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Friday, January 10, 2014

For All People

I haven’t got any enemies. Really, I can’t think of a single human being in that category. That’s not an indicator of an excessively gracious or forgiving nature, by the way. It’s simply the truth.

I live in a peaceful country. There are, of course, differences of opinion about religion, but I have never (yet) personally encountered any genuine religious persecution. I realize this is exceptional, both in human history and in view of current conditions in the rest of the world. Try confessing the name of Christ publicly in Iran, Egypt or Syria and see how that goes. Even in Baghdad where, because of the US presence for over a decade one might assume it would be a little safer to identify as Christian, attacks on two churches on Christmas day killed more than 30 worshippers.

Compared to this, and to the violent mistreatment and murder of Christians all over the world for their faith, the raised eyebrows I’ve encountered when I mention that I believe in the bodily return of the Lord Jesus for his church, or the disbelieving upturn of the corner of a co-worker’s mouth when I happen to self-identify with the ‘bible thumpers’ he is gently mocking are so insignificant as to not really warrant a mention — except that I’m trying to make a point here: Throughout most of my life I have seriously lacked for persecutors.

That’s not to say everything has always gone swimmingly, or that I’ve never had difficulties with anyone for a period of time, or that there are not people I am less inclined to feel friendly toward than others because of their behavior. Sometimes I have to confront someone on the job about their performance and it’s not always enthusiastically received. Within families, very strong feelings can come to the surface when close relatives disagree.

But ‘enemies’ — that’s a pretty strong term.

Most of us are more than familiar with the Lord’s teaching about those who hate us and treat us badly: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”.

One can’t fail to notice the counterintuitive nature of what the Lord taught about a godly, loving response to hostility. The Christian is to be entirely unnatural in his reactions, to behave in a way that sets him or her apart from others and brings glory to God. Intellectually I admire both the generosity and the sacrifice involved in forgoing the perfectly normal human inclination to carry a grudge. The self-righteousness involved in picking others apart can be very satisfying and can make us feel superior. 

But the Lord, who said of his enemies, “Father, forgive them” exemplified his own teaching to the absolute extremity. He loved his enemies. He prayed for his tormentors.

If I’m really honest, I kind of secretly hope I’ll never have serious need to apply the Lord’s words in my own prayer life. Nobody enjoys being hated. But I am not presently called to face this challenge.

What about the challenge in the following verse though? This is where, characteristically, I fall down:
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.”
When the apostle says “for all people” here, he is not suggesting that we are responsible to pray for upward of six billion human beings. We could not do so except in the most distant, emotionally detached way. But Paul does not mean all without exception, he means all without distinction. Specifically in the passage he speaks of praying for those in authority, but the emphasis of the word “all” here seems to be that we are to pray for all kinds of people who come into our orbit, without taking into account whether we naturally like or admire them, whether we agree with their politics, whether or not we have close, affectionate bonds with them; all kinds of men and women.

Personally, I find these the hardest prayers of all, hard because there is no strong emotional connection to drive me to pray. Generally, if I love someone, I pray for them. Nobody has to tell me to do it. I want them to know the Lord. I want them to develop in the faith. I want them to have love, joy and peace in their lives. I feel burdened to mention them before the Lord. And even when I find myself consciously feeling distaste for someone, I (hopefully) recognize it as a wrong attitude and in the process of asking for the Lord’s forgiveness and help with that, end up praying for them too.

But what about those people who cause us no particular emotional reaction one way or another? Those people we tend to overlook, probably not even intentionally, because they’re just not our type, have different backgrounds or interests.

Is the Lord concerned about them, and would he want us to pray for them? I believe he would. 

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