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Over the past weeks I have witnessed some intense and heated exchanges between believers in Jesus concerning a conference at Bethlehem Bible College called “Christ at the Checkpoint.” The conference was to highlight the plight of Palestinian believers in Jesus, and to gain support from evangelical Christians for the Palestinian cause. Several Jewish believers in Jesus were invited by conference organizers to present the Israeli and Messianic side of the discussion. That might have been considered a gesture of goodwill, but those who extended invitations as well as those who accepted them found themselves objects of suspicion and heightened ill will between believers whose positions on Israel and Palestine differ.
Israeli and Palestinian believers are both persecuted minorities and should be natural allies despite the real differences on many issues. Unfortunately, the conversations I’ve been hearing won’t do much to promote that kind of mutual support. Though Jesus’ mandate for all His followers is to proactively pursue love and reconciliation, there has been a lot of reaction and hurtful exchanges between the brethren.
This kind of pattern is not peculiar to Israeli and Palestinian believers and those wanting to support one group or the other. Reaction rather than reconciliation occurs throughout the body of Christ over a wide variety of issues. When it comes to relationships, it is always a temptation to be reactive instead of proactive. Proactive people take initiative to determine how they will relate and what they want the relationship to be or accomplish. Reactive people often find their relationships characterized by how they respond to someone else’s actions, attitude or agenda. This is particularly problematic when it comes to adversarial relationships.
Adversarial relationships abound in this world whether or not we choose them—and that is certainly true when you serve in a controversial ministry like Jews for Jesus. The reactions I’ve recently seen have me thinking that I want to be less reactive in my relationships, especially when it comes to adversarial relationships.
It is easy to be reactive in an adversarial relationship, especially if you did not choose to be an adversary. The energy expended in a relationship is often greater on the part of the person who sees you as an adversary and chooses to stand against you. The person with the greater energy and more determined agenda often sets the tone for the relationship. The only way I know to keep from reacting to that sort of adversarial person is to be even more determined to maintain a positive agenda, and that means, at times, not reacting but taking the initiative.
If ever there was an example of taking the initiative to be positive in an adversarial relationship, it is the work of God in Christ. “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).
There is no greater energy than God’s love, which is seen in His inconceivable, unexplainable, proactive pursuit of us. God’s love is a sacrifice for the undeserving which opens the door to a restored relationship with the Father. Only in light of the Messiah’s sacrificial, intentional and transforming love can we understand and define love. God’s love and forgiveness are bound together because He can’t love us unless He forgives us.
The power of love is most evident to those who recognize they do not deserve it. In order to appreciate and appropriate the power of God’s love, we have to face the darkness of our own sin. God’s love for us is meaningful to the degree that we recognize our own failure to love Him. If we honestly contemplate the reality of our sin and what we deserve, we conclude that God would be justified to turn away from us forever. Instead, Messiah’s sacrifice on the cross demonstrates God’s merciful forgiveness, which is amazingly powerful in the face of His absolutely deserved wrath.
We need to renew our deepest gratitude for what Christ has accomplished for us. Paul prayed, “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:17b-19a).
In the Messiah, God models for us the passionate, loving pursuit of the offender by the offended. That love provides the entire framework for all our relationships, first of all to one another and secondly to the world. That love gives us the example, the motive and the power to take the initiative to love and forgive others as we have been loved and forgiven.
The litmus test of God’s grace in our lives is our love for fellow believers. John tells us, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death” (1 John 3:14). This is not works righteousness; we do not become worthy of God by how we love others. In fact, the opposite is true; we show by the way we love others that though we are unworthy, God has accepted us. The extent to which people truly love reflects the degree to which they have experienced the wonder of their own canceled debt. Our gratitude to God for His gracious forgiveness is the foundation upon which our love for others is built.
We can’t love cheaply. Real love is costly. It cost Messiah His life. What does it cost us to love one another? Love makes us vulnerable as it did our Messiah. When we love, often we must put to death our pride and our preferences. And since it is not possible to love from afar, love also requires us to draw close to the ones we love, as did Messiah through His incarnation. It’s tempting to draw away from those people whom we struggle to love, because it’s easier to convince ourselves that we love them as long as that notion is not challenged by the reality of their imposing presence. And, as with our Messiah’s love, we can’t expect to be loved in return, or even to be appreciated for the generosity of our love towards others.
Such love is not an emotion that we can make ourselves feel, but it is a position, a determining attitude that we must to choose to take. We either love in response to what God has done for us in the way He has loved us, or we don’t love at all. We love because He first loved us, not because the other person deserves it. Any other love is bound to die a cold death on the sharp rocks of self-centeredness where our own disappointment and disillusion often results in reactive instead of proactive behavior.
I am convinced that if we genuinely took to heart God’s command to love the brethren, the immensity and intensity of our internal problems would dissipate considerably. The simple explanation for why we do not love better is our own sin and self-righteousness. And frankly, the adversary of all who would love often uses those closest to us—our colleagues and even members of our own believing family—to undermine our commitment to love. The pain of “friendly fire” feeds our anger towards those whom we ought to love, anger that approximates the murder as John here warns: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in Him” (1 John 3:15).
John’s words are shocking and, dear friends, we need to be shocked. Think over your relationships with people you know. Goethe wrote, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” But we are also shaped and fashioned by what we allow ourselves to hate. We bear the mark of Cain and abide in death as long as we are unwilling to let go of that anger, but when we do there is a life transforming power in the power of love, God’s kind of love.
When will feelings of frustration, disappointment, anger–even hatred toward one another–be transformed into the love that Scripture commands? We will change when we are stunned by the reality of our own sin and God’s gracious response to it. If Christ truly were “at the Checkpoint,” then that checkpoint would be a place where love wins. I pray that this will increasingly become the reality among Israeli and Palestinian believers and the rest of the body of Christ.