I walked into a gathering, and there she stood, smiling and chatting. When she saw me, she turned and threw her arms around me like I was her best friend. I stiffened not knowing how to respond to the woman who’d lied about me and other family members only weeks earlier.
Jesus told His disciples to love their enemies. What did He mean? What does “loving your enemy” look like? And why would He ask us to do this?
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What Is Biblical Love?
Most of us associate love with warm feelings. I love beach sunsets, chocolate chip cookies, and my standard poodles. What do I mean when I toss love around these dissimilar objects? I love how sunsets look, cookies taste, and my dogs make me feel.
Biblical love isn’t about my tastes or how someone makes me feel. Godly love seeks a person’s eternal best.
When Jesus told us to love our enemies, He wasn’t asking us to manufacture fuzzy feelings. Christ demonstrated His love on the cross by dying for us while we were His enemies (Rom. 5:8).
Biblical love is shown through our actions. Praying for the offender is one way that we can show love. An honest prayer can include asking God to grant the person repentance from their hurtful ways and bring them into a saving relationship with Himself.
Offering help when they’re in trouble is another way to show love. For example, God told the Israelites to return their brother’s stray ox or donkey when they found it (Deuteronomy 22:1). If they found their enemy’s lost animal, they were to return it, too (Exodus 23:4). In other words, they were to always do the right thing no matter who benefited.
If someone returned their brother’s lost property, they might stay to celebrate and share a meal together. However, when they returned an enemy’s lost animal, they probably didn’t stay and socialize.
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Why Should We Love Our Enemies?
The short answer to why we obey Jesus’ command to love our enemy is because He says so. But the Bible also shows the benefits of heeding this command.
We know vengeance belongs to God, but refraining from retaliation doesn’t seem to be enough to protect our souls from bitterness. We “overcome evil with good,” not neutrality (Romans 12:19-21). Doing good crushes evil, heals and empowers us, and radiates Jesus.
I got to test this principle when I was helping a counseling client set boundaries with a family member. Her brother quickly became an enemy when my client learned to tell him no. He keyed her car and targeted me with annoying calls. This was before caller I.D.
The man would call and then say nothing when I picked up the phone. My suspicions on the caller’s identity were confirmed when my answering machine recorded him talking to his child before he realized it had picked up.
I asked the Lord to show me how to bless him when I’d rather blast him. The next time he called I said, “God bless you, Lance” (not his real name). I immediately felt empowered. Blessing him erased my irritation and stopped his calls.
Notice the benefits that come from showing love (italics added).
“The merciful man does himself good, but the cruel man does himself harm” (Proverbs 11:17 NASB).
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35 NIV).
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” (Matthew 25:40 NLT).
Studies show harboring fear, anger, and resentment suppresses our immune systems. Loving our enemies blesses Jesus, benefits us, and reveals God’s grace to a hurting world. God rewards those who do good to their enemies. Love also shows we belong to the heavenly Father.
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45 NIV).
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Can I Love and Set Boundaries?
Loving your enemies doesn’t mean tolerating evil or seeking a close relationship with someone who is untrustworthy. The second greatest commandment says to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). Biblical love isn’t about placing ourselves in harm’s way. God calls us to be loving — and wise.
“Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15 NIV).
Unsafe people put kind people in awkward positions. It’s uncomfortable to live guarded. But we must practice caution with those who deceive, manipulate, and back-stab.
Love and boundary setting go together. It is reasonable and loving to say, “Your raging isn’t good for either of us. I’m going out for a while. I’ll hear your thoughts when you’re calm.”
David had to hide in caves to keep King Saul from killing him. Even after Saul confessed his wrong and asked David to return, David didn’t trust him. Saul’s actions didn’t line up with his words. Yet, David refused to retaliate or curse Saul when given the opportunity.
The instruction to love our enemies does not mean to accept sin or abuse. We don’t do anyone a favor when we protect wrong doers. Real love hates wrong.
“Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good” (Romans 12:9 NLT).
“Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them” (Ephesians 5:11 NLT).
John is often referred to as the apostle of love. He demonstrated love by warning a church about a controlling leader. Read his words.
“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church” (3 John 1:9-10 NIV).
Love does what is right for all concerned. Sometimes this includes confronting sin.
Jesus demonstrated the firm side of love when He blasted the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and refused to speak to Herod who’d beheaded His cousin John the Baptist (Luke 23:9). His strong words gave the wrong doers a chance to face their sin and turn to Him. They also instructed His followers.
Yet, He didn’t stop there. He wept over Jerusalem and went to the cross for all these men (Matthew 23:37). As C. S. Lewis once said, “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.”
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How Do I Love My Enemy?
How do two porcupines hug? Very Carefully. How do we love our enemies? With divine guidance and power.
God is love, and the Holy Spirit produces love through us when we submit to Him. With Christ ruling our hearts we will have wisdom and power to love. We don’t love based on how others act. We love based on who we are in Christ.
Since our worth doesn’t come from what people think of us, our love doesn’t depend on how people treat us. We love them for their good — not to avoid feeling guilty or to win someone’s approval. Since God provides for all my needs in Christ Jesus, I can be wise and kind in setting boundaries.
God uses our awkward relationships to turn us into awesome lovers. This love from God transforms us into people who won’t be manipulated by fear or guilt. As we obey the Romans 12:14 command to bless those who persecute us, power shifts from our enemy to us. They don’t control us; God does.
When I prayed about how to proceed with the deceitful woman who hugged me. I sensed the Lord told me to be honest with her. I didn’t need her approval or to worry about what she told her friends.
When she reached out in a letter, I told her I was confused. On one hand she publicly showed affection, but on the other I knew about the lies she’d spread. If she were apologizing and wanted a relationship based on truth, I’d accept that. I hoped her outreach was sincere. But based on her history (which, by the way, had been long and consistent), if this was for show, she could drop the pretense.
The next time I heard from her was the next time she set out to wrong a family member. Showing biblical love to your enemy doesn’t mean they’ll change. But you’ll live free from bitterness and their manipulation. We can do good to others because our heavenly Father takes care of us.
“And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love” (2 John 6).
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Drawing from her walk with Christ, and decades as a Christian counselor, coach, and Bible teacher, Debbie W. Wilson helps women give themselves a break so they can enjoy the fruitful and satisfying lives found only in God’s grace. She is the author of Little Women, Big God and Give Yourself a Break. Her latest book, Little Faith, Big God, releases February 2020. She and her husband Larry founded and run Lighthouse Ministries, a nonprofit counseling, coaching, and Bible study ministry. She is an AWSA (Advanced Writers and Speakers Association) certified speaking and writing coach. Debbie enjoys a good mystery, dark chocolate, and the antics of her two standard poodles. Refresh your faith with free resources at debbieWwilson.com.