our communities if those who are our enemies were reconciled to us through sacrificial forgiveness? May we respond to our enemies in the same way that God has responded to us. May we choose to live less like the Lamechs of the world, and to embrace the reality of reconciliation that has ultimately been accomplished through the self-sacrificial love of the cross. May we show our enemies a nonsensical love that is rooted in the nonsensical love of God. May we choose to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute” us.
Kurt Willems lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife and daughter, and is the Brethren in Christ church-planting pastor of Pangea Communities. This article is adapted by permission from Kurt’s blog at http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog.