In the town where we lived in Minnesota, they were some families who had come from Chicago. The way they talked, they were really like refugees—fleeing the violence in Chicago. One lady I knew well was a grandma named Beverly. I went to her house once after a particularly bad weekend in Chicago. The national news was covered with more violence, including an officer involved shooting. More protests. More anger. I asked Beverly what she thought. I expected her to be critical of the police or bring up racism or throw the blame at somebody. “What needs to happen?” I asked. Know what she said? “Everybody needs to sit down and get God.” Amen!
Sounds great, doesn’t it! In a world of conflict and anger and division, we all need to sit down and get God. Jesus has a thing or five to say about treating others. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right, does it? Doesn’t Jesus know what they’ve done? Doesn’t Jesus know how much I’ve been hurt? How often don’t we go through life looking for a reason to justify our angry? You won’t find it in Jesus. Maybe this is why so many people don’t “get God.” Loving our enemies is not what we want to hear when anger is pulsing through our blood.
But there’s actually more—Jesus isn’t done! “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” Isn’t this so contrary to the way we think? Turning the other cheek? Giving the shirt off my back? Letting others take from me freely? “Really Jesus? Did you have to say it like that? Love my enemies and do good to those who hate me? Don’t you know how hard it is?”
I can remember a father proudly telling me how he was raising his son to be a man. “Pastor, I’m teaching my boy not to back down from anybody. If someone punches you in the face, punch’em right back. Don’t ever let anybody push you around. Don’t ever let anybody walk all over you. Stand up for yourself, no matter what anybody else says!” Isn’t that what it means to be strong?
I bet you’ve tried that approach in your life. When you’ve been wronged, you’ve dug in your heels. You’ve refused to forgive or forget. You’ve told yourself, “Unless they change… Unless they apologize…” How has that worked out for you? How much weight are you carrying in your heart right now? How many of our relationships end up in these downward spirals? They started it, or maybe you started it—it doesn’t matter who started it!—and so you dig in their heels. And they dig in theirs. Back and forth. Love? Do good? Bless? No way! Sound familiar?
Where this hits hardest sometimes is in a marriage. You want to talk about hurting others. You and I sin against our spouses more than against anyone else. Why? Because we spend the most time together. I bet you’ve seen that spiral in your own marriage. God tells husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands. Who knows how it starts, but a husband doesn’t show very much love. So what does the wife do? She stops showing respect. So what does the husband do? It’s on now, right? He loves less. And what does the wife do? On and on. This downward spiral. You know what I mean. In marriage. In our relationships. In our society. In our world.
How do you stop it? “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Love first. Be the first to love. We want to be first in just about everything, right? First in line. First in the class. First in the standings. But when it comes to love and forgiveness, for some reason we like to be last. We like to wait until everyone else loves and forgives, and then we’ll think about it. Not in God’s kingdom. Here’s what a Christian does. She loves first. He loves first. But they haven’t apologized—probably not! But they are going to hurt us again—probably! That doesn’t affect a Christian’s love. Christians love first.
If that sounds like too much, Jesus breaks it down into one of the simplest commands in the Bible: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” The golden rule. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you have been an enemy to someone else, what would you want them to do? Still love you! If you have cursed out someone else, what would you want them to do? Take your words and actions in the kindest possible way. If you’ve hit someone else in anger, what would you want them to do? Forgive you! You’d want them to love you first, even when you don’t deserve it. So, “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Simple right?
Not in my heart. In yours? So much sin. So much disappointment. So much anger. So we wait. We wait until they apologize. We wait until they stop. We wait until they start to love. We wait until they change into the people we think they should be… What’s the result? We’re still waiting! And there’s a whole lot of bitterness and brokenness in here and out there! The sad thing is that people notice. What’s one of the biggest critiques of Christianity? “Christians are a bunch of hypocrites!” What do we have to say? “You’re right. I don’t. I haven’t. I’m sorry.”
We need to all sit down and get God! As usual, it is so good that God is not like us! Adam and Eve sinned. God’s world was spiraling apart. Did God say, “I’ll wait until they apologize.” No. Did he say, “I’ll wait until they change.” No! What did God do? God loved first. He went to them. He found them. He forgave them. He promised to save them. God loves first.God doesn’t wait until we get our act together. He doesn’t wait until we change. His love changes us.
Flash forward to when God kept his promise of a Savior. As Jesus hung on the cross, the people cursed and mocked him. Even one of the thieves on the cross next to him laughed at him, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us” (Luke 23:39). You know what the irony was? Jesus was! That’s exactly what Jesus was doing, saving the world by taking all of our hatred and our anger and our sin and letting it be piled on him, so that by his wounds we could be healed. Jesus could have overwhelmed us with his power, but instead he wins us with his love. Jesus loves first.
I love how Psalm 103 puts it. “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. 9 He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” Wow! How much of that do we deserve? None of it! How much depends on us? None! God loves first. It’s called grace!
So you don’t have to sit and wait for someone to love you, because God already does! You don’t have to wait around for someone to think that you’re special. God thinks you’re special right now! Who you are depends on Jesus, not on anybody else. And Jesus thinks you’re worth dying for! Whether we are grateful or not has no bearing on God’s goodness to us. He doesn’t wait for our thankfulness. He loves us. He doesn’t wait for our goodness. He loves us. You’re never the first to love, because God always loves you first. And since God loved you first, you’re free to forget about yourself. God loves you! You’re free to love others first in all your relationships.
This is what makes Christians different. Kids imitate their fathers. What does God our Father do? He loves first. He shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that…. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” The Christian difference. Catch it? Anyone can love people who love them. Christians—with God’s love in their hearts—love first.
To some of you, this sounds great, at least I hope it does. God gives us the strength to love and bless and pray. But what if it still doesn’t work? What if that downward spiral still doesn’t stop? What if your enemies stay your enemies? What if I do everything I can to make a relationship work, but it still doesn’t? Then what? Listen to what the Bible says: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” “As far as it depends on you…” There are two sides to every relationship. You can love and forgive, but if the other person isn’t willing, you’re still not going to have a relationship. Jesus was a pretty loving person, and he still got crucified!
But as he hung on that cross, he showed us what real love looks like. It looks like this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.” That’s Jesus, isn’t it? There is no command from Jesus that he hasn’t already fulfilled for us. Jesus loves you first. Even when it was hard. Even when it hurt. Even when we turned our backs on him. That’s the kind of love that we need. That our world needs. We all need to get God! And where is the world going to see the love of God? In you. In me. Be merciful as your Father is merciful. Love first!
Here’s what it might look like. Have you ever heard of Gary Ridgway—the Green River killer? He killed dozens of people in the 1980s—the worst serial killer in U.S. history. At his sentencing, the family members of the victims one-by-one came to the stand and cursed him. But Gary Ridgway didn’t even flinch. He sat there stone-faced. Until a father of one of the victims took the stand. He was an old man with a big, white beard—he looked like Santa Claus! He looked at his daughter’s killer and said, “There are a lot of people here who hate you, but I’m not one of them. You have made it difficult to live up to what I believe, that is, what God says to do, and that’s to forgive. You are forgiven, sir.” And Gary Ridgway—this man who had shown no emotion for weeks of trial and hours of testimony—broke down and cried. Was that father weak? No, he was strong in the Lord! Jesus overcomes evil with good. Who is that for you? Love first.