“If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt. 5:46, NKJV).*
One of the ironies of living in a global village is that we can frequently be kinder to people living half a world away than to those who share a fence line or a pew with us.
We may be moved—and rightly so—by images of refugees or victims of disaster clinging to some makeshift life raft in the Aegean or the Timor sea. Our hearts and wallets may spill open to support the valiant men and women who literally rescue the perishing, care for the dying, give them dry clothes, and offer a hot meal.
But evidence suggests that there is some deplorable law of inverse empathy as people who also deserve our kindness get geographically closer to us.
When the “stranger” is the neighbor who blows grass clippings on our driveway, or the church member who opposes our initiative to redecorate the fellowship hall, we have no difficulty separating ourselves from them. The water is wide: a great gulf is fixed, across which neither love nor empathy can seem to swim.
Too frequently the ones we count our “enemies” are not unknown adherents of different political or theological viewpoints on the other side of the world, but the very men and women who inhabit our small corner of the planet—the ones who don’t yield to our logic, persuasiveness, or wisdom. We can “love” the faceless Communist or animist in some far country we will never visit, but can’t find grace to actually behave in loving ways toward those who hold contrary views on things we care so much about: the nature of Christ; the ordination of women to gospel ministry; the expectations of Christian lifestyle; and—let’s not forget it—the color of the sanctuary carpet.
Each congregation is designed to be a laboratory of God’s grace.
An “enemy” is actually someone who must be close enough for us to actively dislike—by name, by face, by opinions expressed in Sabbath School or at a church business meeting. Proximity, not distance, makes enemies.
And so Christ’s mandate to disciples—“Love your enemies”—is meant to govern our behavior toward those close enough to “curse” us, “hate” us, “spitefully use” us, and “persecute” us. In short, these are the ones who shelter under the same sanctuary roofs we do; live in the same small neighborhoods we do; work and worship—and disagree—alongside us.
Our “enemies,” it seems, might just as easily be our friends, if measured by their distance from us.
And so the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) invites us—no, commands us—to lay down our weapons against those we find most difficult to love. The angry advocate of Christian perfection who rails against the sins of others needs grace from us, as well as God. The zealot who fails to “discern the body of Christ” (see 1 Cor. 11:29) in single-minded pursuit of even a good goal deserves the gentleness with which the Savior dealt with Simon the Zealot, or angry, irritable Peter. Belonging to the household of faith doesn’t give some mutual exemption from exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit asked of every Christian.
Each congregation is designed to be a laboratory of God’s grace, a practice room for kindness needed far beyond the church. Our skirmishes, our “wars,” our disagreements, and our forgiveness are meant to be the playing field on which we learn the skills of reconciliation, humility, and teamwork.
This was the real experience of the first-century church, and it will also be the story of the twenty-first-century church. The church of Jesus learns grace by teaching and by practice, by preaching and foot washing. In love, His character is reproduced among us.
The church I want to belong to is . . . compassionate.
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.