17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 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. 20 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." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12 (NIV)
What does it means to be peace-loving in our relationships? The reality we live in is that, often, peace doesn't depend on us. Some people are bent on our harm, no matter what we do.
Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and it's a graphic reminder that some people are not interested in having peace with us. Not only that, but some people are intent on warring with us.
Most of us have some sort of opinion about how the US should have responded to those attacks. Some would say we needed to hit back and revenge our losses. Some would say we needed to retaliate to prevent another attack. Some would say we needed to use diplomacy rather than violent force. We're all over the map on how to get there, but most people would say we needed to do something to secure peace.
I think about this with our personal relationships. It's one thing to know how to respond to a political or ideological "enemy" that you can't see. But how do you respond when someone you know seems bent on wounding you? Some people seem like they have daggers for words. It seems like their heart is filled with venom and malice. And when they smack, it draws us into a response.
Do you smack back with a "you hurt me, I hurt you" attitude? Romans 12:19 tells us, "Do not take revenge, my dear friends," but revenge isn't wrong; it's just wrong when we do it. Because it goes on to tell us to, "leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." Revenge is God's job. When we take it upon ourselves we are in contempt of his court. To take revenge is to say that I trust my own justice over God's. Proverbs 19:11 tells us the unthinkable, that "it is to your glory to overlook an offense."
Some of us smack back, not to do damage, but to draw boundaries -- we want to send a clear, self-protecting message, "It is NOT okay to treat me like that." Setting boundaries in relationships is good. Many people have suffered unnecessary hurt by thinking that it was wrong to say no to someone. But the reality is that we are surrounded by "fools" and we do need to protect ourselves from them. I know it's an ugly term, but there really are people who live and behave foolishly, and then try to infect our lives with their behavior. Proverbs 26:4-5 gives two pieces of advice back to back: Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you yourself will be just like them. Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes. Wisdom understands that when you interact with a fool, you won't win. Sometimes it's gonna seem best to just shut up and walk away, and other times it will seem best to engage them. Both can be an act of setting appropriate boundaries.
Some of us employ diplomacy; we've never found a fight we couldn't pacify with kindness. I'm related to people like that. I can't picture my Grandma Shenk ever saying a rude word to anyone. Jesus said to "bless those who curse you." (Luke 6:28). People tend to like Jesus until they hear him say stuff like that. We dismiss it, thinking, maybe Jesus didn't really mean that. But the early believers thought that's what he meant. In fact, Paul reiterated it in Romans 12:14 "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse." It's the Christian way.
Is peace-loving and peace-making measured more by the peace we leave, or the actions we employ? It's possible to create peaceful conditions by forcefully removing enemies. That would be the context of the times when God led Israel into battle. He always desired peace for his people, and responded to those who wanted to harm them, by forcefully removing them. But it's also possible to employ peaceful actions that are ineffective at removing enemies. That would be the context for the early followers of Christ. The Church was not a "nation" to be defended but rather a fellowship of the redeemed. They used no force in removing their enemies. Instead, they loved them, and prayed for them, and blessed them because they were following Jesus' example. In so doing they brought some of those enemies to faith in Christ. But they lost their lives to them as well, praying, "Lord, don't hold this sin against them."
The reality is that peace doesn't depend solely on us. Some people are bent on our harm, no matter how peaceful we are toward them. It seems like loving peace and making peace means that sometimes we need to engage the "fool", but always we need to love and bless them. And if, at any point, engaging them is about revenge and not love or blessing, it is not "peace-loving" or "peace-making." Always be a peacemaker in your relationships!
Tomorrow I'll develop these thoughts a bit more as I continue the Uncommon Wisdom series. Join me at Bahia Vista Church for "You're Gonna Pay" at 9:30 or 11AM (ET), or catch the online broadcast.