Rude statements. Inconsiderate demands. Aggressive behavior. It can get worse. Deliberate mistreatment.
Sometimes we are the recipient of them all. Justice would seem to justify a tit-for-tat retaliation. Yet, Jesus and his apostles denounced this natural instinct. They had a very good reason. The concise and crystal clear idea they described encapsulates a perspective, a worldview, capable of transforming our lifestyle and society.
Sitting on a mountain side Jesus challenged the crowd to not merely be neutral toward antagonists, but to actively demonstrate care and compassion for one’s enemies. Why should anyone adopt the ethic of seeking the well being of those opposed to them? The Messiah’s answer was succinct. This is how God’s children behave.
When undesirable and antagonistic forces impact our lives, at stake is our innermost driving force. Who am I?
Are we the captains of our own ships, subject to living out our every impulse and feeling? Are we wimpy mats for others to do with as they will? Jesus rejected these perspectives, as well as every other worldview falling short of seeking to identify oneself as a child of God embracing God’s ways.
Jesus counseled us to treat all people the same, whether friend or foe. Just as God sends rain on both the good and the evil, so too we are to love even our enemies. Then we will be like our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-45). Our actions are to be determined by whose we are, not how others treat us.
Writing several decades later, the ardent disciple and apostle Paul echoed Jesus’ ethic. “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people” (Romans 12:14,17).
What is the foundation for such an ethic? “Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). In other words, as God’s people we should align ourselves with God’s ways. Belonging to God shapes how we respond to others.
If we desire to live as disciples, we cannot live in any self-directed path we might choose. Rather, having been purchased for God by Christ’s blood we are to pursue living for him who died for us (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 2 Corinthians 5:15). If we are to succeed in living with this lifestyle, our actions must be determined by whose we are, not how others treat us.
While we might expect other New Testament writers to also prescribe how disciples should behave, what might escape our notice is how unconditional these prescriptions are. “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse (1 Peter 2:18).” “Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but instead bless others” (1 Peter 3:9). Both specific instructions whether for husbands, children or masters as well as more general instructions offer no qualification such as, “do this if they are deserving.” Rather, the disciple treats others better than they deserve.
Why is this? Peter provides several reasons. Two of these motives involve obeying God’s will for his people and pursuing God’s favor (1 Peter 2:19-20). Another rises out of imitating Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 2:21). Furthermore, God blesses his people who endure mistreatment (1 Peter 3:9,14)
Nevertheless, the most fundamental reason is because when God purchased us for himself, God gave us a new identity changing how we relate to himself and to the world (1 Peter 1:18-19; 22-23; 2:1,9-12). Our actions are to be determined by whose we are, not how others treat us.
When we consistently treat others with love, even when they do not deserve it, we reflect God’s love toward us when we were his enemies and undeserving. God’s actions flowed forth from who he is. If we are going to live the transformed lives God desires for us, our actions will be determined by whose we are, not how others treat us.