What does a true Christian look like? When you picture a believer in your head, what do you see? Do you see someone tall? Short? Thin? Not-so-Thin (from those pot-luck dinners)? Do you picture someone with a smile or a frown? Is there a look of superiority or does the person look like they are carrying the weight of the world? What does a Christian look like?
In truth, believers don’t physically appear any different from anyone else. Christians come in all shapes and sizes. What is supposed to set a believer apart from an unbeliever is their heart. A Christian is to have different priorities, goals and values. Christians relate to people differently than the rest of the world.
In this paragraph from Romans 12:14-16 Paul gives us some simple character traits by which we can measure our own lives and give us some focus for how we need to develop in our faith. These are simple things but certainly not easy.
RESTRAINT AND PERSPECTIVE
In the quirky movie “the Princess Bride”, Farm Boy (the hero of the story) is in love with Buttercup. Whenever Buttercup asked Farm Boy for something he always responded the same way, “As you wish.” It is quickly apparent that Farm Boy’s willingness to do whatever Buttercup asks is due to his great love for her. The rest of the movie is set to show to what great lengths Farm Boy is willing to go in order to demonstrate his love for his beloved Buttercup.
This is the way we should react whenever we read a command from the Lord. We know that He loves us, we trust Him, and we love Him. We should respond to any command with the words, “As you wish”. HOWEVER, having told you how we should respond, I have to be honest with you. When I hear the words of Paul, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” My response is not, “As you wish” but “Why?”
I’m sorry if I disappoint you with my obvious lack of spiritual depth but I must be honest. When someone persecutes me I want to strike back, I want to complain, I want to hide. I don’t want to extend a blessing.
The word used here is the same word used for giving thanks at communion and for giving praise to God. It is the word from which we get our word “eulogy”. At a funeral, a eulogy is a time when we get up and remember the positive things a person has done. In a sense we take that time to thank God for this life. This is what we are supposed to do to those who persecute us!!!
Our problem is simple. We believe that if we give a blessing we are basically letting someone get away with their unfair treatment. It feels like we are inviting someone to victimize us again. The natural reaction is to curse those who curse us. In fact we are quick to curse and complain not just in times of persecution but also because of inconvenience or embarrassment. One author writes,
Some studies have indicated that much high blood pressure and other anxiety-related disease is caused not by serious, longterm problems and life-threatening pressures but by persistent attitudes of resentment and hostility that eat at people who habitually react negatively to unpleasant situations and people. [John MacArthur, ROMANS]
This idea of blessing our persecutors goes totally against all of our instincts. But in some respects, that is the point. Love is shown most clearly when it is directed to those who deserve it least. Just as we show the depth of our faith most clearly when we are going through hard times, so we show God’s love at work in us most clearly when we love those who stand against us. We need to see past the actions and focus on the deep spiritual need of the one who hurt us.
The pattern is pretty clear. When Jesus was on the cross he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” When He was approaching Jerusalem, knowing he would be executed Jesus wept for the city. When Stephan was being stoned to death as the first post-resurrection martyr he prayed for his killers. Throughout the centuries the brightest lights in the Christian world have been those who could extend a blessing to their enemies. There are countless stories of people who have forgiven and loved even the person who killed their child. When they show this love they reveal the supernatural work of Jesus in them.
The second characteristic mentioned by Paul is that we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep”. We would call this empathy. It is the idea of “feeling with another”.
You have heard the old saying, “A shared joy is twice a joy, a shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” It’s a succinct way of describing what we need to grasp. A shared sorrow becomes half a sorrow. In the times of sadness and loss we feel all alone. When someone shares our sorrow they lessen our pain. We earlier read the story about Job and his friends. When Job was going through great anguish his friends came and sat with him. They didn’t say anything; they simply shared his pain.
On the surface this is easier said than done. Have you noticed that we always think what is happening in our life is so much more significant or difficult than what is happening to someone else. Have you noticed how often a person comes to visit someone who is sick only to tell them how much worse their situation was?
Last week at our family gathering two of my uncles went back and forth comparing their heart surgeries as if to find out who had the more severe surgery and therefore the bigger right to moan and complain. (I think it came out a draw). We can’t share the sorrow of another until we take the focus off of us.
On the other side of the coin a joy is enhanced when you can share it with others. A great vacation is wonderful but it is even better when you can tell others about it. After we have had a child our joy is increased as we get to show off our baby to other people.
It is difficult to decide which command is the more difficult to apply: the weeping or the rejoicing. Sometimes the pain of another strikes a chord in us. When someone loses a child, for example, we imagine how horrible it would be to lose our own child and we mourn with our friend. It is true that often we don’t know what to say at these times but we can still ache with another.
It is more difficult sometimes to rejoice with someone because at times their blessing feels like a loss to us. It is hard to rejoice with the person who was promoted over us, picked ahead of us, given an award we had hoped to receive or marries the person you have always loved.
Here’s something to keep in mind when it comes to rejoicing with those who rejoice. The opportunity to celebrate a great joy doesn’t come very often. We don’t have many opportunities in life to ride in “a parade”. When that opportunity comes to someone else you can either rain on their parade or you can stand on the sidelines and cheer. It seems to me that only a mean person refuses to let another person enjoy one of their “moments”.
I am convicted by the words of one commentator: to refuse to rejoice with another reveals envy in your own heart. To refuse to weep with another is to reveal a lack of compassion in your heart. Either way, you have a serious problem.
EASY TO GET ALONG WITH
The next command is: “Live in harmony with one another.” I think Dr. Boice states is succinctly,
Christians should be easy to get along with. He is talking about not making sparks or causing turmoil. . . he is saying we should not be like those Christian crusaders who are always looking for a fight or hunting down “Christ’s enemies.” We are to love and win people, not root them out to beat them senseless. [Boice p. 1610]
Do you remember what the chief concern of Jesus was in his final prayer in the garden as recorded in John 17? He prayed that his followers would be one with each other. Jesus knew that the world would draw its conclusions about Him from the way His followers treated each other.
This sounds so simple, yet is so often not the case. Too often Christians come across as those who are harsh, judgmental, and quick to turn their backs on you.
It seems that we are prone to forget some very simple facts of life.
Conflict is a part of life. We will get on each other’s nerves (some more quickly than others). We will at times view things differently. The test of Christian character is how we choose to respond. We can respond with grace or hostility.
We are not always right. This is going to be a revelation to some of you but it is true nonetheless. EVERYONE has something to teach us. Being of the same mind requires that we be open to new understanding.
We are not all in the same place spiritually. One of us may be passionate about a theological issue while another is convicted about a social issue. One person may have great experiences but another may have a great ability to hear the whispers of God’s Spirit. Some are applauded by the masses while others are being used by God to change people’s lives in the shadows. Being different is not a matter of being better than or worse than another. . . it is just different.
The Christian life is not a competition; it is a relationship. Sometimes when we talk about rewards in Heaven we make it sound like we are in competition to see who gets to sit closest to the throne of God’s grace. We are missing the point! It is not a question of where we sit, stand or kneel in relationship to the throne of Heaven. What matters is who is on the throne!
When we stop trying to rank each other and compete with each other it becomes a great deal easier to help each other to grow in grace and truth.
The last part of verse 16 all seems to be focused on the same thing: “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” Paul is telling us that a believer should be humble.
True humility requires that we eliminate the social and economic barriers we are so quick to erect in our lives. We must come to see all people as loved by God regardless of their social standing, income level, nationality or gender. Our job is to see PEOPLE rather than labels. Social barriers come because of our pride and conceit. Somehow we have drawn the conclusion that we are better than another person because we have more stuff or have been blessed in different ways.
The Bible clearly teaches us that humility is to be the mindset of the believer. We are told that Jesus “humbled himself and took the form of a servant”. It was our Lord who washed the feet of His disciples. Several times Jesus told us “he who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt. 23:12 and other places).
Commentator William Barclay gives two great illustrations,
When poet Thomas Hardy was so famous that any newspaper would gladly have paid enormous sums for his work, he would submit a poem always with a stamped and addressed envelope for the return of his manuscript should it be rejected. Even in his greatness he was humble enough to think that his work might be turned down.
There are many stories and legends of the humility of a man named Principal Cairns. He would never enter a room first. He always said, “You first, I follow.” Once, as he came on to a platform, there was a great burst of applause in welcome. He stood aside and let the man after him come first and began himself to applaud. He never dreamed that the applause could possibly be for him; he thought it must be for the other man. [Barclay DSB, Luke)
The world longs for people with this kind of humility. Again, William Barclay helps us by giving us two ways of maintaining humility.
(i) We must realize the facts. How ever much we know, we still know very little compared with the sum total of knowledge. However much we have achieved, we still have achieved very little in the end. However important we may believe ourselves to be, when death removes us or when we retire from our position, life and work will go on just the same.
(ii) We must constantly compare ourselves with the perfect. It is when we see or hear the expert that we realize how poor our own performance is. Many a man has decided to burn his clubs after a day at golf’s Open Championship. Many a man has decided never to appear in public again after hearing a master musician perform. Many a preacher has been humbled almost to despair when he has heard a real saint of God speak. And if we set our lives beside the life of the Lord of all good life, if we see our unworthiness in comparison with the radiance of his stainless purity, pride will die and self-satisfaction will be shriveled up. (ibid)
The humble person appreciates others, is willing to learn from others, builds bridges rather than walls, and is often used most greatly by the Lord.
So, what do we do now? Surprising as it may seem, some may need to apply these principles to your relationship with God first. Maybe you feel God has let you down and is somehow against you. We must begin by blessing the Lord because His wisdom in allowing hard times in our lives is superior to our own wisdom and understanding. We bless Him because He gives us the strength and courage we need to endure the tough times of life. Our faith and love shine most brightly when we can meet even the difficult times of life with a faith that will not waver and continues to trust God.
May I ask a question? Do people recognize you as a believer? Do they see any difference in you? Do you need to change your attitude toward a difficult situation? Is it time for you to choose to respond to someone or something in love rather than hate. Is there a circumstance where you need to bless rather than curse?
Do you make a habit of raining on other people’s parades? Make it a point to celebrate the parades of those around you. It will increase the joy of those around you and it will enrich your life. And if you cheer at the parades of those around you, they may just be there to cheer with you when the parade comes to your life.
Perhaps you need to stop worrying about having the right words to say to those in pain. If your friend or neighbor is hurting sit with them in silence. Share their pain. Your friends don’t need words . . . they just need someone to help carry the burden and the sorrow.
Are you easy to get along with or do you have a critical and contentious Spirit? Are you building bridges or walls? Are you administering healing or are you causing hurt? A healthy dose of humility may be just what you need. Learn to appreciate the gifts of those around you. Strive to be teachable. Work to compare yourself to God’s standards.
I hope you notice something about these character traits. Do you see how “counter-cultural” these things are? When you respond with blessing rather than cursing, when you weep and rejoice with others, when you work to build unity rather than foster division and when you relate to others with humility, some people are going to call you weak. Some will say you are soft. Some may laugh and others will try to take advantage of you.
Jesus never said that living as a disciple would be easy or popular. In fact, He went to great lengths to warn us that such would not be the case. Our challenge is to train our hearts to pursue that which is good, pleasing, and holy, knowing that these are also the things which are satisfying, life-changing, and eternally significant. It’s a big job, so we had better stop talking about it and get to work.