Peacemaking

Burning Coals

Romans 12:18-20:

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’”

I have to be honest, I’ve never liked this passage. I’ve always thought to myself, first of all, that we as believers shouldn’t be wishing God’s wrath or vengeance upon anyone, no matter their offense. We should hope, pray, and work for repentance, redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. So revenge has never been my M.O. And I’ve never really seen it as God’s, either.

The second reason why I’ve always disliked this passage is the idea of doing good to your enemy in order to “heap burning coals on his head.” That has always struck me as incredibly spiteful. And God doesn’t call us to spite our enemies. No, He calls us to love and bless them. So in my cognitive dissonance, I’ve just glossed over the verses, vowing to ask God about it one day. Well, it turns out that now I don’t have to—thank you Jon Green!

You see, Jon taught from this passage in his Sunday sermon this week, and he shed SO much light on the context of this passage for me. Specifically, he pointed out that this refers to a common-ish practice of the day, and one undertaken when an enemy was attacking. From the top of the city’s wall, soldiers would heap burning coals on the heads of their attackers in order to keep them at bay. And Jon rightly described this as a defensive action, a response from a position of strength, but one respecting appropriate boundaries. So rather than going on the offensive, or being spiteful, this heaping of coals was simply a strategy for protection. And for me, that changes everything.

So then, what about God’s wrath and His vengeance? Well, when Jon suggested that we are to leave revenge to God, I got to thinking that one reason for this is that we do not know how to properly wield vengeance. But God does. And do you know how we know that? John 8. You remember, don’t you, when a woman was brought before Jesus after being caught in adultery? And the teachers of the law wanted to stone her, but Jesus quietly called each one out in his sin, and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:9-11).

So when we turn our enemies over to God—who is righteous, just, AND merciful—we can trust that He will do the right thing. We can certainly have no such faith in ourselves. What a relief, then, to let go and give it to God—not asking Him to avenge us, but pleading with Him for mercy and forgiveness, on behalf of our enemy. Jesus Himself did no less as He hung on the cross to die for our sins. Let us live by His example, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

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Vantage Point

Romans 12:15-16a

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another…”

The other night, I re-watched the movie, “Vantage Point.” The movie portrays a terrorist attack, but from about nine different points of view. There’s a Secret Service member, a local police officer, a spectator, members of the media, and even a couple of terrorists. What’s interesting is that we, as the audience, had no real idea what was going on until the end—after all of the vantage points had been pieced together. Granted, by the end of the film, there were still a couple of questions remaining, but for the most part, the plot was resolved.

I think this film actually provides a relevant comparison for some of the major discussions and events going on in our country and our world today. I think we are experiencing a lot of uncertainty, confusion, separation, division, self-righteousness, anger, resentment, disparity—and the list goes on.

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But I believe that much of it stems from (or is at least aggravated by) our limited vantage points, our myopic perspectives, and our self-righteous agendas. We have refused to acknowledge and empathize with the positions and perspectives of others around us, in particular those who are not like us. We have elevated our own needs, desires, and comforts above those of others. We have denied or ignored disparities and injustices. And Romans (among other passages in the Bible) makes it clear that this should not be.

Instead, we should rejoice with those who rejoice AND mourn with those who mourn. A huge step in that direction is for us to actively and intentionally adopt—even momentarily—the perspectives and the vantage points of those with whom we are at odds. It may be that we would find ourselves in greater awareness, understanding, and even agreement with one another. This might well allow us to feel greater empathy, express greater compassion, and extend greater assistance to our fellow human beings. In short, we would be that much closer to living in the harmony that Paul calls us to in Romans. What do you say? Shall we give it a try?

 

Redeemed unto Reconciliation

That we as Christians have been given the ministry of reconciliation isn’t exactly news. After all, Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” He also said that, as far as it depends on us, we are to “be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). But, if you’re anything like me, this is one of those things that falls squarely into the ‘easier said than done’ category. So I welcomed the recent sermon series that our pastor preached on this subject. While I learned a lot from the entire four-week series, I can also say that there were several “tweetable” tidbits (c/o @bradyherbert) that really spoke to me. I hope they will speak to all of you as well.

  1. When we look for God’s goodness in someone, it’s impossible to make them our enemy. And I would add that when we look for the good that God might be working both in and through that person, we are better able to move toward reconciliation. This concept reminds me of a strategy you’ve probably heard about before. When we pray for others (and more specifically, our enemies), we are drawn to them and God gives us a greater level of compassion for them. Of course, that means that we pray for God’s blessings in their lives. We pray that He would comfort, guide, and—yes—convict. But we don’t pray that they would ‘get what’s coming to them.’ We don’t pray that God would ‘smite’ them. We pray for God’s best for them. And in the process, we are changed.
  2. I can forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in me. This logic requires that we identify and acknowledge what I like to call our ‘Mother of All Sins’ (M.O.A.S). If you can’t admit that you’ve ever done anything inexcusable, if you can’t understand why Jesus had to die for your sins, this will be VERY hard—if not impossible—to do. Now, I know what some of you are saying: “No, that’s not right—all sin is the same to God.” And you’re right. But all sin is NOT the same to US. If you steal a pen from work, there is no way you’re going to feel a sense of grief over your sin. If you were to kill someone—and I’m not suggesting that you should—you would feel a much greater sense of remorse. So we, as finite humans, tend to rank sins from least to most egregious. Then we set a threshold beyond which sins are ‘worth’ Christ’s sacrifice. And each of us needs to identify and OWN whatever sin or sins we feel are worth that punishment. This can be especially hard if you’ve grown up in the church. Many ‘lifelong’ believers lament that they “don’t have a testimony” because they never joined a gang or got into drugs or what have you. But you MUST find your testimony. I believe that the best way to do this is to pray, humbly asking God to reveal to you your areas of weakness and sin, so that you can repent.
  3. If someone refuses to repent, “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18: 17). Our pastor, Brady, rightly pointed out how many of us use this verse as a license to wash our hands of another and throw them out of the church. I have to confess, that’s how I’ve always read that verse. But if you think about it, that’s not at all how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. He pursued them, he loved them, he sought reconciliation with them, and—lest we forget—he DIED for them. I find that I often judge nonbelievers less harshly than I do other Christians. I mean, Christians should know better, right? But if a believer is caught in sin, or is unwilling to reconcile, then we must conclude that something is keeping them from embracing the salvation that they claim. Thinking of it that way, I feel led to respond with compassion and sympathy, and to pray that they would be reconciled first with God, and then with the Church. And one more thing: we can never give up. I’ve heard of believing parents with children who have gone astray. They pray constantly for many years and they NEVER give up on their kids’ souls. That is the essence of the parables of the prodigal son, the lost sheep, and the missing coin. And our love and compassion should be as relentless as God’s.
  4. We must awaken the desire for reconciliation. The final message in this series offered a lot of practical tips to help us move from a place of knowing that we should reconcile, or believing that we can reconcile, to a place where we can honestly say that we want to reconcile. Here are some of the biggies:
  • We need to develop empathy and compassion for those with whom we seek to reconcile.
  • We need to avoid the temptation to morally ‘separate ourselves’ from the other person—essentially viewing them as inferior to ourselves. Instead, we need to find a common ground from which we can reach out in love, grace, and mercy.
  • We need to remember that we are all created in the image of God and are worth of being treated with human dignity. And finally,
  • We need to remember that we ourselves are finite beings and that God may be working an angle that we can’t see—or possibly even imagine.

So, when we think about all of these pieces in the puzzle of reconciliation, I hope that we are each prompted to take a step or two in that direction. And in that way, one small step after another, we will hopefully end up a lot closer to the peace that we are called to pursue.