I was a paperboy when I was a teenager. I worked out of a newsagent’s shop in Southminster, Essex. I was the relief boy, so I had to know everyone else’s paper route; if someone called in sick, it was my job to deliver their papers. Otherwise, I helped Ian, my boss, in the store.
One day when I went to work I discovered that there had been an IRA bombing in London the night before; several people had been killed, and the newspapers were all full of it. Ian looked at me and said, “I’m glad I’m not a Christian, because you Christians are supposed to love everyone, and there’s no way I could love anyone who could do a thing like that”.
At the time I couldn’t think of an answer, but I know how I would answer now. I’d say, “I agree with you – if love is a feeling; there’s no way I could sit around and work up a good feeling for terrorists. But in the Bible, love is an action word, not a feeling word. Jesus didn’t wash his disciples’ feet because he loved them (feeling); he washed their feet as a way of loving them (action). And if one of those terrorists was thirsty, I could make them a cup of tea. I might not enjoy it, but I could do it”.
That’s what it means to love our enemies. Love is an action word. So is forgiveness. Many people say, “You don’t know how badly he hurt me; I can never forgive him”. Once again, they’re talking about their feelings; they’re saying “I can’t make the hurt go away”. But forgiveness is not about changing the way we feel; it’s about changing the way we act. It’s about voluntarily giving up the right to exact revenge. “I will not vent my rage on you by trying to hurt you back. Instead, I will find a good thing I can do for you, and do it. Today, tomorrow, and the next day – for as long as it takes”.
Listen to Paul:
‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay”, says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head”.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:17a, 19-21, NIV 2011).
Paul’s definition of love and forgiveness is boringly prosaic: give them a plate of food and a cup of tea. Worry about the feeling later. Do what God has told you to do (the action) and leave the feeling in God’s hands. Healing is his business; faith, expressing itself in obedience, is ours.