Christians sometimes say about their enemy, “I don’t hate him anymore.” But this is not what Jesus calls us to. Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t hate your enemy.” He says, “Love your enemy.”
Dr. Berhane Asmelash, Director of Release Eritrea and longtime friend, has been visiting us in Korea this week as a part of our 2016 Special Speakers Series. Of the many insights he has shared with us this visit, the one that has been the most penetrating to me has to do with enemy love.
When I was arrested during my early Christian life, I was placed in the same room with the person who was responsible for my arrest. All the prisoners said he is your enemy; he is the one who brought you in here. But this scripture came into my heart. I cannot hate him. Jesus is commanding me to love him. He is my neighbour. We were sharing everything, the same room, the same shower, and we were together for 24 hours. Initially, he was not responding to my generosity, I tried to show him my love in action. I was sharing my food with him and he was sick all the time and I was helping him with everything he needed. After two months he became my best friend and we started to pray together and share from the scripture. I made a best friend out of an enemy.
It occurs to me that the mental effort and gymnastics required to forgive, to move to a position of neutrality in one’s mind toward one’s enemy is actually far more difficult than following the command to love; that is, if love is understood as an action rather than an emotion.
The wisdom of Christ is evident in that often actions precede and redirect emotions. As such, Jesus not infrequently disciples people by prompting them to undertake a certain action rather than or prior to believing a certain thing. It is as if certain things become easier to the mind when the body is already in motion.
The classic example of this is Corrie Ten Boom’s story of preaching a message on God’s forgiveness, in a church in Germany after the end of World World II. But her own lesson that day came after the service, as members of the congregation greeted her on the way out of the service.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.
It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
As she soon discovered, the body can pioneer travel to places that the brain dare not dream of.
t could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it–I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
One of the great tragedies of our aversion to works in the Christian life is that we deprive our minds and emotions of the growth that is made possible when they are sometimes permitted to trail along behind our bodies while our bodies simply carry out the commands of Christ without need of explanation. Even the primary metaphor for discipleship–following–reminds us that often and even for many years afterward we may be incapable of understanding in our minds or of processing in our emotions what we walked out with our actions.
Brain science shows that more often than not our minds are not directing our bodies but instead simply trying to come up with some consistent explanation of what in the world our bodies are doing as our brains watch them do it. It is no wonder, then, that Jesus pays such attention to getting our bodies to act in certain ways. When our bodies act in certain ways then our brains are left to wonder what it all means, and perhaps along the way we will become open to truths that before our actions were too wonderful to know.
All this is largely lost in our propositional era of faith, where an empty kind of believing, which is contrasted with doing, becomes the heart of the Christian life. We are cautious about doing much of anything lest we deceive ourselves into believing that we are earning God’s favor. But perhaps God’s favor sometimes comes in the form of permitting us to do, to get our bodies moving in the right direction, before we believe or even understand what it would mean to act in faith.
Romans 5:5 says, “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” The love of God is poured into our hearts, not our brains. Often it has to come out through our limbs before it has any chance of penetrating into our gray matter.