Loving Our Enemies: A Divine Task

Professor of Biblical Studies and Chair of the Theology and Ministry Department at Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas.
Loving Our Enemies: A Divine Task

It was the last day of school before the Christmas holidays when 10-year-old Chris Carrier was walking home from school. He was just two houses away from his home when an older-looking man approached him. The man introduced himself as a friend of his father and said he was hosting a party for his father and asked the little boy if he would help with the decorations. Chris agreed and hopped into the back of the man's motor home.

Chris stayed in the back of the truck and made himself comfortable. They quickly passed through the city of Miami to the outskirts. There the man stopped the van. He gave Chris a map and told him to find a certain road because he had missed a turn. The man excused himself saying he had "to get something."

As Chris studied the map, he felt a stinging searing pain in his back. He turned to see the man with an ice pick in his hand. The man pulled Chris out of his seat and proceeded to stab him several times in his chest. The little boy pleaded that if he stopped and let him go he wouldn't tell anyone. The man stopped and told him he would drop him off somewhere. Lying on the floor the little boy asked why the man was doing to this to him. The man replied that his father "had cost him a lot of money."

About an hour later, they stopped driving and the man led him out into the bushes. He told Chris that his father would pick him up there. The last thing Chris remembers was watching the man walk away. Six days later, a local deer hunter found him. Besides being stabbed, he had been shot in the head but had no memory of it.

This ordeal left him blind in one eye so he could not take part in contact sports. Miraculously he suffered no brain damage and was fearfully aware that his abductor was still at large. He struggled with his appearance, but at the tender of age of 13 he began to change. He realized his injuries could have been much worse—he could have died. He also realized he could not stay angry forever. He decided to turn his back on animosity, revenge and self-pity forever.

Twenty-two years after this horrific event, Chris received a phone call. The police informed him that they were holding a man, David McAllister, who confessed to being his abductor. David McAllister had been an aide for an elderly uncle in Chris's family. He had been fired because of drinking problems. Chris went with a friend to visit the man the following day. Here is his account of the meeting.

"When I first spoke to David, he was rather callous. I suppose he thought I was another police officer. A friend who had accompanied me wisely asked him a few simple questions that led to him admitting that he had abducted me. He then asked, ‘Did you ever wish you could tell that young boy that you were sorry for what you did?' David answered emphatically, ‘I wish I could.' That was when I introduced myself to him. Unable to see, he clasped my hand and told me he was sorry for what he had done to me. In return, I offered him my forgiveness and friendship." (Johann C. Arnold, Lost Art of Forgiving, pp.29-31)

The clearest statement on loving our enemies is found in Matthew 5:38-43. This is not a difficult teaching to understand, but it is probably the most difficult passage in the Bible to apply. Why? Because it is about being like God. It is similar to what the Methodists call "being perfect in love." It is about being like Jesus who, while they shouted, "Crucify Him, Crucify Him," He lifted His head to heaven and said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Loving Our Enemies Fulfils God's Law
This passage is found in a section where Matthew (Matthew 5:17-48) explains the demands of the Kingdom of God in relationship to the Law. Matthew wants his readers to know what their relationship is to the Law now that they are Christians. He lists six Old Testament precepts: "You have heard that it was said 'do not murder...do not commit adultery...you can divorce...do not give an oath...do not retaliate...hate your enemy."

These are followed by Jesus' interpretation. In each instance Jesus' interpretation of the OT, like a scalpel, cuts deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, going past the letter of the Law to the Spirit of the Law. In doing this, Jesus upholds and fulfils the essence of the Law, as He said in Matthew 5:17: "I have not come to destroy the Law but to fulfil the Law." In these texts, Jesus is calling for Christians to have attitudes and practices in life which clearly will demarcate them from the rest of the world.

In this sense, Matthew 5:48—"be  perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect"—is a conclusion to the entire section. Jesus is calling a people to be perfect. Not in the sense of getting it right all the time but in the sense of being complete, whole, un-alloyed in our commitment to God and His desires, which are spelled out in these verses. These verses describe what the people of God are to look like. This is the type of people who really fulfil the Law.

Jesus picks up the motto of the day, "Love your neighbour and hate your enemy." The first part, love your neighbour, comes from the Old Testament. The latter part, hate your enemy, comes from some of the misled Jews, who at the time understood "love your neighbour" to mean, "hate your enemy." Jesus rejected this interpretation and said, "love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you." What did Jesus mean by that?

Loving Your Neighbour Includes Loving Your Enemy
Neighbour means something like "friend" in this context. Jesus believed it is well and good to love our friends, but the problem in only loving one's friend is the person is restricted in his or her love. This type of love is restrictive in that it is selective and prejudiced, because this type of love chooses only those they like and who love them in return.

Yet God's love is very different. God also loves the evil person, shown by the fact He causes the sun to shine on the evil and the good—not restricting the expression of His love to only one group. God loves the unrighteous, shown by the fact He causes the rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous without distinguishing between the two. God does not withhold His love from either group.

Another problem with loving only our friends is that this kind of love is not generous enough. It is not lavish enough so that it spills out onto others who are not our friends. It only reaches those who love us in return. This is an eye-for-an-eye love, but love-your-enemy love is like a multi-tiered fountain from which love spills over onto a greater pool of people, enemies and friends.

How do we love our enemies, particularly when they most likely would not want to talk to us, let alone love them? Jesus suggests prayer. He does not expand on this idea, but I believe He suggests prayer because it is one intimate way in which Christians can enter into the hearts of their enemies. Prayer helps us understand what makes people tick. Through prayer, we are able to feel the inner world of our enemies. Most importantly, prayer helps us know the perspective and passion of God for our enemies.

Do you remember Corrie Ten Boom's sister? While she and the other inmates at the concentration camp watched helplessly as a prisoner received a beating, she felt sorry for the guard who would choose to do this. She already had prayed herself into the heart of the guard.

Matthew sets out two examples of loving only your neighbour Matthew 5:46-47. In both cases, Matthew's concern is that Christians only minister and demonstrate love to those who love them in return. Christians and churches must not become mutual admiration societies.

Love-Our-Enemy Love is Selfless, Outward-Looking Love
In the first scene, Matthew makes it clear there are serious implications for those who love only their friends. They will receive no reward in heaven when their life works are judged (2 Corinthians 5:10) because they have received their full reward on earth.

Jesus indicts such people as being like tax collectors. Tax collectors showed love to the Roman soldiers at the tax booth, paying them off in return for their protection as they exploited the people paying the tax. This is a self-serving love, the motto of which is: "If I do something loving for you, then you will do something loving for me. Right?"

The second scenario hits much closer to home. The problem is within the church. Christian brothers and sisters were greeting only their friends. The enemy in this situation is not some sinister, weapon-toting despot. He or she is simply someone who does not share the same opinions or status. It appears that our 21st century problem has its roots in the first century.

Jesus knows that to greet someone is to acknowledge his or her significance at some level. Not to greet someone is reject them or spurn them. The message conveyed through this lack of gesture is that the person is not even worth being acknowledged. It is to treat him or her as an enemy. No one likes to be invited to a party only to be ignored by the host. Yet think about how many times we have had the chance to greet someone sitting on the street and instead of looking the person in the eye and saying, "Hello," we simply look away and keep walking.

Is it really possible to love our enemies? Jesus did, and it was particularly evident during Holy Week; but can we love this way? Based on this text, I would suggest five ingredients necessary for loving our enemies.

Loving Our Enemy is Possible, Costly and Rewarding
First, remember that loving our enemies requires removing our enmity against God. God's enmity against us was removed at the cross through Christ's death. At that moment He was reconciled to us. Now it is up to us to be reconciled to Him, to respond to Him in love. This is an issue of trust. Without this basis in our lives, it will be impossible to love our enemies.

Second, loving our enemies requires an honest, humble self-appraisal. Listen to the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

Only with this humble attitude can we do the third step: To love a friend requires death to self. To love our enemies requires death to self at the highest level. It is self-denial at warp-speed times 10. This type of love that Jesus requires of us is to be on the side of all people no matter what they might do to provoke a different reaction. For some, this means hanging in there with the rebellious son or daughter who hates you and your Christian faith. For others, it is the arrogant boss who marginalizes you. This tough love requires hanging in there until you can understand why he or she is acting and feeling a particular way.

Fourth, loving our enemies does not mean unequivocal trust. Enemies who have hurt us have forfeited their right to our trust. They are to earn our trust again. It is important not to let ourselves be victimized again. The words of Romans 12:17-18pertain here. We are required to do what is right. We are to consider beforehand what good things we can do for others regardless of whether he or she is friend or foe; but remember: We do not do these things in order to get an apology from someone or to gain approval. We do good toward them because it is the right thing to do.

We are to live at peace with our enemies, but there are two conditions. The text says "If it is possible," which means that in some instances it may not be possible to love our enemies. There are situations in which we simply must remove ourselves (if possible) from the situation for our sake or the sake of the other(s) and let God deal with the situation. Our only option in this type of situation is prayer: prayer a changed heart, prayer for God to open up an opportunity to express love safely.

The second condition in the text states, "as far as it depends on you." Paul is making it clear that though we have a responsibility to love our enemies, we do not have all responsibility to love our enemies. We are responsible to love with a pure heart as best we can; but for the sake of the enemy's soul, he or she also must learn to take responsibility to love others. By setting an example through loving, we can help our enemies—even provoke them into taking responsibility to love others. Yet no one can make them become responsible and/or loving. It must be an act of individual will.

Fifth, we must accept that loving our enemies is one of the most difficult things we ever will do and is only possible through the grace of God. We must not minimize this difficulty nor neglect the emotions in loving our enemies. One day I found out just how difficult it is to love our enemies when I went with a parishioner to get her 14-year-old daughter who had run away from home to live with her boyfriend.

We arrived at his house. There was a large, noisy party going on. Her boyfriend came to the door, a skinhead with a swastika tattooed on his forehead. I thought to myself, "He looks just like Charles Manson." I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to get out of there because I was scared for my life. He stood at the door with several others standing behind him. At some level of my being I was wishing I could beat him up, because I did not want him to be with this young girl I knew. Why did I feel like this? Why did I not care if I hurt this person? What was it that I was missing? What was it that I could not see about him? What could I not see about me? Most importantly, what was it that I did not know about God, who is able to love His enemies?

I did not see this young man as a person created in the image of God. I saw him as my enemy. I saw him as a problem to be removed. I lacked compassion because I did not know how much God loved him as someone created in God's image.

Loving our enemies is not just a cerebral exercise, though we do need to think about what it means to love our enemies and have a plan to affect it. The truth is that loving our enemies is costly and must be worked out in the world. This love works in the world of flesh and blood, as this story clearly depicts.

The scene is a courtroom trial in South Africa. A frail black woman stands slowly to her feet. She is more than 70 years old. Facing her from across the room are several white security police officers. One of them, a Mr. van der Broek, has just been tried and found guilty in the murders of the woman's son and husband. He had come to the woman's home, taken her son, shot him at point-blank range, then burned the young man's body while he and his officers partied nearby.

Several years later, van der Broek and his cohorts returned for her husband, as well. For months, she heard nothing of his whereabouts. Then, almost two years after her husband's disappearance, van der Broek came back to fetch her. How vividly she remembered that night. She was taken to a river bank where she was shown her husband, bound and beaten but still strong in spirit, lying on a pile of wood.

The last words she heard from his lips as van der Broek and his fellow officers poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame were, "Father, forgive them…"

When the woman stood in the courtroom and listened to the confessions of van der Broek, a member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, "So, what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?"
"I want three things," began the old woman calmly, but confidently. "I want first to be taken to the place where my husband's body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial." She paused, then continued. "My husband and son were my only family. I want, secondly, therefore, for Mr. van der Broek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can pour out on him whatever love I still have remaining in me."

"Ffinally," she said, "I would like Mr. van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. So, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. van der Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven."

As the court assistants came to lead the elderly woman across the room, van der Broek fainted, overwhelmed by what he just heard. As he struggled for consciousness, those in the courtroom—family, friends, neighbours—all victims of decades of oppression and injustice—begin to sing softly but assuredly, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me."

We are familiar with the benediction: "Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord." This includes loving our enemies. So may His grace sustain us for this most high calling.