Forgiving our Enemies brings us Enormous Benefits by Lee Strobel
All the passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “God’s Outrageous Claims,” which was published in 1997 by Zondervan.
Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson was held hostage in Lebanon for nearly seven years. He was chained to a wall in a filthy, spider-infested cell. He suffered through sickness. He endured mental torture. He longed for his family. He was ground down by the dull ache of incessant boredom.
Through it all, he was given one book—the Bible—and as he devoured it in a search for words of hope, he came across what appeared to be outrageous words of hopeless naiveté: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” Jesus told a crowd. “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”1
Can you imagine how outlandish that command must have seemed to Anderson after spending 2,455 mind-numbing days in cruel captivity? Love whom? Pray for whom? Show kindness toward those who brutalized me? Exhibit compassion toward those who callously extended none to me? Is Jesus a cosmic comedian or merely a
Finally Anderson was released on December 4, 1991. Journalists clustered around and peppered him with questions. They wanted to know what his ordeal had been like. They wanted to know his plans for the future. But then one reporter called out the question that stopped Anderson in his tracks: “Can you forgive your captors?” What an easy question to pose in the abstract; what a profound issue to ponder honestly amid the grim reality of harsh injustice.
Anderson paused. Before the words of his response could come out of his mouth, the Lord’s Prayer coursed through his mind: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”2
Then this victim of undeserved suffering spoke. “Yes,” he replied, “as a Christian, I am required to forgive—no matter how hard it may be.”3
Often it is hard. So hard, in fact, that Jesus’ decree to love and pray for our opponents is regarded as one of the most breathtaking and gut-wrenching challenges of his entire Sermon on the Mount, a speech renowned for its outrageous claims. There was no record of any other spiritual leader ever having articulated such a clear-cut, unambiguous command for people to express compassion to those who are actively working against their best interests.
Jesus has done it again!
But wait Hold on a moment. Maybe this command isn’t so outlandish after all. Perhaps it’s actually a prescription that benefits both those who forgive and those who are forgiven. Maybe there are a host of benefits that come with fostering an atmosphere of grace rather than an environment of maliciousness.
The truth is, God’s wisdom works. Choosing to forgive instead of hate can turn out to be one of our greatest blessings in disguise—if we understand how this extraordinary principle works.
THE RIVALS AROUND US
Love my enemies? I don’t have any enemies—do you? Nobody has ever shoved a machine gun under my chin and herded me into a dark cell for seven years. Nobody has ever brutalized me the way Terry Anderson was abused.
But even in the civilized United States, we do have enemies. They may not be armed terrorists, but to one degree or another we all have adversaries or opponents toward whom we feel animosity.
He may be the owner of a competing business who’s stealing your best customers, and if you’re honest, you’ll admit that you hate him for putting your livelihood in jeopardy. She may be a colleague who’s fighting against you—all too successfully—for bonuses and advancement. He may be the mid-level executive who’s firmly entrenched above you in the corporate structure, and you resent him because he’s blocking your way to the top.
If you’re management, your adversary may be the union, or vice versa. Your enemy might be the people who hold opposing views on abortion or homosexuality, and you’ve gone beyond disagreeing with their opinions to despising them as people. It might be a teacher who refuses to cut you any slack. Or the girlfriend who broke your heart. Or the father who stunted your self-esteem. Or a former friend who broke your confidence and spilled your secrets to the world. Or the ex-spouse who trashed your marriage. Or the recalcitrant employee who just won’t get on board with your policies. Or the classmate whose popularity eclipses yours. Or the colleague who is reaping all the recognition that you deserve.
When I was a journalist at the Chicago Tribune, I had plenty of enemies. They were reporters at the Sun-Times, the Daily News, and the various broadcast stations who would strive to beat me to stories. I felt intense malice toward them because in order for them to succeed, they had to cause me to fail. Even now that I’m a pastor—although I’m terribly embarrassed to admit this—I sometimes jealously view others as opponents if they are better received as speakers, writers, or leaders. Such can be the depth of my own sinful pettiness.
We all have rivals. In fact let me press the issue further by asking you to get specific. Who are the adversaries in your life? What are their names? Actually bring one of their faces into your mind, because I don’t want us to stay merely in the realm of the hypothetical. Let’s talk about real people, real relationships, real conflict–—and the road toward real healing.
WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Exactly what do you need to do about that person you’ve brought into your mind? It’s too general just to say that you’re supposed to love him or her. Should you stop competing with this individual? Should you become best buddies or golfing partners? Should you go on Caribbean cruises together? Should you treat him or her like a son or daughter?
Jesus was very precise in choosing a word for “love” that doesn’t imply emotion as much as it suggests attitude and action. As difficult as it sounds, he’s urging us to have a humble, servant demeanor toward people who are our adversaries. To look for the best in them and offer help as they need it. To have a sense of goodwill and benevolence toward them in spite of their lack of the same toward us. To pray for their welfare and the well-being of their families. Even though we may continue to compete with them, we are to do so fairly and respectfully, not maliciously as if we’re trying to destroy them.
Technically, we aren’t being asked to like the other person, because that would require an emotion that we sometimes can’t conjure up, despite our best intentions. But in effect we are to treat them as though we like them—because that’s a decision of our will. We don’t have to approve of what they are, what they’ve done, or how they conduct their affairs, but we are to love who they are—people who matter to God, just like you and I. People who have failed but who are eligible for God’s forgiving grace.
In fact, the Bible says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”4 Amazingly, God’s response to our rebellion against him wasn’t to declare war on us as his enemies. Instead, he returned love for evil so the path could be paved for us to get back on good terms with him. And that’s the kind of love he wants us to extend to those who have crossed us.
But if you are mentally focusing on a particular rival right now, then my guess is that a one-word question has just popped into your mind: ‘Why? Why should I return goodwill for ill will?”
For those who are followers of Jesus, the answer is simple: he said that this is the pattern of living he wants his people to pursue. And that’s enough. We have confidence that he would never ask us to do anything that would ultimately work to our detriment.
But even beyond that, there are tremendous payoffs for following this ostensibly outrageous command. Although our motive shouldn’t be to get something in return, the truth is that there’s a lot to be gained. In fact, these next few pages are going to focus on the extraordinary psychological, physical, relational, spiritual, and kingdom benefits that accrue when we resolve to forgive our adversaries.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL BENEFIT: HEALING OUR MIND AND EMOTIONS
“For as he thinks within himself,” says the Bible, “so he is.”5 In other words, people who entertain bitter thoughts and exhibit an angry attitude toward their enemies often become bitter and angry people. They become a hostage to their own hate. They don’t hold a grudge as much as the grudge holds them in its claws.
This was true for Elizabeth Morris, a woman from a small Kentucky town who told me about her remarkable metamorphosis from an angry and embittered woman into someone who experienced the freedom of becoming a grace giver. Elizabeth described how she had been sitting up late in the evening two days before Christmas in 1982, waiting for her son, Ted, to come home from his temporary job at a shopping mall. He had just completed his first semester at college and was working to get some extra money during the Christmas break.
But at 10:40 p.m., Elizabeth got the telephone call that all parents fear. “Mrs. Morris, this is the hospital,” said the voice. “Your son has been in an accident.”
As it turned out, another young man who had been driving
Drunk—in fact, whose blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit—had crossed the highway’s center line and smashed head-on into Ted’s car. The drunk driver was only slightly injured, but before the night was over, eighteen-year-old Ted Morris was dead.
Elizabeth and her husband, Frank, were devastated. Ted was their only child, a well-behaved son with a bright future, and suddenly he was gone. The Morrises’ anger escalated when the twenty-four-year-old man who killed Ted was given probation for the crime. Elizabeth told me that the hatred within her was like a wildfire sweeping down a dry canyon, consuming every part of her.
She began replaying the mental videotape of that night like a horror movie, over and over again. She ached for revenge. Sometimes she would fantasize about driving down the street and encountering Tommy Pigage, the man who killed her son. She would imagine hitting him with her car, pinning him up against a free, and watching him suffer in agony as she slowly crushed him to death.
She spent a lot of her spare time actually tracking Tommy to see if she could catch him violating the terms of his probation, so he would be sent to prison. Over time her bitterness and negative attitude began to drive a wedge between her and her husband. It began to chase away her friends. It drained away her ability to laugh and enjoy life.
And that’s the psychological reason why forgiveness makes so much sense. Acrid bitterness inevitably seeps into the lives of people who harbor grudges and suppress anger; and bitterness is always a poison. It keeps your pain alive instead of letting you deal with it and get beyond it. Bitterness sentences you to relive the hurt over and over. Elizabeth described it as a cancer that was eating away at her from the inside.
She desperately wanted help, but it was some time before she discovered the only cure. Elizabeth came to the realization that her heavenly Father also had lost his only Son. And yet when Jesus was suffering on the cross—before he died as payment for Elizabeth’s own wrongdoing—he looked at the merciless soldiers who were in charge of torturing him and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”6
That’s when Elizabeth knew it was time for her—as an act of her will—to offer forgiveness to the man who killed her only son. So that’s what she did. And over time as her attitude began to change, not only was she rescued from her caustic bitterness but she and her husband were actually able to build a relationship with their son’s killer. In fact, it was their friendship that influenced Tommy Pigage to begin following Jesus and turn his life around.
As unbelievable as it sounds, Elizabeth’s husband, a part-time preacher ended up baptizing Tommy, and as Tommy emerged from beneath the water symbolizing the renewal of his life through Christ, they hugged and sobbed. Later he presided at Tommy’s wedding. Today the Morrises ride to church every Sunday with Tommy and his wife, and together they worship the God of the second chance.
How were the Morrises able to do all that? Because their animosity toward Tommy, the killer, had been replaced by their acceptance of Tommy, the person who matters to God. And the result has been a personal peace that goes beyond human understanding.
“I can’t tell you how good it felt to get on with life, to laugh again, to finally shake free from that anchor of hate that weighed me down,” Elizabeth told me.7
That’s one of the greatest benefits of forgiving those who have harmed us.
THE PHYSICAL BENEFITS: NEUTRALIZING OUR LIFE-THREATENING ANGER
In my conversations with Elizabeth Morris, she made a casual comment that seemed extreme at first but that I later came to recognize as being chillingly accurate. “I think in the long run,” she said, “it would have destroyed me if I hadn’t forgiven Tommy.”
By now I’ve seen enough scientific studies to conclude that bitterness and bottled-up anger don’t just mess with our minds but also threaten our very lives. Declared an article in the New York Times, “Researchers have gathered a wealth of data lately suggesting that chronic anger is so damaging to the body that it ranks with—or even exceeds—cigarette smoking, obesity and a high-fat diet as a powerful risk factor for early death.”
In one study at the University of Michigan, a group of women was tested to see who was harboring long-term suppressed anger.
Then all the women were tracked for eighteen years, and the outcome was startling: the women with suppressed anger were three times
more likely to have died during the study than those who didn’t have that kind of bitter hostility. A similar study was performed over twenty-five years on males who were graduates of the medical school at the University of North Carolina. The results showed that the physicians with hidden hostilities died at a rate that was six times greater than those who had more forgiving attitudes.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, too. One woman who helped victims of German atrocities recover after World War II noticed an amazing phenomenon among her patients. Those who developed forgiving attitudes toward their enemies were able to rebuild their lives despite their injuries. But the patients who were steeped in bitterness remained invalids.
The medical evidence is clear and mounting. It’s no exaggeration to say that bitterness is a dangerous drug in any dosage and that your very health is at risk if you stubbornly persist in being unforgiving.
THE RELATIONAL BENEFIT: HOLDING OUT HOPE Of RECONCILIATION
At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the tension was building toward what could have been the outbreak of World War III, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev sent an urgent communiqué to President John F. Kennedy. In part, the message said,
You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter the knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut. What that would mean I need not explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what dread forces our two countries possess.8
In effect, when you make the decision to return good for evil, you’re choosing to stop yanking on the rope of conflict and making the knot in your relationship so tight that it can never be untied. By simply dropping your end of the cord, you’re loosening the tension and preserving the possibility that the still-loose knot might somehow be untangled by the two of you. This maintains the hope—however faint—that reconciliation might someday occur.
As you think of the adversary whose face you’ve brought into your mind, you might be tempted to rule out any likelihood of ever having a civil relationship with him or her. But don’t write off anything too quickly.
“There were probably some Christians who hated Saul when he was filled with malice and breathing threats and murder against the church,” said David Dockery and David Garland in Seeking the Kingdom. “Who would have guessed that he would become the apostle Paul,.. preaching. .. love and forgiveness? The one who beats us as our enemy today may become our brother or sister tomorrow. Jesus says to treat them today as our brother and sister.”
Hatred writes people off; love holds out hope.
THE SPIRITUAL BENEFIT: BEING FORGIVEN AS WE FORGIVE OTHERS
Jesus told the story of a king who decided to balance his books by collecting the money that people owed him. So he summoned a servant whose debt totaled ten million dollars, and sternly ordered him to pay up. The man pleaded poverty.
In those days, the king had the authority to sell a person and his family into slavery to recoup a debt, or to throw the debtor into prison until his relatives paid up. In this instance, when the king threatened to sell the servant, his family, and all his possessions as a way of regaining at least part of what was owed, the servant fell on his knees and pleaded, “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.”
Of course, there was no way he was ever going to come up with ten million dollars. But because the king was merciful and took pity on the begging servant, he did an amazing thing: he gave him a second chance. The debt was summarily wiped off the books.
But that’s not the end of the story. The servant, who should have been brimming with a grateful attitude, soon came across a fellow worker who owed him a paltry twenty dollars. The forgiven servant demanded payment, clutching the debtor by the throat and choking him. “Be patient with me,” the man gasped, “and I will pay you back.” Sound familiar? But the first servant refused. Instead, he had the man thrown into prison to suffer until the debt was repaid.
When word of this encounter made its way back to the king, he was incensed. “You wicked servant,” he said to the worker he had forgiven. “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”
With righteous indignation the king then threw him into prison until he could repay the entire ten million dollars—which meant he was doomed to a lifetime in the dungeon.
Here’s the kicker: “This,” Jesus said, “is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”10
People who hear this story bristle at the fundamental unfairness of the man who had been forgiven much but who himself forgave nothing. His gross insensitivity violates our sense of equity and justice. Someone once called his actions “a moral monstrosity.”
Yet if the thought of someone acting so unjustly makes us angry, doesn’t it make sense that God would get upset with those who have received his priceless forgiveness but then harbor petty grudges against others, plot revenge against those who have harmed them, and adamantly refuse to forgive the wrongs of adversaries?
Jesus was very straightforward about this. After teaching his followers the Lord’s Prayer—which includes the request that God forgive our wrongdoing as we have forgiven our opponents—Jesus concludes by saying, “But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”11
This means that an ongoing relationship with God can become severely strained by a refusal to extend forgiveness to those who have inflicted harm. People cannot be tightly connected with God, experience his favor flowing freely into their life, or have an optimal relationship with him, and at the same time be stubbornly unforgiving toward others. After all, think of what such people are doing trivializing the suffering that Jesus went through to extend his forgiveness to them.
So if you’re a follower of Jesus but you feel distance from him during this era of your life, if you’re having difficulty resting easy in his forgiveness, could it be because you’re blatantly refusing to let go of your animosity toward another person—maybe even the very person I asked you to picture in your mind?
THE KINGDOM BENEFIT: OUR FORGIVENESS ATTRACTS OTHERS
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” Jesus asked.12 There’s nothing particularly commendable about loving those who already care about us. Everybody does that. But when someone offers love to a person who has been an enemy, the world takes notice. People are pointed toward God as being the only source of motivation for this kind of outrageous compassion.
People certainly took notice in April 1992, when a thirty-three-year old victim of a heinous crime appeared in an Indiana courtroom. The previous year, a twenty-two-year-old man had broken into her apartment, shot her in the chest, struck her with a revolver, sexually assaulted her, then put a pillow over her head and pulled the trigger once more. Miraculously she survived, because her forearm blocked the bullet.
The assailant was captured and convicted, and the victim was invited to speak at his sentencing. I’m sure that Judge Paula Lopassa expected her to angrily denounce this brutal defendant and indignantly demand the harshest possible penaty.
But the victim was a Christian, and although she said the defendant needed to be incarcerated as punishment and to protect society, she also told the judge, “I’m not after vengeance or retribution. They won’t change what’s happened, and they’ll only poison me. I want to help this man. He’s mildly retarded, he obviously needs help, and I want to make sure he gets that help for his own sake and so he can be a free man again someday. I don’t want him to suffer; I’ve suffered enough for the both of us. I want what’s best for him. And, with God’s help, I want to forgive him.”
With that, tears began running down the judge’s face! She actually broke down sobbing. I’ll tell you what. I’ve covered scores of criminal cases as a legal affairs journalist, but I’ve never seen a judge weep in open court.
When she regained her composure, Judge Lopassa said, “The reason I’m crying is because of her forgiving nature. It’s unusual for the victim of such a vicious crime to have such a forgiving attitude. And I think that she’s reflecting all the best that there is in human nature.”
This unexpected attitude of the crime victim pointed the judge and defendant toward God as being the only possible motivator for her compassionate response. As A. M. Hunter said, “To return evil for good is the devil’s way; to return good for good is man’s; to return good for evil is God’s.”
PURSUING THE P-E-A-C-E PROCESS
Forgiving enemies runs absolutely contrary to every impulse of human nature. When people are hit, their knee-jerk response is to hit back—harder. So if we’re going to try to follow this outlandish claim, we clearly need some help.
“If it is possible,” said the apostle Paul, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”13 That’s God’s ultimate goal—peace, reconciliation, and community between people and between people and him. So I’m going to use the word peace and go through what I call the “p-e-a-c-e process”—a plan whose five steps each begin with a letter from that word.
But let me pause for a moment to explain something. Throughout this book, I’m going to take time wherever possible to offer some action steps based on biblical teaching and my own experiences as a Christian. If we’re going to become more like Jesus, it’s critically important that we get extremely practical by exploring the “how-to’s.” However, I don’t mean to suggest that we can solve everything if we just follow the right formula. These are merely steps that I’ve found helpful in my own spiritual life and that I hope you’ll experiment with. With that in mind, here’s the p-e-a-c-e process, an approach that has proven invaluable to me over the years as I’ve tried to follow God’s outrageous directive to love my enemies.
Seeking God’s Assistance
The p in p-e-a-c-e stands for pray. That means, first, praying for ourselves, which involves going to God and honestly expressing our emotions, whether it’s to say, “I don’t feel like loving my opponent” or “I don’t know how to forgive my enemy” or “I’ll never be able to love my adversary unless you give me the power to do it”
If you’re having trouble letting go of your animosity or bitterness, tell God about it. Admit your reluctance and ask him to help you deal with your resentment, hostility, and anger. Ask God for the capacity to love the person you don’t even like.
This made all the difference to Adolph Coors IV, a member of the famous Colorado beverage family whose father was ambushed and murdered when Adolph was fourteen years old. Many years later Adolph became a follower of Jesus, and he realized he needed to forgive the man who had shown no mercy toward his dad.
“I knew I wasn’t capable of this kind of forgiveness,” Adolph said during a talk I heard a few years ago. “It was beyond me. But I found the answer in the Bible, in the fourth chapter of Philippians, the thirteenth verse, which assured, me that I could do all things through Jesus Christ, who gives me strength.”
Adolph found out that we can siphon strength from God to do what we know is right but which we lack the capacity to accomplish on our own. A lot of times that’s the only way we’re going to be capable of forgiving.
So Adolph brought the matter to God in prayer and made a decision of his will to take a concrete step toward forgiveness by driving toward the penitentiary to meet with his dad’s killer. By the time he got there, Christ had provided him with the strength he needed to follow through. And once Adolph managed to extend forgiveness to his father’s killer, his own emotional healing really began.
But in addition to praying for ourselves, we need to pray for our enemies, too. “Pray for those who persecute you,” urges Jesus.14 Ask God to safeguard their health, to bless their families, to encourage them, and to help them see their own need for God. “This is the supreme demand,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian leader who suffered under the Nazis and was eventually executed. “Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.”
When you do that, here’s what you’ll discover: your attitude toward your opponent will begin to change. I’ve learned from firsthand experience that you can’t pray for people for very long and still hate them.
I remember being exasperated, as a newspaper editor by a problem employee who always seemed anxious to undercut my authority and challenge my leadership. After I caught myself becoming increasingly vengeful and spiteful toward him (which, incidentally, only escalated his own antipathy toward me), I decided to begin praying for him even though I didn’t feel like it at first.
Over time the very act of going before the Father on his behalf softened my attitude. As I prayed for his well-being, I actually began to care deeply about him. And with that new attitude, I was able to start returning good for evil, and this is what eventually won him over.
So how about the adversary you have pictured in your mind? Can you begin praying for him or her? Or if you can’t quite bring yourself to do that yet, can you at least go to God and tell him that you’re going to need his strength to move toward forgiveness? This is a spiritual prerequisite to taking the next four steps.
Radically Shifting Our Perspective
The first e in p-e-a-c-e reminds us to empathize with others, which means to see our enemy from a completely different perspective.
Normally, we evaluate the worth of people based on their relationship to us. Can they help us? Can they hurt us? But when we choose instead to see them from the perspective of their value to God, we begin to recognize that they have supreme worth because they bear God’s image, even though it’s distorted and obscured by sin. When we start seeing them as people who matter to God, they begin to matter more to us.
We don’t have to condone what they’ve done to us. Certainly, Elizabeth Morris didn’t trivialize what Tommy Pigage did to her son. But what she did was to forgive Tommy Pigage, the person—she forgave him because he’s etched with the likeness of God and because he matters to God every bit as much as she does. She didn’t affirm what Tommy did but she affirmed him as an individual, the handiwork of the Creator of the universe.
William Barclay relates a wonderful rabbinic story that emphasizes how much God values all those he has created, even though they’ve strayed into sin. In this ancient tale, the angels of heaven begin to noisily rejoice as the waters of the Red Sea cave in on the Egyptian soldiers and drown them as they pursue the Israelites. Amid their celebration, God lifts his hand to stop them. “The works of my hands are sunk in the sea,” God says sternly, “and you would sing?”15
The Bible confirms, in Ezekiel 33:11, that God takes no pleasure in the demise of evil people. So if God could have compassion toward those ill-intentioned Egyptians, pause for a moment and think about the opponent you’ve brought to mind. Ask yourself, “What does this person look like from God’s perspective?” Can you look beyond his or her behavior and get a glimpse of why he or she matters to God? As Rail Luther said, “To love one’s enemy does not mean to love the mire in which the pearl lies, but to love the pearl that lies in the mire.”
Dropping Our End of the Rope
We also need to take specific action steps to extend compassion to our opponents. That’s why the a in p-e-a-c-e stands for act. The Bible says, “Do good to those who hate you.”16
If a business competitor beats you out for a contract, send a note offering your congratulations. If a former spouse falls on hard times, be generous in providing assistance. If your adversaries require help moving or fixing a flat tire or need to borrow something, go to their aid. I admit that these are outrageous responses, but they’re the very kind that God wants us to make.
In addition, taking a step of action also means calling a cease-fire in the war of words. “Bless those who curse you,” Jesus said.17 This means deciding that when another person shoots bitter words your way, you’ll fight the urge to retaliate, and instead respond with kind and considerate language. As difficult as it seems, we need to resist the temptation to traffic in rumors, gossip, or unfair criticism.
So about that opponent in your mind: can you commit to keeping alert for opportunities to serve him or her? Can you drop your end of the rope in your verbal tug-of-war? Those acts of kindness go a long way toward dismantling barriers of animosity, because when we make the choice to act in someone’s best interests, over time we find that our hard-hearted viewpoint toward them—and their opinion of us—invariably begins to improve.
Sometimes we just can’t bring ourselves to take an action step of forgiveness. To do so, we need help from beyond ourselves. You’ll gain some practical assistance in the chapter entitled “Outrageous Claim #5: God Can Give You Power As Power Is Needed,” which deals with how we can tap into God’s power when we’re feeling particularly powerless to do what we know he wants us to do.
Owning Our Side of the Conflict
The c in p-e-a-c-e urges us to confess: more often than not, we share part of the blame for pushing a person into the role of being our enemy. Sometimes it’s our own jealousy, our own stubbornness, our own ambition, or our own bad attitude that has contributed—at least in part—to the rift between us.
There is a direct connection between confession and healing.18And when we objectively assess the situation and candidly admit to ourselves—and then to God and our adversary—that we share some of the blame, that can be a big step toward healing the effects of hate.
That’s what happened a few years ago in Mississippi, when a group of blacks and whites got together to engage in a constructive dialogue after years of suspicion and animosity between them. At one point a young black pastor stood. “There have been nearly seven hundred lynching in the state of Mississippi, but I have never heard a white pastor preach against racism,” he said. “I need to know—why?”
Tension seized the room. Finally an older white pastor stood. He could have angrily tried to defend his record. He could have engaged in an elaborate rationalization. He could have stubbornly denied doing anything wrong.
But instead he said, “I guess that question falls to me. To tell you the truth, it was fear. I was just afraid. We were afraid—afraid of our people and of the consequences. So we just stood by. And the truth is, I don’t know how to make it right. I’d like to go back, but we can’t. All I can do is tell you—I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
With that the two former adversaries walked toward each other and embraced. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. And God was pleased.
Few things accelerate the peace process as much as humbly admitting our own wrongdoing and asking forgiveness. That tells our adversaries that we’re so serious about dealing honorably with the friction between us that we’re willing to go beyond pride and self-interest to confess that yes, we do own some of the responsibility for the rift.
What about the adversary in your mind? Be honest: are you at least partly responsible for the conflict between you? And if you are, shouldn’t you take the step of seeking forgiveness for that?
Looking for an Example
The apostle Paul urged, “Be imitators of God,”19 and so the second e in p-e-a-c-e represents the word emulate. Whenever we’re not sure how to love an enemy, whenever we hesitate because we’re perplexed over how to proceed, whenever we wonder if we’ve gone far enough in our effort to reconcile, we can look at the example of Jesus and model ourselves after him. He set the ultimate standard, as illustrated by this compelling observation from British pastor John Stott:
Jesus seems to have prayed for his tormentors actually while the iron spikes were being driven through his hands and feet; indeed, the imperfect tense (of the biblical account) suggests that he kept praying, kept repeating his entreaty “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Load’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice, or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?20
We cannot excuse ourselves by claiming that Jesus is divine and that therefore we can never be expected in our human nature to be as generous with our forgiveness as he is. For when the bloodied apostle Stephen was being brutally stoned to death after having proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, his last words as he fell to his knees were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”21
How was Stephen able to so magnanimously forgive the very people who were hurling rocks at him? There’s a clue a few verses earlier: Stephen was empowered by the Holy Spirit.22
The only way we can ever really emulate Christ is by yielding ourselves to the Spirit’s influence in our life and allowing him to produce the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that the Bible promises he will manifest over time in the followers of Jesus?23
LEAPING THE LAST TWO BARRIERS
Jesus’ teaching about forgiving our enemies is among his most challenging and difficult. In fact, someone once said that if forgiving your enemies comes too easily you probably haven’t forgiven them at all. You’ve just mouthed hollow words, and you haven’t actually invited your heart to change.
So as you struggle to implement his instructions, as I have in my own life, I hope the p-e-a-c-e process will prove helpful. But we’re not finished yet. We haven’t explored all the important aspects of this outrageous claim.
When I was studying journalism at the University of Missouri, my professors drilled into me the six basic questions that a reporter asks in pursuing any story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. And spiritually speaking, those are good questions to ask ourselves as well.
We’ve already looked at who our enemies are, what we are being asked to do, why this outrageous claim makes sense, and how we can implement forgiveness through the p-e-a-c-e process. However, that leaves us with two questions—when and where. But I’m going to reserve those for you to answer.
So here’s your assignment one more time, bring that adversary your mind. Can you picture the person face? Now, the rest is up to you, along with God’s enabling power and presence in your life. You decide when and where you’re going to implement the p-e-a-c-e process with them—for your own sake, for their sake, and for the sake of God’s kingdom. (9-25)
1. Matthew 5:43-44 (NIV)
2. Luke 11:4 (NIV)
3. Terry Anderson, “Small Graces,” Guideposts (September 1993), 2—5, emphasis added. For a more complete account, see Anderson’s book Den of Lions: Memoirs of Seven Years (New York: Crown, 1993)
4. Romans 5:8 (NIV)
5. Proverbs 23:7 NASB
6. Luke 23:34 (NIV)
7. For more complete accounts of the story of the Morrises and Tommy Pigage, see “Could They Forgive Their Son’s Killer?”Reader’s Digest (May 1986), 136-40 and “Seventy Times Seven,” Guideposts (January 1986), 2-6
8. Robert Smith Thompson, The Missiles of October (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 320—21
9. David S. Dockery and David B. Garland, Seeking the Kingdom (Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw, 1992), 68
10. Matthew 18:23-35 (NIV)
11. Matthew 6:15 (NIV)
12. Matthew 5:46 (NIV)
13. Romans 12:18 (NIV)
14. Matthew 5:44 (NIV)
15. William Barclay. The Gospel of Matthew, vol.1 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 176
16. Luke 6:27 (NIV)
17. Luke 6.28 (NIV)
18. James 5:16 (NIV)
19. Ephesians 5:1 (NIV)
20. John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 119, emphasis added.
21. Acts 7:60 (NIV)
22. Acts 7:55
23. Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)