The difficult grace of hating evil

Hating what is evil and holding fast to what is good (Rom. 12:9b) seems obvious and sensible advice until I try putting it into practice. Then it gets complicated; it starts causing problems not easy to solve; it unsettles the way I’ve been taught to think.

Take, for example, this bit of wisdom from a cartoon that used to appear in the Memphis, Tenn., Commercial Appeal. “Sometime it’s pretty hard to do the right thing,” the character in the cartoon said, “– you don’t always know what’s going to come of it.” It reminds me that doing the right thing can have unintended and sometimes undesired consequences. In ways we can’t always anticipate, doing the right thing can severely test the choices we make and the values that motivate them.

That seems to have been the case for the younger son in what we know as the Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32). “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me,” the prodigal said, a request certainly within his rights to make, according to the inheritance laws of his culture. It seems he intended to take his fair portion of the family assets and, propelled by some youthful wanderlust, make his fortune in a foreign land. He could not foresee the disaster that would result from doing what seemed the right thing at the time.

The younger son cut off relations with his family, demanded his inheritance early, and said to his father, in effect, “You’re already dead to me.” He squandered the money, turned his back on his Jewish roots, working as a feeder of pigs who ate better than he did, and ended up in desperate and shameful poverty. But his situation failed to convince him to reform his life and beg his father’s forgiveness. Instead, it turned him into a manipulating opportunist. “Wait a minute,” he thought, “I know a place I can get some food!” And he cooked up a scheme to return home, feign contrition, and then throw in a humble suggestion: “Dear father, I expect no special treatment – just treat me like one of your hired hands.” I wonder if he ever learned his lesson.

But the story is not really about the prodigal; it’s about his older brother, who also did the right thing in hating his younger brother – hating in the sense used here in the text, not of an intense and passionate dislike, but in the sense of putting some distance between himself and his younger brother and rejecting his brother’s wayward values. It’s the sense Paul had in mind when he wrote, “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9b). Prove your values are better, higher, than those of the world around you, and live according to those higher values.

Jesus, who had been criticized by the pillars of society for associating with sinners, told the story because his critics had been acting like the older brother. They refused to accept reconciliation with those who broke the rules and wasted themselves in shameful, self-indulgent, unfaithful living. “Join the party,” Jesus said, “There’s nothing anyone can do that’s bad enough to keep us apart any longer. What do you care if others come late or have a checkered past. You’re at home with God, so let’s welcome them home. Don’t sulk in your sense of moral superiority and miss the opportunity to celebrate their return. There’s room here for everyone, with room to spare.

What the younger brother did seemed right but was evil. It separated him from his family, from his community, and from the traditions and practices that nurtured his relationship with God. It even separated him from his own identity. I can understand the older brother’s hatred toward his younger brother. I can feel his resentment toward his father, who seemed not to care that his younger son’s values were so different, so offensive, so dangerous and threatening to the established order.

And I understand how hard it is to accept the idea of a God so generous in showing mercy. There are some actions, some behaviors, some embodied values it seems unthinkable to forgive. There are some people who I believe cannot, must not, escape hell, and they’re not only the big offenders like Vladimir Putin. There are offenders much closer to home, and if I look closely and am completely honest, even the ones I find most despicable reflect aspects of my own nature that I don’t want to recognize or admit to myself, much less confess to God.

Have you noticed how easy it can be to believe in a judgmental, vengeful, angry God who punishes people according to their deeds and how troubling it can be to believe in a God who abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness and who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod. 34:6-7) – not my sin only, but their sin, also? I want a God who hates as I hate, and I have trouble with the idea of a God who wants me to love as God loves (2 Cor. 5:19), to be merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36), to be complete as God is complete (Matt. 5:48).

David Miller, author of the study we’re using in the congregation during Lent, wrote of hating the polio that ravaged his father’s body until, as Miller described it, “there was nothing left but a hollow shell crying out for the familiar presence of my mother” (Book of Faith Lenten Journey: Marks of the Christian, 54). He also wrote of how his family’s struggle with polio was the best thing that ever happened to him.

“It shaped my soul,” Miller wrote. “It awakened in me the beauty of hope and the tenacity of courage. It stirred an unshakable conviction that life is beautiful and worth living, even when it is disfigured by events you would never choose.” Then he wondered, “is polio good? Is disease a blessing? Is [loss and struggle] something for which to be thankful” (ibid., 58)? So I wonder, what does it mean to hate what is evil?

Trying to figure it out leaves me at a loss, and I wonder where to turn next, until my mind turns to Job when he finally got to question God about why bad things happen, and he realized he was wrestling with things he did not know, things too wonderful for him to understand (Job 42:3). And my mind turns to Paul, who realized that “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to [God’s] purpose (Rom. 8:28). And I remember that God’s plan is to gather up all things – all things – in heaven and on earth at the right time (Eph. 1:9-10).

Then it dawns on me that if, with that kind of faith, I hate what is evil while holding fast to what is good, then contemplating what I hate and where my hate originates may lead me to recognize where I am broken, where God may be working in my life, where my reconciliation with God may be moving toward fullness and completion. And I’m led to the traditional Prayer of Humble Access: We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your many and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this sacrament of your Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

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