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Divine Love


Jesus told his followers that, when they were unsuccessful in their efforts to correct fellow Christians, then they should treat the miscreants "as heathens". (Matthew 18:17) Paul wrote to young Titus and said that he should "reject" anyone who persisted in fighting the truth after they had been given a second and third "admonition". (Titus 3:10)

It is on the basis of such passages that the practice of shunning, excommunicating, disfellowshipping, or disowning members from various religious groups originated. Most groups have disciplines that they impose on members who overstep certain lines which define acceptable group behaviour. These disciplines include taking membership rights from people if the indiscretions are bad enough.

It is almost an inseparable part of the definition of any religion that there will be some people who do not qualify for membership. In order for any religion to maintain some standard by which it can be identified, it is necessary to enforce these standards on its members, or else cease to recognise people as being members if they fail to measure up to the standards.

The Bible criticises religions which do not "exercise judgment" against transgressors within their ranks. Errors must be identified, and evil rebuked, if there is to be any semblance of truth to which the religion adheres.

But some people have carried such admonitions to an extreme, with groups inflicting further punishments on backsliders than may have been included in the teachings of Jesus or in the writings of St. Paul.

Paul talked about turning one over to the devil for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved. It's true that the wording here conjures up a picture of revenge on the malefactor. But when Paul's words are examined closely, we see that there is no suggestion at all that we Christians are to be the tool through which the "destruction" should come. In fact, both Jesus and Paul taught that we should love our enemies, bless them that curse us, and pray for them that despitefully use us. So even if we are going to treat a person as a heathen, it does not exempt us from continuing to love them wholeheartedly and compassionately.

The Bible often uses language that can speak to us at different levels. Because our natural instincts are to feel anger at someone who has obviously misbehaved, and who has not responded to our correction, the Bible tells us to "reject" them. In our anger, we see this as a punishment against them, and it may well be. But primarily, God is trying to get us to turn loose of the argumentative spirit within ourselves... a spirit which would only lead to further reprisals and further hate. Separation of some sort is often the most peaceful solution to a nasty situation, at least in the short run.

Paul combines his understanding of this natural desire for revenge with a call to a higher spiritual plane, by telling us that we figuratively will pour coals of fire on the heads of our enemies if we will respond to their hate in love. Love is the ultimate strategy. However, while our hearts are still inclined toward revenge, our "love" is quite likely to come out in some very unloving ways, and when this happens, we will not achieve the end which God wants.

In the movie "The Apostle", a preacher makes a show of giving $100 to his enemy, in front of the entire congregation, and then he hugs the man. He leaves the platform convinced that he has shown up the man by his action. However, the hate still burns in his heart, and he eventually kills the man he pretended to love in his public demonstration. Similarly, if our concern is more with "pouring hot coals" than with loving, it is definitely going to affect whatever love we pretend to express, and people will quickly recognise its inferior quality.

The "coals of fire" phrase, however, is another attempt to appeal to the baser side of us in an effort to get us to do something quite contrary to the animal instincts that are so strong when we have been wronged. Even the preacher in the above movie was able to restrain himself from killing his enemy for a little while longer just by going through the motions of love. It was only when he stopped trying to "act" in a loving manner that his hatred totally consumed him.

Someone has said that all it takes to have faith is to "act" like you have it, and soon it will be genuine. The same could be said of love. Just acting like we love someone could be the first step that would eventually grow into genuine love. It has also been said that if we wear any mask long enough, it will become our true face. So masks are not necessarily evil. If they are positive masks, and if we want them to become a real part of us, they can become just that.

The ultimate goal is to truly, wholehearted-ly, and sincerely love those who have hurt us. We may make a feeble start by pretending to love someone, but we should understand that a deeper love will not come until we forget about pouring coals of fire on them, or destroying their flesh, or rejecting them, or anything else of such a negative nature. It will come when we truly want them to be happy, successful, and blessed by God.

When Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," he was not trying to embarrass or condemn the people who had killed him. He really did want God to forgive them, and he really did want to believe that they did not know what they were doing (although a good case could be argued that the people did know what they were doing).

There are very few of us who could honestly feel that way toward someone who had so deeply hurt us. But it is possible to be a lot more Christ-like in our love than what most of us have achieved. We just need to be willing to take little steps in that direction.

We've all been in arguments, where someone has said something to hurt or insult us. Most of us have known the experience of thinking of something later that we could have said at the time to really put the other person in his or her place. Some of us are good enough with words that we can come up with such "inspired" retorts on the spot. We tell ourselves that these rebukes are for the good of the person being criticised. But are such reactions really coming from a heart of love? Is it really God's Spirit that inspires us to cut our enemies down with such sharp words?

Even when we succeed in saying something that sounds loving, if it is said for the purpose of embarrassing or humiliating our enemy, then the motivation is still wrong. In fact, this may have been Paul's chief concern when he told Titus to "reject" the person he was arguing with. In other words, "Shut up." Turn around and walk away. If you can't say something nice, don't say anything. Forget about changing them, and get your own spirit right.

If your opponent is not listening to you, does it really matter that you have some absolutely brilliant put-down that you want to deliver? No, it will bring no improvement, and it will most likely worsen the situation.

When we have turned loose of our desire to put the other person down, then we can start getting constructive. It may be that we just have to leave them altogether, reject them, turn them over to the devil. But if our love is strong enough, we may finally find a way to express some Christ-like love, show some genuine humility, offer some olive branch of peace, and even make concessions to ease the burden of guilt on the other person. Are we pouring coals of fire on the person's head when we do this? Hopefully not... at least not in the literal or physical sense. But we may be pouring coals of fire on the anger and hurt that the other person has been feeling. We may be wiping out their hate with the red-hot coals of truly divine love.

The word "flesh" in the Bible is often used to describe our sinfulness. And so it is that true love can cover (or burn up) a multitude of sins if we will give it a chance.

All of this can only happen when we have been able to shut up long enough to overcome the natural instinct to "react", and when we have succeeded in finding some positive way to approach the other person. In the absolute worst cases, it may be impossible to find such an opening. But with practice, we can get better at feeling genuine compassion for those who oppose us, until maybe one day we will even be able to say of those who come to kill us, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

That is what divine love is all about.

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