Love the One You Hate

           “Forgive and forget; that’s the Christian way!” Don’t you hate this reminder? Forgive and forget? No way! Revenge is sweeter. “Don’t get mad; get even!” That sounds better to the sinner’s ear. Harboring hatred appeases for the moment, for our mind acts out our vengeance. We imaginatively slay the person, think ill of him, and wish bad to befall him. Yet, we are Christians and a mark of a disciple of Jesus is forgiveness, for the Savior did say in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you.” Forgiving the dastardly is proof that we are sons of God, for only true believers can really love the one they hate (Matt. 5:45-46). Furthermore, Jesus said that if we harbor anger in our hearts toward our brother, we have basically murdered him and are guilty before the court (Matt. 521-22).
            When conflict arises in churches, sin increases and leaders either add to the problem or become soothing balm in healing the hurt. Hatred of those that cause the conflict will only stir up more strife, but loving them will cover their sins and ease the controversy (Prov. 10:12). In such situations, leaders must be strong, yet humble; steadfast, yet understanding; and decisive, yet loving. If they the shepherds have sinned, then they must model what confession and forgiveness look like, for the sheep (i.e., true believers) will follow their lead and seek reconciliation with others. Those who fail to admit their sin and who harbor an unforgiving attitude will in all likelihood leave the church and retain their bitterness.
            I once served a church that had a major split over worship and direction of the church. The senior pastor resigned, but many of his supporters remained in the church, causing disquiet among the elders. After preaching a number of sermons on forgiveness and leaving the past behind, I asked the congregation during the confession time of the service to bow their heads, close their eyes, and raise their hands if they had transgressed God’s law by sinning in any of the ways I described. I then mentioned a litany of sins that broke fellowship and strained relationships with one another. Just about every hand went up. I then asked them to lower their hands, keep their eyes closed, and confess their sins silently before the Lord, asking for His forgiveness and the power to forgive others that have hurt them. With eyes open I had them look around the sanctuary. If they saw anyone in the congregation with whom they had strained relationships and about whom they just prayed to forgive, then they were leave their seats and approach the person or persons that they had sinned against in their minds or held bitterness towards in their hearts and ask the person’s forgiveness.
            The Lord’s Spirit was moving in that church and people stood up and approached those they harbored bitterness toward. I heard the buzz of confession and the sobbing of joy as the Lord brought peace and unity to a torn congregation. I kept an eye, however, on two key families that were centrally embroiled in the conflict. They remained in their seats and were shocked when a number of people approached them, asking forgiveness for the bitterness they had carried toward them. Their hearts, however, remained hardened, for they refused to surrender their self-righteous attitude, thereby locking themselves in the darkness of unforgiveness.
Lewis Smedes (1921-2002), former professor of Fuller Theological Seminary once said, “When you forgive a person who wronged you, you set a prisoner free, and then you discover that the prisoner you set free is you.”[1] How right he is! Without forgiving the person who has seriously offended us or harmed our family, we allow the bile of bitterness to eat us up. And when we are bitter, that acid is not hurting the one we are angry at, it is hurting us. Freedom is in forgiving; bondage remains for the impenitent.

[1] Lewis Smedes, "Five Things Everyone Should Know about Forgiving," 30 Good Minutes (Program #4101 - First air date October 5, 1997), Chicago Sunday Evening Club (Accessed January 22, 2011).