“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears in not made perfect in love.”I John 4:16-18
It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life. For the beginning of humility is the beginning of blessedness and the consummation of humility is the perfection of all joy. Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life and the soul. It is the only key to faith, with which the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable. In perfect humility all selfishness disappears and your soul no longer lives for itself or in itself for God: and it is lost and submerged in Him and transformed into Him.
At this point of the spiritual life humility meets the highest exaltation of greatness. It is here that everyone who humbles himself is exalted because, living no longer for himself or on the human level, the spirit is delivered of all the limitations and vicissitudes of creaturehood and contingency, and swims in the attributes of God, Whose power, magnificence, greatness and eternity, through love, through humility, become our own.
If we were incapable of humility we would be incapable of joy, because humility alone can destroy the self-centeredness that makes joy impossible.
For a humble man is not afraid of failure. In fact, he is not afraid of anything, even of himself, since perfect humility implies perfect confidence in the power of God, before Whom no other power has any meaning and for Whom there is no such thing as an obstacle.
Humility is the surest sign of strength.
– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
27“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. 34And 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. 35But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.Luke 6:27-36
Jesus began his sermon by contrasting the poor to the rich, the hungry to the well fed, those who weep to those who laugh and the hated with the revered; he turns everything upside down by teaching that the former are the ones who are blessed, while the latter are warned. The poor, hungry, mourning and hated are more likely to experience God’s kingdom than the latter, who are in danger of being absorbed in their wealth, pleasures, “happiness” and status-seeking.
Jesus’ radically different message is extended as he continues teaching in today’s encounter. We are to love our enemies, bless those who curse us and pray for those who abuse us. Not only that, we are to turn the other cheek to be struck again, give someone our shirt (or whatever a tunic is equivalent to at Nordstrom) after they steal our jacket and pretty much give anyone whatever they demand of us without expecting it to be returned.
God’s love and mercy for us creates the template for our love and mercy towards those around us. This flows from Jesus’ teaching on the two commands that sum up “all the law and the prophets” – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In this teaching, he expands “neighbor” to include those who persecute us, hate us, cheat us or demand things from us that are rightfully ours. Our response is not to be guided by the logic of retaliation or even passivity, but in “do[ing] unto others as you would have them do to you.” What Jesus proposes here contrasts starkly not only to human nature, but with accepted cultural conditioning in categorizing our relationship into friends and enemies and treating both accordingly. This is manifest in direct relationships we have, as well as in business, politics and, sadly at times, the divided church. Countercultural is too weak a word to describe Jesus’ teaching.
As an aside, Sara and I saw a documentary on a guy who ran the Islamic youth movement in Palestine (and whose father is one of the top Hamas leaders), where he discussed how he read the Bible and came upon this specific teaching of Jesus. He ultimately became a believer as he realized Jesus’ teaching is the only solution for all struggle, war and oppression in the world today and that no other religion provided such an answer.
We look around the globe today – Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea the Left Bank to name a few places – and see hells on earth of hatred, death, oppression, fear, torture, threats, brutality, no peace. Try to imagine a world where Jesus’ teaching was adopted by all. That is the kingdom of God – the kingdom of love and peace – Jesus teaches us about, come in its full manifestation.
This kingdom is indeed fully coming at Jesus’ return, but, in the meantime, he works through us to till the soil and to provide a foretaste to the world of what this coming kingdom will be like. In following his example of lavishing unmerited grace on those around us, we participate in bringing people into his kingdom of love and experiencing healing in our own lives.
But this is such a difficult teaching and Jesus goes on to hammer the point harder. We can rationalize that we are loving to those in our inner circle; Jesus says that is a given. The call is much higher and harder here – we are to love those where our natural inclination is to hate or, at best, ignore or write off. How hard to do this, but imagine the inner peace – the salvation now – that we would experience without our minds and hearts corrupted and consumed at times by feelings of hatred, revenge, getting our way and “winning.” This is the perfect love that drives out fear John refers to above.
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Mercy is a key foundation of the kingdom Jesus describes and he teaches on this theme repeatedly. Jesus’ coming persecution, crucifixion, death and resurrection on our behalf to bring us to salvation and new life is the paramount expression of the Father’s limitless mercy.
The Thomas Merton extract develops the linkage to humility and is a key to living out this difficult teaching. If we can begin to develop even the smallest understanding of our utter brokenness and unworthiness of God’s love and sacrifice – and then consider his indescribable mercy towards us – we should be utterly humbled to our knees. The truly humble become so possessed by God’s love and so overwhelmed by joy of his remarkable grace towards them that that their lives become permeated with similar love and grace, seeping out to all they encounter.
We become less preoccupied with personal justice, because we begin to more deeply understand the implications of getting what we really deserve – it ain’t pretty! We become less obsessed with our own rights when we perceive a person is demeaning or hurting us. Such situations begin to serve as a reminder of how much we have offended God, yet he embraces us fully in his forgiveness and love. We become full of gratitude, which engenders obedient love for those around us.
Convict us, Lord, of how our hearts need to change in specific relationships we have and may your Spirit be at work within us, giving us strength to love, bless and pray for those who offend or hurt us. Continue to shape us into instruments of your love and may you be glorified as our lives more and more reflect this call.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters. Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Savior. Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord Almighty – he is the King of glory.”Psalm 24:1-5, 10
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God. Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from old. Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord.”Psalm 25:1, 4-7