Seeking to follow Christ will often lead to being wrongfully criticized and hated. Jesus said to His followers, “I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19). And the Bible says that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). So how are we to respond to hatred, hostility, and persecution when it’s directed at us?
Enduring wrongful hatred is something that God both requires and rewards. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And in Luke 6:22-23 He said, “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”
Christians should avoid unnecessary conflict (Matthew 5:9; Romans 12:18; 14:19), but there will be times when conflict can’t be avoided (Matthew 10:34; 1 Peter 2:19-21; 3:13-17; 4:12-16). Jesus said that His followers would be hated and persecuted (Luke 21:17; John 15:18-21). Merely seeking truth and living by the light exposes darkness in the lives of others and incites hatred (John 15:22). An obedient life forces people in rebellion to face their sinfulness and need of redemption (Isaiah 30:9; John 9:39; Romans 2:8).
The Bible clearly articulates the proper Christian response to hostility. For example, when we are cursed, we are to return a blessing in return (Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14). When we are forced to do something we don’t want to do, we are to go the extra mile (Matthew 5:41). If we “suffer for doing good” we are to “endure it” (1 Peter 2:20). These responses are hard to do, but they demonstrate that something supernatural is motivating us, something that transcends mere human nature (Matthew 5:46-47).1
When we return good for evil, we follow the example of Christ (1 Peter 2:20-23). Our enemies will be taken off guard, even stunned. They expect (and probably desire) an angry response. Our anger would be natural, and would confirm their sense of control. But a gentle response would be unnatural, even incomprehensible.
Jesus offers no guarantee that a humble response will soften our enemy’s heart. Although our enemy might be puzzled, a truly evil person may be angered further. He might renew his attacks with even more tenacity. But there is also a chance that our foe may be disarmed, intrigued, and drawn to faith.
It’s no wonder that the apostle Paul exhorted Christians to:
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my 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” (Romans 12:16-20).
One reason is that we seldom know for sure why we are being hated. It flatters us to believe that it is entirely a matter of being “persecuted for righteousness sake” (Matthew 5:10). But realistically, the good that we do is often mixed with selfishness, jealousy, pride, and self-protection. If we are honest, we realize that there are times when our enemies are rightly putting their finger on something ugly in us, and are angered by our sin.
Still another reason we should be willing to be good to our enemies is that we ourselves have benefited from God’s grace and are indebted to God’s love (Matthew 18:23-35). God offered us mercy, even when we unfairly hated Him. We who have experienced the miracle of God’s unconditional love should be the first to strive for peace, resisting the impulse to condemn (Matthew 5:22; Romans 12:10).
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