|Benjamin Franklin was savagely denounced by a fellow member of the Pennsylvania legislature in the mid-1700’s. |
His antagonist, who apparently enjoyed talking about him, had never even bothered to talk to him.
Franklin promptly initiated a response.
He had all kinds of weapons at his disposal. A master of linguistic cleverness, he could have nailed his adversary with a few Twitter-length putdowns. An accomplished printer, he could have crushed him in a satirical editorial. A central figure in Philadelphia’s social scene, he could have rallied dozens of allies to his side.
Franklin, however, did something unexpected.
He describes it in his autobiography: “Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour.”
So, he asks his nemesis to loan him a book? What happened next was fascinating.
“When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”
Franklin intuitively understood what most of us overlook: We tend to like the people for whom we do nice things, and to despise the people whom we harm.
Nowadays psychologists call it the Benjamin Franklin Effect.
What exactly happened to the man who had gone out of his way to disrespect Franklin? Franklin gave him an opportunity to do something nice, and to feel good about doing it. Consequently, his attitude toward Franklin softened.
This phenomenon is well known. When we act kindly toward someone, our attitudes gradually catch up with our actions. We begin to feel kindness toward that person.
But when we act rudely or callously toward someone, our hearts fossilize. World War II concentration camp guards rarely felt surges of compassion toward the victims they were torturing. Instead, their actions caused their hatred to intensify.
Feelings follow actions.
This core principle of human behavior shines light on one of the Bible’s most challenging paragraphs. It’s found in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that.” (Matthew 5:43-47, “The Message”)
Jesus is commanding actions, not feelings. That makes all the difference in the world.
If “love your enemies” means cultivating feelings of affection for the monster who betrayed you, the co-worker who stabbed you in the back, or the creep who broke your heart, any rational person would feel paralyzed. But Jesus is saying, “Take action. Do something that expresses care. Pray for that person. Choose to be kind.” By adding, “This is what God does,” he’s assuring us that heaven’s resources are available to help us do what seems impossible.
Choosing to bless another person – even if our feelings are flat-lined – is God’s counter-intuitive formula for jump-starting a wounded heart.
Spouses know this well. Couples may have promised to be there for each other “in plenty and in want, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health.” But anyone who has been married for longer than seven days knows that partners don’t always feel like doing this “for as long as we both shall live.”
Love is a choice – a decision that we make again and again to offer kindness to another human being, often in the face of contrary emotions.
If we wait until our feelings come around, we may be waiting for a very long time. But God has created us in such a way that doing loving things helps kindle loving feelings.
We may not always win a lifelong friend, as Benjamin Franklin did. And our picture probably won’t end up on the $100 bill.
But choosing to love a difficult person, just because Jesus said so, is one of the ultimate doorways to spiritual growth.