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When someone wrongs us a struggle is unleashed within us to see whether we will be overcome by it so that we respond in kind, or whether we will overcome the desire for payback and choose love. This is what we’re talking about this morning.

According to the world there’s really only one way to respond – we should strike back; we should harm our enemies in return. Now God put a limit on this when Moses taught in the Old Testament, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-2, Deuteronomy 19:19-21 in contrast to Genesis 4:23-24) That is, the payback has to be in proportion to the injury suffered. But still there is in our world an endless cycle of people harming each other through personal vengeance, the justice system and warfare.

But Jesus shows us another way; the way of love. For when Jesus’ enemies sought to kill him he endured the harm and suffering of the cross and returned good for evil. And in doing so he shows us how to overcome evil with good. He wasn’t overcome so that he did harm back to his enemies. He overcame through the power of love.

Paul speaks of this in –

Romans 12:19-21

And I want us to look more closely at this passage today.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

First we look at the negative side of this –

Being overcome by evil

This comes from the phrase in v. 21 – “do not be overcome by evil.”

This is how it works. Someone harms you. This can happen on a small scale, for instance, someone insults you. Or it can be something truly terrible – for instance, someone kills a loved one of yours.

How will we respond? It’s natural to be angry and to want justice; in fact, we usually want more than “an eye for and eye;” we want to give back much more harm than we got. Evil is very powerful. Once we fall victim to it, it gets into our system and tries to replicate itself through our anger so that we start doing evil as well; so that we start harming people.

The question is, ‘What will we do with our anger?’ 1. Usually we give in to our anger to one degree or another; our desire for justice. And when we do this 2. we return harm for harm. In various ways through our words and our deeds we seek to hurt and destroy our enemy.

How to overcome evil with good 1

The result is that you are now harming another person, just as your enemy harmed you. You are doing the same thing. You have been overcome. You are now caught up in the cycle of evil for evil; harm for harm just responding to others based on how they’ve treated you.

But harm for harm never truly satisfies, even, for instance, if someone kills your family member and the criminal is executed. It doesn’t restore what was taken away from us. It doesn’t give us peace.

You may even the balances and that might feel good on a certain level, but you will never overcome the evil done to you with more harm. So we should set this response aside. As Paul says in Romans 12:17 – “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” or as it is better translated “harm for harm,” referring as it does to the teaching of “an eye for an eye.”

Let’s look now at the other side of this –

How to overcome evil with good

Paul tells us to do this in v. 21 – “overcome evil with good.” There are three steps in this process. When an enemy injures us:

1. Endure the harm without giving it back. Paul says in v. 19 – “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.”

Now, there’s a lot that we can do, within the limits of loving our enemies. That is to say, this doesn’t mean be passive and just take it. We can stand up for ourselves and for what is right. We can point out wrong. We can use force to stop an evildoer from what they’re trying to accomplish. There are redemptive things we can do in relation to our enemy. But fundamentally the point here is that we should not return evil for evil, harm for harm.

So let’s say someone breaks into my house and wants to hurt my family. If I could, I would stop them, let’s say disarm them. They have a bat and hit me hard, but I eventually take it away. What I can’t do is then take the bat and beat them. And I certainly can’t kill them because Jesus calls us to love our enemies, not destroy them.

2. Look to God for your justice. v. 19 goes on to say, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

It’s normal to have anger when someone harms you. This is due to our sense that an injustice has happened. This is how God made us. We are not to deny this or try to suppress it. And indeed God gives us the capacity for anger to stir us up to act to make things right.

Anger is not wrong. It’s what you do with your anger that’s the issue. Paul teaches us that we are to place our angry desire for payback in God’s hands. This is the key to overcoming evil and breaking out of the cycle of evil for evil; harm for harm – giving the agenda of justice or payback over to God.

He can fight for us and judge our enemies according to his will. This is what God says he will do, “I will repay.” Not, “you will repay,” but “I will repay, says the Lord.” So when we suffer harm from an enemy, pray something like this, “God I have been wronged. Take note of this and act for me in a way that is pleasing to you. I give it into your hands and trust you with it.”

It’s our trust in God that sets us free. We know that God can handle it. It might not happen right away; it might not happen until the final day, but all wrongs will be righted by God. We can trust God to take care of us.

3. Love and do good to your enemies.  Once we’ve placed the agenda of payback into God’s hands this frees us up to love our enemies and do good to them. We can focus on mercy, since we know that God will take care of issues of justice.

Paul says in v. 20 – “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Rather than harming our enemies we return good for evil.

How to overcome evil with good 2

This is counter-intuitive. It goes against what our flesh desires, for sure. But we can only overcome evil by returning good for harm; by choosing mercy and love. This releases us from being captive to the cycle of anger, hatred bitterness and harm for harm. The circuit is broken. We’re set free! Our trust in God sets us free.

Now we hope that such acts of love will lead our enemy to repent, and we should pray for this. But if not, we know that God is more than able to deal with them. Such judgment is described in v. 20 as “burning coals” coming down on their heads. 

Let me end by pointing out that Jesus modeled for us these three steps of overcoming evil with good when he died on –

 The cross

When his enemies conspired against him:

1. He endured the harm without giving it backAs 1 Peter 2:23 says, on the cross, “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten.”

2. He looked to God for vindication. 1 Peter 2:23 tells us that while he suffered, he “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” He gave the agenda of payback and justice into God’s hands.

3. He continued to love his enemies doing good to them. As Luke 23:34 tells us, while he was on the cross, he prayed for his enemies, for mercy and forgiveness. While they were busy murdering him, he was dying for their sins.

Jesus models for us how to overcome evil with good on the cross. As Peter says Jesus left us an example, “so that (we) should follow in his steps” – 1 Peter 2:21.

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I want to share with you on the topic of Christian love – how we are to love our neighbors, our fellow church members, our spouses, our kids, our parents, our co-workers – and whatever other relationships you want to add in here, even our enemies.

I want to talk about what Christian love is, what it looks like, some of the core components of it and how it’s different than what the world calls love.

Let me set the stage for looking at what Christian love is, by making the point that –

Love is the most important thing of all

Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 13. Here he says that:

  • You can exercise spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues, but if you don’t have love for others, you’re just a “clanging cymbal” – v. 1.
  • You can be prophetic and have all knowledge, but if you don’t have love for others, Paul says, you are “nothing” – v. 2.
  • You can work amazing miracles, but if you don’t have love for others, you are “nothing” – v. 2.
  • You can even sacrifice greatly giving away wealth or dying for a cause, but if you don’t have love for others in this, you “gain nothing” – v. 3.

We can add any number of other examples: what you accomplish with your career, your life achievements, your reputation, your wealth, your relationships with your family and friends, your volunteer work, the roles you have filled in church. The point is the same: without love, you are nothing.

Paul is saying in this passage that these other things are partial and will pass away in the age to come. But “love never ends” – v. 8. It goes on into eternity.

So, for instance, if I come to God on the final day saying, “look at all the knowledge I have!” God could say to me, “the least in the eternal kingdom knows a thousand times more than you.” It’s like I’m boastfully bringing a brick of gold to a kingdom that has so much gold that it uses it to pave its streets.  

Love is what is all important in God’s kingdom. Love for God for sure, and our topic here – love for others. So here’s some questions to consider: Have you loved others with your life? Have you made loving others the focus of your life? Have you shaped everything you do in life toward the end of loving others?

Now, since love is the most important thing of all, it’s extremely important to ask and then answer the question –

What is Christian love?

1. Love requires actions. Love begins within; in our hearts. But it must come to fruition in deeds of love. 1 John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Good thoughts or good words aren’t enough. When there is a need and you can help, to love “in truth,” as John says, is to act.

The example from this context is helping someone who lacks basic material needs. 1 John 3:16 says, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his sister or brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” It’s not enough to say good things, “Oh, you don’t have food and clothing?” “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (James 2:16). Love requires action.

2. Love acts for the well-being of others. We are to “do good” to all, even if they do us harm, as Jesus teaches in Luke 6:27 and Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 5:15. Let’s look at some specifics:

  • God loves us in that he feeds us, giving rain and sunshine to all so that our crops grow – Matthew 5:45
  • God loves us in that he gave his only Son to die for our salvation – John 3:16; Romans 5:8
  • Jesus teaches us to pray for, bless others, even if they mistreat us – Luke 6:28
  • Jesus healed the ear of the one who arrested him – Luke 22:50; and he prayed for those who crucified him – Luke 23:34

These are all good actions, aimed at doing what is best for another.

Now, If love truly means doing what is best for another then we can’t just go around being nice. We can’t reduce love to being nice. Being nice and keeping up good social etiquette is often more about staying out of people’s problems and needs. For example quickly giving money to a homeless person, hoping they go away. Or not saying anything to a fellow believer who is involved in sin, lest you make waves.

We keep up social etiquette so that we can feel good about ourselves, but we get ourselves off the hook of actually having to love them. Love, however, means doing what is best for the person. And so sometimes love has to be tough and deal with issues, precisely because this is what is in the best interests of the person.

Also, if love means doing what is best for another we can’t just join in with doing harm for harm. You may have the right to do this legally or it may be the just thing to do. But we have a higher standard to live by. We always have to consider what is best also for the other person. This must control our actions, not an eye for an eye, even with evil people.

The only way we can do something that harms someone, is for it to be redemptive harm; something that doesn’t destroy them, but something that does them good in the long run.

[Nor can I say that it is OK to non-redemptively harm or destroy someone as long as I am not doing it as a personal vendetta, or in anger, or with hatred in my heart. My actions reveal what is in my heart – Luke 6:44-45. If I simply act to harm someone, without regard for what is best for them, my actions reveal (at a minimum) a lack of love for that person in my heart.]

Love acts for the well-being of others.

3. Love is a commitment to act for the well-being of others. This is where our culture is so wrong. Love is not based on feelings. It may involve certain feelings from time to time, but these can waver or even go away for a time.

This is why there is so much divorce today, and you see this especially in celebrity culture, the feeling leaves and so the relationship ends. But Christian love is based on a deep commitment to the other person and their good. It’s a choice that we make. That’s why God can command us to love others. You can’t command a feeling, but you can a choice.

This kind of love is a defining characteristic of God. As God says about himself in Exodus 34:6, the LORD is a God “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . . keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation.” The word here “steadfast love” has to do with unchanging love. It is God’s sustained covenant loyalty to his people. It is based on his commitment to our well-being.

Think of God’s love for his people throughout the centuries, calling us, teaching us, walking with us, bearing with us – his love isn’t based on warm feelings. It is based on this firm commitment to us and for what is best for us. And so as well, Christian love is based on a commitment to act for the good of another.

4. Love involves sacrifice, laying down our lives for others. As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 1 John 3:16 speaks of Jesus’ love in this way, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for” others.

Often the world portrays love as focused on finding personal fulfillment, that is, for yourself. It’s about what you get out of the relationship. But Christian love is about what you give to the one you love, or what you give up for them – serving and sacrificing.

In the world if you’re not feeling fulfilled in the relationship you leave. But Christian love teaches us that true fulfillment only comes when we move past self-centered love and learn to serve and sacrifice for the one we love.

5. Christian loves includes all people. It is always easier to limit our love to a certain subset of people, but Jesus teaches us that all are included.

  • It’s easy to love those who like us, but we are to love those who don’t love us; those who harm us. Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” – Matthew 5:46.
  • It’s easy to love those who are like us, but we are to love those who are different than us – different race, nationality, economic or social status. Jesus said, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:47.

Jesus teaches that our love is to be perfect or “complete,” like the Father’s love is perfect or complete, the word here in Matthew 5:48 can be translated either way. This is a love which is complete because it includes both the “evil and the good” and the “just and the unjust” – Matthew 5:45.

Let me end by saying –

This kind of love only comes from God

It doesn’t come from our flesh, our self-centered existence apart from God. In the flesh we want what is best and easiest for us. Christian love!? What!?

  • Good words and thoughts aren’t enough, I have to something?
  • I can’t just be nice or act according to harm for harm? You know, something less than acting for the well-being of another.
  • It’s not based on feelings? I have to hang in through thick and thin? When I don’t feel like it?
  • It’s not about me? I have to focus on giving, even sacrificing?
  • I can’t limit it to people who like me, or how are like me?

The flesh doesn’t want anything to do with Christian love.

No, this kind of love only comes from God, who is love. As 1 John 4:7 says, “God is love.” And only God can produce this kind of love in our hearts. Christian love is “the fruit of the Spirit” who is at work within us – Galatians 5:22.

William Higgins

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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We have begun unpacking the last set of instructions that Paul gives in 1 Thessalonians 5. And we saw how these various commands are held together by several themes. Last week the theme was relationships with one another in the church – with leaders, with each other and with those who struggle in various ways.

Today, in vs. 14c-15, the theme is relationships with everyone, those within and outside the church. Let’s read our passage together – “Be patient toward all. See that no one repays anyone harm for harm, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” As we will see these verses deal with how to respond when you are wronged.

By way of  background to this let me make two points. First –

They were being persecuted

You remember that Paul had to leave Thessalonica before he wanted to because an angry mob chased him out of town. And even after Paul left, the Thessalonians continued to suffer for their faith.

Paul tells them in the letter:

  • “You received the word in much affliction” – 1:6
  • “You suffered” – 2:14
  • Paul was concerned that “no one be moved by these afflictions” – 3:3 – that is, give up.
  • “For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know” – 3:4

Certainly they suffered rejection by family and friends. Perhaps they were completely cut off, or maybe just looked down on. They would have been rejected by larger society since they no longer worshiped idols, or glorified Rome. So they would have been accused of not being good citizens; traitors; misfits. They would have been insulted. There would have been economic consequences, perhaps the loss of business or a job. They may have been harassed, as we see in Acts 17 – intimidation or perhaps some were wrongfully arrested.

There’s no indication that anyone had been killed at this point, but they were involved in a serious struggle and were being wronged by non-Christians regularly. But also –

Some were wronged by fellow believers

We don’t know all that went on, but two issues are mentioned in the letter. In chapter 4:6 some were wronged through sexual misconduct. And Paul addresses this by instructing them, “that no one transgress and wrong his brother or sister in this matter.” He is most likely concerned over an issue of adultery.

In chapter 4:11-12 some were being taken advantage of. They were giving generously, but those that received it didn’t get busy working but became busybodies.

With this background in place then, we have –

Paul’s instructions

“14cBe patient toward all.” (some translations add “them” connecting it to the previous commands, but this word is not in the original). Patience here means long suffering, which means you can suffer for a long time. It really has to do with the capacity to control one’s anger; being long-tempered vs. short tempered. So the issue here is that when you are wronged, you don’t give in to anger and strike out.

When Paul says be patient with “all,” this would apply to either situation, persecution by unbelievers or wrongs by fellow believers.

15See that no one repays anyone harm for harm . . .” (Some translations have “evil for evil.” But the better translation is “harm for harm” or “wrong for wrong.” The first gives the impression that as long as you don’t do anything that is morally evil to someone, or as long as you are getting back at them legally it is fine. But Paul is concerned here with payback of any kind. It is another way of saying ‘and eye for an eye.’) We know how this works, you do me wrong, and I will do you wrong; you harm me, and I will harm you. This is talking about retaliation or vengeance.

In the Old Testament this was expressed by the phrase ‘an eye for an eye.’ Moses allowed this, although the intention was to limit retaliation. That is, instead of unlimited vengeance, now it had to be a proportionate response, only what is comparable to the wrong done to you. You destroy my eye, I get to destroy yours, not kill you.

In Proverbs we begin to see some qualification of this eye for an eye, harm for harm teaching. “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.’” – Proverbs 24:29 (also 20:22)

It is Jesus, however, who decisively teaches us to set aside all retaliation. He moves things further in the same direction as Moses, but this time from limited retaliation – to no retaliation.

  • In Matthew 5:38-39 he moves beyond ‘an eye for an eye’ (talking about how we should not repay oppression by rebellion)
  • And in Matthew 5:43-44 he teaches us not to respond in kind to our enemies – those who harm us.

And Paul is sharing this teaching of Jesus with the Thessalonians.

He goes on to say, “. . . but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” The message is not just don’t return harm. Congratulations, you’re done. We are to seek to return good for harm.

This is also anticipated in Proverbs, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink . . .” – Proverbs 25:21.

However, once again, it is Jesus who decisively teaches us to return good for harm. Luke 6:27-28 – “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” This counterintuitive logic goes against our anger; our flesh. We want to retaliate and we want to go beyond and eye for an eye. But Jesus says, give love for harm, good for hate, blessings for curses, prayer for mistreatment.

Now let’s step back and look at the passage as a whole and I want to make two points. Let’s read our passage again “Be patient toward all. See that no one repays anyone harm for harm, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”

First, there are three steps in these verses:

1. Keep your anger under control. This is the long suffering part. You can’t do anything else until you do this.

2. Don’t return harm for harm, refrain from this and instead –

3. Seek to do good to them

Second, this teaching has no limitation:

  • All Christians are to live by this teaching: “no one” is to repay harm for harm. There are no exceptions.
  • We are to treat all people this way: Be patient toward “all”; there is to be no harm for harm to “anyone”; we are to do good “to one another and to all.” There are no exceptions.
  • And we are to do this “always” – in all circumstances and at all times. There are no exceptions.

This teaching is found throughout the New Testament

We have already seen this in 1 Thessalonians 5 and also Matthew 5 and Luke 6. Listen to the various ways it is stated elsewhere:

  • Romans 12:14 – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
  • Romans 12:17 – “Repay no one harm for harm, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”
  • Romans 12:19-20 – “Beloved, never avenge yourselves . . . To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink . . .’”
  • Romans 12:21 – “Do not be overcome by evil (so that you fall into the pattern of harm for harm), but overcome evil with good (that is, return good for evil).
  • 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 – Paul says, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.” (NIV)
  • 1 Peter 3:9 – “Do not repay harm with harm, or insult with insult, on the contrary, repay with blessing . . .” (NIV modified)

So this is both distinctive to Christianity, rooted in Jesus’ teaching and is absolutely foundational to how we are to act toward others. And if we ask the question –

Why is this so central to Christianity?

It’s an expression in our lives – our words and actions, of the truth of the gospel. God was long suffering and patient with us when we were his enemies; when we wronged him. God didn’t return harm for harm to us, otherwise we would have been destroyed. Rather God gave us good for evil. He gave his Son to die for us, though we did not deserve it. He has given us love and grace and blessing, in return for our sin and rebellion.

And what we have received from God, is what we are to give to others. Those who receive grace from God must give grace to others (Matthew 18). That’s why we return good for harm, love for hate, blessing for insults.

Let me end by saying –

This is really hard to do . . .

Let’s say someone insults you. It’s hard not to give into anger; to be longsuffering. It’s hard not to payback, even beyond an eye for an eye, much less respond with a blessing. Or if someone tries to hurt someone you love. And you restrain him. Well, this isn’t harm for harm. But once you do this, do you give in to anger and beat him in retaliation? In both of the cases we need grace from God to overcome our anger.

Let’s say someone steals something from you. Well, there’s anger. But then there is also the question of whether or how to use the legal system, which is by and large about an eye for an eye. We ought not use the legal system to return harm for harm for us. But sometimes seeking what is good for your enemy might well include them going through the criminal justice system. It depends on the circumstances . . .. And for our part what our motivation and purpose is. And so it’s difficult to make these kinds of decisions. We need wisdom from God.

Let’s say someone harms our country and there is a war. And let’s say you overcome your anger. Even so, it’s still hard. When everyone is stirred up and waving the flag and saying, let’s get them back, let’s kill our enemies – it’s hard to go against the stream to do what Jesus teaches and models for us. It’s hard to do what Paul teaches us here – to always to good to all. We need courage from God to stay true to Jesus.

Let’s say someone at church breaks a confidence. This person tells a bunch of people your deepest, maybe even most shameful secret. How do you respond? Will you gossip about them? Or, remembering how God has treated you will you find love and grace to respond by returning good for evil?

Perhaps you are in a situation where you have been wronged. I want to pray for you this morning – for God to help you, to give you grace to overcome your anger, wisdom to know how to return good for evil and the courage to do this even when everyone else thinks it is stupid.

William Higgins 

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