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7. Commitment and Compassion, Good and Evil

– Chapter 7 –

Commitment and Compassion, Good and Evil

Do not be yoked with unbelievers

The path to life is a hard road and a narrow gate. That is why some Christians do things that are a compromise between the Christian life and life in the world. But compromise is ultim­ately self-deception, and was already a problem in the churches that Paul had built up by God’s grace. And because comprom­ise has serious spiritual conse­quences, Paul gives us an exhortation on deal­ing with unbeliev­ers:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteous­ness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in com­mon with an un­believer? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “Therefore come out from them and be separ­ate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2Cor.6:14-18, NIV)

The term “yoked together” (“bound together” in some Bibles) can be understood in various ways. This passage is often taken as a reference to marriage, in which case Paul would be telling the Christians not to marry non-Christ­ians. But more generally it refers to any kind of binding relat­ionship between believers and unbelievers, whether it is a business part­nership or a legal covenant, of which marriage is an example. Paul says there is no common ground between believers and unbelievers, yet many Christians see much common ground.

What does it mean to be yoked together? Does it mean to establish a legal con­tract? Or a friend­ship? Can we say that mar­riage is a bind­ing relat­ionship but friendship is not? Some Christians have been ruined by their friendship with non-Christians, so does it mean that we may not be friends with non-Christians? We can narrow the question and ask at what point a friend­ship ceases to be an ordinary friendship and becomes a bond. Do we regard our office coworkers as mere colleagues and not as friends? In fact James says that friend­ship with the world is an adulter­ous bond:

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4, NIV)

If we are friends with the world, we become enemies of God according to James who doesn’t seem to offer a middle ground for being friends with both. Are we then to distance ourselves from non-Christians? Few people actual­ly think so, but wouldn’t that run into a problem with James 4:4, which says that we are now thereby enemies of God?

Jesus, a friend of sinners

Yet Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and “sinners” (Mt.11:19; Lk.7:34). The word “sinners” often refers to people such as prostit­utes. Tax collect­ors and prostitutes were the outcasts of Jewish society. Jesus was accused of being a friend to these people who were viewed by society as morally con­temptible.

That creates a dilemma. Why is it okay for us to be friends with sin­ners but not with the world? James 4:4 clearly says that friendship with the world is en­mity towards God, yet Jesus was a friend of sinners. Is there a differ­ence between friendship with sinners and friendship with the world?

The key difference, of course, lies in one’s motives. Being friends with the world in the sense of James 4:4 means gaining the world for one’s own bene­fit. The motive is entirely selfish for it seeks after riches, position and glory in the world even at the cost of one’s own soul. But when Jesus befriended sin­ners, his motive was to bring salvat­ion to tax collectors and sinners — at the cost of his own life. That is the key difference between the two types of friendship.

We are to be friends with the people of the world with the aim of showing them God’s love so that they may be saved. We show love and friendship to non-Christians even if they are not our family members, just as we love our family members even if they are not Christians. We give ourselves and our hearts to them in order to win them to God and not to ourselves, that they may be freed from sin and have eternal life. At school or work, our friend­ship with our class­mates and col­leagues ought to be motivated by a self-giving love that channels God’s saving love to them.

In all this, there must be no ulterior selfishness. Boy-girl relation­ships are com­plicated because they often involve con­flicting motives. You want to win someone to God, yet you also want to win him or her to your­self. You may even try to win the person to God in order to have him or her to yourself.

Where there are conflicting motives, the one that usually dominates is the selfish one. It is best to find someone with no ulter­ior motives to help him or her, or else what may happen is that the one you are trying to help may become a Christian just to please you. You would have done the per­son a great disser­vice by encouraging him or her to be­come a Christian with­out commit­ting to God. We don’t be­come true Christ­ians except by commit­ting to God in response to His com­mit­ment to us. We love God because He first loved us.

Love calls for a commitment that gives of oneself without selfish mot­ives. But where there is both carnal friendship and spiritual friend­ship, these will cancel each other, or will be in conflict until one of them — usually the carnal one — dominates.

Why do we commit to God in the first place?

So far we have looked at God’s commitment to us. But in the Sermon on the Mount, we also see Jesus’ commitment to us. It is an expression of his brotherly love for us, for Jesus is our brother (Mt.28:10; Rom. 8:29; Heb.2:11). He was born of God just as we are born of God (1Jn. 5:18), and he cares about even the least of his brethren (Mt.25:40). Let us now consi­der what he says in Matthew 5:38-41:

You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if any­one slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. (Mt.5:38-41, HCSB)

Many find this statement difficult. To appreciate what it means for us, it would be helpful to keep in mind that it was powerfully fulfilled in Jesus’ own life by his commit­ment to us. Did Jesus himself fulfill these words? If he had not, he could hardly have expected us to fulfill them.

Here we address a question that is in the minds of many Christians: Why should we be committed to God in the first place? Is it just to be saved? Or are there deeper reasons for commitment? Do we com­mit to God in blind obedience, not understanding the reasons for our commit­ment?

These questions are relevant to the passage we have just read. Do I turn the other cheek in blind obedience to the Lord’s command? Some may put it this way: “Turning the cheek makes no sense to me, but I’ll do it just the same because Jesus said so. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll do it to be saved. Jesus did say in John 15:14, ‘You are my friends if you do what I com­mand you’. Since he com­manded me to turn the other cheek, I will turn the other cheek in order to be saved.”

If you’re a Christian, do you know why you’re a Christian? Or why you’re walking on the narrow road? If the best answer you can give is to be saved, that is not a good answer. It is not a wrong answer either, but surely there must be a better answer. It is fine to want to be saved, but you need to know why you’re a Christian beyond wanting to be saved.

Why do I turn the other cheek? If some­one wants my shirt, why do I give him my coat as well? And where do we see this kind of Christ­ianity being practiced in the world today? If “believ­ing” in Jesus is good enough for the Christian life, why do we need the Sermon on the Mount or the rest of the Bible? If com­mitment makes no difference for salva­tion, why don’t we just select a few verses on believing in Jesus and forget the rest of the Bible?

Merely believing that Jesus died for my sins requires no com­mit­ment on my part, but turning the other cheek takes total commit­ment. The commit­ment has to be total because partial com­mit­ment is com­prom­ise. But is comprom­ise even a choice in the case of turning the cheek? You do it or you don’t. You go a second mile or you don’t.

We are confronted with two questions. First, do we need to be com­mitted to be saved? Second, why does the Lord require commit­ment from us? These are vital questions that we need to answer. Pertinent to the first question is what Jesus says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Mt.7:26-27, ESV)

The one who hears Jesus’ words but doesn’t do them is like a man who builds a house on sand. Its structure won’t survive the flood of judg­ment. But the one who hears Jesus’ words and does them is like a man who builds a house on solid rock. When the floods and storms of judg­ment come, it survives triumph­antly. Will our lives survive the test of judg­ment?

Compassion: the motivation of commitment

To see the true meaning of turning the other cheek, we need to under­stand the motivation of com­mitment as we see it in the heart of Jesus. Through­out the gospels, every­thing he did was a fulfill­ment of what he had taught his dis­ciples. His whole life displayed his total com­mitment to us. The Sermon on the Mount ends in chapter 7, and straight­away in chapter 8, Jesus cleanses a leper.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I visited a leper colony there. It was quite an experience for me to see people disfigured by a hideous disease, with limbs contorted and parts falling off.

The leper symbolizes mankind in its sinful condition. There is no­th­ing healthy about the sinner from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. The whole person is corrupted by sin. It is no coincidence that right after giving the Sermon on the Mount, the first thing Jesus did was to cleanse a leper. The word cleanse means to heal or to restore to good condition. Af­ter cleansing the leper, the next thing Jesus did was to heal a centurion’s servant.

We often miss the point of Jesus’ miracles. They are not meant to showcase his wonder-working powers. In fact Jesus would often tell the healed person not to tell anyone about the heal­ing (Mt.8:4; Mk.7:36; 8:26; Lk.8:56). He wasn’t trying to impress anyone with his heal­ing powers. On the contrary, every miracle is a sign that points to the fact that Jesus, out of his deep compass­ion, has come to heal and save us.

Compassion in Matthew’s gospel

Since it was compassion that motivated Jesus’ commitment to us, let us survey the word “compassion” as it appears in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says in Matthew 9:13:

But go and learn what this means, “I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,” for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Jesus was a friend of sinners and he called them to repentance. What he requires from us is a similar compassion of the heart rather than sacrifice or outward religious performance. Matthew 9:36 says of Jesus:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep with­out a shepherd. (NIV)

Jesus had compassion on people for he saw them as sheep with­out a shepherd. Has this kind of compassion ever stirred in you? When you are in a crowd, do you feel compassion for those around you or do you feel irritated? If a man standing next to you in a crowded train has bad breath, do you feel like recommending him mouth­wash? Our thinking revolves around our­selves, so we don’t know how to be com­passionate. Compass­ion means to forget ourselves and to think of the needs of others. But we get annoyed when a man is leaning against us in the train or is holding on to the support bar and block­ing our view.

Jesus was moved with compassion for people. Do we feel any com­passion at all? By nature we are so self-centered that it’s impossible for us to forget ourselves. But “compassion” and “mercy” come up in Matthew’s gospel again and again, e.g. 5:7, 12:7, 14:14, 15:32, 18:27, 18:33 (twice), 20:34, and 23:23. Compassion and mercy run through Matthew, bringing out the powerful mo­tivation that works in the Lord Jesus. It is compassion that motiv­ates his commit­ment to you and to me.

Returning to our question: Why did Jesus turn the other cheek? Was it because his Father had commanded him to? But obedience without com­passion would be meaningless. Turning the other cheek must be motiv­ated by compass­ion. If some­one slaps us and we scream, “Go ahead! Slap me again!” our attitude would be wrong. Your turning the cheek would have meaning only if the other person sees compass­ion in your eyes.

Why do I need to show compassion when God is already all-com­pass­ionate? Isn’t His compassion good enough? Again we are dealing with the motive. Do we know why we’re doing what we’re doing? What is it that motivates us to repent, forsake evil, and embrace good?

Moral choices and activities

In all this we are confronted with a choice between good and evil. It is a choice that takes us back to Genesis in the garden of Eden where Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. One notable consequence of their disobed­ience is seen in Genesis 3:22:

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (NIV)

Adam’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit was conse­quential because he thereby gained the knowledge of good and evil. The word “know” doesn’t mean intell­ectual know­ledge but exper­iential under­standing. Prior to disobeying God, Adam didn’t know good and evil experien­tially; but in the act of disobeying God, he experienced good and evil. You only need to know the one to know the other. In doing what is evil, you get to know what is the good as its opposite. In doing what is the good, you get to know what is evil.

God doesn’t need to do evil to know evil. He knows evil not because He has done evil but because evil has been done to Him, for all sin is ultimately done to God. Jesus knows evil too, not because he has done evil but because evil has been heaped on him and he was killed for our sins. No one knows evil as he, for no one has suffered the conse­quences of evil as he.

Every day we do three types of activity: physical, mental (intellect­ual), and spirit­ual. If an activity is purely phy­si­cal or intellectual, it has no moral significance. By contrast, a spiritual activity has moral signif­icance because it involves a choice between good and evil.

Let’s imagine Adam and Eve in the garden. They see a peach tree and eat its fruit. This act has no moral significance because it is a phy­sical activity in contrast to a spirit­ual activity. If I buy a drink at a store, is there any moral signifi­cance in whether I choose Coke, Pepsi, or root beer? This purely material decis­ion has no moral signifi­cance because it has nothing to do with good and evil. A physical activity has no moral signifi­cance unless it is attached to, or is the consequence of a spiritual activity.

A physical choice — such as buying a brand of sham­poo or choosing a color for my shirt — has no moral significance. Not even an intellect­ual activity such as guessing the weather or performing a math calcula­tion has moral signifi­cance unless it is connected to a spirit­ual activity. The same with buying a book to learn French or Chinese. Whether I believe the universe is in an inflationary state after the Big Bang or in a deflation­ary state, has no moral signi­ficance.

Whether I believe in the theory of evolution also has no moral sign­ifi­cance unless I use it to prove or disprove God’s creat­ion. In any case, this theory neither proves nor disproves creat­ion because evolut­ion is a process of life. It is logically invalid to prove the origin of life from a theory of the process of life. The evolutionary pro­cess proves nothing for or against creation because the origin of life has to be proved from some­thing else. But when studied as theory, evolu­tion has no intrin­sic moral sign­ificance because it has nothing to do with good and evil.

Finally, intellectual belief in a Christian doctrine such as that Jesus died for you has no moral significance unless you draw from it some­thing of spiritual value that pertains to your salvation. If we preach the gospel by telling people to believe in Jesus but without tell­ing them to make a moral commitment, then we haven’t preached the gos­pel at all. If your Christian profession is merely intellectual, you are not a Christ­ian. If your faith makes no difference for good or evil in your life, you are in the same situat­ion as Satan who also believes what you be­lieve and more (James 2:19).

The way Peter preached the gospel is not the way it is preached today. His message in Acts 3 concludes with the words: “When God raised up his servant (Jesus), he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (v.26). The blessing of eter­nal life re­quires us to make a moral decision to turn away from our “wicked ways”. To be a Christ­ian in the biblical sense is to forsake our evil ways and choose what is good. Then we can see good and evil in pra­ctical terms: com­passion ver­sus no compassion; love versus hate; a God-centered life versus a self-centered life; a lifestyle that cares for others ver­sus one that grabs every­thing for oneself.

Turning the other cheek: exercising the nuclear option

To commit to God, we must know why we commit­ and to whom we com­mit. Why should I choose good over evil, or love over hate? I still need to understand the reasons for my choice.

If someone slaps me on the cheek, what options are available to me? One option is to slap him back, even two or three times. We may end up in a slug­fest in which he slaps me, I slap him, he slaps me, I slap him, which is full-blown “eye for eye and tooth for tooth”. I recently heard someone say that if everyone in society practices eye for eye, the world will be blind and eyeless!

The second option is non-retaliation: I refrain from hitting him back. In exercising self-control, my nerves are trembling, my muscles are tense, my fist is clenched, and I start counting “one, two, three” until my blood pressure subsides.

With the first option (retaliation), we are misusing the princi­ple of “an eye for an eye” for personal retaliation, by returning evil for evil. Some­one does evil to me, so I do evil to him, even paying back with interest. By adding my evil to his, I have multiplied evil. He may hit me a second or third time, so evil increases exponentially.

Is there a better way of dealing with the problem of evil? If I hit him back (retaliation), I have multiplied evil. If I don’t hit him back (non-retaliation), I have kept evil at a constant level, neither increasing nor decreasing it.

But there is a third option: When someone slaps me, I turn the other cheek in love and compassion with the aim of overcoming his evil. Then he will be taken by surprise: “Why doesn’t he hit me back? Why does he show me love and com­passion after what I have done to him?” That is precisely what we want to achieve. In offering the other cheek, love begins to over­power him. Paul tells us that good is so powerful that it can overcome evil:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hun­gry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21, NIV)

The expression “heap burning coals on his head” has been a subject of scholarly study. It means to cause a burning fire of shame, remorse, and regret. Because of your compassion, the other person has come to a burn­ing sense of the wrong he has done you. So intense is his shame and re­morse for having been your enemy that he feels the coals of fire burning on his head. The expression probably came from an old Egypt­ian proverb that describes the intensity of shame over having wronged some­one who did not retaliate but responded to evil with love and good.

The one who loves with Christ’s love is not weak but strong. The same cannot be said of the one who serves as a “carpet” for people to trample on. A person who is weak and passive has no power to over­come evil. The good we are talking about is active and powerful. It doesn’t just endure abuse and in­sult, it goes one step further: If some­one abuses you, you love him the more. Your enemy won’t see this as weakness but as power! He might not react to you immediately but he will respect the pow­er operating in you. You are not a punching bag but a powerful force that is overpower­ing evil.

What Paul is telling us to do — overcome evil with good — is some­thing active, not passive. If you are passive, people will think you are weak and cowardly. But if you fight back with love, they won’t know how to handle it. You have nuclear power that defeats convent­ional power. It is a divine power that confronts them. You are declar­ing an all-out war to defeat evil. This love is aggressive because it aims to conquer and not surrender.

This we cannot do except by God’s power. When you let His pow­er work in you, you will begin to experience amazing things. Accepting this chal­lenge requires total commit­ment and choosing good over evil.

Remark: In turning the other cheek, we also need to be wise and to as­sess the situation on a case by case basis. It is no credit to the Christ­ian when he behaves fool­is­hly and without think­ing. God’s wisdom goes together with God’s love so that we respond to situations approp­riately and wisely.

Love overcomes: the case of my mother

Love and compassion come from God: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom.5:5). This love is moral and spiritual. Love that has no moral elem­ent is not love. In the Bible, love is not a sentimental feeling but something that involves a decisive choice of good over evil. It is a com­mitment to love the unlove­ly. And because love is powerful enough to defeat evil, I don’t have to retaliate, exchanging evil for evil. I overcome evil by God’s goodness that has been poured into my life.

The more you apply this, the more you will see that God’s love over­powers evil. The happy outcome is that I know why I am com­mitted and why I turn the other cheek. It is a calculated act that, by God’s good­ness, over­comes evil in the other person.

When your enemy sees God’s goodness in you, he will be con­victed of his wronging. If he surrenders to good, we will have won a battle against evil. If he refuses to repent, we will leave it to God to deal with him. Ven­geance belongs to God the Judge. But whether the other person repents or not, I myself will not be defeated by evil, or give in to evil by retaliating. We are God’s coworkers in the battle against evil, conquer­ing evil by His love. It is achievable. All the way to judg­ment day, we will love those who hate and persecute us. Either they repent of their sins or God will deal with them on that day.

I know from experience that love conquers. Soon after I became a Christian, my parents rejected me. My mother made it clear to me that I wasn’t welcome at home. When I came home during the school holi­days, the very first question she asked was, “When are you leav­ing?” How’s that for a welcome? But I was determined to love her to the end until God’s love triumphs in her heart. Whenever my mother was un­kind to me, I would go to the kitchen to do the dishes. She found this very strange because I previously would never do the dishes. What’s more, in our family trad­ition, it wasn’t a man’s job to do the dishes. So this increased her bewild­erment. And when she was unkind to me again, I would sweep the floors, do the grocery shop­ping, and bring home a present for her. When she contin­ued to be un­kind to me, I bought her some flowers. She didn’t know how to handle this. No mat­ter how badly she treated me, I loved her all the same.

Years later, she knelt beside me one day. With tears run­ning down her face, she surrendered her life to God. Good had over­come evil. I will never forget what she said to me: “I gave you physi­cal life, you gave me spiritual life.” She channeled physical life to me, I chan­neled God’s life to her by God’s grace. We became very close after that. Before she came to God, I didn’t have much affection for her, humanly speaking. In the begin­ning, it took commit­ment on my part to love her with God’s love, for my heart had no human love or attachment for her. But later on, I loved her with God’s love in a way I had never loved her before.

When she died a few years later, it took me a long time to recover. I knelt before God and said, “I don’t understand. Why did you take her away? She was a new Christian who truly loved you. I was hoping she could do something for you before she passes away.” To this day I do not have an answer to my quest­ion, but I do know that God’s love was able to overcome the sin and evil in her heart. She admitted to being a sinful woman in her youth, yet she became a saint of God. Her whole life radiated the beauty of Christ, and I loved her ever so deeply.

I have witnessed the power of love that overcame the hardness in my mother’s heart. Her heart was hard like rock, yet God was able to melt it. If love can win my mother, it can win anyone else because I know how hardened she was. I now understand the reasons for my commitment and my turning the other cheek, for I have experienced the power of God’s love. I know it is real and that it works. I can love others because I know that God’s love will triumph in every situation.

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church