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.” (Matthew 5:43–45)
Is our view of who we should love and who we should hate more like the view of those to whom Jesus spoke or more like the view of Jesus?
Jesus said to His Jewish hearers, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” That was what this Jewish audience had heard. It was presumably a principle they were living by or else Jesus would not have bothered to mention it. But is it not also something we hear continually? Is it not, for example, exemplified in the form of discourse modeled by millions of participants on many social media platforms--the places where most young people are now learning the basic rules of how to interact with other human beings?
In the United States, as in many countries, there are different groups who take different positions on all manner of issues. Quite often, those in one group have heated and angry disagreements with those in other groups. Each group tends to view those in other groups as the enemy. Sometimes, those in one group treat those in "enemy" groups with hatred, contempt, and even violence. In some of our local communities, there are members of different groups physically fighting one another in the streets. In many of our virtual "communities," there are members of different groups verbally fighting one another in the comment boxes.
As Christians, we live in the midst of a world that teaches us by word and deed to "hate our enemy." Jesus instructs His followers to respond to our enemy differently. So, do we respond as Jesus commanded by loving our enemy and praying for him? Or do we respond the same way so many unbelievers do, by hating our enemy? Where are we going in order to learn what our response to our enemy should be? Scripture or Twitter?
All any of us have to do to know how we tend to respond to an enemy is to ask ourself who in this country aggravates us the most? Who makes me angry? Is it the person with bumper stickers for a candidate I don’t like? Is it the protestor for this cause or that cause? Who among my fellow citizens do I view as “the enemy”? Once we’ve answered that question, we should re-read what Jesus says in Matthew 5 and prayerfully examine our hearts.
Does Jesus's command here make us uncomfortable? If we are behaving in a worldly manner, His words will certainly make us uncomfortable. They certainly made Jesus’s first hearers uncomfortable. His words make us uncomfortable because we have all sinned in this regard. We have all done the opposite of what Jesus commands here. Rather than showing the love of Christ toward our “enemies” by praying for them and proclaiming the Gospel to them, we either want to jump into the melee and start punching people in the face or we gleefully cheer on the hatred of those who do.
Jesus’s command in these verses, as in the rest of His Sermon, calls for a radical re-thinking of our relation as Christians to people in the world in which we live. It is completely contrary to the world's way of thinking. Loving your enemy and praying for him isn’t the way we do things in these parts. It ain’t natural. Well, that’s because what is natural to our sinful flesh is sin. What is required in order to respond as Jesus commanded is something supernatural, namely the Holy Spirit.
Now, does loving your enemy mean that you are going to have warm fuzzy feelings of affection toward him or her or approve everything he or she says or does? No, that’s not the meaning of love here. To love someone is to desire good for them. When we watch the news, or scroll through some social media feed and see someone doing something sinful, we can have a righteous anger, but that doesn’t mean we should not desire the good for that someone.
In particular, we should desire the ultimate good for them, namely their salvation. If this person we consider an enemy is a lost sinner, he or she is held captive to sin and death and is facing an eternity suffering the wrath of God. Thus, Jesus’s command to pray for our enemies. If they are lost, we are to pray for their salvation and if possible proclaim the Gospel of Christ to them. We too were once in their shoes.
Proclaiming the Gospel to a lost enemy does not mean ignoring sin, but it does involve understanding that lost sinners sin, not being surprised by that fact, and understanding that Christ is their only hope. As the Canons of Dordt explain, "it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel" (Second Main Point, Art. 5). Note the command to repent. In order for a person to repent, he or she must be convicted of his or her sin.
We need to remember that we were all once the enemies of God (Romans 5:10). Had God responded to us when we were enemies the way we often respond to our enemies, we would be eternally lost. Praise be to God that is not how He responded to us when we were dead in sin and trespasses. Instead, he responded with love and grace toward us:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1–10)
If we are going to call ourselves followers of Christ, we have to actually follow Christ. He commands us to love our enemies and to pray for them. Instead of hating our enemy, punching him in the face, incessantly mocking him in tweet after tweet or post after post, let us follow Christ by obeying His command to love our enemy. The next time someone shares a post about someone in an "enemy" group, rather than re-tweeting, sharing, and mocking, pray for that person. Ask God first to guard your own heart against all sinful attitudes, and then pray that the Lord would draw that person to Christ. If you are in a position to do so, proclaim the Gospel to them.
Jesus turns those who were His born enemies (people like you and me) into His friends (John 15:13–17). Our desire for those we consider to be the "enemy" should be for their salvation. If we love them, which is to desire the ultimate good for them, we should desire that they be saved, that they too would become friends of God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. That cannot happen if Christians do not proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them, and it's a bit difficult to proclaim the Gospel to someone while you are physically or verbally punching him in the face because you hate him.
Let us ask God to change the desires of our heart, to conform our desires to His desires and our will to His will, that we might respond to our “enemy” as Jesus our King commanded us to do.
P.S. Lest anyone send me a note asking whether this means that if someone breaks into my house and starts strangling my child, I should stand there and pray for him without doing anything else, the answer is no. Obeying the sixth commandment requires "just defense thereof against violence" (Westminster Larger Catechism, 135). The sixth commandment and Jesus's commandment in the Sermon on the Mount are not in conflict. He is the Author of both. Jesus's commandment concerns our basic heart attitude toward lost human beings in light of the Gospel commission He has given the Church.