By Susan K. Smith,
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo each other in showing honor…Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay ..No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads… (Romans 12: 9-12; 19-20)
While many of the words in the Hebrew Bible are troubling, some are more so. We are told that we are to love – everyone. That is a strange command for people who have more of a desire to “get even” than to respond to those who hurt us, or who desire to hurt us with love and compassion. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and the writer of Romans says to us, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo each other in showing honor…Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay ..No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads… (Romans 12: 9-12; 19-20)
We are not interested, frankly, in being kind and/or compassionate to those who have hurt us. In spite of what we are told to do, we seek vengeance and think little of it. If we think of God in our personal scenarios, we take little comfort in thinking that God loves our enemies as well as God loves us; no, we gloat with the thought that perhaps God might contribute to the suffering of those who have hurt us by heaping coals on their heads.
There is a fear we have of being vulnerable and of being perceived as being weak. We are told that “getting someone back” means that we are strong; forgiving them and making them realize that God loves them, we feel, is a sign of weakness. That way of thinking boils down to being a wimp and none of us want that.
But what we offer our enemies in the long run brings us no peace! When we spend time and energy plotting on how to get someone back, we sin, because if sin is “anything that separates us from God,” our desire for vengeance becomes our focus instead of the will of God. We cannot see God and frankly, do not want to see God. We rely on the promise that “Jesus died for our sins” and assume that in the end, we will be all right, that we will be “saved” in spite of having ignored God’s will and in spite of the fact that we have let something be between us and God for too many of our days.
It is impossible for us to see how compassion works. We cannot imagine how responding, for example, to the current president with compassion will do us or anyone else any good. But in casting aside even the thought of treating an enemy with compassion, we lose an opportunity to see God work. God really can cut through the evil that rests and resides in our enemies. God can reach the part of a person’s soul that no human can do, and can convict even the most hate-filled person that his or her actions are out of line with the will of God. God can heap hot coals upon the head …and inside of the heart …of anyone. We take one step by offering compassion; God takes two by doing what only God can do.
Nobody wants to be perceived as being weak, but the fact is, only the very strong can let God be God. Few of us are that strong, and fewer yet want to be. We want the “wicked to cease from troubling” and we want to help that process along. But we cannot do what only God can do. God depends on us to try to do what God demands so that people will see that God is God. We are in effect asked to speak to the dry bones in our lives, the dry bones that remind us of the pain around us, and we are asked a question of God which we are obliged to answer. God asks us, “Child of mine, do you think I can handle your pain?” We look at our pain and we in our hearts do not know. We have been told that God is all-powerful, but when we are dealing with our own pain, our own valley of dry bones, we do not know.
If we are smart, as was Ezekiel, we know not to say, “no,” because that would mean that we are confessing our doubt of God’s power. That is blasphemy, which Jesus says is the only unforgivable sin. If we say “yes,” we presume to know what God will do. Our job at that point is to say, as did Ezekiel, “Lord, you know.” The moment we say that, we pull ourselves out of the center of our painful situation. God begins to work on our pain, and God begins to work on our situation. We can react to the person with compassion because we know it is all in God’s hands. We have no dog in the fight anymore; God has taken us out of the ring and God is there in our stead.
We have room to give compassion, and we give God room to be God. Our compassion for those who have hurt us does not weaken us but strengthens us for the journey; we place burning coals upon the head of the one who hurt us, and the moment those coals are there, they begin to burn through whatever it was that caused that person to act as he or she did. Our compassion softens their hearts as they cannot believe that we are not seeking revenge. They cannot believe it. It is the acting out of the words, “God is doing a new thing! Can you not see it?” The person who knows he or she should be vilified by us is seeing God in action and is brought to silence, a desire for forgiveness,and amazement.
God did not say that our walk with Him/Her would be easy, but it is true that the walk with God, if we take it seriously, will show us how strong we are when we let God be God.
Amen and amen.
Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith –Writer, author, musician, pastor, preacher and social justice advocate. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and author of “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives,” which won the 2009 National Best Books Award. Follow Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith on Twitter:www.twitter.com/cassad