The following article is adapted from an article I wrote in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. I have revised it in light of the debate regarding Syria. While the geographical focus has changed from the U.S. to the Middle East, many of the issues and peacemaking principles remain the same.
The recent use of poison gas in the Syrian civil war has heightened global concern for this increasingly deadly conflict and triggered many challenging questions. Chief among these questions is, “How should we respond to these violent acts?”
This question is especially challenging for those who follow Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Teachings on peacemaking are difficult to apply in the shadow of a war that has killed over 100,000 people, 1,400 of whom died in clouds of poison gas. As a result of these deaths, President Barack Obama is seeking Congressional and international support for military intervention. Other U.S. and global leaders are calling for restraint and continued diplomatic negotiations.
So, is this a time for peacemaking or a time for war? The answer can be both.
But how can both paths be right, especially when they seem to go in opposite directions? Both can be right, because God himself has assigned different paths to different people.
The Bible teaches that God has delegated some of his authority to civil governments and assigned them the responsibility of promoting justice, protecting their people from aggressors, and punishing those who do wrong (see Isa. 1:17; Rom. 13:1-4; 1Pet. 2:13-14). This is a heavy responsibility, especially when it involves the exercise of lethal force—but without this restraint, evil would run rampant and innocent people would suffer. Thus there are times when those who lead and protect a nation can and must walk the path of war.
Whether this is such a time, I am not qualified to say. But since our leaders are publicly contemplating such action, they certainly need our earnest prayers.
But even as we pray for our civil and military leaders as they contemplate or pursue military action, we are often called by God to walk a different path as individuals. Just a few verses before God describes the government’s right to wield the sword in Romans 13, he describes the individual Christian’s responsibility to be a peacemaker:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn…. 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 (Rom. 12:14-15, 17-21).
This passage echoes Jesus’ earlier teaching on how individuals should respond to those who wrong them: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-28, 35-36).
Most Christians think that these are fine and noble concepts … until someone actually hates us, curses us, and mistreats us. Then these words seem naÃ¯ve and simplistic. But it is precisely at times when much wrong has been done that these words take on their greatest power and offer their greatest benefit. Here are some practical ways that you can put these commands into practice in your personal life, regardless of what world leaders decide to do in Syria.
- Mourn with those who mourn. All of us should grieve deeply with those who have lost loved ones, have been personally harmed by these attacks, or are distraught over the trouble and destruction they are facing (Rom. 12:15). In doing so, we Christians should share not only our tears and words of comfort, but also our time, energy, and material resources to minister to others and help rebuild their lives. We should also pray that these events would make all of us more compassionate for people throughout the world who suffer such violence.
- Pray for our leaders. Our President and a multitude of other civil and military leaders will be making difficult decisions in the days ahead, many of which will either save or end lives. They carry an agonizing burden. Therefore, we should pray for our leaders every day, asking God to give them humility, wisdom, discernment, courage, and strength, so that they will act wisely, promote justice, protect the innocent, and restore peace as quickly as possible (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
- Remember God’s mercy to you. All true peacemaking springs from what Jesus Christ did on the cross to reconcile a fallen world to a holy God (Rom. 5:1-8). We cannot truly love or do good to those who do wrong until we see that God has done exactly that with us. When we recognize our own sin, acknowledge the eternal judgment we deserve, and stand amazed at his offer of mercy and forgiveness, then and only then can we respond lovingly to acts of violence and do the hard, unnatural work of peacemaking.
- Fight against anger and vengeance. In the face of acts of evil, it is natural for us to be filled with anger. Sometimes that anger is appropriate and will move us to do all we can to stop such evil. But at other times our anger is contaminated with sin. As the psalmist realized, “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you” (Ps. 73: 21-22). To counter these feelings, whether in yourself or those around you, read the rest of Psalm 73, which reminds us that God will eventually avenge all wrongs, and remember Jesus’ promise that his final judgment is more severe than anything a worldly army can impose (see Luke 12:5).
- Pray for those who have done wrong. Praying for those who do wrong is not easy. Even when we get past our feelings of hatred and judgment, we struggle to know what to pray. Should we follow David’s example and pray for justice to come upon them (Ps. 28:4), or should we follow Jesus’ example and ask God to forgive them (Luke 23:34)? As we remember our own need for God’s mercy, I believe we must do both. We can pray, “Lord, display your love for justice and prevent further acts like this by bringing the people involved in these acts to account in this life for what they have done. At the same time, Father, display your love for mercy and magnify the glory of the gospel by bringing these men to repentance and faith in Christ, so that whatever temporal judgment they face at the hands of men, they might experience the eternal forgiveness that you purchased for us by the infinitely precious blood of Christ.”
- Stand up for the persecuted. Some of the pent-up confusion and frustration in our country is being vented toward innocent people of Middle-Eastern descent. Christians should be the first ones to stand up for the oppressed (Ex. 22:21; Isa. 1:17). In addition to preventing individual acts of hatred that would echo the violence of the Syrian conflict, your loving intervention could open the door to share the gospel with people whose faith has been shaken and whose hearts have been opened.
- Make peace with those around you. Although you and I do not murder others with a gun or hand grenade, all too often we kill others in our hearts. As Jesus warned, “You have heard it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says, ‘You fool,’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt. 5:21-22). The violence in the Middle East could encourage a harvest of peace and reconciliation if each of us were inspired to fight the cancer of sin and estrangement in our own country on a personal level, seeking genuine reconciliation with a spouse, child, parent, friend, co-worker, or anyone else we may have offended. (For practical guidance on how to resolve personal, church, business, or legal conflicts, see the many resources at www.Peacemaker.net.)
- Study and teach peacemaking. World violence is challenging many people to ask questions about how to deal with conflict. The time is ripe to wrestle with practical issues of confession, confrontation, justice, forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation. Please do not let this incredible “teachable moment” pass you by. Dig into God’s Word and see what he has to say about these life-changing matters, and then teach others what you are learning about peacemaking (1 Pet. 3:15-16). Engage your children, talk with your friends, start conversations at work, lead a Sunday school class at church. Now is the time to learn and to teach!
- Share the gospel of peace. Above all else, seize every opportunity to be an ambassador of reconciliation by pointing people to the Prince of Peace (2 Cor. 5:16-21). Death is increasingly real to many people in the world, and questions about evil and judgment abound. People who would have brushed the gospel aside not long ago may be open and interested in talking about eternal matters. The fields are truly “white unto harvest,” and there can be no greater peacemaking than to help others to be reconciled to their God.
Terrible violence is erupting in front of our eyes, not only in Syria but throughout the world, sometimes on our own streets and in our own homes. By God’s grace, however, we need not be overcome by this evil. Rather we can overcome evil with good.
Now is the time to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ as we never have before. Even as our national leaders contemplate how to carry out their heavy responsibilities of promoting justice, securing peace, and protecting innocent people from harm, let’s seize every opportunity to share the love of Christ and promote personal peace and reconciliation. In doing so, we can redeem these dreadful times and fulfill one of the most wonderful promises ever given, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.”
– Ken Sande
Ken Sande is an attorney, the author of The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Baker Books, 3rd Ed. 2003), , and founder of Peacemaker Ministries , an international ministry committed to equipping and assisting Christians and their churches to respond to conflict biblically. He now serves as the president of Relational Wisdom 360 .
- Recognizing that you have limited information on the Syrian situation, share your thoughts or opinions about the issues we should all be concerned about as the war drags on and world powers contemplate intervention.
- Which of the peacemaking principles described above is the most difficult for you to apply? Why?
- Pray for our President and Congressional leaders as they contemplate the wisdom and risks of intervening in the Syrian Civil war?
- Pray for the people in Syria and the refugees in the surrounding countries as they suffer through this terrible war?
- Pray for the Christians in Syria and the surrounding region as they suffer from this war, but also have opportunities to reflect the hope, love, and compassion of Christ.
Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.
© 2013 Ken Sande
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