Speaking to Bless
I was scrolling through Facebook and saw an article about a high-profile pastor who had been caught in sin. What grabbed my attention wasn’t the subject, but the author’s absolute glee at this man’s downfall—and the author was another Christian leader! The disgraced pastor belonged to a faction of Christianity that had been riddled with accusations of abuse and misuse of power, and the author had been so wounded by his experiences in that environment that he saw anyone associated with it as an enemy. So when this pastor’s sin hit the news waves, he wasn’t grieved by the sad news—the column read more like he was happy that the bad things he believed about “people like that” were being vindicated.
Before we clutch our pearls and tsk-tsk about the author’s unchristian behavior, we should do some introspection. Take a moment to think about a politician you really dislike. Now, name three wonderful qualities that person has, or three wonderful things that person has done, without any “buts” or snarkiness.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a hard exercise for me.
Or what about that person in your life who just seems out to get you? The coworker who is constantly undermining you, the teacher who is unfairly singling out your child, or the in-laws who seem intent on reminding you that you aren’t quite up to their standards? How do you respond to them?
It’s easy to talk about loving our enemies when it’s some generic, over-spiritualized enemy far removed from our daily lives. But when we’re faced with someone whose thoughts or actions could have a real negative impact on us, our first inclination isn’t usually to bless them. It’s to lash out in self-defense.
As natural as that reaction feels—natural because it’s immediate and unplanned; it just seems to happen—it is totally contrary to the way of Christ.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 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 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. (romans 12:14–21)
Yikes. This Christianity stuff is hard! It’s like Jesus expects us to pick up our cross and follow him, or something.
Since it doesn’t come naturally to most of us, we need to spend some time thinking about how to live out the New Testament’s instructions about how to treat our enemies. What does it mean to bless them, instead of curse them?
Blessing and cursing aren’t some magical incantations we speak over people—Paul isn’t telling the Romans to put away their pointy hats and quit hexing their enemies! No, I suggest that blessing is wise speech, which promotes God’s purposes in a person’s life and works for the edification of all. Cursing is unwise speech that promotes our own purposes, and hurts those we perceive to be a threat to our purposes.
Coming off the Offensive
Sadly, it’s not only our enemies that we curse. Some of us curse the people we love. Life has made us harsh and cynical, and that hurt can cause us to live our entire lives on offense, believing that to be the best defense against the pain and disappointment we’re sure will come.
A couple years ago, I was interviewing a couple for an article about domestic violence among Christians. The husband had grown up in an abusive home, and as an adult, he became emotionally and verbally abusive with his family as well. Grappling with his behavior, he got the help he needed to change, and now he helps other men who are serious about working through their issues so they don’t hurt others.
One of the things he explained is that when children grow up in an abusive environment, they learn early on to suppress their feelings, especially “weak” emotions like grief or fear. As they grow older, “strong” emotions like rage help them survive. When these children reach adulthood, they are often unable to identify the emotions they suppressed for so long—they can’t tell whether they feel sad, or lonely, or guilty, or disappointed, and what the appropriate response might be. Instead, they’ve been conditioned to respond to any painful emotion with anger, combined with a need to control the situation to keep themselves safe. That makes sense when you’re a nine-year-old-boy dodging your father’s fists, but not when you’re a forty-something man towering over your wife and children.
In this man’s case, he had become exactly what he was trying to protect himself against. It took him years of hard, focused work—addressing his own past and developed patterns to cope—to change.
We all do this to some extent. When we allow our actions to be motivated by the person we are reacting against—by our enemy, instead of the Spirit of God—we wind up becoming what we are trying to protect ourselves against. Someone throws a punch, and we punch back. Someone says something nasty, and we respond in kind. Someone slanders us, and we try to discredit their words by slandering them.
It’s a vicious cycle, and it needs to stop somewhere.
Ending the Cycle
The good news is that the cycle can stop. It was stopped 2,000 years ago, when Jesus took the all the sin, and shame, and brokenness the world could throw at him, and instead of retaliating, absorbed it into himself and dealt with it once and for all. When he cried out “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” (luke 23:34) offering us the blessing of grace instead of the curse we deserved.
As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus’s example. This doesn’t mean that we just roll over and give bullies reign over our lives. God hates injustice, and he wants us to speak out against sin, even sin that is committed against us. But it does mean that whatever happens, we stop allowing our baser instincts to “respond in kind”—eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—refusing to add our own chemicals to the poisoned relationship. When we trust God to vindicate us, just as he vindicated Jesus, we can offer our enemies grace—the other cheek or the extra mile—knowing that they don’t control our future, God does.
To Bless or to Curse?
When we feel threatened, we can respond out of earthly wisdom, which tells us to protect our own interests, or we can ask God to help us respond with the counter-intuitive heavenly wisdom Jesus displayed on the cross. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, and trusting our future to God, we can bless, and not curse.
Study: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes a way of living that is not only in contradiction to the law, it seems to be contradictory to common sense and self-preservation. Read the famous verses in Matthew 5:38-42. What implications do these verses have for our speech?
Reflect: When was the last time you “cursed” instead of blessed? What effect did that have on your relationship with that person? Do you need to ask for forgiveness?
Apply: Find the person you thought of in the previous question and address the situation. Do what needs to be done to repair (if necessary) the relationship.