Jesus said, “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-44, NASB). For several weeks I have been challenged to consider this particular teaching of Jesus as it is undoubtedly a struggle to embrace this way of living. I believe it is fair to say that to live in such a Christ-like manner is impossible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in His children. But as I step back and consider this call, I am reminded: Jesus stands victorious, having defeated sin and death, He lives! And as His children, no longer are we dead in our sins, but alive in Christ; we too stand victorious. And having been made alive, we are now called and empowered to live lives in pursuit of His kingdom as we proclaim the gospel message to all people as every person that has breath and life has been made in the image of God (Imago Dei) and therefore has intrinsic value and worth. To fail to extend this gospel message of hope and grace to all people, including our enemy, is to not be a child of God.
Allow me to share a very compelling story with you, demonstrating God’s heart for all people to come to repentance and life in Christ Jesus. Kate is a missionary who lived in Afghanistan and shares a memory in her book about a young girl she had learned of who had been kidnapped by an Afghan warlord and given to his soldiers. Though the girl did return home weeks later, she was no longer the same as she had been completely shattered. Kate then writes,
“After our tea and conversation, I walked out into the brilliant sunlight with outrage in my heart. That was the mental state when I flagged down a gray-bearded driver in a beat-up taxi. I believe I despised him before I ever entered his vehicle.
But something within me changed as we bounced down the road, some shift in my own internal attitude. I can’t say how that happened, but I’m sure it didn’t come from me.
By instinct and practice, I engaged the driver in conversation. It was my habit, my effort to ensure that strangers recognized me as human and a guest in their country.
At first, our conversation proceeded normally. “How are you? How is your family? Where are you from?”
The taxi driver asked me who I was and what I was doing in his country. I explained that I was an NGO worker (working for a nongovernmental organization) and told him about some of my projects.
He asked me why I could come to such a horrible place when I could very easily stay in America.
I told him that Afghans were my neighbors and that God calls me to love my neighbors. Despite my words, there was little love in my heart.
Our conversation shifted. When I studied the man’s face in the rearview mirror, I saw something that looked like deep sadness and regret. It occurred to me that he had been mujahedin, a warrior in one of Afghanistan’s many wars. I wondered if he had done some terribly bad thing, something he carried like a desecrated corpse in his arms.
I don’t know how I recognized these things, but I did. Call it a word of knowledge or just a moment of insight, it doesn’t matter. The point is, I saw the man.
At first, I had no compassion – just outrage. Had he been one of the soldiers who had so brutally violated my friend’s young cousin? I wanted to know.
But slowly, I recognized that this gray-bearded driver with his bushy eyebrows and deeply lined face was also a wounded human being. I spoke my question gently, “You were mujahedin, weren’t you?”
The man’s shoulders slumped, but he didn’t meet my eyes in the rearview mirror.
“God can forgive you, you know.” I was surprised at my own words, not because I didn’t believe them, but rather because I didn’t want to share them. The man still didn’t meet my glance. I asked him again. “You were mujahedin, weren’t you?”
He slid down in the front seat.
I watched the sadness spread and deepen across his face.
He shook his head. “No. There are things God cannot forgive.”
I knew the Afghan teachings. If a man kills another man, he must be forgiven by the relatives of the man he killed before Allah can forgive him. If a man rapes a woman, he must be forgiven by her father, her husband, or her son before Allah can wash his guilt away. My horror at the man’s crime spread through my body. I didn’t know of any others sins for which a Muslim man could not find forgiveness in God. And yet, I knew that this man, no matter what his crime, could indeed find forgiveness in God in Christ. I knew that he didn’t have to carry the weight of guilt and shame that so obviously marked him.
This time, I didn’t ask him but simply stated, “You were mujahedin.”
He nodded his assent, still avoiding my gaze in the mirror.
We neared my house so I spoke quickly. “God can forgive you.” I told him about Jesus carrying our sin and punishment on the cross. I explained repentance and confession.
We pulled up at the gate outside of my house. I stepped onto the Afghan street and dropped the fare onto the front seat.
Finally, he met my eyes.
I nodded. “Brother. God can forgive you.”
He looked down at his hands resting on the steering wheel and sighed.
I closed the door and turned away. In that moment, stepping across the refuse-filled culvert that separated my house from the street, I breathed the holy. I knew that something sacred had just happened and that I had been present.
The driver pulled his vehicle away and rumbled down the street. I had no idea how my words would affect him, what he would do with them, what peace he would or would not find. I only knew that that day, in the beat-up old taxi, Christ had touched a man and I had seen it…
Why did God call me to Afghanistan, to such a dangerous place full of so many heartbreaking stories? The answer seemed clear: because God loves the vulnerable of Afghanistan. Because God loves the girl kidnapped by the warlord and passed among soldiers. Because He loves the women who received that girl home again and saw the devastation of what had happened to her. Because God loves the women who shared their tea with me and told me their stories.
That part was easy.
But what about the driver? What about the gray-bearded man with the bushy eyebrows who carried the weight of some hideous guilt like a corpse he could find no place to bury? Does God love him?
And of course, I knew the answer.
Jesus stood before those who welcomed Him, those who studied Him, and those who hated Him. He stood before those who had no idea who He was. He opened His hands to all who were thirsty because He knew that only He could satisfy the depth of our thirst.
And He sat in the taxi with an angry foreign woman and a weary Afghan man. He saw the weight the man bore and had the same compassion He felt as He looked out over Jerusalem and wept. The same compassion He experienced when He stood at a tomb beside an angry sister. The same compassion that articulated its desire in an invitation: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus calls us to dangerous places because He loves people who live in dangerous places. He loves the perpetrators of violence and the victims of violence. He loves the children and the old, the men and the women, the rich and the poor” (italics and bold mine; McCord, 2015, pp. 46-50).[i]
[i] McCord, Kate. (2015) Why God Calls Us to Dangerous Places. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.