The Law of Love
J. R. Miller
There is a great similarity between the discourse in Luke—and that given in Matthew. There are also such marked differences that many writers think they were spoken at different times. It matters not, for our purpose, whether they are the same or a different sermon.
The law of love was taught in the Old Testament. If one met his enemy's ox or donkey going astray—he was to bring it back to him. But here the teaching goes much further, "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." This is not an easy lesson. It is never easy to be a Christian. The easy way does not lead toward heaven. It takes a new birth to make us a Christian at all.
Loving enemies is not a natural affection. People talk about the Sermon on the Mount, as having in it all the gospel they want; but if they try to live it they will find that they need both an atoning Savior and a sanctifying Spirit.
Yet Christ wants us to make these teachings the rule of our life. Of course we cannot love enemies—just as we love our friends. It is a different kind of love that is required. We cannot take them into our confidence, nor can we make them our intimate companions; but we can desire and seek their good. We can restrain all feelings of resentment, and all wishes to return evil for evil. We may have in our heart, kindly thoughts and desires for them—and should even seek opportunities to do them favors and kindnesses. If anyone hates us and seeks to do us harm, instead of repaying him "in his own coin," we may do good for evil, continuing to pour out love and blessing. This and all the other precepts of this lesson find their perfect illustration, in the life of Christ Himself.
The following incident will be helpful in illustrating love for enemies. At the close of the first day of the battle of Fredericksburg, in the American Civil War, hundreds of the Union wounded were left lying on the ground. All night and most of the next day the field was swept by artillery, and no one could venture to the sufferer's relief.
Many who heard the poor soldiers' piteous appeals, felt the pangs of human compassion—but stifled them under dread necessity. But at length one brave fellow behind the stone ramparts where the Southern forces lay, gave way to his sympathy and rose superior to the love of life. He was a sergeant in a South Carolina regiment, and his name was Richard Kirkland. In the afternoon he hurried to General Kershaw's headquarters and, finding the commanding officer, said to him, excitedly:
"General, I can't stand this any longer!"
"What's the matter, sergeant?" asked the general.
"Those poor souls out there have been praying and crying all night and all day, and it's more than I can bear. I ask your permission to go and give them water."
The general hesitated for a moment—but finally said, with emotion: "Kirkland, it is sending you to your death; but I can oppose nothing to such a motive as yours. For the sake of it, I hope God will protect you. Go!"
Furnished with a supply of water, the brave sergeant immediately stepped over the wall and applied himself to his work of Christlike mercy. Wondering eyes looked on as he knelt by the nearest sufferer and, tenderly raising his head, held the cooling cup to his parched lips. Before his first ministry of love was finished, everyone in the Union lines understood the mission of the noble soldier in gray, and not a man fired a shot.
He stayed there on that terrible field an hour and a half, giving drink to the thirsty and dying, straightening their cramped and mangled limbs, pillowing their heads on their knapsacks, and spreading their army coats and blankets over them—as a mother would cover her own children—and all the while he was so engaged, until his gentle ministry was finished; the fusillade of death was hushed. Hatred forbore its rage—in a tribute of honor, to a deed of pity.
The lesson of love continues, "Bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you." These counsels are intensely practical. In answer to men's cursings, revilings, and insults—we are to return words of peace, kindness, and love. Those who mistreat us—we are to pray for instead of uttering threats against them and imprecations upon them.
We remember how Jesus Himself lived out this law of love. There were many who cursed Him and reviled Him—but He never lost the sweetness of love out of His heart. He never on any occasion returned a word of cursing or anger or even of impatience—in answer to the bitterest revilings of His enemies. "When He was reviled—He did not revile in return; when suffering—He did not threaten, but committed Himself to the One who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23).
That is the example for us. We are to be silent when others speak evil of us or to us; or, if we speak, it is to be the soft answer that turns away wrath. We need not worry ourselves about the deserts of those who treat us unjustly, feeling that we should see to their punishment. We are to leave that to God—who judges righteously and who will take care also that no real harm shall come to us, from the wrongs which others inflict on us, provided we keep ourselves in His love and in an obedient spirit.
The lesson has its ideal exemplification in our Lord's prayer on His cross for His murderers. His only answer to the driving of the nails through His hands and feet was, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do!" (Luke 23:34). That is the way He wants us to answer the cruelties and injuries which others may inflict upon us.
"If someone strikes you on one cheek—turn to him the other also." Christ did not so much give rules for special cases—as principles to govern all conduct. We all think of these words as presenting a very beautiful direction for life, and yet we apt to feel that they cannot be followed literally. Actually turning the other cheek to one who has smitten you in the face, would most likely aggravate the person's anger. We take our Lord's example as the true exposition of His precepts. When He was on His trial, one of the officers standing by struck Him with his hand. Yet Jesus did not literally turn the other cheek to the smiter. Instead He calmly protested against the act, saying, "If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smite you Me?" At the same time He fulfilled the spirit of His own precept—for He did not resist the wrong.
Paul was one of the noblest of Christ's followers, and we have an example in his life. He was smitten on the mouth by the command of the high priest. He did not literally turn the other cheek—but vehemently rebuked him who had committed the outrage. We must therefore look for the true meaning of this teaching—in its spirit, and not in its letter. We must be ready to endure not one—but many injuries from the others. We must be unresisting like our Lord. No wrongs from others—should ever turn our love to hate. Christ's own life was an illustration of this. He was treated wrongfully at every step—but His heart never lost its sweetness, its gentleness, its patience, its desire to bless others and do them good.
"Give to everyone who asks from you." If this rule were to be literally carried out, it would put us at the mercy of every idle, greedy, grasping person. The result of such indiscriminate, unregulated giving—would be only evil. It would do untold harm to those to whom we might thus give—fostering idleness, pauperism, and selfishness!
It is the result of the observation and practical experience of all thoughtful and wise philanthropists, that men should give most sparingly and discriminating to the poor. There are many cases where money or its equivalent is really needed; but ordinarily, giving money only harms the beneficiary. Human sympathy, love, cheer, strength to rise again, encouragement and opportunity to work—such help is far better than that which merely gives temporary aid, while it makes the person not more—but less, able for going on afterward. We are indeed to "give to everyone that asks" us—but the giving must be that which will be a real benefit or blessing—never that which will do harm to a life. We are to give as God gives, generously, freely, lovingly—but always wisely, withholding that which would only hurt.
The second part of the precept, "And if anyone takes what belongs to you—do not demand it back"—must also be read intelligently, in the light of other Scriptures. It is not meant to place Christians at the mercy of robbers and thieves, forbidding all property rights. The whole verse teaches gentleness, generosity, unselfishness, meekness, and the reverse of grasping greed.
"Do unto others—as you would have them do unto you." This Golden Rule sums up the application of the law of love. We thus carry continually in our own conscience, the touchstone by which to decide how we should treat others. We are to ask what we would think they should do to or for us—if our circumstances were reversed.
Yet even here, there must be limitations. We might conceive of ourselves as mean, greedy, selfish, grasping, unjust—and then say that if we were in the place of the other person, or he in ours, we would want a great deal. Clearly it would not be in the spirit of the Lord's teaching, to bring ourselves to such an interpretation of this Golden Rule, thus stripping ourselves of our possessions—only to gratify men's selfish greed. We must apply the rule intelligently, considering what would be right and just and truly helpful. Thus understood and applied—this rule is a wonderful help in shaping our treatment of others. Things which would appear repulsive in others, we must remember, appear no less so—when seen in us by others. Things that look beautiful in our eyes when we see them in others—will look no less beautiful in us to the eyes of others.
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them! And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that! And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full." Anybody ought to be able to love his friends—to do good to those that are good to him—and to lend to those of whom he expects to receive as much in return. Even the coldest and most calculating selfishness can go thus far in loving, doing good, and giving. It requires no regeneration, no mind of Christ, no help of the Holy Spirit—to help one to follow that sort of life creed. The most wicked heathen can do it, and the most common infidel, if not utterly devoid of shrewdness, will need no Sermon on the Mount to inspire and teach him that this is the wisest way to live. His kindness to others—brings kindness to him in return. His giving and lending—put other men under obligation to show him the same favors when he may need them.
But Christians must do more than lost sinners. They are born again, are children of God, have a new heart in them, and are to be like God Himself—loving enemies, doing and lending, hoping for no return.
"Do not judge—and you will not be judged. Do not condemn—and you will not be condemned." We have no right to be censorious, to criticize others, to sit in judgment on their actions, to pronounce sentence on their conduct. Who made us judges of others? Under what law are they answerable to us—for what they do? Besides, we have no wisdom for such judgment of others. We do not know all the circumstances and conditions and motives that enter into human actions. There are often excellent reasons for doing certain things which to us, who do not know these reasons, seem to be unwise, or even wrong.
There are elements of character which to us may appear unlovely because we see them in a certain light—but which, seen from a different point of view, in a different light, are really very lovely. In a certain church there is a stained-glass window which, looked at from one point, gives a blurred and very unsatisfactory representation of a scene in our Lord's life—but which, observed from another point, represents the scene in a very beautiful way. The same difference in perspective, is often observable in men's conduct and character, as seen from different points by different onlookers. Evidently, therefore, we are not qualified for judging, because of the fragmentary nature of our knowledge of the circumstances and conditions of people's lives. Let us learn to be charitable and tolerant, seeking for the good things and the beautiful—rather than the evil and the repulsive!