by Scott Sutton
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:43-48)
This teaching of Jesus gets me every time. Sometimes I wish Jesus had never said it. There are people out there who I don’t want to love – people who have wronged me; people who say or do things that I find pretty rotten; people who exploit, persecute, and suppress the marginalized to achieve their own agenda. I don’t want to love these people…I want to hurt them. If I pray for these people, I would pray for God to judge them and bring them ruin.
And I’m not alone here. In psalm after psalm, David prays boldly for his enemies’ demise:
Let death take my enemies by surprise;
let them go down alive to the realm of the dead.
Try hanging a cross-stitch of that verse under your “Live. Laugh. Love.” wall art.
And yet. And yet. And yet….
Jesus tells us to love and pray for our enemies.
I wish I could explain this teaching of Jesus away…like maybe the original Greek word for ‘enemy’ is something more along the lines of ‘stranger’; or maybe the Aramaic word for ‘love’ used here is more along the lines of ‘don’t murder’. Those would be much easier for me to get behind. But, alas, Jesus doesn’t give us any wiggle room here. ‘Love your enemies’ means ‘love your enemies.’ And to remove any lingering doubt from our minds, we have the picture of Jesus who, while dying on the cross, prayed on behalf of the people who demanded, authorized, and carried out the death penalty on him, “Father forgive them.” And I’m left in shambles.
The command to love our enemies isn’t a plea for us all just to be nice and get along…in fact, Jesus guarantees us that we WON’T all get along (Matthew 10:34-36).
Rather, loving our enemies does three critical works within us:
1) It teaches us how deep God’s love is for us, that when we were HIS enemies he was willing to take all of our offenses upon himself so we could be reconciled with him
2) It perfects our ability to love others
3) It is the only hope for reconciliation
Let’s look at each of these a little closer.
Learning the depths of God’s love. I see too many people falling into one of these two traps: either they believe that God is always disappointed or furious with them (thus, always burdened to love them), or they believe that they are particularly deserving of God’s love because of how relatively good or spiritual or religious they are. In fact, we need to abandon both of these extremes and learn to sit comfortably at the intersection of the two truths that our nature is to be enemies with God and that God loves us while we are his enemies.
God created us in his image – to be lords over his creation as he is Lord over us. But we naturally want to be lords without a Lord. So our very nature is at odds with him. BUT he loves us deeply as his precious creations and takes it upon himself to reconcile these odds. This involved him taking our human nature upon himself and submitting to the Father while also submitting to our violent, murderous rebellion that sent him to the cross.
We are his enemies. He loves us. Two truths we need to be able to hold simultaneously. Modeling his love by loving our enemies is a powerful way for us to do this and to deepen our love and worship of God.
Becoming better lovers. If the world will know Christ by Christians, and they will know Christians by our love, then we must strive to be the best lovers the world has ever seen. This includes how we love our families, our communities, our church, and our world at large. To some extent, this is a nearly universal ideal. Jesus acknowledges in Matthew 5:46-47 that even non-believers love people who love them back. You don’t need to be a Christian to know what love is. This world was created by a loving God, and the fingerprints of his love are all over the place.
Before I became a Christian I had no problem understanding brotherly, romantic, and familial loves. But I had little-to-no concept of enemy love. It never even dawned on me that I ought to love my enemies. I hated those guys. Why would I love them? How could I love them? One of them punched me in the head once. I was able to muster the strength to take the high road in my response…but love him? No way. I wanted him to die. And I rejoiced in the misfortune that came his way in the subsequent years.
But that whole incident and others like it reinforced a pattern in my heart and mind and soul. And that pattern of hating my enemies dulled my ability to love the people I loved. It wasn’t until I understood how to love my enemies that I could see that. And I could also see how loving my enemies reinforced patterns that sharpened my ability to love the people I loved. I found myself growing more patient, more self-sacrificing, less critical, more empathetic when my beliefs were at odds with the people I loved.
I found myself becoming a better lover of all people as a result of loving my enemies.
Our only hope for reconciliation. True reconciliation requires love; otherwise, it is simply a ceasefire. And ceasefires can be good, but that isn’t what God has done or called us to. If God’s redemptive work to us when we were still his enemies was merely a ceasefire, his work would have ended on the cross when Jesus died for our sins. Jesus’ body would still be buried in a tomb. There would be no gift of the Holy Spirit. We would be forgiven for our offenses and that would be the end of it.
But God is a God of reconciliation! Rather than ending there, our story with him is just beginning!
And we are called toward reconciliation, too. If we remain entrenched in hating our enemies, we will never be open to the possibility of reconciliation. And we may miss crucial, rare opportunities to reconcile with them as they repent of their ways. That day may never comes, but better to be prepared and for it to never come than to miss it altogether.
In today’s political climate and how it plays out on social media and in popular culture, it is easy to name our enemies. They may be certain politicians or certain people who amplify the message of those politicians. They may be people we have never met in real life or people we know in real life…maybe even people we once loved. Regardless of who your enemies may be, ask God to help you love them – to truly, actively love them. We aren’t called to condone them or enable them or to sit back and smile politely as they perpetuate evil, but we are called to love them – so we can better understand the depths of God’s love, so we can become better lovers, and so perhaps there can someday be reconciliation.
That we may all be reconciled with the God who loves us more deeply than any of us can imagine.
Application: Spend some time reflecting on what it is about your enemies that makes you hate them. Then reflect on ways in which you are guilty of the exact same evil, even if it manifests differently in you. Read Matthew 5:18-7:6 if you are struggling to answer this. Ask God to forgive you, to change your heart, and ask for power and perspective to love other people who are guilty of these things, too.