by Contributor Will Brooks
This article is the second in a series of articles. This series is investigating important theological issues that intersect with the philosophical problem of sin and suffering. You can read the first article in the series here.
“Attend to me, and answer me; I am restless in my complaint and I moan, because of the noise of the enemy, because of the oppression of the wicked.” The declaration of the oppressed found in Psalm 55 could be repeated by almost anyone in this fallen world. Why is there so much antagonism perpetrated by wicked and rebellious humans in the world? How can a perfectly good God not answer the call of His people? If He truly is all-powerful then surely he could stop this if He saw fit? In the previous article entitled Humility in the Problem of Sin, we saw one aspect of the answer to this most crucial of problems. In this article, we shall examine the content within and the reason behind Jesus’s love command focusing on the exhortation to love our enemies. We shall then demonstrate the importance of this command in the Christian life and the kind of world required for this command to be lived out. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate why God chose to allow and ordain the kind of world we live in today. Keep in mind that this is only a partial answer to what I define as the Problem of Sin but is widely known as the Problem of Evil. Just as a bridge has many different supports, this is merely one support among myriads of them in the Christian worldview on the presence of sin and death in the world.
It does not take much more than a cursory perusal of the New Testament to see the impact Jesus’s love command—and His supreme demonstration of it on the Cross—had on the Disciples, Apostles, and their subsequent writings. In Matthew 5:43-48 we find one of the most famous of these declarations. Jesus begins in verse 43 describing the common practice of the day: love your neighbor but hate your enemy. Verse 44 then contains Jesus’s command: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus like a painter on blank canvas, contrasts common practice with God’s interpersonal standards. We are not to hate our enemies, but to love them. We tend to neglect the true weight behind this command to love our enemies—after all the word hate invokes strong emotion and we like to believe that we do not tend to feel this way about those who have wronged us. However, the semantic contrast of love/hate often conveyed the additional idea of being with and against something respectively. We are allied with our neighbor and fighting against our enemy. In this case, we might have bosses who could be viewed as our enemy and seek their demise. Or, we might hope that bullies at school receive humiliation. We may feel we do not truly hate them, but seeking ill upon them or feeling joy when they receive ‘what they deserve’ demonstrates the harsh truth in our hearts.
Jesus rejects this notion and commands his people to act as if we are allied with our enemy. Imagine a war—and make no mistake the Bible views the Christian life as war against Satan and sin—where your side seeks the advantage of their enemies. A grenade is thrown at your enemy’s feet and instead of diving away from that grenade and letting him be killed by it you jump on the grenade and sacrifice yourself for him. It is nonsensical. Such a war would be a massacre. Yet this is precisely what Jesus calls his people to do. When we have truly wrestled with the implications of such a command, it shatters our world and our lives because we do not live this way. The perpetrators of injustice against us at work, at the local restaurant, wherever it may be, should not make us seek their downfall but instead their gain. Scarcely can I imagine a world where people do this and yet this is what our Lord Jesus Christ commands of His people.
Beyond being a mere addendum to a virtuous life, the command to love our enemies is meant to shape the Christian’s entire life. This sermon in fact was both an exhortation of how the City of God ought to live and a description of the life Jesus did live. It also reflects the very nature of the Father which Jesus demonstrates in verses 45-48 where it is written,
“so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The result of loving your enemies is mentioned in the phrase “so that you may be sons of your Father.” It would be a mistake to tie this to atonement, as if espousing a type of works righteousness. If it is, it serves only to condemn as none of us live this command. What the term son largely indicates—although not only— is likeness with the Father. When we love our enemies we are reflecting the image of the Father. This idea of likeness to the Father is backed up in verse 48 where Jesus says that we, “must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus then provides the demonstration of the Father’s love to His enemies in verse 44: “For [the Father] makes his sun rise on the evil and the good.” Not only does this further connect the love command with the character of God, but it also shows that God demonstrates his own attributes in loving His enemies. This display of God’s character then informs how we ought to live as image-bearers and children.
We have just talked about Jesus’s love command and its foundation in the Father’s character. The New Testament repeatedly demonstrates that the Son’s character is reflected in this command as well. We shall now turn our attention to 1 Peter 2:18-25 to show that this love command reflects our Triune God’s own nature while also demonstrating its radical extent.
In this passage Peter is explicating what it means to “keep your conduct among the gentiles honorable,” which he mentions in 2:12. The end to which this behavior leads is that the gentiles may see their good deeds and as a result glorify God when Christ returns. This context is important to understand because it implies that the following section of verses 13-25—which describe how Christians are to live—shows the end of such behavior: the glory of God.
Peter’s exhortation in verses 18-25 is aimed at bondservants whom he calls to submit and show respect to their masters. Some have tried to argue that these verses show that the New Testament promotes slavery. This is certainly not the case. The point Peter is making, which is a theme in the entire letter, is how to endure hardship. It is also connected with Peter’s call to keep their conduct honorable so that God would be glorified. This is not because suffering unjust punishment is good in and of itself, or that the masters have a right to practice it, but rather to endure because patient endurance through unjust suffering reflects the character of Jesus. Much more could be said in answer to this critique but that would be beyond the scope and purpose of this article.
Peter’s principle of enduring suffering is that we ought to consider suffering unjust punishment favor from God because it reflects the character of Christ. In verses 19-20 Peter describes how Christians ought to view suffering, writing in verse 19, “For this is a favorable thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” He declares to his readers that their suffering is in truth gain. Even more strongly, in verse 20b he writes that “this is favor from God” (I have differed slightly from the ESV here on the translation, selecting the word favor for χαρις instead of grace, and verse 20b, τουτο χαρις παρα θεω, as “this is favor from God” instead of the ESV’s “this is a gracious thing in the sight of God”). Peter’s declaration is not one of cold apathy toward those who suffer injustice. Peter experienced the same type of suffering and likely was even martyred on a cross. In Acts 5:41-42 after the Apostles were beaten by the Jewish Council, Peter and the other Apostles rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for Christ. Peter’s declaration in Acts and in his first letter is more than shocking, it turns the world upside down. Never one to shy away from anything, he writes at the end of verse 21 that suffering injustice is God’s call to the Christian.
What could inspire such an understanding? The example of Christ. Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:21b, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” We as Christians are called to suffer because Jesus Christ himself suffered despite being sinless and reviled by the very people He came to save. Yet it was these wounds that saved us, taking our sin upon Himself. As a result, we should consider it favor from God to suffer unjustly, for we are following our Savior. We are reflecting his character and His life.
How does this relate to loving our enemies? Peter’s call to follow Christ’s example of suffering by being the silent lamb of Isaiah 53:7 shows how we are to endure and implies the result of our unjust suffering. The command to love our enemies is so expansive that even when enduring undeserved and severe sorrows we are still called to love our enemies. We cannot and should not seek the demise of our enemies even in the face of injustice. Instead we should seek their gain and patiently endure that those who look upon our suffering might submit to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
I do want to clarify that while we are called to endure injustice for the sake of Christ this does not mean that we can never speak up from verbal or physical abuse or other situations. Situations like that require pastoral care, support, and wisdom. Certainly, there are times when we need to be willing to speak out. Additionally, we should not search for suffering. The important things in those situations is that we need to make it known while keeping Jesus’s love command in mind. We need to speak in love and seek not the perpetrator’s destruction but their transformation.
Nevertheless, I know for myself that I try to justify my anger or hate for my enemies or my wife’s enemies. It is not the exception with which I struggle but rather the rule. We should not keep our eyes down looking at the injustice against us but instead up towards the sun and seeing in it the nature of our gracious God who provides joy, gladness, and provision for the just and unjust.
1 Peter 2:18-25 also shows the result of such suffering beginning with our Lord’s. Verse 25 reads, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Jesus’s suffering on the Cross saved us as straying sheep and brought us back to God, delivering us from our sins. Peter emphasizes what Jesus’s suffering produced for us to draw a parallel between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of his readers. Jesus’s suffering produced salvation and deliverance for the City of God. In a similar vein, believers’ suffering injustice well— by seeking their enemies’ gain—brings glory to God through the deliverance of Gentiles who saw their endurance through unjust suffering.
The scene Peter envisions in 2:12 depicts transformative scene for those enduring suffering for Christ. He writes, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Peter envisions Jesus coming through the clouds and while other seek to avoid His glory and judgment there will be a group of people who behold Christ and glorify God because of the everyday suffering of Christians. This is an astounding thought. It should give such a different perspective on our suffering and why the command to love our enemies and endure suffering are so central to the Christian’s life.
Keep in mind however that our suffering and Jesus’s is not a direct parallel. Christ’s death was efficacious on behalf of His people—ours is not. However, Peter draws this parallel because there is a real connection between Jesus’s suffering and ours. Just as Christ’s suffering and death brought lost sinners back to God, our suffering in the face of injustice acts as a God-given instrument to bring lost sinners back to God that they might glorify Him.
Jesus’s command to love our enemies is more than simple pity or compassion. We are called to seek their gain as we would our own allies, friends, or even our own family. Beyond mere mores, this command reflects the nature and actions of our Triune God. Furthermore, we have seen that enduring persecution for doing good is actually evidence of favor or grace from God. This favor results in glory for God and has an evangelistic function by being a living testimony to Jesus’s patient endurance at the Cross.
As was mentioned previously, the Problem of Sin is the problem of the presence of Sin in a world created by a sovereign and good God, specifically in our case the problem of the amount of sin and suffering in the world. Why does God not take that suffering away? Why did God choose to allow the kind of world where suffering was involved instead of a world where no or very little suffering was involved? Many apologists argue that God choose to bring into being the best possible world with human freedom—thus stating that our world is the best possible world. This type of idea almost always includes the notion that the world where there is the least amount of sin and suffering is the best possible world. While I would agree that this current world is the best possible world for the City of God, if we believe the Lord Jesus, if we believe the Spirit-guided words of Peter, then the best possible world must be radically redefined.
We have demonstrated that Jesus commands His people to love their enemies just as the Father does. We have also seen that Peter commands his readers to endure suffering as Jesus did so that those who look on might come to know and glorify God. Let us assume that our Triune God chose to actuate a world wherein His character and nature would be most fully known. What is clear in Matthew 5:43-48 is that Jesus desires His people to mirror our Father’s character and nature by loving our enemies. We also see that Peter’s impetus for the command to suffer injustice without retaliation was Jesus’s own life of suffering culminating in the Cross.
Thus, we begin to see a pattern emerge that provides meaning to unjust suffering. God chose to actuate a world where His boundless, supreme, and majestic nature is revealed. We see this evidenced in part by the reality of God’s love for His enemies: He makes his sun shine on the just and the unjust. We also see this supremely demonstrated in Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross when He died for us while we were yet His enemies. We then are granted the favor of suffering at the hands of our enemies in reflection of the nature of our Triune God. Even more than this, while we mirror our Savior we bring glory to God and are instruments by which others might be saved pointing toward the salvific work of Jesus.
When we truly ponder this reality we find a nigh unfathomable truth. God’s own display of His character in His love for his enemies also provides us knowledge of God. The experience of suffering unjustly serves to deepen this knowledge of God while also reflecting God’s own nature. This simultaneously brings glory to God and unbridled joy to us as we behold the perfect beauty of Yahweh and reflect such beauty to others.
This provides such deep meaning to the world in which we live and the suffering we endure in it. God chose this kind of world not because there is the least amount of suffering in the world, but because this is the world where we most fully know God. We can know that our God loves his enemies because we see it in action every day with the rising and the setting of the sun and most supremely in His Son. This is one reason why God chose to create this kind of world. He wanted a world where He would be able to display His nature and character that we might be able to know Him as fully as possible. This means that our own suffering allows us to experience what Jesus experienced and to be able to have experiential knowledge of our suffering Christ. Far too often we think of knowledge as mere facts when it is also experienced. God calls us not simply to knowledge but experiential knowledge by which we are shaped into His image. Thus, he calls us to love our enemies because our Father in heaven loves His enemies. In doing so he grants us experiential knowledge of Himself. The Spirit then works in His people—the City of God—that we might be fashioned to absorb joy upon joy while we behold our God with ever clearer sight as we endure each passing trial.