Sunday, 13 September 2015

Can hatred be holy?

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and loathe those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.   Psalm 139:21-2.

To me the word "hate" is one of the ugliest in the English language. (I might even go so far as to say that I, er, hate it.) It conjures up in my mind all sorts of spite, malice, anger, the very worst feelings we are capable of. Jesus, of course, is the very opposite of hate, with his great  stress on love, mercy and forgiveness. Didn't he state quite plainly that we are to "love" even "our enemies"? Surely, as Christians, we simply don't do hate?

Which makes Psalm 139 all the more difficult. It's all about the fact that God knows everything about us, even the secrets of our deepest hearts. It tells us that there is no way we can escape God - we can, as they say, run, but we can't hide. Strong, bracing stuff - it makes you think, but at least in a positive way.

But then these verses come like a kick in the teeth. How can the Psalmist say such a thing! How did these chilling words find their way into the Bible?

Some people try to excuse it on the grounds that it is Old Testament, not New. "Oh well," they say, "there's loads of anger, judgment and hatred in the Old Testament - but the New Testament is different, and that's what we Christians focus on."

But that just isn't true. Who was it who said "Love your neighbour as yourself"? Well, Jesus, of course. Wrong! It's there in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19 verse 18 - Jesus was just quoting it. And what about Proverbs 24:17: "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice..."?

No, there's plenty in the Old Testament about love and forgiveness (and, come to that, quite a bit in the New about judgment and God's anger). In other words, in saying what he did the Psalmist seems to have been ignoring his own scriptures.

I don't pretend I can fully explain this kind of awkward passage. Perhaps the best I can do is to share how I personally have tried to get some positives out of it.

First, let's at least give the Bible full marks for honesty. Most of us, I imagine, would never talk about hating people. But have we never felt such emotions in our hearts? Have we never wished somebody ill?

Let me come clean... I was badly cut up by a motorist once - his driving could have caused a serious accident. I found myself fervently wishing (this is your loving, Christian pastor talking) that he would wrap himself and his car around the next available lamp-post. I didn't say it, of course; oh no, I'm much too polite and proper for that. But I can't deny that the thought was there.

So while I don't feel I can, or need to, defend the Psalmist, neither can I claim to be any better. We, hypocrites that we are, can hide hateful thoughts behind smiling faces. At least this man was honest, putting into words what the rest of us only think. If nothing else, his words put us in touch with our own worst selves.

Second, I think it is correct to see these verses as primarily an expression of loyalty to God rather than an expression of personal animosity: I hate those "who hate you", he says, those "who rise up against you..."

The Psalmist is declaring which side he is on - nailing his colours to the mast, if you like. His hatred may be less than ideal - but at least he knows where he stands! He is implying: God matters! The word of God matters! It matters to be "on the Lord's side". It matters to stand against sin.

There are certain things which should make us furiously indignant. If there is such a thing as "righteous anger", may there not also be what we might call "holy hatred"?

This raises the question: As I look around me at the world and all the wickedness in it, how much do I care? Or do I just shrug my shoulders? Is it not true to say that having strong feelings - even wrong strong feelings - is better than spineless indifference or turning a blind eye?

Lord God, we remember those times when our Lord Jesus was angry. Guard us, we pray, from every hint of sinful anger. But help us too to know when anger is appropriate and right, and show us how to channel that anger for good. Amen.

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