"Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles: lest the Lord see it and be displeased. And then He turn away His anger from him." Proverbs 24:17
Manuel Noriega. No one epitomized the banana republic cliche better than the little general. He was the dictator of Panama, a corrupt, ruthless drug dealer and to top it off, he had a face that could stop a clock. During the presidency of George Bush the elder, a concerted effort was made to expose his corruption. For months, the media whipped the American people into a frenzy of outrage over the criminal activities of Noriega and his henchmen. They did a great job painting him as the personification of evil. Polls indicated the people of the USA were ready to see him go. An invasion was ordered to protect the interests of the United States in the Canal Zone. When the U.S. military landed it swiftly defeated the outmatched forces of Panama. Instead of admitting defeat, Noriega fled to the compound of a representative of the Vatican. What a weasel. Negotiations for his transfer to American authorities went on and on. Eventually he was turned over and removed from Panama to a prison in Miami. I was thrilled. I really enjoyed seeing the downfall of this guy who thought he was above the law. My itch for justice had been scratched and I was feeling pretty good about the whole outcome.
Then it happened. Two mentors and friends of mine, evangelists Cliff Brannon and Rudy Hernandez went to see Manuel Noriega in prison. They had the audacity to trust God to change the man. I saw their trip as an act of futility. Bless their hearts! Note: Didn't mean it, just said it.
Long story short, they led Noriega to a life-changing encounter with Christ. He got saved. He was no longer the enemy, but was transformed into a brother in Christ. Wait a minute! What was I supposed to do with all this moral outrage that I had worked up. I was really conflicted about the whole deal. When he got what was coming to him, I felt awfully good about his downfall. Since his incarceration, I had been enjoying a prolonged sense of well-being at his expense. It did not sit well with me that he had been brought into the family. Any other elder brothers out there?
I had gotten hold of the wisdom of Solomon, but it had not gotten hold of me. "Do not say, 'Thus I shall do to him as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work.' " Proverbs 24:29
OK, I know the Bible says, "For God so loved the world, and gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16). But for crying out loud, NORIEGA! Doesn't God have any standards? It embarrasses me to admit how long this conflict raged inside of me. When you are a pastor of a church you are supposed to know better. After processing this violation of my personal prejudices and preferences, I slowly and begrudgingly came to have a change of heart. It was as if I heard a voice say to me, "Get over it!" I have never heard God speak audibly to me, but it didn't sound like something Satan would say. I began to think, if I didn't deal with this here on earth, I may have to room with this guy in heaven. Never underestimate the lengths God will go to make sure you learn a lesson. I didn't want to have to stay after school here or say for eternity, "Mi casa es su casa." I admit my standards were low, but I did at least have them. God meets you right where you are, but loves you too much to leave you the way he found you. Over two decades later, I am so glad Brannon and Hernandez took the trip. Bless their hearts! Note: I really mean it this time.
Our culture has lost their handle on "The Golden Rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It has been replaced by tarnished substitutes,
- "He who has the gold, rules."
- "Get all you can. Can all you get. Poison the rest."
- "Stick it to them before they stick it to you.
- "Watch out for number one!"
This isn't new. Jesus established His kingdom in the wake of one of the most ruthless regimes the world had ever seen. Whether it was Roman aggression or Jewish corruption, Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of the day. Throughout his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeats over and over, "You have heard it said,...But I say to you." "You have heard it said...But I say to you...turn the other cheek."Matthew 5:39
In other words, He knew people may like the way they felt about their enemies, but He was going to change their hearts and that was going to change the way they lived. God uses changed people to bring about the kind of change that makes a difference for eternity...not just for the next election.
Abraham Lincoln described resisting the urge to rejoice over our enemies or to exact our revenge from them as, "listening to the better angels of our nature." Thanks Abe, I needed that. What Lincoln suggested, Paul declared was a moral imperative of the Christ follower. "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:17-21)
The Noriegas of this world come and go with great rapidity. Life becomes a lot like an endless game of "Whack a Mole." If you have to get even with every petty dictator that crosses your path you are going to have great muscle tone in your arms, but a heaviness in your heart. The game is stacked against you worse than the odds at Vegas. So many moles, so little time. The house wins.
Nothing has really changed from the time Jesus first spoke to his early disciples. They too had been influenced and saturated with revenge by the culture in which they lived. Conventional wisdom today lies to us when it says, "Revenge is sweet." In place of, "Get 'er Done!", God's wisdom says, "Let it Go!" The next time you are tempted to cheer over the downfall of an enemy, ask God if He wants you to let go of your joy over their collapse. He may want you to pick them up, and help them on down the road. This means taking the high road, when the world world screams for you to take the Low Road Exit and leave your enemy in the dust. You may be surprised at what you hear God say. I know I was. Vaya Con Dios!