But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27–28)
Over two decades ago, on an unusually hot July evening in Syracuse, New York, I stood on Pastor Ken Smith’s porch and knocked on the door. I had been doing this for months, dining with my enemies.
I was a lesbian feminist activist English professor at Syracuse University. I thought I was doing research on this odd tribe of people called Christians, people who stood in the way of full civil rights for gay people like me. Ken was the pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. On that July night, Ken opened the door and warmly embraced me and welcomed me inside. Dining with my enemies was a fascinating experience. It made me feel like a bona fide liberal.
I knew I was on enemy territory. But I didn’t believe that I was the enemy. How could I be? I was on the side of social justice, reparations for the disempowered, racial reconciliation, and equitable inclusion for all.
Identifying the Enemy
For years — and before I became a believer and Ken became my pastor — I enjoyed the company of the Smiths’ table fellowship. I sat under Ken’s family devotions and joined in the Psalm singing. And then, at this July dinner, I realized it. I wasn’t the victim dining with my persecutors. I wasn’t at the enemy’s table. I was the enemy.
I thought I was on the right side of history. It was my undoing to finally realize that it was Jesus I was persecuting the whole time. Not some historical figure named Jesus. But King Jesus. The Jesus who was this world’s sovereign King and would become my Lord. My Jesus. My Prophet, Priest, King, Friend, Brother, and Savior. That Jesus.
I don’t like thinking about the fact that I was the enemy who hated, the enemy who cursed, and the enemy who abused. But it’s true. And instead of hating me back, Ken Smith assembled such a wide team of prayer warriors that I likely won’t meet all of the believers who prayed for my salvation until heaven.
From Cursing to Cursed
As soon as the Lord claimed me for himself, I had the opportunity to model what had been given to me: to love, do good, bless, and pray for those who curse me. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Everyone from the lesbian partner I broke up with, to the graduate students in Queer Theory whose Ph.D. dissertations I could no longer supervise, to the LGBTQ+ undergraduate student groups I could no longer support felt the stunning betrayal. I had changed my allegiance. Were their secrets still safe with me? I was disappointing almost everyone I loved because I believed in Jesus — the real Jesus who reveals himself in the Bible. My treachery to my lesbian community was only bearable through my union with Christ.
In such circumstances, union with Christ is the source of a Christian’s love that overcomes hatred: spiritual, unbreakable, irreplaceable, and eternal. It springs from the power of Christ’s resurrection, in which every believer abides. Conflict with others is never pleasant. It is disarming, disillusioning, and depressing. Union with Christ is our active comfort.
More recently (about a year ago), I found myself under attack again, and this time on three different fronts.
A national LGBTQ+ rights group grew angry with me as the 2020 PRIDE Parade was canceled for the first time in fifty years. Christians from a discernment ministry believed that I was too charitable in my evangelism in the LGBTQ community. Self-described gay Christians believed that I was too harsh in my rejection of “gay Christianity.” It was tempting to handle this in the flesh — to wish that all of these people could be locked in the same room and wrestle it out.
But that is not what God calls us to do when we’re under attack. God calls us to love our enemies. This season was spiritually rich with Psalm singing and reflection, repentance, and prayer. As the negative attacks intensified, the words of the great Puritan John Owen started to make sense. Owen considers union with Christ “the cause of all other graces a believer receives” (A Puritan Theology, 485). This is because union with Christ depends first on Christ knowing you.
Known by Christ
The issue for the suffering Christian isn’t first if you know Christ. Rather, the first issue is: does Christ know you? Union with Christ is first about Christ knowing you. Suffering for Christ is a great privilege. It is the privilege of John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Because Jesus knows the believer, we hear him, we follow him, and we suffer with him.
“God’s comfort is power. It’s not meant merely to make us feel better. It’s meant to make us more like Jesus.”
Do you want to know why the church lacks unity? Because we try to build our unity on issues — on where we stand on pressing matters of the day. But unity does not and will never derive from shared loyalty to issues. Christian unity flows from our union with Christ because he alone equips us to die to ourselves.
The comfort we find in Christ is not a passive repose in our favorite recliner. Even in the English language, comfort is an old word hearkening from the Middle Ages and referring to needed moral and physical strengthening. Comfort is active. God gives us comfort because we are too weak to go on, and his comfort enlivens us. God’s comfort is power. It’s not meant merely to make us feel better. It’s meant to make us more like Jesus.
Fellowship of Suffering
The Heidelberg Catechism declares that our “only comfort in life and death” will not be found in any of the values to which I had decades ago committed my life: social justice, reparations for the disempowered, racial reconciliation, and equitable inclusion for all. No. My only comfort in life and death, says the majestic Heidelberg, is
that I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, wherefore by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him. (emphasis added)
What’s the big difference between a believer and an unbeliever? The believer does not belong to himself.
What does the experience of hatred, abuse, slander, and unjust discrimination mean to a believer? It means that, under God’s providence, these painful circumstances are “subservient to my salvation.” The hatred that a believer receives is subservient, which means that it is instrumental; it is a means to an end. And what is that end? To join in the “fellowship of his suffering” (Philippians 3:10 KJV). To grow in sanctification. To become more like Jesus.
Persecution Has a Master
Luke’s words are directed only to believers, to “you who hear.” Someone with a new heart, receptive ears, and bright eyes. We live in a noisy world — podcasts, television, social media, and so on — but Jesus is telling us to hear him.
“Persecution is subservient — it is a means to an end. And that end is your sanctification.”
What an amazing privilege it is to be someone chosen, elected, saved, justified, sanctified, and daily guided by the King of kings and Lord of lords. If nothing else is good in your life except that Jesus has unstopped your ears, you are already more blessed than any persecution or persecutor that comes your way. Persecution is subservient — it is a means to an end. And that end is your sanctification.
In God’s providence, as believers, we will have many opportunities to love, do good, bless, and pray for those who hate us. And as God enlarges our hearts by his Spirit, comforting us through union with Christ and assuring us of his sovereignty, we will not fail to do so.