Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For we have no continuing city here, but we seek one to come.
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by John D. Clark, Sr.
When the phone rang late that evening, it was my older son calling. Driving home through our neighborhood, he had spotted a large serpent crawling across the street toward a neighbor’s house. Some small children lived there and often played outside, and so, this concerned me. The serpent, my son told me, had stopped and was curled up on the edge of the road, and his description of its coloring made me think it was one of the poisonous copperheads that populate this area. I hurried out into the neighborhood to see the snake for myself, and my suspicions were confirmed. Sending my son to the house to get a shotgun, I waited near the snake to make certain it did not escape. This was an easy task, for copperheads are notorious for not fleeing from humans.
When my son returned with his double-barrel shotgun, I had his car lights turned toward the ditch, and I stood by and watched as he aimed and pulled the trigger. What I saw next stunned me. The first blast of the shotgun was a mortal one, and the second one made a quick end to the wiggling serpent, but it was the serpent’s response to that first blast that struck me.
When the shotgun first went off and the snake was struck, he was as good as dead, but he did not act like a victim. He was completely confused and in terrible pain, but by nature, he was such an aggressive beast that he went on the offensive, striking wildly into the air, straight up and as far as he could still launch his body. Once and again, in lightning-fast succession, he tried to poison with his fangs whatever it was that was tearing his life and his body apart, until the second blast ended his attack and his life.
What amazed me was that, by all indications, the serpent never gave a thought to flight or to giving in, nor had he felt the first inkling of humility before the greater power that had taken hold of him. The suddenness and viciousness of his attack, striking out madly straight up into the night air as if at the God who made him, taught me more about the spirit of a serpent than all the biology books on earth could have done.
Some people are like the poisonous serpent my son shot, in that when they are hurt, they strike out, cruelly and without thought of anything but their own suffering. Their retaliation may come in the form of pointed words which pierce another’s heart or unkind acts that spoil another’s happiness. However, such vengefulness is always, ultimately, directed at the God who created us all, the way the dying serpent struck out at the night sky.
Jesus taught us not to lash out at people when we are hurting, for it is not people, but God who decides when and how we suffer. And if we humble ourselves when He puts us through hard times, Peter said, God will lift us up again, in due time. Peter exhorted us to follow Jesus’ example, “who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return, and when suffering, did not threaten, but committed himself to the One who judges justly” (1Pet. 2:22–23).
Jesus told his disciples that they were to be “harmless as doves”. Another poignant scene, this one from my childhood, taught me the meaning of that phrase. I was a teenager, and it was hunting season. As usual, that meant I was hunting through the fields and in the woods around my grandmother’s farm. As I made my way through one field, a dove suddenly shot up from the brush next to the woods, and I brought it down with a thunderbolt from Grandpa’s old 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun. Then, I excitedly ran to the place where I had seen it fall.
There it was, at the edge of the forest, but it was still alive. I had to be cautious. In past hunting adventures, I had wounded other birds and found myself the target of their wrath when I approached them. But after drawing near to this one and, with some trepidation, daring to pick it up, I was perplexed. The dove did nothing. I knew it was hurting, and I knew it would have preferred to be soaring high above the pine tops rather than being squeezed in my hand. There was nothing about its present circumstance that it wanted or enjoyed; still, it did not attempt to harm me. In fact, as I recall now, once I had it in hand, it ceased even to struggle. The soft, small grey creature still had plenty of strength and life to have attacked me, but it had no thought of doing so. Its nature was to be harmless, and nothing I had done to it had changed that at all.
I had stolen the dove’s liberty. I had brutally thrown it to the ground when its nature cried out for the sky. I had injected pain into its healthy wings. There was nothing natural about its life now; everything it had always known had been changed forever in an instant. Still, it did not even try to peck me. And it did not try to avenge itself on me because it was not its nature to do so. When this realization came over me as I stood there, holding that poor bird in my hand, I wanted so much to undo what I had done to it, but I could not. I had conquered the wild bird with my mighty weapon, but now that tiny captive was conquering me with its humble, harmless spirit. It had every right to be angry and vindictive toward me, but it had no heart for it. The spirit of the dove would not allow it to strike at me; that little bird only stared out of its dark eyes into the distance with a heart-wrenching longing that made me wish I had never left home that afternoon.
Once, I picked up a large stone that was in my yard, and when the light of sun brightened the ground formerly covered by the rock, the bugs which occupied that protected space turned on each other with great fury. It was as if they blamed each other for the hated intrusion of the sun. I stared at the vicious scene for a long time as small creatures that formerly dwelt together peacefully now engaged in mortal combat with one another. How unlike a dove they were, and how much like a serpent!
Jesus’ commandment for us to be “harmless as doves” is not suspended when we are suffering. It was not suspended for him when he was nailed to the cross, unjustly tortured and abused, cruelly handled and reviled. The nature of Christ was to do good to those who did evil to him, and it is that nature which the Spirit of God brings into us when we receive it. Peter said that in Christ we partake of that divine nature, “having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2Pet. 1:4). The “world with its corrupting lust” is the spirit of the serpent. That brutish nature would make us cruel toward others when we are disappointed or hurting, as if other creatures like us can determine what happens to us.
My dear Friend, if you are going through a time of sorrow right now, do not strike out at those around you, not even at those whom God may have used to harm you. Remember, He used cruel and wicked men to hurt His sinless Son, but Jesus blamed none of them for the bitter cup that His heavenly Father gave him to drink. And when, through the Spirit, Jesus makes us partakers of God’s divine nature, we are given the strength to react like a dove to our trials, as Jesus did to his. If we understand, as Jesus did, the truth about who is in command of our sorrows, it makes it easy to obey Jesus’ command for us to “love your enemies; bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you; and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you”.