Here’s where the story gets really interesting—for me, at least. As this Christian was being carried away to safety, he made an unexpected request: to be put down so he could address the group that had just tried to take his life. With permission from the government officials, this battered individual turned to the mob and began to share his testimony. What amazes me most is how he started his address: “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.”
“Brethren and fathers.” Not exactly the words you would be tempted to use when talking to people who just tried to maul you, but that’s what this man did.
You’re probably familiar with the missionary: the Apostle Paul. This particular story can be found in Acts 22. I’ve read about this incident before, but not until recently did the beginning of Paul’s speech stand out so strongly. As commentator John Gill says, Paul’s language “shows how ready…[he] was to put up with affronts, and to forgive injuries done him.” How could he do such a thing?
We’re not given an explicit answer, but I believe part of the reason was Paul’s awareness of his own depravity. This mob’s violence may have reminded him of his previous persecution of the church. In fact, his speech to them seems to indicate as much (see vv. 3-5). Such an awareness would have helped him to look on the Jewish mob, not with anger and superiority, but with empathy.
Do we have that awareness? If we don’t love others as we should, maybe part of our problem is that we haven’t owned up to the fact that we once hated God ourselves.
I didn’t always see myself that way. For much of my Christian life, I thought I was a decent person before my conversion. In my mind, God didn’t have to do much to make me a citizen of Heaven; I was camped out near its gates to begin with. I didn’t realize that we are all “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Before being born again, we were wallowing in the deadness of our sinful lives, enemies of God and His glory.
We may say we’re aware of how bad we were before our conversion. We may give assent to our sinful and helpless state apart from Christ’s intervention in our lives. But if we don’t love others well, it shows that our awareness isn’t strong enough. In contrast, Paul’s awareness was strong—and it kept him from considering himself superior to people of other faiths. [In a similar situation, Stephen referred to the Jews who eventually stoned him to death as “brethren and fathers” (Acts 7:2) long before he rebuked them for their stiff necks (v. 51).]
There currently isn’t much life-threatening persecution in the West. Such a time may come. And if push comes to shove, would we be able to demonstrate that same kind of shameless, undaunted love? Humanly speaking, the prospects don’t look too likely—not when we can’t even engage political or religious differences with cordial disagreement.
I don’t have the ultimate playlist for how we can cultivate a love that seems almost indifferent to hatred. What I do know is that it must ultimately come back to this: we can only love those who hate us because the One we most hated loved us first (1 Jn. 4:10). We can love our enemies because God turned a gracious hand toward His enemies—us (Col. 1:2). We can demonstrate unconditional love because He demonstrated that kind of love toward us. We do love, and we can grow in love, because He first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19).