How to Make Peace with Your Enemies
June 23, 1996
Slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said it, “You don’t make peace with your friends, only with your enemies.” He uttered those words soon after Israel signed an historic peace treaty with the PLO in 1993. Harshly criticized by many of his countrymen who felt he had given up too much in his quest for peace, he defended himself against those who asked how he could sit at the same table with a man like Yasser Arafat.
“You don’t make peace with your friends, only with your enemies.” Within two years he would pay with his life for his commitment to peace.
Whatever else we may say about Mr. Rabin, we must acknowledge the truth of his words. Peacemaking is a risky, difficult business. It’s much easier to start a war than to end one.
This week I ran across some startling statistics: In the last 3500 years some 8000 peace treaties, meant to last forever, have been signed. The average time they remained in force, however, was only two years. In that same period, there have been only 286 years in which the world has been entirely at peace. That’s a ratio of 8% peace versus 92% war.
According to that same source, since 1919 the nations of Europe have signed over 200 peace treaties, nearly all of which were broken more easily than they were consummated.
John Foster Dulles pinpoints the problem in these words: “The world will never have lasting peace so long as men reserve for war the finest human qualities. Peace, no less than war, requires idealism and self-sacrifice and a righteous and dynamic faith.”
He is certainly right in his analysis. Peace never just happens. Someone has to go out of his way to make peace. That is why Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”—not the peacewishers or the peacehopers. In a world torn by strife and fueled by hatred, we need Christians who will step into the breach as true peacemakers.
We need Christians who will step up as true peacemakers.
Our text this morning describes one instance in which two men made peace with one another. On one hand we have Abimelech, the king of Gerar, on the other Abraham, the man of faith. These two men have faced off before, when Abraham lied about his wife in order to save his own skin (see Genesis 20). But God intervened, protected Sarah and allowed Abraham to be publicly humiliated. In the process the pagan king Abimelech becomes profoundly convinced that God is on Abraham’s side and it would therefore be in his own best interest to make a peace treaty with Abraham.
With that background, let us consider the text for a moment:
At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will no deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. (That by the way was a reasonable request since Abraham had already deceived him once). Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown you. (Here he appeals to Abraham’s sense of fairness. It’s the Golden Rule, only this time it’s a pagan who appeals to this noble principle.) Abraham said, “I swear it” (This is the formal peace treaty.) vv. 22-24 (with my comments in light type)
But this is not the end of the story. As we all know, making peace requires much more than signing a peace of paper. It means that both sides must approach the other in good faith, attempting to resolve problems before they get out of hand.
Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized. But Abimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.” So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty. (This represents a practical application of the agreement they had already reached.) Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelech asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?” He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.” So the place was called Beersheba because the two men swore an oath there (Beersheba means Well of Seven or Well of the Oath. The city still exists by that name today and you may visit it on a trip to a Holy Land.) vv. 25-31.
The last two verses tell of the positive results of this peace treaty:
1. Abimelech and his men returned home. (v. 32)
2. Abraham worshiped God in Beersheba (v. 33)
3. Abraham lived in peace for a long time (v. 34)
It is possible to make peace with your enemies, but it isn’t easy and it won’t happen overnight.
Walk in the Way of Love
This week I ran across the pledge written over 30 years by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for those working with him in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. Every single volunteer was required to sign this pledge. Here is what his followers agreed to do:
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus
2. Remember always that the movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.
3. Walk and talk in the way of love, for God is love.
4. Pray daily to be used by God so that all men might be free
5. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy
6. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world
7. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart.
Those principles strike me as wise and realistic. The world would be a better place if we all lived that way.
I. Reasons For Conflict
A. Ancient Hostility
I ran across this arresting phrase several years ago while reading the book of Ezekiel. “The Philistines acted in vengeance and took revenge with malice in their hearts, and with ancient hostility sought to destroy Judah” (Ezekiel 25:15). We’ve all heard of the Hatfields and the McCoys and their feud that lasted for generations. But many of the conflicts in the world today go back centuries. Consider Northern Ireland or Bosnia or the tribal warfare in Africa. Not long ago I heard it said that one reason the Arabs are so resistant to Christianity is that to them, the Crusades happened yesterday. But the Crusades took place over 700 years ago!
B. Broken Promises
Perhaps nothing causes as much pain as a broken promise. How many fights have started and how many marriages have ended because someone broke a promise. To break a promise means going back on your word. We live in a world of broken promises where men and women routinely make promises today that they know they will probably break tomorrow. We get married with the full knowledge that if it doesn’t work out, we can always get a divorce. We volunteer for a ministry at church knowing that we can always quit in the middle of the year if things get too hectic. We flash the credit card at the checkout stand when we already know we’re way over the limit. We say, “I’ll call you soon,” when we have no intention of calling at all. We say, “I’ll be glad to help you” even while we’re thinking of a way to get out of it.
A wise man once said that the key to happiness is to make fewer promises but then to keep the ones you make. All of us would be happier if we followed that simple rule.
C. Taking Up An Offense
Taking up an offense happens when you get angry because of how someone you love was mistreated. So husbands get angry on behalf of their wives, wives on behalf of their husbands, friends for friends, relatives for relatives, workers for workers, students for students, and on it goes. The danger here is that you will let your anger get the best of you and will go off half cocked, saying things and doing things that you later regret.
D. Wounded Spirit
Solomon warns us about this in Proverbs 18:14, “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” You don’t get a wounded or crushed spirit overnight. It happens gradually over time as one hurt is piled onto another. Slowly your heart begins to harden and your attitude begins to change as the joy is squeezed out of your life.
Over the years I have observed one primary sign of a wounded spirit. When your spirit is wounded, you become angry and bitter and resist every attempt to solve the problem. You blame others, you wallow in self-pity, and you would rather stay the way you are than get better. In fact, you attack anyone who dares to try to help you. It has also been my observation that persons with a wounded spirit are almost impossible to help. Such individuals have become so settled in their personal hurt that no words of counsel seem to reach them. That’s why Solomon asked who can bear a wounded spirit? The answer is, no one.
II. The Path to Peace
From this small and often-overlooked story we may find five steps that will lead us on the path of peace.
Someone has to take the first step. In our text, the pagan king Abimelech makes the first move. Think about the strained relationships in your own life. Someone has to make the first move.
–Will you be the one to pick up the phone?
–Will you take the time to write a letter?
–Will you stop making excuses?
–Will you make the first move?
Jesus made the first move when he “humbled himself” by leaving heaven to be born as a tiny baby. He showed us what it means to take the initiative to heal a broken relationship.
As long as you sit where you are, things will never change. But you say, “It’s not my fault things.” Maybe it’s not but Jesus said, “If you brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go and be reconciled, then come back and offer your gift to God.” (See Matthew 5:23-24).
Someone has to make the first move. Why not you?
Let me put it this way. Is there someone in your life you really don’t want to see right now? That’s probably the first person you need to talk to.
Peacemaking also takes courage because you never know how the other person is going to respond. There aren’t any guarantees. Sometimes your best efforts will be rejected. In our case, Abimelech didn’t know how Abraham would respond. If he got angry, it might lead to war. The same is true for you. If you make that phone call, or if you go see your boss, or if you write a letter to your mother, you’re taking a big chance. The other person might not understand, or they might take it as a sign of weakness, or they may try to twist your motives.
Peacemaking is risky business.
Peacemaking is risky business. That’s why so few people try to do it. And that’s why it often fails.
But if you have a broken relationship in your life, it’s not going to get better by itself. If you do nothing, things will only get worse.
Peacemaking also requires honesty. In our text Abraham brought up the matter of the well that Abimelech’s servants that seized from Abraham. They made peace and immediately Abraham starts complaining. But he’s perfectly justified because if he lets that issue fester, pretty soon the whole peace treaty will go up in smoke. So he has to mention it even though it might have been easier to overlook it.
Many of us shy away from this kind of open confrontation. We’d rather just look the other way when problems come. But I learned years ago that the first price you pay is always the cheapest. When you don’t deal with relational problems, the price for solving those problems always goes up. It never goes down.
That’s why Proverbs 24:26 says “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.” The truth may hurt but it is always more satisfying in the end.
Without honesty in relationships, peace is impossible.
Peacemaking requires patience because attitudes don’t change overnight. You can’t overcome years of hostility and mistrust over one quick lunch at Denny’s. In this case, both Abimelech and Abraham had to learn to live together despite their differences in background and religion.
Would you like a definition of patience? Here’s one that works for me. Patience is the willingness to wait for God to solve my problems. So many times we get frustrated with other people because they aren’t changing fast enough to suit us. Parents get angry at their children, husbands at wives and wives at husbands, adult children get frustrated with their elderly parents, workers with their bosses, bosses with their employees, students with their teachers, friends with friends, relatives with relatives, and church members get frustrated with each other all the time.
We throw up our hands and say, “What’s wrong with those people?” That’s the wrong question because it focuses all the attention on others when we really ought to throw the spotlight our own sinful impatience. What we ought to ask is, “Am I willing to wait for God for solve my problems?” Proverbs 21:1 reminds us that “the heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord.” If that’s true, and if we have committed the people who frustrate us to the Lord, then we can simply sit back and wait for God to do His work. Sooner or later, even the hardest heart must bend to His will.
The final aspect of peacemaking is kindness. We see a glimpse of that when Abimelech reminds Abraham of the kindness he has already shown him. We see a much greater glimpse in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Romans 2:4 tells us that it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. Ephesians 2:7 says that God showed kindness to us in Jesus Christ. Titus 3:4 declares that Jesus Christ is the ultimate demonstration of the kindness of God.
Go with me to bloody Calvary. Gaze on the disfigured body of the Jesus of Nazareth. Listen! Can you hear the howling mob? They scream for his blood, they cheer his pain, they laugh at his suffering. Chanting, laughing, jeering, mocking, the mob enjoys every moment of this tragedy.
A man dies and the world cheers.
The Son of God offers Himself and humanity mocks his pain.
And from the Cross come the words that have echoed across the ages, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Now we know.
If we never knew before, now we know.
We know the price, we know the pain, we know the agony.
The Prince of Peace came to the earth and was murdered for his trouble.
If you want to see the real face of love, look to the Cross.
If you want to see kindness, gaze on the contorted face of the crucified Redeemer.
Jesus said, “Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). First he said it, then he showed us how to do it when he died on the Cross.
Would you like to make peace with your enemies? You can, but it won’t be easy. If you would rather live in anger and bitterness, that option is always open to you.
Or you can follow Jesus to the Cross and die there. The choice is yours.