Doing Right When You’ve Been Done Wrong
Victoria Ruvolo, 45, of Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, was selected as the “Most Inspiring Person of 2005” by Beliefnet, and for good reason. She was driving to her niece’s voice recital when she passed another car driven by 19-year-old Ryan Cushing. Cushing was riding with five other teens, and had just used a stolen credit card to go on a spending spree. One of their purchases was a frozen turkey, which Cushing decided to toss into oncoming traffic. The 20-pound projectile smashed through Victoria’s windshield, crushing her face.
Amazingly, she survived, although she spent 10 hours in an operating room while doctors repaired her face. When she finally went home, she brought with her a tracheotomy tube and endured months of painful rehabilitation.
On October 17, 2005, she attended the sentencing for the young man who had carelessly destroyed her face, and believe it or not, she spoke out on his behalf, rather than against him. She asked his judge for leniency. Part of her statement read:
“Despite all the fear and the pain, I have learned from this horrific experience, and I have much to be thankful for. Each day when I wake up, I thank God simply because I’m alive. I sincerely hope you have also learned from this awful experience, Ryan. There is no room for vengeance in my life, and I do not believe a long, hard prison term would do you, me, or society any good.”
Ryan, who wept and expressed remorse for his action, was sentenced to six months in jail. He could have gotten a 25-year prison sentence if Victoria, his victim, had not intervened.
She went on to add:
“I truly hope that by demonstrating compassion and leniency I have encouraged you to seek an honorable life. If my generosity will help you mature into a responsible, honest man whose graciousness is a source of pride to your loved ones and your community, then I will be truly gratified, and my suffering will not have been in vain…. Ryan, prove me right.”[i]
Really loving the people who treat us well is hard enough to do. Loving our enemies, the people who don’t treat us well, is even harder. Some consider it unnecessary. Almost everyone considers it impossible. And yet, that is exactly what Jesus expects of his followers. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:43-45). Was Jesus placing on us an impossible new standard? Did he expect the impossible of his followers?
No. He was revealing the kind of radical, transforming love that is to be the mark of those who follow him. The love that he showed for those who crucified him. The love that marked the life of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who cried out to God on behalf of those who stoned him to death as they stoned him. The love that marked the life of St. Paul, the one-time Pharisee and persecutor of Christians who stood by and watched as Stephen was stoned to death who was transformed by the radical love of Christ and sought to save the souls of the Romans who imprisoned him. The love that marked the life of St. Patrick, who was taken as a slave to Ireland, escaped, and went back to Ireland as a Christian missionary.
This kind of radical love isn’t just reserved for a few exceptional followers of Christ though. It is the heart of every person, rich and poor, young and old, black, white, red, yellow, and tan, male and female, urban and rural, educated and not, who follows Jesus. Turn with me to Romans 12:17-21.
Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians cycles through three main themes: the darkness and depth of sin in the human heart, the irrational, exceptional, amazing grace and love of God made visible in Christ, and the transformation that happens in our hearts and minds and lives because of God’s great love for us. I love the question Jesus asks his disciples in Luke 6, which is Luke’s parallel passage to Matthew’s record of the sermon on the mount. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (Lk. 6:32-35). Now, there are certainly some people who struggle to really love anyone at all. But MOST people are able to love those who love them, right?
That’s kind of the foundational ethic of our culture. With all of the racial tension in our country going on right now, I can’t even count how many people I’ve heard say, “I don’t care what color someone is. If they’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to them.” How many of us have heard that in the past year? We treat others the way they treat us. Quid pro quo. Tit for tat. But Jesus looks those of us who say that squarely in the eye and says, “Big deal. Everyone does that. My kingdom has a greater love at its core.” We say, “Treat others the way they treat you.” God says, “Treat others the way I’ve treated you.” And how has God treated you? How has God treated me? Romans 5 says “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us … while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:8, 10).
So how do we do that? How do we love those who don’t, even can’t love us in return? How do we love with the love of God? How do we love even our enemies?
It all starts with God’s work in us. Look back at the first two verses in this chapter. God’s love for us actually transforms us, transforms our minds, so that we think and see the world differently than we used to, differently than the people around us. And that transformation is a process. It’s happening in us all the time. God is at work transforming you, renewing your mind. Sometimes God transforms things in us that we aren’t even aware of, but usually God does it in partnership with us in areas of weakness we know about. Jesus will never ask you to do something that he does not empower you to do. He WILL ask you to do things you can’t do in your own strength, but he will NEVER ask you to do something he won’t give you the strength to do, if you lean on him.
And no matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter what your personality is like or your talents are or your weaknesses are, Jesus is asking you and I to love our enemies. So what can we do to cooperate with Jesus as we let his love transform the way we view and love those who don’t like us? The first step is to learn to LET. IT. GO. Look at Vv. 17-18.
He does NOT say “Do what others want you to do.” He does NOT say “Do what others think is good.” He says “Do what is good, what is honorable in the sight of all.” Now remember, as followers of Christ, our minds are being renewed, right? That means we view issues and situations and people differently. So for the follower of Jesus, with a renewed mind, what is good? What is honorable? Well, God is ultimate good, right? So to do what IS good is to do what is in alignment with the will of God and the character of God. Sometimes, following Jesus means we do things or say things that our society doesn’t agree with and doesn’t like. That happens. But there are MANY things that are in alignment with God’s character and will that most people think are good things. Things like feeding the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless. So Paul says, for starters, do good things, things that will have a positive impact on pretty much everyone, in your community, whenever you can. Create common ground wherever you can.
BUT, Paul knows that sometimes following Jesus will place us at odds with the world. That’s why he says “IF POSSIBLE, so far as it depends on YOU, live peaceably with all.” In other words, in those instances when someone speaks out AGAINST you for a stand you take for Christ, let it go. Don’t retaliate. Don’t unnecessarily exacerbate the issue. You know, don’t make it worse.
Now, this doesn’t mean that if you are attacked you can’t defend yourself or your family if you wish. It doesn’t mean that if you’re in an abusive relationship you can’t leave. Get out. Get away. Protect yourself. It DOES, however, mean that you can’t launch a counterattack. Someone saying something about you doesn’t give you an excuse to say something about them. If someone does something to you, that doesn’t give you an excuse to do the same to them. That’s this world’s way of loving, not God’s. Sometimes, no matter what we do or don’t do, some will just decide that they don’t like us at all. That’s their prerogative. In that instance, the lack of peace between you and them doesn’t depend on you. There’s nothing you can do about it. BUT, you aren’t to make the matter worse by treating them the way they treat you. You aren’t to go on the offensive against them. Let it go. That’s the first step.
The second is even tougher, because our love now has to take action. He asks us to extend hospitality. Look at Vv. 19-21. I love how Paul starts this sentence. “Beloved …” Whenever Paul uses the word “beloved” he’s reminding us that we are people who have undeservedly experienced God’s love and amazing grace. And we are not to seek revenge when someone hurts us. He’s talking here about personal revenge. It is often the government, through law enforcement and the legal system, that serves as an instrument through which God brings some sense of justice now, in this broken world, and ultimately God will set everything right in Christ when Christ returns. Those who have placed their faith in Christ, even those who are our enemies, will find that Christ took their sin and it’s just punishment upon himself. And those who have not, will stand alone before a God of perfect justice to be judged.
So instead of seeking personal justice and retaliating in some way, or treating others the way they’ve treated us, we are to treat them in the same way that God has treated us. That means if they’re hurting, we seek to ease their pain. If they’re struggling, we help. God doesn’t want us to JUST let it go. If we do that, take that first step, without putting our love into action, we might convince ourselves that we can simply ignore the people who don’t like us. Ok, fine, I’ll let it go. I won’t seek retribution. I won’t treat them the way they’ve treated me. I’ll just ignore them. Not so fast. Read V. 20 again. If they need help, we’re the first ones there. Seek to BE A BLESSING to those who persecute you. That’s a higher form of love, isn’t it? That’s not an earthly, love those who love you kind of love. That’s heaven’s love.
Now, what’s all this business about heaping burning coals on their heads? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard pastors teach that it means that if you are nice to those who abuse you, God will be even harder on them in judgement. The problem with that is that it makes no sense given what Paul has said to this point. It makes it sound like this incredible love comes crashing back down to earth. So what DOES it mean?
It has to do with having a humbling experience. In Paul’s context, they were certainly aware of the Egyptian practice of carrying a pan of coals on one’s head as a sign of remorse and contrition. It’s kind of like our expression “He came to me with his hat in his hand.”
You know, back during the great depression, someone who really needed cash might have to ask his friends for help. It was a humbling experience to hold out your hat hoping that someone might drop a few precious coin in. In the ancient world, it was viewed as highly irresponsible to let the household fire go out. When that happened, a person would go to a neighbor’s house to get a pan of coals to restart the fire. So there’s this humbling sense of, “Wow, I treated them so poorly, and look at how they’re fighting to help me.” It is the love of God reaching out to enemies through his people. God seeking to save all who will come. Even God’s judgment is redemptive, seeking to draw people back into a relationship with him. The Jews in exile in Babylon are evidence of that.
And then he closes with this summary, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (V. 21). Don’t let pressure from this world, our culture’s way of doing things, force us into attitudes and actions that out of keeping with God’s great love for us and our renewed and transforming minds. This world says, “Love those who love you.” Jesus says, “Love the way I have loved you.” God may never ask you and I to die for him, but God IS asking us to die to ourselves and live for him. And that life is a life of love. Period. So with God’s help, filled with the Holy Spirit, with renewed mind, let it go, and put your love into action, even for those who don’t love, or even like, you.
Evangelical Christian theologian Douglas Wilson and leading atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote a book together titled Is Christianity Good for the World?, and then they hit the road together for several public debates on the issues that divide them. Wilson’s son, Nate, was riding along. In an on-line update about the tour for ChristianityToday.com, Nate shared what struck him most about the first few stops in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.:
To be honest, the most interesting moments have all been outside the formal events—discussions over meals, in cabs and elevators. Both men share a love of poetry (over lunch, they gave an antiphonal recitation of “Jabberwocky”), a love of the English language and the well-turned phrase, and have spent a good ten minutes spouting favorite lines from the British writer P. G. Wodehouse to mutual laughter. And both men have a respect for each other – though clearly not for their conflicting opinions of God and the nature of the world.
At the King’s College debate, Hitchens professed disdain for the biblical admonition to “love your enemies,” calling it total nonsense. And yet, as he appears in Christian forums, wrangling with a Christian man, that is exactly what he is experiencing firsthand. The exchanges are heated. No punches have been pulled, and no one is pretending like the gulf between atheism and Christianity is anything but dark and profound. Yet underlying it all, there is an affection shown to him that is just as profound.
Hitchens said he wanted all his enemies destroyed. Wilson countered with qualified agreement, saying that God destroys all his enemies, but doesn’t only destroy them in the traditional way, as understood by man, but also destroys his enemies by making them friends.[ii] Isn’t that beautiful? God destroys his enemies by making them friends. That’s what he did with me when he died for me while I was still a sinner. That’s what he did with you too. That’s what God does. God destroys enemies by making them friends. Let’s pray.
[i] Leah Ingram, “Compassionate victim,” www.beliefnet.com (December 2005)
[ii] Nate Wilson, “On the Road with Atheism,” www.christianitytoday.com (10-29-08)