My 9-year-old son came across a disgraceful picture of me on the Internet, a photoshopped gangster/pimp looking mockery of me with crazy eyes and a fat money chain around my neck. Its creator was trying to portray me as greedy, a father of so many children just so that I can write books about them and make a lot of money. I find that crass judgment of me easy to brush off, but my son asked, “Why do people hate you so much, Dad?”
This is another uncomfortable mediation on hatred. There are those who revel in it, make it their thing, who wake everyday with seething hatred in their hearts. It would be easy for me to focus on them, judge them, hate them back. But though I find it difficult to do, I fight that devil inside.
Hatred has robbed our world of its humanity since the beginning of man. You and I aren’t immune. We receive the blows and we swing ourselves, and nothing good comes from it. Choosing hate never turns out as good as we think it will.
I invite you to read Romans Chapter 1-3 and follow along this meditation of mine. It has helped me immensely in dealing with the hatred inside me that tempts me to lash out against unfair, relentless adversaries. I have that deep desire to inflict pain on the life of another, and though I sometimes feel justified for it, the apostle Paul helps me consider a much better way.
Reconsider, actually. Reconsider who my true enemy is and reconsider the urge to lash out. Doing so makes the radical consideration of “turning the cheek” not such a bad idea, the only idea that works.
Reconsider My True Enemy
Paul’s disposition—and the perspective of all the first Christians, really—was not hatred toward their oppressors, but love. How contrary to that of the revolutionary:
7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do I think of my enemies like this? Would I greet with kindness and welcome those who betray me, those who create the foolish ideologies that entice all that I know is good for my family and my neighbors?
Here’s what I find most remarkable about this passage. I’ve read Romans countless times, but I never really considered the fact that the Romans were the oppressors of Paul’s people, the Jews. This is a letter to Roman converts. You can re-read this verse like this:
To my enemy who is loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God my Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
This was Paul writing to the Romans, his oppressors. It would have been so easy for me to wind myself up in zealousness and hate the Romans. I suspect, in fact, that Paul had friends who were uneasy about his insistence to connect with these vile people.
Gentiles. I can sympathize with hatred toward them. I see how harmful their oppression, their ideas, their culture is to humanity. But Paul doesn’t do what I would do. He doesn’t create a straw man in his mind, visualize the Gentiles as evil, generalize his opponent’s motives and make it an easy rhetorical punching bag. Creating a straw man is a clever tactic of holy hatred: demonize your enemy and enjoy the easy punches into the straw.
No, Paul does quite the contrary. Though it may sound foolish—almost a surrender—Paul believes he is obligated to his enemies.
14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.
Could it be that I’m one of Paul’s doubtful skeptics? Am I uneasy at the thought of radically loving my enemy? Do I fear the lost intellectual ground that may come about by perhaps sympathizing with the enemy’s values? By reaching out to my enemy—an individual, a group of people, or an ideology? Am I compromising any good that may come to me, my family, or my people?
I have come to realize that my true enemy is not necessarily the one who attempts me harm. Or, at least, this isn’t the enemy I should be concerned about most. The enemy within—the hatred in me—is what I must overcome. When I do, I resist the urge to lash out.
Reconsider Lashing Out
The “gospel” is the “Good News,” the relationship of walking with God. It is available to everyone, my enemies included. When I intellectually rule certain people out by calling them “enemies” unworthy of the same grace I claim to possess, the Gospel falls flat. Yielding love for my enemy on whatever philosophical argument I feel is justified is bringing shame to the true gospel, sort of admitting that the “good news” isn’t really that good at all.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Perhaps this is the faith I’m being called to have, just like with Paul: The faith that ground will be gained in the long haul. Reaching out to the Romans is risky, but I shouldn’t mistake the reaching out as a lack of faith. It is the exact opposite. This reaching out reveals the righteousness of God. God dwells in the peace that comes from the love I need to foster in order to reach out to my enemies.
Reaching may appear to be losing ground, like surrender. Paul may preach love for his enemies, but he doesn’t do so with rose-rimmed glasses. As if answering his friends who are weary of loving those who persecute them, Paul admits the depravity and foolishness of those who do not understand what it is like to walk with God:
God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
I see these things in the lives of my enemies. What a mess. And it is typically all brought on by themselves, their “depraved minds.” They know better, what “ought” to be done and not done, yet they are “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.” It’s viral, too. This loveless bunch encourages one another to gossip, slander, hate, and so on.
What a huge mess. It would be so easy to hate them back.
Consider Turning the Cheek
See how enticing this is? They are so messed up, just let them go. “Hand them over,” just as God has done. I can judge them and their vile deeds.
But that isn’t for me to do. Judgment belongs in heaven, not with me. In fact, when I judge my enemy, I am setting myself up. Chapter 2:
2 …you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
This is so, so difficult, especially when facing your enemy who is “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice” toward you. It’s easy to speak metaphorically of “peace” and “harmony,” or easy to stick to hating “those people.” But when you are suffering the blows from someone who hates you, refusing to pass judgment is akin to impossible.
What’s a decent person to do? Turn the cheek? To the Romans?
Well, yes, and there are three reasons why. First, do not think that your enemy is off the hook for his or her dirty deeds.
6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”
Their days are numbered, but that is not our business. This leads to my second reason to turn the cheek. My attempt to expedite their judgment—no matter how justified I think I am—heaps more and more on my day of judgment. I consider the preceding verse haunting:
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
In other words, I have to deal with the devil inside me whenever I’m tempted to revolt against the devils around me. That’s difficult to accept, but not as difficult as the third reason to turn the cheek. Chapter 3:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.
I sense Paul talking to the Roman Christians, a mixture of both Jew and Gentile, telling them to hold their judgment for the sinful muck of Rome all around them. He doesn’t justify the muck; rather, he gives that judgment totally over to God. It is as if Paul is insisting to me: “You really do want God to be in control of this injustice. Not you.”
Turning the other cheek can be frustrating, and it is humiliating to instead turn inward and focus on your own sin. But there is a sweet spot in turning the other cheek.
23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
The sweet spot is this: God is working on you justly, mercifully, and in love.
Do not focus on how He should (and will) deal with those who wreak havoc in your life. In due time. Focus instead on your own heart. In its rawest interpretation, there is no difference between the heart of a Jew or Gentile (v. 22).