Whether we like it or not, our human natures’ are conditioned by law—moral principles. Even if we cannot actually codify that law, it exists within us as something hardwired to the conscience, innately dictating a sense of right and wrong. Indeed, this fundamental intuition of right and wrong and the desire for justice that attends it, is never more obvious than when it rises up to defend us against personal injustice. When something happens that us that is perceived as not being right or fair, immediately our moral compass swings to true north and there arises within us a resolute appeal to be justified according to those deeply held principles of truth.
Of course, this innate moral compass has great value in as much as it reveals there is something wrong with human nature and the fallen world largely conditioned by it, thus it prompts us to search for an answer beyond ourselves. Paradoxically, this same innate moral law also works against us, in as much as it limits our capacity to grasp the next level of existence beyond law, that God has in store for those who fully trust him.
Regrettably, when we merely exist in this reality defined and conditioned by moral law, we unwittingly become trapped by the unrelenting human desire for self-justification. Indeed, even if we claim to be mature Christians, the next level of divine living which transcends this legal ‘eye for an eye’ existence, always seem to elude us.
Thankfully the teaching of Jesus addresses this vexing subject. In speaking to a group of religious people whose lives were deeply conditioned by moral law, Jesus challenges them not to allow their moral framework to limit the life that God has in store for them. He offers them a view of life that transcends an existence conditioned by their rigid system of rightness and wrongness. In response, he challenges them to adopt the mindset of their loving heavenly father when dealing with personal injustice> Not by self-righteously appealing to laws in one’s own defense, but rather transcending the law paradigm by approaching any given moral challenge through adopting the gracious disposition of God— walking the ‘second mile’ of grace.
Referring to the Old Testament ethical code Jesus said, ‘You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you…’ (Matt 5:38). He then goes on to describe a list of behaviors that fly in the face of the conventional moral views on personal legal equality. He speaks of allowing evil people to strike you on both cheeks, he suggests if someone wants to sue you for a certain amount give them more, and if an enemy forces you to carry their pack one mile then respond by carry it two miles. In fact, he seems to be suggesting that when it comes to injustice toward yourself, you will be far better served in the eyes of God if you set your ‘own rights’ aside and extend special favor to the offending individual (s).
What Jesus was intimating to these well meaning religious people, trapped by a world of rules and laws, is that if you want to really understand God and understand the purpose that he has for you, then you must adopt an entirely contrarian mindset when relating to personal injustice—a way of thinking about justice based squarely on the gracious nature of God himself.
You see, if God were to respond to every act of injustice with direct and immediate ‘just judgment’ (as we humans are so readily predisposed), there would not be a single human being alive who would not have been stuck down by God’s ‘wrath’, in fact every single one of us, without exception, are rightly deserving of the ‘just’ condemnation that comes when exposed by God’s piercing righteousness.
But God is more loving and gracious than you can possibly imagine. He does not respond with self-righteous retaliation to every sin; rather he graciously perseveres with our weaknesses, failings, flaws, and sins, he patiently reminds us of the futility of such an existence through the painful consequences of our actions, and gently goads us to come back to him by various means–especially his Word. Of course, God does not validate our moral indiscretions, nor does he overlook them (that would be inconsistent with his nature), but he does patiently bear with us in such a way that we come to see our own ‘evil’ when we are powerfully confronted by his overwhelming love.
This is actually what the bible calls Grace—the undeserved, kind, and loving favor of God. Law simply tells us what is wrong, but grace shows us the way out of that wrongness. Grace disarms the self-righteous spirit which, in appealing to law, actually resists God’s grace! Grace finds a way to make right what law never could, it gets under our moral defenses and touches our broken hearts with God’s love.
Jesus concluded by offering his hearers this challenge, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.’ Matt 5:48. He is suggesting that if you want to please God and align yourself with his desires, then stop living a self-interested, self-justifying, law- oriented life, and start living and acting the way God does—in grace.
He challenges us, to start relating to people in a manner that actually overlooks the self-righteous demanding of ‘my’ rights, and start relating to others with the disposition of undeserved kindness, conditioned by God’s boundless love. Start relating to others in the way that God relates to you! When you do this you will be living a life that truly pleases God, a life on the ‘second mile’ of human existence:
Firstly, this way of living sets you free from the inexorable demands of the moral conscience that drives you to justify yourself; measuring yourself against others, so you might appear better in the eyes of God. Consequently, it releases you from the culture of judging and being judged.
Secondly, it neutralizes the pride that conditions this self-righteousness. We often resist personal ‘enemies’ because we are proud. But, when in taking up the disposition of God, we start to see them as those who need to be graciously won over through love (people just like us). Consequently, we allow our pride to be quenched by the presence of God’s Spirit and start to respond with unnatural love. The balance of power now shifts in our (and God’s) favor; they are the ones now on the defense—there is nothing more disarming to an enemy than love!
Thirdly, when we decide to walk the road of ‘second mile’ of grace, we enter into a state of God dependence where we can now draw on a ‘power of God’, power that was previously unavailable to us.When we live within our ‘comfort zone’, even as Christians, we largely draw upon our natural human resources to get by. But when we enter into the realm of grace (loving enemies in a contrarian manner—and the like) these resources are no longer at our disposal–we have relinquished them. Yet, within this new state of existence God does not leave us powerless, he miraculously grants us both the external and internal resources to prevail against the seemingly impossible. This is what the Apostle Paul was alluding to when he wrote, ‘But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ 2 Cor 12:9.
Finally, in walking the ‘second mile’, we enter into a life that truly pleases God. We are no longer ‘looking over our shoulder’ to see if God is giving us ‘brownie points’ or taking them away—is he happy with me today or not ( yes, even Christians who believe in justification by faith this think like this). In the real of grace, we have now entered a form of existence that is in complete harmony with God. Firstly, we have surrendered our human wills to God in complete faith, and secondly manifested this faith in complete obedience—by actually loving others in the manner God does. In so doing, we have actually been freed from our self-righteous selves, freed to be truly human as God originally intended —human like Christ!
So, when you find yourself confronted by insurmountable opposition of all kinds, don’t fall back and stubbornly plod along the ‘first mile’ of moral self-defense, rather keep walking and trusting in God’s strength, striding on in faith. Be courageous enough to enter onto the ‘second mile’ of God’s grace, only then will you discover and experience God’s power and love in ways that were previously unimagined. This way of living is not without a solid precedent, indeed the Apostle Paul knew it well, and was not ashamed to speak of its wonders: ‘That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’2 Cor 12