Love Your Enemies
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:43-45a ESV)
There is perhaps no greater distinctive of the Christian faith than love for one’s enemies. Think about it: every major religion has a love ethic. Yet, what is the object and nature of that love? The object is often a transcendent god—perhaps even good-natured and worthy of love. The nature is congruent—you love this god because it loves you back. In some cases, you are compelled to extend that love to others. But toward one’s enemies? Toward those who dislike you, who put you down, who mistreat you, who cut you off on the highway, who seek to do you harm? To love them despite such treatment is madness. It runs against the grain of humanity.
Jesus recognized this. In His most famous Sermon on the Mount, He acknowledged the oh-so-human tendency to love your neighbor and hate your enemy (Matthew 5:43). My four-year-old son knows this all too well; if his sister does something that he doesn’t like, he’s ready to throw a fist. Kids must be taught to treat others with kindness because human nature loves neighbors and hates enemies.
You and I are no different. We might have outgrown fist-throwing (I should hope), but we all still know that gut feeling of rage in the face of being wronged. That’s why Jesus’ love ethic is so challenging. He inverts it, calling us to love our enemies and pray for those who seek our harm. This was the very center of Jesus’ message; it’s the heart of the gospel: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10a). Paul recognizes you and I as God’s enemies. Yet, God loved us and sought us out. It was His commitment to enemy-love that saved us. And now, as imitators of God, Jesus compels us to do the same.
WE MIGHT HAVE OUTGROWN FIST-THROWING (I SHOULD HOPE), BUT WE ALL STILL KNOW THAT GUT FEELING OF RAGE IN THE FACE OF BEING WRONGED.
Now, you may be saying, “But I don’t have any enemies to love in the first place; I get along with everyone.” Let’s investigate that for a moment. Say that’s true—you are in relational harmony with every person in your life (congratulations!). Zoom out for a moment and consider your broader identities. As an American, how do you feel about Putin? As a conservative, how about those libs? As a Christian, what about secularists? If we’re honest, we can all identify at least someone, or some group, who thinks and acts differently than us. When their differences threaten our sense of self or way of life, they can become an “enemy.” We may not call them that, but it’s true. And Jesus is calling you to love them.
MLK Day is upon us. It’s been my practice over the years to read a different speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. each year. There’s a treasure trove of godly wisdom contained in over a decade of his public speaking and sermons. Check out this anthology.
This year, I came upon a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies” delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist church on November 17, 1957. In it, Dr. King explains both how and why we must love our enemies.
HOW TO LOVE YOUR ENEMIES
Step 1: Look at yourself. Jesus told His disciples to take the log out of their own eye before calling out the speck in their brother’s (Matthew 7:3). It’s possible that people will dislike you for no good reason. You might be their enemy simply because you look a certain way, talk a certain way, or believe a certain thing. But it’s also possible that they don’t like you because you did something “deep down in the past, some personality attribute that [you] possess, something that [you’ve] done…and forgotten about.” The first step toward loving your enemies is to check yourself and see how you might have contributed to the problem.
Step 2: Find the good in your enemy. Christian doctrine holds that every human is made in God’s image. That means that even the worst person inherently mirrors something of God’s goodness, kindness, and beauty. Dr. King says, “The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it…As you seek to hate [another], find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.”
Step 3: When the moment comes to win, don’t. “There will come a time when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person.” Dr. King’s wisdom—what love demands of us—is to resist the vindication of that moment. Think of how Jesus defeated His enemies on the cross. He didn’t condemn the mockery of the thief and soldiers. He absorbed their hatred and extended forgiveness.
WHY WE SHOULD LOVE OUR ENEMIES
Why would Jesus do such a thing on the cross? Why does He compel His followers in this radical, inverted ethic of love? Because “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe,” said Dr. King. And not only does hate foster hate, but it corrupts the personality of the hater. Only love can heal our broken world. Love has within it a redemptive power: “There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.” The Kingdom of God takes ground whenever someone loves their enemy.
Listen to the echo of these brave and prophetic words from a man who not only believed in loving one’s enemies, but walked it all the way through:
“As I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’” – MLK
Would you rather lay down your life than hate? Jesus did. So, follow the way of Christ and love your enemies.