If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee. (Proverbs 25: 21-22)
One of my goals in writing this blog is to share with other people the principles that I have found helpful in understanding the Bible. In some posts I do this by explicitly enumerating certain principles and in others I do it by taking a simple example of a passage that can be hard to understand and giving my interpretation of it. In this case, obviously, I am taking the latter approach.
Now when I first read the verse above I recognized it for what it was even with my rudimentary understanding of Christianity. “Alright God”, I said, “I see what you are after here. You want me to pray for those people who have injured me and you are offering me a few enticements to do so. First that they will suffer all the more and second that I will be blessed. I get it. I will pray for them.”
I had been seriously injured by a few people (the details are not necessary or even useful) and I was battling extreme anger and bitterness against them. I did not want to pray for them, but I recognized it as my Christian duty. Despite this, I was not obedient until I read this verse. At that point I said, “Okay God if it is that important to you, I will pray for them.” That God would promise to punish them even more if we prayed for them struck me even then as a bit of comical reverse psychology. This may not make sense, but allow me to explain.
At first when I started praying for them, the idea that they would be punished had a certain appeal. Eternal flames seemed a bit harsh, but a good beating or two seemed like it would be pretty satisfying. As I continued to pray for them whenever I felt bitterness or anger, however, my heart began to change. Thinking about things from their perspective and about their needs and hurts, a genuine sympathy began to grow within me for them. By the time I had been praying for them for a few years, my attitude was entirely different. “God I don’t want them to be punished and I don’t want any reward. Just have mercy on them that they might repent of their evil and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.” To me it is clear that this is the effect intended by God. If only we will open our hearts to God and be obedient, He can change our heart and help us to love like He loves.
This brings me to the Least Common Denominator (LCD) principle that I use when interpreting the Bible. There are many things in the Bible that don’t appeal to us as modern people. Reading the passage above, for example, it is easy to imagine a modern skeptic saying to themselves, “That is the problem with Christianity. Even when you find a beautiful principle, you find it sullied by some ugliness. This Christian God tells people to pray for others so that they will be punished even worse. This takes a beautiful principle and makes it ugly.”
If we understand that God is appealing to many different people across many different cultures in many different circumstances, however, we can understand that certain passages of the Bible are not meant for us. Because God loves every human being and wants all of them to come to a knowledge of His love and forgiveness, He will sometimes speak in a way that does not appeal to our modern sensibilities. How could He love all men and not appeal to the least of them?