“Do not resist one who is evil.” Matthew 5:39
A woman came to my office and after the initial pleasantries, began with a long sigh and said, “my family has issues.” Though I didn’t say it, my thought was “if you have family you have issues.”
The same can be said of any particular problem we bring to a pastor, counselor, or trusted friend. To say we have problems is like admitting we breathe. Problems are an inescapable part of life. The real problem with problems is when they multiply and run into one another and seem to shut out the light of Spirit. We begin to believe that problems are all we have. Or as I heard a friend put it one time, “My issues have issues.”
Our typical response to the preponderance of problems is to attempt to crush them out of existence, or at least to control them. Problems are to be solved. Pain is to be avoided. As an aside here, we apply this solution to other people’s problems also. Someone brings us their problems and we try to solve them. Most of us respond that way.
The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is a basic human instinct. In fact, there are many ways we can increase our relative pleasure with life, and many ways we can avoid pain. However, as we must readily admit, we cannot avoid all problems, and we cannot expect a life of uninterrupted pleasure. Try as might these two goals are like smoke. We’ll never get a hold of them.
Jesus suggested an unusual solution to problems, and as with many of Jesus’ teachings we’re going to find this one puzzling and objectionable. He said “do not resist one who is evil.” If we boil down this teaching to a single word it would be acceptance. We accept our problems, and thereby we accept life, and we accept truth.
I can hear the bristling! Before you raise all of the typical objections and cite the various ways we can resist evil, just listen to the words of Jesus. Too many times we live based on the exceptions. So instead of learning the value of an eternal truth and its application to our lives, we cite the example of Hitler and dismiss something that could really be of value to us. So let’s try that with acceptance.
Acceptance. Acceptance does not mean approval or agreement with evil. It doesn’t mean we’re acquiescing to evil and becoming part of it. Acceptance is not weak resignation. Jesus certainly, by some definition, resisted evil by challenging it, speaking the truth to it, and, most importantly, responding to it with love.
In fact, His example guides the way. Jesus certainly possessed the power to eradicate any problem He faced. He could have neutralized the Pharisees and Sadducees. He could have overthrown the Roman empire with all of its unjust brutality. Etc. etc. Instead, Jesus accepted the cross. I believe that made all of the difference. The cross as opposed to power. Or even more mysteriously, power made perfect in weakness. He did not resist evil in the classic way. He accepted the brokenness of the world and subverted it’s evil with love. That’s acceptance.
But what does acceptance mean for us in day-to-day experience? Or better, how can acceptance help us from feeling like life is nothing but a series of uninterrupted problems?
First, acceptance means that once and for all we give up the notion of life being fair. Life is not fair. Life is hard. We will be treated unfairly. Bad things will happen to us. We can pursue pleasure and happiness, but we will never finish that race. Mixed in with the successes and blessings will be ample failures and challenges. That is simply life. Accept it.
Second, we accept the fact that we have a role in many of the problems we encounter. Not all of our problems are by our own hand, of course, but some directly are. When that’s the case, admit it, and stop trying to rationalize destructive behavior or find someone to blame for it. One of the most overlooked powers we have is to accept responsibility for ourselves. At that point, real growth and change begin.
Of course, many problems we face are not directly by our own hand. Someone else has a problem that disturbs us. We’re convinced that if that person changed and stopped causing us a problem, then we would be again at peace.
The folly of this is so obvious when we stop and really take a look at it. First, we’re simply foolish if we’re waiting for other people to solve their problems for us. We’re doubly foolish if we think we can solve their problems for them. We’re triply foolish if we believe solving their problems is our responsibility.
Psychologists speak of attachment, where we attach our sense of well-being or value to another person’s performance or assessment. In my present line of work, I see this often. A parent, for example, is understandably devastated by a son’s or daughter’s drug use. They obsess over the addiction; trying to control it, solve it, manage it, and confront it. They have no sense of happiness or peace because of another person’s behavior. That may sound like deep love. It’s actually quite unhealthy. In fact, the addicted child often becomes the parent’s drug.
Attachment occurs in many other ways, of course. We can attach our sense of value and peace to the company’s bottom-line, the girlfriend’s response, grades in school, a job evaluation, etc. In every case, we’re attached to something external, and, in fact, have given over control of ourselves to someone else or something else. At that point, we’ve surrendered any possibility for peace or contentment because of the first point above: we’re all treated unfairly and bad things happen to us. It won’t matter how many positives come our way, there is always something in this broken world to tell us that we’re broken. And if those are the voices we listen to, then we’re going to feel broken all of the time.
Now obviously, there’s much more to be said about acceptance, but for this week I ask you to work on accepting the fact that life is hard and unfair, and I mean really accept it. Also think about the people or things you’re attached to. It won’t be hard. Any time this week you feel agitated or outraged that will be a sign of attachment. Next week, we’ll delve a little more deeply into the freedom of acceptance.
Dr. Terry Ellis
March 5, 2017