“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. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I had a couple of different working titles for this week’s post, like “On loving jerks; a treatise” or “Loving your not-favorite people” and “Why is everyone so colorful during election season?” I thought they might not go over well, but I want to give fair coverage to a topic I am always so relieved to read about by my favorite long-dead authors, even if it’s not a popular subject. I want to talk about loving our enemies. Im going to let you know up front, this topic isn’t really something that I can rush through, but let’s be honest, are there any topics I can rush through? (Scientific fact: no.) For the sake of your valuable time, unless it’s fluff, which I’ll outright tell you upfront and in the tags (be on the lookout for my Fluffy Sci-Fi Fridays), you may as well resign yourself to long posts that would be better off as series’. I physiologically can’t shorten my posts. I CAN’T.
In the world we live in, we might be blessed with the wonderful types of friendships I wrote about last week, and we will most certainly be blessed with opportunities to love our less than favorite people. This is because our beautiful world is filled with people who are both lovely and sinful, and some who are downright evil. I want to clarify that when I say blessed with an opportunity to love them, I mean that genuinely – truly, the sanctification and maturity that comes out of loving others well in obedience are worth it, and I don’t think that good fruit comes any other way.
We don’t wake up mature. We don’t just microwave character into our lives. It usually comes by suffering, and it’s been my experience that we don’t get to “opt out” of the harder sections of the Beatitudes designed to produce the life desired in us. Because God loves us, He disciplines us, and if we decide we’re going to try to take a pass on loving difficult people, I believe we just get more and more opportunities to try…by continued testing. If we’re determined to dislike every person who snubs us, or nurture grudges, or take offense every time the opportunity is presented, we are going to be blessed with a never-ending Wegman’s parking lot on a Saturday morning’s worth of rude people until we get the hint. That’s my opinion anyway, and it’s my blog, so I’m keeping it.
So, before we begin; in loving a person who wouldn’t naturally be our favorite, or who may actually be an outright terrible person, I want to clarify that loving them does not mean enduring abuse, or affirming their sin or pretending it doesn’t exist. And honestly, there is a scale of difficulty that makes loving some people much easier, and some enemies much harder. It’s one thing to have an annoying coworker, or an unreliable employee, or a rude barista. It’s quite another to endure cruelty from a family member, or abuse in any form, or neglect, or heartbreak. Loving your enemy doesn’t mean saying it’s okay to murder, or cheat, or lie, or anything else that the Word of God prohibits. It means we are to love them as we love ourselves, ourselves who have also murdered or cheated or lied, even if only in our hearts.
Matthew 5:21-31 is one of many places where Jesus Christ levels the playing field. Have you ever hated a brother in your heart? Have you ever allowed your heart to crave that which is not yours, or allowed your eyes to linger or your heart to lust after another human being? Have you ever withheld the truth when it painted yourself in a bad light, or posited yourself to look more favorable in a situation? Have you ever preferred your favorites, schemed to secure your desired outcomes, forsaken and idolized, and in general failed to be a decent human being?
I have, and I think you have, and between you and me and the rest of the world, it’s the history of mankind. No matter how much tinkering I do in the garden-shed of my soul, I have still found sin lurking at the door, and I still must master it. I have sinned in anger. I have not loved well where I ought to have done. I have coveted. I have cherished sin in my heart instead of forsaking it. I have been lazy. I have done all of the above, and I have mercifully found myself in good company with my bff St. Paul. It’s why we have a Savior, because we have all fallen short – desperately, despairingly short of the glory of God, and all we should be in Him – and we have all found ourselves at the equal footing of the Cross.
If you’ve not found this to be the case with yourself, you can feel free to skip the rest, and bless us all with marigold petals as you alight to the highest heavens on gilded wings. But for the rest of us, I’m trying to hone in momentarily on our own sin because I think some humility would go a long way in helping us to love those who sin against us. Because we all still love the jerk in the mirror, know what I mean?
When I find the above mentioned sin and it’s myriad of perversions in my heart, I hate it – don’t we all hate the sin we find lurking in ourselves? But we still love ourselves, because it is the most natural thing in the world to do. It’s how we were made; it is our default.
Good ol’ Clive (in my heart, C.S. Lewis and I are on a first name basis) says it better in Mere Christianity (don’t skim this because of the length);
“Well, how exactly do I love myself? Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently ‘Love your neighbour’ does not mean ‘feel fond of him’ or ‘find him attractive’. I ought to have seen that before, because, of course, you cannot feel fond of a person by trying. Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either. That is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are.
Go a step futher.
In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.
For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life – namely myself. However much I disliked my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is in anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again…we must try to feel about [our enemies] as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.
Christian, that’s the road we are to take. Without minimizing for one moment the horrors or atrocities ourselves and our fellow humans are capable of – without for a second trying to pat down the excruciating pain and heartbreak and legitimate suffering that is borne out of sin working itself out through our fellow man – we are called to love our neighbor, and our enemies, as ourselves. It is how we are to be known – by our love. And that love is patient, it is kind, it doesn’t envy or boast, it isn’t arrogant or rude. Love doesn’t insist on it’s own way (does this not fly in the face of everything we are told we are entitled to in our current age?), it is not irritable or resentful, it doesn’t rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the Truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Can I poke with a stick a little bit? I love the Disqus and comment sections on blogs and websites as much as anyone else; I like to read current events, and I often look to the comments for expanded insight, for challenges to my own perspectives, and for the plain ol’ enjoyment I take in humanity. But lately, it has been a complete trainwreck. Every failboat that has ever sailed has had its port of origin in the comments section of any given online media. It is grievous. I am not talking about worldly people speaking like worldly people. I have seen complete strangers, bearing the name of Christian, completely destroy each other on public forums. I have seen and heard Christian friends tear apart the candidates vying for our votes this November. I have myself contributed to the public scorn and disgust of both candidates, and brothers and sisters, these things should not be. I am not saying I don’t have visceral responses to some of the filth disguised as news that the media puts out for public consumption. But can I warn myself, and you while you’re here? We can’t let our love grow cold. Galatians 5:14-16 tells us:
The whole law is made complete in this one command: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If you go on hurting each other and tearing each other apart, be careful, or you will completely destroy each other.
I’m not saying lie to ourselves and paint enemies (real or imagined) as nice people. I’m not saying we can’t disagree, or dislike things about each other. But we’re not allowed to hate each other. We’re not allowed to hate our enemies. Best case scenario, we’re friends and neighbors, and we get to walk out that love with grace and mercy and lots of do-overs every day with our pals. Worst case scenario, we have enemies (again, real or imagined) that we are commanded to love and pray for. Not libel. Not slander. Not condescend to. Not gossip about. But love and pray for.
Does this seem to be absurd, impossible, self-righteous posturing? I promise it isn’t, and I promise it’s possible. We won’t be commanded to do something we can’t do. Think of the last words of Stephen as he was being stoned to death in Acts; “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Think of some of the last words of our Lord and Savior as he was being brutally crucified – “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” They had enemies. They were us! And at the end of the day, if we don’t forgive our enemies, if we don’t ask God to help us to love the people that drive us nuts the way that He loves us, the alternative is pretty sobering; “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Trespass here can mean both an unintentional error or a willful transgression – the same willful transgressions referenced to in Psalm 103, one of my favorite Psalms reminding me of God’s forgiveness. We have sinned, and others have sinned against us.
There is only one way out, and it’s the way of the Cross.
C.S. Lewis (get used to it, he’s a particular fave) said of this;
I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel [resentment] anymore. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work but the attempt is not impossible.
Or to quote another; this thing is a long obedience in the same direction. It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always feel good, but we’ve been given the same Spirit of the living God that lived in Christ, and Stephen, and the apostles, and all our brothers and sisters who have walked the hard road before us. It does get easier with practice, and it’s easier when we have friends that hold us accountable rather than petting our metaphorical or literal demons.
So can we grow in this? All of us? Could we take the last 5 minutes of the election season and choose to speak nothing when we cannot speak something beneficial? Could we extend grace to the person who cut us off, giving them the benefit of the doubt? Maybe they’re rushing to their sick kid in the hospital, who knows. Or maybe they’re an arrogant jerk who’s a VIP in their own eyes – bless them, and pray for them because they need it. You need it. I need it. Can we purposefully bless the next person who’s nasty to us? Not cynically, but honestly asking God for His grace in that 1 millisecond where we get to choose whether or not we’ll yield to Him or raise our hackles? Can we turn the other cheek, and be wronged, and handle it with grace? I think we can.
We’re only going to be known by our love if we actually choose to love people, whether that looks like the menial biting of our tongues, or extending forgiveness 70×7 times, or having a very difficult conversation (or ten) that ends in reconciliation. I want to emphasize with everything that is in me – it is not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Phil 3:12) It’s worth it, friends!
I want to close by explaining a word picture I used last week. Once, I was struggling with an issue, like we all do, and this issue happened to be exacerbated by a friend one day. I feel like the normative temptation is to see people as the issue – and genuinely, people have issues, so sometimes there are legitimate things to address. This was not one of those times. This was just me, and my own sin, being unintentionally and sincerely unknowingly provoked by another human being, who is generally a lovely person and was innocent of wrongdoing in that moment. I had a mental picture of an archer lining up his shot at me, but by standing behind my friend, and using their shoulder to steady his arrow. My friend was not my problem. They were not shooting flaming darts at me. They were just being unwittingly leveraged by the enemy of our souls in an Ephesians 6:10 sort of moment. I tell you this because I had a choice then, and I have a choice now. We all have a choice in how we respond to the people in our lives. We can attack the person, or hate them, or get resentful and bitter, or we can beg our Good Father in heaven to grant us His grace and more of His Spirit, to love as He has loved us. We can ask for wisdom and discernment in walking it out. For their sake, for your sake, for my sake, and for the sake of our poor fractured nation, let’s choose the latter. And for heaven’s sake, let’s do the work that can only be done in prayer so we can stop putting each other’s eyes out. Love you, friends.