Does the world appear increasingly turbulent these days, with our planet on the precipice of collapse? Witness the geopolitical storms raging across the Middle East and building in Europe and Asia, while the United States remains locked in unprecedented partisan gridlock – threatening our long-term viability. Widening economic disparity, burgeoning social injustice, and radical worldviews have sparked protest and fueled hatred across the globe, quickly spreading like some sociological virus. Volatile stock markets, brazen violence and climate change plague our nation domestically, while scarcer resources, government instability and accelerating terrorism threaten the global community.
In such a cauldron of chaos perhaps it’s no surprise so many fear for the future and raise legitimate questions in the face of these escalating troubles. How do we stem the tides of violence, abject poverty, income inequality, hatred, and abuse? What can we do to confront the ideological radicalism flourishing across the globe and spawning a growing number of terrorists outside the Middle East? How can we eradicate the epidemic of exploitation, injustice, and sociopolitical tyranny dominating our educational, governmental, and commercial institutions? Where can we turn for guidance in resolving the problems crippling our country and threatening to destroy it from within and abroad?
For answers, we need look no further than the teachings of Jesus. His iconoclastic message remains as relevant today as it did two thousand years ago and possesses the power to transform societies. The profundity of His message, however, is not imposed at the tip of a spear or the barrel of a gun. Instead, Christians model it by embracing the difficult and revolutionary ideas He taught two millennia ago – which much of the world still considers foolish and weak. But it is a message that has the power to turn the world upside down. Consider three lessons from His ministry.
Love your enemy. Jesus initiated His ministry with an extensive mountaintop sermon in which He commanded His followers: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV). What a remarkable contrast to the message taught by ISIS terrorists, urban gangs, and elements of American pop culture. Those sources demand retaliation against anyone who insults, subverts, humiliates, or disrespects them or their worldview. They insist on exercising swift and severe vengeance on the offending party – harm, kill, or destroy, it doesn’t matter, as long as retribution occurs.
Jesus challenges His disciples to adopt an entirely different posture when cursed, hated, persecuted, or exploited. We are to love, bless, pray, and do good to anyone who treats us so shamefully. Is He serious? Does He really expect us to treat well those who harm us – to bless them, lift them up in prayer, and shower them with love? Yes, that radical response is exactly what He wants from us. For that is where the power of God resides. That power not only transforms us to look more like Him, it ultimately defeats the power of hate, violence, bitterness, and abuse.
How might Jesus’ command affect your behavior today? Instead of cursing and engaging in road rage when a driver cuts you off, smile and wave politely. Instead of harboring resentment and plotting the downfall of a colleague who has taken credit for your work, pray for her success instead. Instead of directing a flurry of snide remarks, engaging in gossip, or holding a grudge against someone who treats you with contempt or intentionally humiliates you in front of others, compliment them publically and identify opportunities to help them. Though it sounds counter-intuitive, real power lies in such acts of love, mercy, and forgiveness.
Serve others. The mother of two of Jesus’ disciples requests her sons be seated at His left and right hands when He ushers in His kingdom. In response, Jesus says: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28, NKJV).
Again, the contrast could not be starker with what the world teaches. Every civilization shares a common set of expectations for great people. They rule over others, they exercise power, and they are served. They are easily identified in every community, industry, and geography. They command respect, demand fidelity, and reprimand the insubordinate. They are politicians, executives, entertainers, professors, the rich and the powerful. The world operates the way it does because these men and women operate the way they do.
Jesus rejects that worldview and institutes a new paradigm for His followers. Those who want greatness must serve others. If you want to be first in His kingdom you need to submit to Him and operate as a slave. As believers a servant’s mentality ought to define our interaction with others (great and small). That may sound crazy. You might consider it a ridiculous and radical view. And indeed it is. But it also represents the expectations Jesus has for those who love Him. Such behavior sends a clear and resounding message to society: The kingdom of God operates on an entirely different set of principles than those employed by the world.
Do you want to be great in God’s eyes? Then identify an opportunity or two (or three) to serve someone every day. Don’t limit your service to friends and loved ones. Serve strangers, the marginalized, the hurting, and the desperate as well. You may find it embarrassing at first because serving others often requires considerable humility, especially when serving the less fortunate, the mentally ill, and those that society deems losers. The more society esteems you the harder this will be. But it is what the Lord expects. It is best to begin making it your practice today.
Die to live. Perhaps the most counter-culture of all Jesus’ teachings it might also be the most powerful. Outlining what it means to follow Him, Jesus declares: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity” (John 12:24-25, NLT). We never really live until we die – not a physical death but a metaphorical death to ourselves. We lay our hopes, dreams, interests, career, and plans at His feet and commit our lives fully to Him – submitting to His call the entirety of our lives. It is in death, Jesus informs us, that we bear spiritual fruit and maximize our impact for His kingdom.
He calls us to sacrifice our lives for others even as He sacrificed His life for us. In our symbolic death we are liberated from the heavy burden of societal and family expectations and are freed from the greed, pride, selfishness, and desires that drive our dreams and influence our choices. Instead, we embrace a spirit of generosity, sacrifice, humility, and service. As we do we become more like Christ and less entangled in the concerns and temptations of this world, allowing us to make a difference in the world.
What are some examples? Consider the following: moving to global hotspots as an ambassador for Christ to shine His light into communities consumed with darkness; switching careers to work with non-profit agencies to address suffering in developing countries; spending vacations serving others on a mission trip; downsizing our lifestyles to funnel more of our income to ministries that share the Good News with others. Those are just a few but there are thousands more.
Many considered Jesus’ teachings radical and revolutionary in His day. Why would any sane person willingly love his or her enemy, serve others, and die to self? Two thousand years later society continues to describe Jesus’ teaching in similar terms because it contrasts so dramatically with the foundational principles of the world. Moreover, the lifestyle He calls us to live exposes the weakness of the world’s ideology that produces so much turmoil, violence, hopelessness, and exploitation.
Let’s show the world a better way, the way of Christ. Let’s demonstrate true greatness by serving others. Let’s respond to hate, violence and mistreatment with love, kindness, and forgiveness, and offer others a glimpse into heaven. And let’s die to self to show the world what Jesus looks like. What better way to honor our Savior?