September 11 always brings back haunting memories of the day we woke to hear about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. It’s been 15 years since it happened but to many it is like it only happened yesterday.
To date we still feel the effects. The heightened security. You go to the football these days and everyone who attends is run past a metal detector and has their bags searched. You leave an unattended package anywhere and it will draw a response from the police.
When you read the paper about violence you look to see if the offender has a middle eastern sounding name or was heard to be shouting “Alahu Akbar”. Sadly that is the world we live in which has polarised society and seen several rallies that have turned violent calling for an end to immigration from Islamic countries.
Where is God in all this? What should God do to these people who are attacking people in the name of their religion including and possibly foremost Christians?
We actually do have an example of such actions against Christians. We have the example of a leading Pharisee named Saul. His aim was to rid the world of these infidels called Christians: breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. (Acts 9:1) He authorised their being put to death. He went to arrest them and close down their churches.
And that’s when God intervened. But God did not intervene in the way that perhaps we would have wanted him to. He didn’t strike him down or punish Saul the same way he punished Pharaoh when he mistreated the chosen people of God. He didn’t send plagues or the angel of death.
No, God spoke with Saul: “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)
It’s interesting the words used by Jesus in that dialogue. He doesn’t say – why are you persecuting Christians or why are you persecuting my people. No he says – why are you persecuting ME!
So the first thing we need to be assured of is that God is not sitting idly by. No God is feeling first-hand the pain of his children. It may not take away the physical pain but it brings comfort knowing that God is for us and understands what we are going through. But it’s how God deals with the situation that is very different to how we would want God to act and how we would most likely act.
God speaks with Saul. Why does God dialogue with Saul rather than simply fighting him? Or why doesn’t he put Saul to death?
It’s because of God’s love and grace for all people. Saul will become known as Paul and in his letter to Timothy Paul explains God’s plan for the world that he experienced first hand: [God] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (1 Timothy 2:4-6)
Notice the emphasis on “all” people. Likewise Peter writes similar when he talks about what seems to be God’s inaction on the evil in the world: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8,9).
Again, note the emphasis – not wanting “anyone” to perish – “wanting everyone” to come to repentance. Imagine if Saul had met the God we want in dealing with those who hate Christians – and I’m not just talking about other religions that are against us but society. We would have most of our New Testament missing. We would have all Paul’s letters gone including the passages that bring us such great comfort knowing that God is for us.
Instead we read in today’s letter from Paul: I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the worst of sinners, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
That’s why God didn’t end Saul’s life at the time. Each of us could put our name in that text. And as much as it pains us sometimes to do so our response to those who are against us is to love and pray for them as Paul is doing so they too may find mercy through repentance.
There’s enough in the world calling for violence and action against them. Christians should be different because we ourselves know first-hand that only by the grace of God we have been saved from eternal judgment that we so deserve.
Jesus too showed the same compassion to those who were lost when he could have spent time with the righteous. And that saw a negative response just as we might receive when we suggest God’s mercy to evildoers: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2).
But Jesus reminded them that he came not because the world was so good that God wanted his Son to come and live with them. No – it was because we were all lost sinners and he came to save us.
And so Jesus says that God is ecstatic not when people do the right thing but when sinners repent: There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7). So if we believe that we should not be praying for the evildoers in the world but hoping they rot in hell, then we have decided on a different mission than God.
Think of the vilest crime. Think of the vilest acts of violence against humanity – and that’s the reason Jesus came. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him.
God’s mission has always been to find the lost. In the Garden of Eden we see God walking in his creation looking for the lost Adam. God called out, ‘Where are you?’ (Gen 3:8-9).
It’s hard to believe that an all-knowing God did not know where Adam was to be found. But that’s what sin does to our relationship with God. In God’s searching and seeking, in asking “where are you?” it had nothing to do with the physical location, but Adam’s spiritual location.
And God is continuing to seek out the spiritually lost and as much as it pains us to think so, Jesus died for even the most heinous of sinners, including those who seek to harm Christians – like Saul, the chief of sinners. And so we join with God in his mission to seek and save the lost by praying for our enemies and those who persecute us.