Tension with Others

Life_in_Tension_web“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:43-45 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

We depend on other people; they depend on us.  When we become Christians our mutual interdependence with others is complicated in two distinct ways which work in tension.

First, success in sanctification creates a perceived holiness gap between ourselves and other people because biblical and cultural values differ. When I started seminary, for example, I discovered one day that some of my friends had stopped using profanity when I was around—an interesting measure of this gap.

Second, God loves people.  If we are truly to draw closer to God and begin to take on the mind of Christ, we need to love the people that God loves [1].  Emulating God’s love, we want to share all that is precious to us with them—especially our faith.  Consequently, if sanctification creates a gap between us and others, then our mimicking of God’s love works to bridge this gap.  God’s love compels us to practice sacrificial love—we simply do not want to leave our loved ones, friends, and neighbors to perish in their sin.

After blessing Abraham, God revealed his plans to Abraham including a plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sin (Gen 18:17-20). Abraham then prayed to God to spare the cities for the sake of the righteous found in them (Gen 18:23-32), presumably knowing that his nephew, Lot, and his family are in Sodom. Lot, whose judgment was often flawed, found it no problem to live in Sodom and only left Sodom on the urging of angels sent to retrieve him (Gen 19:16). Lot’s wife found it even harder to leave Sodom.  She disobeyed the angels by looking back at the flaming city and was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26).

Reflecting on the story of Abraham and the cities, how does the church today position itself relative to culture?  Are we praying to redeem the culture like Abraham, attracted to the culture like Lot, or fatally attracted to the culture like Lot’s wife? In the New Testament, the church is described as the one’s called out[2] suggesting perhaps that we, like Abraham, want to pray for our neighbors, but, like Lot, find ourselves attracted to the culture.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:19 ESV) Like Paul, we are a confused bunch. Consequently, our salvation rests on no merit of our own, but is only available through atonement of Christ (1 Cor 15:3).

In his life and atoning death, Jesus offers us a way out of this dilemma, a fourth alternative—serve the culture faithfully and sacrificially leaving final judgment to God [3].  He instructs the disciples:

And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.
(Matt 10:11-15 ESV)

Those unwilling to accept the Gospel, are left to their own devices—a kind of New Testament curse for rejecting the new covenant in Christ which is echoed, for example, also in the writings of the Apostle Paul (Rom 1:28).  Clearly, sacrificial ministry has its limits (shaking off the dust from the sandals for those unwilling to listen) and is certainly not a capitulation to the culture!

Three of the Beatitudes deal specifically with this gap with others:

  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matt 5:9-11 ESV)

Here, Jesus offered consolation for disciples suffering persecution.  He neither denied that the gap exists, excused it, or told them to run away from it.  Instead, he likened them to salt and light, and directed them to: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44 ESV).

For the Christian disciple, tension with others is the norm, not the exception. We are citizens of heaven who are in the world, but not of the world. And our tension is motivated by love.


[1]  Love defines who God is:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 ESV) Love also defines the church, as Jesus commands: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 ESV)  When we sacrificially love people outside the church, we emulate God.

[2] The word for church in Greek is ekklesia (ἐκκλησίᾳ) which literally means ones called out (1 Cor 1:2).

[3]  Find an example of this lesson in the Book of Luke.  Luke writes:  “And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?  But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.” (Luke 9:52-56 ESV)


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