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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why Christianity Is So Difficult

There is one aspect to Christianity that sets it apart from all other religions, and requires more of us than most people can give, and it is this: You must forgive your enemies, love, and pray for those who have wronged you; just as Jesus did:

Luke 23:34 : "And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide up his garments."


Matthew 5:44: "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."


This love and forgiveness requirement is not present in other religions. There's no requirement in Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam to love any person. Love is seen as a good thing in most religions, but within boundaries. Loving one's enemies is counter-intuitive, and flies in the face of self-preservation, which is hard-wired into our brains.  All forms of living things will struggle to defend and preserve their lives. So how is it that the Christian God, presumed to be the same God worshiped by Jews and Muslims, came to make this a requirement? 


It is proof that Christ was the Messiah, the secret of His power and uniqueness, a quality of God we never saw until Jesus came, and the main reason why his life has inspired people for two-thousand years. Luke 6:32 to 42 explains in Jesus's words:


Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you."

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye."

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis suggests how we can make a good start: “Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor [or enemy]; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.”

Looked at the right way it makes perfect sense to forgive an enemy, because we often don't know who our enemies really are. Benjamin Franklin - a genuine Christian at heart, though not churchgoing - was very generous in his assessment, saying, "Our enemies are our friends, for they show us our faults." Someone we like or love may criticize us, and it hurts. But if they're right, and we correct our fault, they have given us a gift. How many times have we ignored the advice of friends, thinking they were ignorant or self-serving, and lived to regret it?  Flatterers can be our worst enemies, ingratiating themselves and gaining our trust only to betray us later, as Iago did in Skakespeare's Othello. Iago provokes Othello to murder his innocent and loving wife Desdemona.


What about those who really do gravely harm us? Some crimes will haunt us forever; the murder of a child or spouse; the theft of life savings, and so on. We must come to terms with these, somehow, and holding onto grievances can eat us up inside. Forgiveness - to some extent - will keep us sane.


It seems superhuman to be able to do this, and it is. But we can be superhuman if we choose. It is very hard, and here's why: Grievances are a powerful tool and a weapon. You can extract favors and money; you can make people feel very guilty, and even ruin their lives by holding onto grievances and bludgeoning them. Many people don't want to surrender this power. 


That's the whole point. Sacrifice. It's the ultimate litmus test of character; selflessness, and generosity. It's also the secret to escaping this world and the sentence of death we're all living under. 


The Martyr's Path


Here's another reason Christianity is difficult: Although it's rarely discussed, there are at least two different paths faithful Christians can follow in their lives. Jesus and his disciples chose the path of martyrdom, and expected to be persecuted and killed for their faith. The greatest rewards in heaven are promised to those who can. But by no means are all people required to give up their lives and everything they own. We mustn't beat ourselves up or feel like failures if we can't make the ultimate sacrifice. Few people can.


Even Pope Francis has refused the martyrs path; as have all previous Popes. One might think - considering he's seen by Catholics as a "Vicar of Christ", the closest person to God on earth - that he would gather up some of his bishops and cardinals and make a pilgrimage to Iraq or Lebanon. Imagine how powerful a statement of faith it would be if he went to a mosque in any holy city of Islam and challenged the High Imams to a debate, as Jesus did at Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Of course they would have him crucified, but he would receive the highest honor a Christian can achieve in this world. It would be transformational event in world history, and a proof of faith.


The fact that the Pope won't do this proves something unspoken. No nation or state would survive by granting such forgiveness. If we take Christ's admonition literally - as in Matthew 18:22, "I tell you, you must forgive... seventy times seven" - we must disband our police forces, release all prisoners from jails, and dissolve our military. Not only would our nation be overwhelmed by criminals and invaders, but our families and future generations would be destroyed. Still, we would be obligated to love the invaders and destroyers, and pray for them. This is too much to ask of mortal men and women. The few who could do this are saints. You know who they are, and how rare a quality that is. 


We all must follow our hearts in this decision. If our hearts say we must be a martyr, we must be one. If it wants to be a soldier, banker, or politician, we should should do that instead. "Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be." (Luke 12:34). Success and satisfaction in life depends on commitment, and only heartfelt work endures. Know yourself.