But the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion: / my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph. / In their failure they will be put to utter shame, / to lasting, unforgettable confusion..
“If I do not perform my Father’s works, do no believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they tried again to arrest him; but he escaped from their power.
Reading this morning in Jeremiah about the persecution he faced and his desire to see his foes fallen and shamed, I found myself thinking about Jesus’ call to love our enemies. There may be for me no more difficult gospel teaching than Jesus’ summons to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. I find the attitude of Jeremiah in today’s reading much more identifiable. When others hurt me, I also long to see God’s vengeance wreaked upon them.
In today’s gospel from John, we witness Jesus practicing what he preaches. Even though he is unjustly attacked by those around him, he continues to engage with them and to invite them to look again at his works that they might begin to see and believe. When this fails, he then finds a way to “escape from their power.” Then he crosses back across the Jordan and continues to do his work and to discern his way.
Perhaps my own biggest obstacle to behaving as Jesus does in the face of non-acceptance, criticism, and even rejection is my inability to remain on my own path, to stay focused on the Father’s business. The truth is that, more than I realize, I look to others to ratify my direction and even my life. Jesus has a resolution in his life which is still a distant hope for me. Because he desires to do nothing but what he sees his Father doing, he is also concerned with the present moment and what it asks of him. His “self-esteem” lies in doing what he is called to do in obedience. He trusts, even as the call becomes more demanding and more personally costly, that God will never ask of him something that he cannot do. He will always have the capacity to do the work to which God calls him, no matter the opinion or judgment of others.
Our motives, however, are almost always more complex. We want to do that task that is to be done; we want to do our part to serve God’s creative work in the world. Yet, we also want to be accepted, recognized, and praised for it. Most frequently in life we have a need for the confirmation of others, believing that such confirmation is what affirms our being. We seek such confirmation in two ways: directly, that is by being acknowledged and praised by others, and indirectly, that is by comparing ourselves favorably to others, by seeing ourselves as more than they.
Our violence toward our “enemies” comes largely out of our need to be recognized and approved of by them. We not only want to do our work; we also want others to approve of it. When they don’t, our fragile sense of “self” reacts angrily and even violently. Jesus says, “Even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” He hopes, in this case fruitlessly, that by focusing on the good works he does, those around him will see the action and love of God. So often, due to the wounded eros in us, we direct the focus not on the work but on ourselves. We want what is wounded in us to find relief in the acknowledgment and praise of others. When it is missing, we react out of our wounds.
Our need to stand out and even to stand above is also manifest in how we attempt to be bigger by making others smaller. We develop patterns of comparing ourselves more favorably to others as a means of keeping our own self-depreciation at bay. I know that I spend far too much time in life diminishing others in thought and speech. Instead of confronting my own frustrations and dissatisfactions with myself, I ruminate about the faults of others. Instead of using conversation as a means of sharing life more honestly and deeply, I spend too much of it speaking about the problems and failings of others. I do this because I lack the “purity of heart” of Jesus. His focus is always the work God is giving him to do and the direction he is to follow in his life. When he has done all he can and yet his work bears no fruit in those who want to arrest him, he escapes them, crosses the Jordan, and continues his work among those who do come to believe.
In this light Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to shake the dust of those towns that refuse to receive them from their feet (Mark 6:11) takes on deeper meaning. In the spiritual and psychological sense, it is not easy to shake off the dust of disapproval and rejection. At least for me, the specks of dust when others reject or hurt me cling to my mind and heart. It is very hard not to carry with me the pain and resentment of hurt. While our affects are present reactions, our emotions are memories. A present rejection for us stirs from within the emotions associated with our earliest and most profound wounds. The lack of confirmation of our actions in the present becomes for us confused with the deepest lack of affirmation of our own being. To shake the dust of rejection from our feet is possible to the degree that, as Jesus, we know who we are and we know the true source of our life and our worth.
Adrian van Kaam distinguishes significantly between affirmation and confirmation. Affirmation, the deep experience of our own being okay, can come only from within: from God and ourselves. Confirmation is what we receive from others. As long as we mistakenly seek affirmation from others, it will never be possible for us to love our enemies, to shake the dust of rejection from our feet and keep our eyes resolutely on our call and on the work God is giving us to do. To the degree we confuse affirmation and confirmation, we shall live dependent on the reactions of others and live our lives constantly on the edge of depression or anger.
I often think of something I heard in a talk many years ago. The talk was by a Lutheran minister who said that Martin Luther’s great search in life was to come to know a love that loved him in that place where he could not love himself. It is that love which empowers us to be able to love our enemies. From such a place, we don’t need those who hurt us to be brought low in order to know that we are okay, that we are loved. We can just leave them and continue our life and work. Until then, we never escape from our resentment of them.
One of the most debilitating and stifling of human experiences is resentment. It lurks beneath the surface of our consciousness always seeking revenge against those whom we resent. “Let me witness the vengeance you take on them.” For me, one of the greatest beauties of the Hebrew Scriptures is their emotional honesty. In resentment, I very much, as Jeremiah, want to witness the comeuppance of those who have hurt me. Yet, to continue to carry these resentments, to be unable to shake the dust from my feet, is perhaps the greatest obstacle to my living out of my own life and the doing of my own, which is God’s, work. So much energy, in so many ways, is lost in the desire for vengeance (through angry expression and the repression of depression).
It is only by entering the wounds of our own eros that we can begin to actually recognize the love that loves us in that place where we cannot love ourselves. No other person or persons can ever fill that hole. As long as we continue to demand that they do so, Jesus’ call to love the enemy remains only a noble idea. As our Fundamental Principles remind us,
Above all else remember
that your God is forever faithful.
In the words of the prophet He says:
Can a mother forget her infant
or be without tenderness
for the child of her womb?
I will never forget you.
I have branded you
on the palms of my hand.
I don’t know if I can remain friends with her. I’ve thought and thought about it—she’ll never know how much. I gave it one last try. I called her, after a year. But I didn’t like the way the conversation went. The problem is that she is not very enlightened. Or I should say, she is not enlightened enough for me. She is nearly fifty years old and no more enlightened, as far as I can see, than when I first knew her twenty years ago, when we talked mainly about men. I did not mind how unenlightened she was then, maybe because I was not so enlightened myself. I believe I am more enlightened now, and certainly more enlightened than she is, although I know it’s not very enlightened to say that. But I want to say it, so I am willing to postpone being more enlightened myself so that I can still say a thing like that about a friend.
Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbances: Stories, p. 5