There’s no getting around it: The English language can be a bit sloppy with certain pivotal words. Love, for instance: When the same word can be used to describe feelings toward a dog or a daughter or a deity, it makes no distinction between our latest enthusiasm and our deepest commitment. We the hearers have to distinguish by the context. Rational people understand this; no one would confuse a friend’s feelings for her baby with feelings for her bedroom decor.
But when it comes to hate, distinctions are less fine, largely because the word has been getting more of a workout lately. Hate is properly a verb, but the original noun form has all but disappeared. That might be because hatred sounds rather aloof and detached. Hate has claws, and in this adversarial age, the claws are out.
When I was growing up I was not allowed to say I hated anything, even liver. My mother’s aversion to the word passed on to me: It was too strong, too ugly. To this day I feel a little shiver of avoidance at the sound of it—which, given the way it’s used lately, means a lot of shivering.
Even though its dictionary meaning extends to strong distaste, such as some of us might feel for liver, hate primarily refers to a powerful, emotional antagonism, the kind that clenches your fingers like they could wring an exposed neck. It’s passionate and destructive and sometimes—sometimes—justified, but very hard to manage. Even righteous hatred can spill over to unrighteous excess, which is why the Lord insists we leave vengeance to Him.
The word has come down a lot. Once it applied to Adolf Hitler; now to Chick-fil-A. The “haters” of today, as defined by popular rhetoric, are those who argue with current wisdom. It’s easy to attach the hate label to opponents of the issue du jour, and only a slight stretch of the imagination to picture today’s haters stringing up the issue du jour to lampposts in the devilish light of bonfires. This is convenient: If all your opponents are haters, righteous indignation is a valid response. Haters barely deserve to live, much less shape public policy. They must be defeated, by any means necessary.
But let’s talk about the real thing. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Our world has a hard time with that: Hate Jesus? Jesus is cool. In fact, if Jesus were around today, he’d be hanging out with us instead of you hateful Christians. The world has a vague memory of Jesus ripping hypocrites and defending prostitutes. The world does not remember passages like “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:22). But then, Christians tend to forget them too; otherwise we wouldn’t be so outraged when tagged as “haters.”
John 15:18 is a shock, coming on the heels of “I am the vine” and “abide in me” and “love one another.” And oh, by the way: “The world will hate you.”
Whoa, that’s harsh. Might it be rhetorical hyperbole?
No. The world hates hearing that there is only one way (John 14:6), or that they are blind (John 9:41), or ignorant (John 4:22), or evil (Matthew 7:11). They called Him a demon (John 8:48); they’ll call you a bigot, or worse. To the extent that you abide in Christ, the world will hate you. It will even project its hatred on you.
So … how do we respond?
Jesus has a few suggestions: I didn’t come to condemn; neither do you (John 3:17). I intend good to my enemies; so must you (Luke 6:35). I stretch out my hands all day long to a rebellious people; so should you (Isaiah 65:2). I came to seek and save the haters—and such were you.