“Please bless great-grandmama, mama, and daddy. Help us to have a good night’s sleep—oh, yeah, God, please bless and protect all those people in Syria and Iraq that are being killed and terrorized, and please bless and be with those ISIS people. You know that they are so angry because they don’t know and love You. AMEN!”
I kissed my 8-year-old son, put him to bed, and—in shock—walked back to my bedroom. As I sat down, my head was spinning. Did my son just ask God to bless and be with terrorists?! Why would God bless anybody who forces people to “convert or die!”?
Everybody else in the house was asleep or otherwise occupied, and I was alone, struggling with my thoughts. I kept asking God, Why would my boy ask You to bless…THEM?
Since this summer I and the world have watched with horror as the ISIS terrorist organization has attacked, persecuted, killed, and driven out thousands of people. I had asked that God would stop them, but I was taken aback by my son’s love for…even them.
Just a few hours before, as my family and I had sat around our table and talked about our day, I had given my children a brief, age-appropriate version of the day’s world events. When we got to the situation in Iraq, my son asked a simple question: “Daddy, why are they [ISIS] doing this?”
My 12-year-old daughter—who’s convinced she knows everything already—shot back, “Hurt people hurt people. They’re doing that because they are angry and hurt because they don’t know Jesus.”
My son said, “OK,” and finished eating his food. Relieved, I thought the episode was over. Little did I know that still waters run deep. Fast-forward to my son’s bedtime, and—well, you know how that turned out.
But his prayer kept eating at me. I couldn’t shake it. Did God really expect my son, me, and my family to be praying that God would bless and be with ISIS? This question drove me to deep and prolonged prayer and Bible study. I needed to know what God said about terrorists—people who purposely and ruthlessly harm and persecute others simply due to a difference in values, religion, or beliefs. If God did say something about them, how did it relate to my life?
As I prayed, read, studied, and struggled with the cognitive dissonance I felt by being someone who passionately loves God and others but hates sin—in all its forms—I came to this conclusion: God addresses terrorism and persecution in surprisingly clear and plain language. God gives us a principle in an Old Testament story (actually an entire book) and then teases out that principle in several New Testament passages.
For the balance of our time, I’d like to:
- use the Old Testament story of Jonah as an object lesson of what we should do in the face of cruelty, barbarism, and sheer evil, as epitomized by the ancient inhabitants of Nineveh and modern ISIS.
- flesh out what Jesus and the apostles said our response should be, not just to terrorism and terrorists, but to people who “terrorize” and persecute us in our daily lives.
More Than a Fish Story
The Old Testament story of Jonah bears a striking resemblance to what’s happening today with ISIS. You should read it; it’s only four short chapters. Jonah, a prophet of God, was told to deliver a message to the inhabitants of Nineveh, the flourishing capital and most populous city of the powerful and incredibly ruthless and evil Assyrian empire (2 Kings 19:36). Assyria, a kingdom of northern Mesopotamia, became the center of one of the great empires of the ancient Middle East. It was located in what is now northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. Nineveh was situated on the east bank of the Tigris River opposite modern-day Mosul, Iraq—the very area now being terrorized by ISIS.
The Assyrians—and by extension, the Ninevites—were a wicked, pagan people. They pioneered brutal and unspeakable ways to torture and persecute others—specifically Israel. There are many historical reports of them fileting people, cutting them to pieces alive, and other such atrocities.
So when God tells Jonah to deliver a message of judgment, destruction, grace, and mercy, Jonah is both tickled pink and outraged. Jonah is super-excited that God wants to destroy the Ninevites, because…well, they deserve it! But on the flip side, he’s just as disgusted and angry that God is even considering forgiving them.
Ultimately, because of Jonah’s preaching to the Ninevites and their collective repentance, God relents and chooses not to destroy them. When this happens, Jonah decides to put God in His place by whining and complaining to Him about his frustration.
“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong [that God forgave the Ninevites instead of destroying them], and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live’ ” (Jonah 4:1-3, NIV).
The book ends with Jonah seemingly not getting the memo that God is kind and compassionate and seeks to extend mercy to all—the same mercy He extended to Jonah and his fellow Israelites!
Jonah’s stubborn, uncaring attitude smacks uncomfortably close to the attitudes of many Christians as we see the atrocities of ISIS unfold right before our eyes. If we say we love God and others, shouldn’t our response be to pray for God to bless them and bring them to repentance—not just destroy them?
The New Testament expands on the principle in Jonah’s story. Let’s look at what Jesus said about this issue.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 7:10, 11, NIV).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 7:38-48, NIV).
Did Jesus really mean what He said? That we are blessed when we’re persecuted? That we should give people our clothes and walk until we fall out? Did He want us to love, pray for, and “not resist” an evil person?
By the way, did you notice the stinging rebuke at the end? “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48). Jesus is telling us not only that these strange behaviors are mandated, but that they are, only through His power, possible.
Here’s the more troubling question: Does Jesus want us to be Christian carpets and let others who seek to do us wrong just walk all over us?
Yes and no. Let me explain.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Rome, clarifies Jesus’ instruction through his unique perspective. Let’s not forget that Paul used to go by the name “Saul,” and he himself persecuted Christians—many to the point of death! He wrote:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:14-21, NIV).
The Third Option
Paul—like Jesus—made it abundantly clear that we are not to seek revenge when persecuted. This emotion follows anger and is perfectly natural for all humanity, but as Christians we are not to respond this way.
Initially this command sounds like it is keeping “sweet revenge” from us. This world has fooled us into thinking that we are the end all of existence, and when somebody does something to us or those we love, we will make them pay! The truth is that payback never satisfies. Once a wrong has been committed, committing another wrong just exponentially increases the feelings of hurt and anger and does nothing to make the hurt go away. In fact, it continually keeps that hurt in front of us until that’s all we can focus on, and ultimately it will overwhelm and engulf us.
So if we shouldn’t pay back evil for evil, should we do…nothing? That’s not right either. God died for you and me, and that makes each one of us of inestimable value! God isn’t asking us to act as if the wrong shouldn’t and doesn’t hurt. That would be dysfunctional and dumb. That’s why Jesus and Paul both recognized that the best option is the third option: to let God take care of it. If we love Him, if we trust that He loves us, knows all, has all power, and is the perfect and ultimate Judge, then we can leave those wrongs in the safest place possible: His hands. He knows how and when to most effectively—perfectly, in fact—avenge injustices done to His children.
But surely that’s not the only thing God wants us to do? He doesn’t want the injustice to end with us saying, “Oh, well, I guess God will straighten it all out in the end,” as we twiddle our thumbs and shuffle our feet. You are correct! We are to start shoveling!
Paul, when writing about “heaping burning coals on his head” (v. 20), was referring to an Old Testament passage in Proverbs 25:21, 22. Paul wasn’t advocating piling heaping mounds of white-hot coals upon your enemies’ heads (as deliciously tempting as that sounds). He was emphasizing that when Christianity comes in contact with evil and persecution, it goes beyond nonresistance to active benevolence. It does not destroy its enemies by violence but instead converts them by love. It feeds the enemy when he is hungry and satisfies his thirst.
Admittedly, it is difficult to translate this idiomatic expression to our twenty-first-century cultural experience, but basically, to heap live coals on a person’s head is to make them ashamed of their hostility and persecution by surprising them with overwhelming and unconventional kindness. That is why Paul ends his instruction with this summary: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21). Again, this is something that can only be done through God’s power.
I know that the vast majority of those who read this won’t be receiving active persecution from ISIS—and I praise God for that! However, this principle of overwhelming love also applies to our everyday lives. I’m sure that as you read about the topic, a name, face, or situation popped into your head. No doubt you, like me, are experiencing cognitive dissonance between your actual responses and God’s ideal. So how do we resolve the problem and love sincerely by hating what is evil and clinging to what is good (Romans 12:9)?
Rubber Meets the Road
Years ago I read a book entitled What Would Jesus Do? The book dealt with characters struggling to make relevant and tangible changes to their lives in light of being convicted of Jesus’ teachings. It made me squirm a little and think a lot!
The truth is that there is nothing more difficult than dealing with someone whose sole purpose for living is to torment and persecute us or those we love. However, as we’ve learned, Jesus doesn’t give us a pass on this. If we call ourselves His followers—if we seek to be like Him—then we must respond as He would.
Today, I want to challenge you to do five things for those who purposely persecute you. Before I tell you what they are, I have to give you two disclaimers:
- If you are dealing with someone who has been, as a pattern of their behavior, verbally or physically abusive or violent toward you, it would be wise—at least initially—to respond from a physical distance (i.e., e-mail, mail, text, phone call). If you fear for your physical safety, do not disclose details of your location.
- The Bible describes some people as “fools.” For purposes of clarity, let’s define a fool as someone who:
- is not cognitively deficient;
- refuses to acknowledge God as the ultimate authority in their life (Ps. 14:1);
- consistently and stubbornly continues to make negative life choices that consistently result in negative consequences;
- even after having an awareness of the correct decisions to make, takes no responsibility for said actions;
- blames others for their decisions and the consequences.
If you are dealing with a fool, the Bible says that the only way they will ever learn—if they learn at all—is by sheer negative consequences, and that we should remove ourselves from active daily interaction in their lives. Harsh but biblical.
OK, with those two disclaimers out of the way, let’s move forward with five ways to respond to persecution as Jesus would:
1. Pray for your persecutors.
Commit to pray for them daily. At this point, don’t inform them that you’re praying for them; remember, this isn’t about you, but them! I’ve found that it’s difficult to pray for others for a sustained duration and hate them as well. What has usually happened with me and others I’ve counseled is that they begin to receive a paradigm shift in their perspective toward their persecutors. Instead of hating them and being angry at them, they begin to feel compassion and empathy toward them.
2. Forgive them.
Jesus—even in the midst of being crucified—offered forgiveness to His murderers (Luke 24:34). Jesus also reminds us that if we choose to be unforgiving, God cannot forgive us (Matt. 6:14, 15). Jesus isn’t being mean or hateful; the reality is that the heart that is too hard to open up and offer forgiveness to someone else is too hard to open up and accept God’s forgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn’t equal reconciliation—remember the disclaimers? If you are dealing with a violent, abusive, or foolish person, it’s not wise for you to have a relationship with them. However, forgiveness is something you do both because God forgave you and because it’s a best practice—spiritually, emotionally, and physically—for you! In his landmark book Forgive to Live, physician Dick Tibbitts talks about the importance of forgiveness. He cites incredible research showing that people who are unforgiving have a higher incidence of a vast number of emotional and physical disorders.
3. Do something tangible for them.
Several years ago my daughter was singled out for verbal bullying and abuse by an older girl. After my daughter spoke with her mother and me, she prayed about it and felt strongly impressed to begin to pray for this girl daily and also to pick some flowers and give them to her. That next week my daughter was pleasantly surprised to see a positive response from the young lady—and the bullying stopped.
Now, I know this story oversimplifies this principle. However, God wants us to—as far as possible—respond to hate with tangible acts of love. My wife has been known to bake her special recipe (actually it’s Laura Bush’s recipe—yes, the ex-president’s wife) for “Cowboy Cookies” and physically hand them to people she’s been battling. This has always initially confused the individuals and many times has stopped conflicts. You don’t have to bake stuff for people or give them flowers, but how about an iTunes gift card or a gift card for some gas? Pray, take time to listen to God’s Holy Spirit, and then do something for them.
4. Attempt to empathize.
Do you remember what my daughter wisely said about ISIS? “Hurt people hurt people. They’re doing that because they are angry and hurt because they don’t know Jesus.” Many people hate, hurt, torment, and persecute others because they themselves have all those things stored up inside them. Looking at ISIS, for generations—for millennia—in that part of the world people have been taught to hate, persecute, and kill others who don’t share their specific worldview, values, religion, beliefs, and genetic makeup. I say this not to excuse or justify their behaviors, but to communicate the importance of attempting to understand where someone is coming from and how that affects their behaviors.
Jesus Himself didn’t leave us in our sins but instead proactively sought us out (Rom. 5:8)—even loving us enough to become like one of us (John 1:1, 14; Heb. 4:15).
5. Be open to building a relationship.
It’s true that you may never be—or never want to be—“besties” with that person at church, work, or school who lives to make your life difficult, but remember that one of the main purposes for our existence on this earth is to make disciples for Jesus. You may not like it, but people are watching how you respond to and hold up under persecution. God tells us that our lives are like letters that others are reading (2 Cor. 3:2) and that we are God’s representatives here on earth (2 Cor. 5:20).
Do you remember that young lady who was so mean to my daughter? We got to know the family well, and we began to pray for her and her family daily. We shared many tangible gifts of food and books. We even invited them to our home for Sabbath dinner and heard their stories. Wow! They lived hard lives and had been through horrific and traumatic experiences. Eventually they agreed to begin attending weekly Bible studies at our home, and now our two families are friends.
Living on this earth in this time subjects us as Christians to Satan’s and the world’s anger, persecution, and torment (1 Cor. 1:18-31; John 10:10), and as world events continue to hurtle toward Jesus’ second coming, things will get much worse (Matt. 24:9-12, 21). However, we can be assured that no matter what happens, God will never leave us and will be with us to the very end (Matt. 28:20). In the meantime, we can respond to persecution and to our persecutors by allowing God to judge and avenge us. Then we are to address and emotionally process the wrong done to us by loving them as Jesus loves them through:
- praying for them,
- forgiving them,
- doing something tangible for them,
- seeking to understand them,
- being open to a relationship in order to ultimately lead them to salvation.
Let’s not be like knuckleheaded, stubborn Jonah, who never allowed God’s loving character to be displayed in his life. Let’s instead be like kind, compassionate Jesus and offer those who persecute us understanding and forgiveness.
If Jesus did it for us, how can we do any less for anyone else?