‘But they didn’t have anything to do with each other – they stopped speaking years ago.’ So said a friend to me just this morning of a brother and sister close to the family, one of whom had recently died. How often have we heard words like this – of friends, neighbours, family members and acquaintances. Perhaps its living in a small community – but I have, sadly, heard these words, or words like them, many many times.
The sad thing, to me, is that if this is painful to see in the wider world – it is even more distressing to observe in the ‘Christian’ community.
One might have thought that within groups of people who should, according to their Master, be known for their love, forgiveness and ability of overlook offence, we would see a harmony, unity and willingness to overlook the faults, failings and even the offence others may give. Sadly, in my experience, that is far from guaranteed. Indeed some appear to take delight in living in self righteous offence. I have seen this first hand on a number of occasions. There have been times, even although I have tried to address such an issue with people who have considered I have offended them ( which I have never deliberately intended to do) they have stubbornly refused to engage – or, on occasions, will not even reveal the root of their bitterness. That is hard. I can think of other occasions when words of reconciliation from people I have known have certainly not matched their subsequent actions. And I am thinking here of people of considerable standing within the ‘Christian’ community.
I share the above for only one reason – that I strongly suspect you may well have faced similar painful circumstances – and know how difficult they can be.
I have been thinking about these things for a while now, long before the conversation with my friend this morning, primarily as a result of meditating on these words of the Apostle Peter in relation to Jesus –
‘He did not retaliate when he was insulted,
nor threaten revenge when he suffered.
He left his case in the hands of God,
who always judges fairly.
He personally carried our sins
in his body on the cross
so that we can be dead to sin
and live for what is right.’
1 Peter 2 (NLT)
‘He did not retaliate when he was insulted.’ How unlike us! So often our instant reaction is exactly that when we are insulted – retaliation. Oh, we may not think of this in terms of violence, at least I hope not, but there will be consequences! Perhaps something like -‘Well I’m not going to speak to you again!’ – or some variation of it. Or perhaps worse – like holding a grudge for the rest of your life!
No wonder the Apostle Paul writing to a Christian community of his day said –
‘Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.’
Hebrews 12 (NLT)
How many relationships have been destroyed, families divided and churches decimated because the root of bitterness has been allowed to grow as a result of choosing to live in offence? Way to many – even in my short lifetime experience and knowledge.
Let me change tack slightly for a moment and address a very important question – and its this – ‘what does it really mean to be a Christian?’ Oh, I know there are many ways to answer that question – but let me jump to the core of it all as I personally see it. It is encapsulated in a statement of the Apostle John, who, I suspect knew the heart of Jesus better than any of his fellow disciples –
‘Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.’
1 John 2 (NLT)
This, surely, is the essence of what we call ‘Christlikeness’ – the true mark of the ‘Christian’. The Apostle Paul says something which is almost identical –
‘And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.’
1 Corinthians 11 (NLT)
I would like to suggest that the primary way in which we imitate Christ, the way we truly follow Jesus and the benchmark of ‘Christlikeness’ is directly associated with our willingness to absorb offence. In other words to become those who take upon ourselves the evil directed towards us by others without seeking retaliation, taking offence, or becoming bitter.
Why do I say this? Simply because I believe that the ultimate example and reality of this is seen in Jesus as he suffered and died on the cross. Yes, incredibly he could say in his suffering of those responsible for it – ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’. But much, much more than that – is his willingness to absorb – to take upon himself the offence and the bitterness of the world. This truth is at the heart of the death of Christ on the cross. And it is in this I am asked to follow him. In fact I suspect the Apostle Paul may have had this in mind, at least in part, when he wrote –
‘I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death … ‘
Philippians 3:10 (NIV)
When we decide to absorb offence without retaliation we, in some small way, share in the sufferings of Christ. To this, I believe, we are called! However, personally, I find this far from natural or easy. I am so glad, and take some comfort from the fact that the Apostle Paul allowed that we have to – ‘work at living in peace with everyone … ‘ (Hebrews 12)
Since meditating on these things I have twice, over the last couple of weeks, found myself in a position where once I would have considered myself perfectly justified in taking serious offence at individuals and making some form of response, either verbally or in my heart in relation to them. Progress in the spiritual life, in my experience is never easy and often tested. However the rewards are much greater than the alternative!
Often we are inclined to think that progress in the spiritual life – or growth towards ‘Christlikeness’ if you like, has to do with our comprehension of theological formula and insight or, depending on our particular church attachments, growing in the gifts of the Spirit and so on. However, I believe the truth is much more simple, practical and challenging that that. It is to become like Jesus, a big part of which is that we, on his behalf, forgive those who offend us. Think, for a moment, of the healing that would flow through our families, churches, and nation if all adopted such a response.
‘Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing.’
1 Peter 3 (NLT)