Are we really expected to offer love in the face of persecution?

tim swan
Are we really expected to offer love in the face of persecution? image

In April 2014 the Islamic militant group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 Christian girls from their high school in northern Nigeria. Almost six years later more than 100 girls are still missing, and another 1000 children have been kidnapped. Christians in the area are being told to leave their homes or be killed, churches are being bombed, Christians are being tortured and martyred.

Christians face horrific persecution in many countries and, to a much smaller extent, there is rising opposition in Australia. How should we respond? Should we stay under the radar at work so that we never face opposition? And should we make sure never to send missionaries to countries where they may be killed for their faith?

In Luke 6, we see Jesus modelling and teaching how to respond to rising opposition. In 6:11 we read that the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders had become Jesus’ enemies and were seeking to destroy him. and Jesus responds with love. 

You might say, “Tim, I find it hard enough to love members of my own family. If I was in Nigeria and someone broke into my home, kidnapped my daughters and burnt down my house I would find it very hard to love them, pray for them and bless them”.

Of course you would. So how is this possible? In Luke 6 verse 39 Jesus told four mini parables on putting this into practice.

Love in practice

1. “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?”

That those blind to loving their enemies can’t lead others. The Pharisees can’t lead on this. The Romans can’t teach you this. But here’s the good news: a disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher (v40). And who’s the teacher? Jesus. The one who did love his enemies. Our trouble is that we too often look on the horizontal. We look around and say, at least I’m more loving than that guy. 

2. So, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye” (v42).

Two things need to happen for us to be fully trained and love our enemies. Take the log from your own eye, then take the speck out of your brother’s eye. The goal is that both you and your brother grow to be more like Jesus your teacher! 

Is there a log in your eye? Will you remove it? Imagine if all Christians were log-free, able to see clearly to help their brothers and sister become fully trained like Jesus.

In the Greek this section says, “take out the log, take out the speck, because no good tree bears bad fruit”. If you’re a good tree, you’ll get rid of the log and bear fruit! You’ll get rid of the log and see clearly. You’ll help others. 

3. “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart” (6:45). Moses said again and again of the law: “Take these words to heart” (Deuteronomy 11:18; 32:46). Psalm 119:11 says of the godly man: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you”.

This is how Jesus’ disciples bear fruit. That’s why you read you Bible and go to church and Bible study each week: to lay up God’s word in your hearts that you might become like Jesus, bear good fruit and so love your enemies. So, treasure up God’s word in your heart. 

4. Build your house on the rock or the sand (vv46-49).

It took me until quite recently to realise this wasn’t about where it’s better to build a house. The lesson is to put God’s word into practice: don’t just hear it, do it! The 12 apostles put Jesus’ words into practice. They loved their enemies, praying for kings and all in authority. They blessed Jews and Gentiles with the message of the kingdom, not shrinking back from calling the world to believe.

The floods and torrents of life came but the house built on the rock stood firm. They became like their teacher. They took the logs from their eyes, treasured up God’s word, produced good fruit, showed themselves Sons of the Most High – and great is their reward in heaven. Through their witness, God gathered multitudes into the kingdom to glorify him.

The “M” word

The apostles didn’t shy away from going to hostile cities or speaking the gospel to enemies of the cross, and all were martyred except John. Should they have pulled back from preaching under opposition? Was persecution and martyrdom a defeat? Do we say, “Oh, poor Peter, James, John and Andrew, if only they’d gone back to fishing, they could have had comfortable lives? If only Matthew had stayed working for the Roman tax department?

No. We rejoice that they gave their lives. We rejoice that they loved their enemies, showing what it is to be a son of the Most High. We rejoice that through their love, multitudes were saved.

We rejoice that they loved their enemies

When you read testimonies from the early church, many of them hoped for martyrdom. Yet I don’t think we speak about it much in our circles. The apostle Andrew, for example, preached the gospel in Scythia, Colchis, Greece, Epirus and Achaia – where he was crucified. He welcomed his martyrdom, hung on the cross for three days and continued to proclaim Christ, with the result that many onlookers began to believe in Jesus.

Have we stopped loving our enemies? 

Have we stopped loving our enemies and going to them because we’re now afraid of being uncomfortable for Christ? According to Open Doors, 11 Christians are killed every day for following Christ – including in areas where CMS and Anglican Aid are working. It could be one of us. But is martyrdom now unthinkable for Australian Christians?

How would you feel if your son, daughter or friend went to Afghanistan, loved enemies of the gospel, shared Christ with them, and then was killed? The Bible would take that as a victory. Would you? Would you rather your tombstone read, “Passed away peacefully aged 97”, or “Martyred for proclaiming Christ”? 

I’ve been reading the supremely convicting biography of John Paton, who in the 1880s was a missionary to cannibals living on the islands now known as Vanuatu. Any missionary knew that others before them had been clubbed to death and, literally, eaten. 

Missionaries kept going for the love of the gospel

But missionaries like Paton kept going there for the love of these enemies of the gospel, praying that one day they might know Jesus, be set free from bondage and gathered around the throne of God in heaven. The blood of over 100 missionaries was shed loving Vanuatu. One converted islander recounted, “The danger was very great, but [we saw] that they were willing to die for us”. Now Vanuatu counts itself as 90 per cent Christian. 

When Christians are like Jesus in being willing to die to bring a people the gospel, sooner or later some on the field and in the sending nation start to pay attention. 

I’ve heard sermons on Luke 6 say loving your enemies means loving those who annoy you at work, that annoying brother or sister at home, and actively planning how you can bless them, pray for them and share the gospel with them. That is absolutely true. As a Christian you must do that. But loving your enemies doesn’t stop there. It will include, yes, loving Facebook trolls and responding with the gospel. It will include lovingly engaging with journalists and academics. 

It also includes loving those who are hostile to the gospel like Boko Haram. It means praying and supporting our brothers and sisters in places of persecution. It means praying for Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Afghanistan and North Korea. It may mean going; it may mean giving your life.

If you’re of retirement age, it may mean that instead of going to a retirement village you go and preach the gospel to Boko Haram. If you’re younger, it may mean gathering others to go to a hostile people group with the gospel. For a world to know Jesus, we must show the world how Jesus loved his enemies.

My prayer is that in this context of rising opposition to Christian faith, in Australia and across the world, we might follow Jesus’ example in Luke 6. When his enemies were trying to destroy him, he didn’t shrink back. He raised his voice in prayer, raised up new leaders to send to the ends of the earth, showed and taught the glory of the kingdom of God and taught his disciples to love their enemies.

So, let’s not leave the log in our eyes and just be hearers, but remove it and help with the speck in our brother’s eye. Let’s store up good in our hearts that we might produce good works.

And from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, from northern Nigeria to North Korea to Sydney’s North Shore, let’s follow Jesus’ words and love our enemies, showing ourselves to be sons of the Most High, heirs of the kingdom of God. 

To the glory of God forever.

The Rev Tim Swan becomes CEO of Anglican Aid in May. This is an edited version of a talk he gave at the CMS Summer School in Katoomba last month.