Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.Romans 12.9-21
One of the best lessons I learned about living the best life I can came from this passage written by Paul, one of Jesus’ posthumous missionary disciples. That is “Bless those who persecute you.”
This is a perfect passage upon which to set our standards. I’d like to explore all of the passage with you. But it is better to take it in by small doses. So I’ll just go with, “Bless those who persecute you.”
In the late 1980s I worked as a cable splicer for General Telephone (GTE). It was no secret that I was gay. Still, it wasn’t advertised so not everyone knew I was at once. Usually cable splicers traveled like nuns or Mormons, that is in pairs. I had been in the department on a particular crew for a while when one of the other men on the crew began harassing me about being gay.
It was done in many ways. Once I was scheduled to work in a manhole in Santa Monica. When I got down into it there was a sexualized slur written about me on the wall. My teammate and I were scheduled to take it over from another pair of crew members that day. You can guess who was on that team.
My regular teammate and I got along well. One day we pulled into the service yard, where we kept the vans we used, after shift, and we were laughing at some stories we were telling each other. My persecutor made some off-color comments about my teammate having such a good time with a gay guy.
The harassment was stressful and made working there uncomfortable. I reported the man’s behavior to our supervisor. My persecutor was required to desist and attend a workplace sexual harassment video. I was angry and thought about my victimization. Somehow, I remembered this line from the passage, “Bless those who persecute you.” Later I recalled that on the cross, Jesus did not forgive his persecutors. Instead he offered a blessing of sorts, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23.34)
I was able to realize that I didn’t have to forgive the guy. And I didn’t want him taking up space in my head without paying rent. Cursing him was off the list. So rather than curse the man, I blessed him. Somewhere along the way I heard that blessings could be more dangerous and effective than curses. So I offered this prayer, “Dear God, I don’t know why he is treating me like this. I would have him stop. Please bless his life so that whatever troubles him ends and his life becomes better so that he will leave me alone.”
In time, I transferred to another department. The department was in the warehouse located adjacent to the administration offices shared restrooms and a breakroom. I went to the restroom one day and there he was washing up at the sink. He turned to me as I entered and offered me an apology that included the information that his life had been in the tubes at the time and he took it out on me. “Things are good now. It was wrong of me to treat you like I did. And I’m sorry.” He said.
I recalled my prayer. I felt vindicated and was happy with myself that I did what was right in the sight of God.
My prayer of blessing also helped me move on and put aside my indignation at being treated poorly. It also kept the man out of my mind. That little blessing gave that man over to God’s care somehow.
My experience is that we can either hold onto grudges or move on. You’ve heard it said that the best revenge is living well. I take my revenge seriously. I’ve never met a grudge keeper that wasn’t miserable. Holding onto grudges stunts our growth. It holds us in the past because it is something dead that haunts our present. Grudges are like dead spirits. They are malignant and create diseases of their own.
Jesus left those who brought him pain, suffering and mortal death behind him. He was already moving on when he gave his last breath to his Father. “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Now I want to return to the lack of forgiveness by Jesus on the cross. It is important to consider that Jesus did not forgive his persecutors that day he was crucified. He did forgive a thief on a nearby cross, but not his persecutors. He handed them over to this father to Forgive. Now, I say this in the hope that you will wonder if what I’m saying is true and look it up yourself. Then I hope you will ask yourself what that means in the grand scope of things.
I’ll talk about this in a later podcast but here’s a clue: Forgiveness is not necessarily an instantaneous manifestation. It is often a long process that requires serious effort by many and has more stages than grief.