Jesus told us we could only enter God’s Kingdom by becoming like little children (Matt. 18:3) and we think immediately of some appealing traits of children:
How innocent children are
How easily they trust
How confidently they follow any who leads them
A study reported in Science suggests another trait of very young infants that might also be a characteristic of those who live in God’s Kingdom: openness to new experiences. The Johns Hopkins researchers found that 11-month-old infants, confronted with objects that behaved in unpredictable ways, were more — not less — likely to spend time with that object, investigating its properties and behaviors. What would this kind of curiosity and openness look like in the Kingdom of God?
God told God’s people, from very early in our relationship, that we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5). But to many of us, this is a puzzle. We find it hard to love people we know face-to-face. How can we love someone we have not seen? What would it mean to love someone we will only meet directly after this life ends?
God answers this puzzle with a puzzle of his own:
“ … whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
In some way, our love for God is directly linked to our love for brothers and sisters. When God tells us that the two great commands are “like” each other, God means more than they are “similar to” each other. They are more alike than identical twins. Identical twins can live separately from each other. But these two loves only flourish together. It is not possible to choose to have love toward one object – God – and not have love toward another – our neighbors. It is not possible to love our brothers while failing to love our enemies. Either we allow God to perfect us in love or we fail in love. And those who fail in love on earth cannot claim to love God in heaven. Either we learn the skills of love and allow God to grow in us the heart and grace of love or we fail to.
God, of course, loves perfectly. So even when we love imperfectly and behave in this world just like God’s enemies, God still loves us. Having adopted us into the family of God, God will never abandon us.
Still, God is insistent: to love God and to live as part of God’s family is to love our neighbors – brother and enemy alike. Understanding that these twin responsibilities for love are inseparable – the love for God who is unseen and the love for people we see every day – is essential as we view the many commands about love that God provides us.
We learn how to love God as we learn how to love each other. We actually love God as we actually love each other. And then, in a mysterious spiritual economy, we also are empowered to love each other as we acknowledge the great power who is our God, who has welcomed us to live in his family and who has promised us the strength of his blood and his Spirit to accomplish everything he sets before us.
We’re just off Christmas, and those of us in the US have spent, on average, more than $700 to buy gifts for people we find relatively easy to love. Today, I’m writing about the people we find hardest to love. Because God has something challenging to say about how we treat them.
Jesus told us to love our enemies and we just can’t figure it out.
The backstabber in the office, the bully at school, there is simply no way to feel anything good toward them. Then we look a little further away at the person who is a political opponent or who threatens our career advancement or a little closer to someone we consider a self-centered, unkind spouse and there seems no way in heaven — or on earth — to find a feeling of love for that person.
When You Don’t Feel Love, Do Love
Loving an enemy, as the Bible lays it out, is much more about what you do than what you feel. Look at these examples of Old Testament guidance:
“If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him” (Exodus 23:4).
“If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him.” (Exodus 23:5)
That is to say, if your enemy — someone who hates you — has lost something that is crucial to the success of their business and you find it, it is your responsibility before God to return it. If someone who hates you has, because of their own stupidity or greed, overburdened their business equipment and it has broken down, you don’t get to walk by and gloat in the break room. It’s your job, before God, to help. This is what it looks like to love an enemy.
Love an Enemy Like You Love a Brother
These commands almost precisely parallel commands given that explain how we are to care for our brothers and sisters in the family of God:
“If you see your brother’s ox or sheep straying … be sure to take it back to him” (Deuteronomy 22:1).
“If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road,do not ignore it. Help him get it to its feet” (Deuteronomy 22:4).
How can it be that we are supposed to love an enemy with exactly the actions we would do for a brother, someone toward whom we presumably have at least some kind of warm regard?
Resolve, Not Romance
The answer is so obvious it’s easy to overlook. The kind of love God commands isn’t the kind of “love” that creates fluttery feelings. It’s the kind of love that does what’s best for other people. Not that there’s anything wrong with breathless, chest-pounding romance. But it’s not what anyone feels when they’re facing down a street thug or the office queen bee or martyrdom. The love God commands is a love that resolves to follow God and do God’s purposes for the best of all the people involved.
Have you ever managed to love an enemy? What happened?
When A.J. Jacobs, a secular Jew and humorist, spent a year trying to follow Biblical commands, he discovered a few surprising things he couldn’t laugh at. Among them: It was more satisfying to “thank God” than to simply “be grateful.”
A best-selling author and editor at Esquire, Jacobs spent a year attempting to follow all of the Bible’s commands he found, which he copied from a well-worn RSV Bible to his Apple PowerBook. (His list of 700+ is considerably shorter than my list of more than 2,000, but that’s a story for another day.)
“The Year of Living Biblically” (2007) was intended as a humorous commentary on the obligations God has placed on God’s people over time. It created lots of opportunities for readers to laugh at how some of these might look when practiced literally, instead of with thoughtful application to 21st century American culture. But it also produced something of a revolution in him, if the text is to be believed. By the end of the year, he had discovered it was less satisfying to “be grateful” than to thank God.
It’s rather as if Jacobs started in the middle of Hebrews 11:6, without faith and without expectations, and found the reward anyway: “because anyone who comes to him (God) must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Heb. 11:6).
God urges us a great many times to gratefully receive the good gifts God provides.
For everything God has created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. 1 Tim 4:4-5
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all … giving thanks to God the Father through him [the Lord Jesus]. Col. 3:17
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Deuteronomy 8:10
I’ve known people who are good at rejoicing in the immediate and ordinary gifts of God. Sometimes it can feel a bit off-putting. How do you feel when someone begins praying, “Thank you, Father, that I woke up this morning! Thank you that I got out of bed and stood on my feet! Thank you that I walked and there was food in the kitchen when I got there!”
And yet, these are expressions of thanksgiving for “everything God has created.” This is one way that some Christians remember to give thanks in “whatever they do … do(in) it all” with gratitude to God.
Jacobs – who characterizes himself as a secular Jew — had, I suspect, discovered in obedience to this particular set of commands the satisfaction of being in relationship with The Most High. When we thank God, we talk with God. And to talk with God, we must allow ourselves at least the possibility that God might be present and listening. Then … in the mystery that is faith … as we behave “as if” God might be there, we discover in our hearts that God is.
Today is wintry and the faintest light has begun turning the eastern sky from black to dark blue outside my office window. A bobbing light along the street represents a neighbor’s headlamp as she walks her dog. I’m bundled in fleece and flannel waiting for my office to warm.
Thank you, God, for the infrared heater at my feet. Thank you, God, that arthritic fingers can still keyboard. Thank you, God, for morning coffee and for the mug that says Heidi is (still) my friend (after more than three decades!).
Thank you, God, that you’re there to be thanked. And that you have provided everything for which I give thanks, today and every day.