17th August 2020

First Do No Harm 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 5:43-45 (NIV)

The words in my title are attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, and form part of the oath traditionally taken by medical students about to become physicians. I believe these words are also a good guide for Christians when dealing with someone who offends or hurts them. Let’s not try to fool ourselves—forgiveness is hard, even after a lifetime of being a disciple of Jesus. It is often made harder by a faulty understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the subject. Imagine the following scenario: Someone is mean to us in a very hurtful way. In response to the Gospel admonition, we undertake to forgive them and put thoughts of resentment and revenge out of our minds. We might even try to rebuild our relationship with them and forget the offence. But feelings of hurt and resentment towards the person intrude into our thoughts. We might be alarmed by thoughts of vengeance even though we had prayerfully resolved to forgive them. So we feel guilty. We might feel we are failing in our spiritual conversion. We worry that we are not close to God, or are not whole-heartedly following the lead of his Holy Spirit. These are feelings I can identify with.

However there are some false assumptions behind them. To start with, forgiveness is not having a warm feeling in our hearts for the person we are forgiving. The ‘love’ in Matthew 5:44 can include feeling affection for them, but it doesn’t have to. Anger is a human emotion which is an essential part of our mentality. It is a mistake to be dismayed when we feel it. Resentment is also a natural emotion, and emotions by themselves are morally neutral: neither good nor evil. It is how we act on them that matters spiritually. Also, while restoration of the relationship is desirable, it is not always possible. Sometimes distance is the best way to ensure peace.

The important thing is to avoid wishing for or planning for revenge, which leads me back to my title. The scriptures teach that vengeance is none of our business! “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Also, regardless of the severity of the offence, we can and should pray for good for the offender. That is possible in all circumstances, even when we don’t feel like it. Of course the ultimate forgiveness is to feel affection for someone who has harmed us, and grieve for their spiritual failure in the case. Jesus gave us the example when he wept over Jerusalem even though he knew its people would kill him. But we needn’t be dismayed if that is difficult for us. Jesus was an exceptional person after all—he was God incarnate.

Father, thank you for your forgiveness of our failings. Thank you for your love despite our faltering efforts to overcome our fallen nature. Help us to have the humility to reflect your love even to those who hurt us.

Study by Joe Casey


About the Author:
Joseph Casey is an Elder in the Limerick Congregation of the Grace Communion International.

Local Congregation:
Grace Communion International, Limerick
Please phone for venue

Meeting time:
The first and third Saturday of each month at 1:30pm

Local Congregational Contact:
Joseph Casey
Phone:  +353 872592983
Email: joecasey@shannontechnology.ie

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