Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:43-44 that we are to love our enemies seems not only difficult but, if we are honest, impossible to put into practice. How, for example, do persons who were freed from years of being imprisoned by terrorists, forgive their enemies? How do relatives, who stand before the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C., love the enemies who killed their relatives and friends? How do the millions of Jews who saw their husbands, wives, children or parents gassed, victimized and tortured in Nazi concentration camps, forgive them? How do the Japanese, who lived in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, forgive us for dropping the bomb on them? How do the relatives of those who were killed in the twin towers which collapsed from the crashed planes of the 9/11 attacks forgive those who were responsible for such an act?
A Difficult Saying
“Forgive your enemies,” sounded difficult in the day when Jesus first uttered it. He was addressing a people who were at that moment enslaved by the Romans. The tax collectors, their fellow Jews, were working with the Roman government to collect taxes from them. Jewish religious leaders often set up restrictions of the law which were so binding that no person who had any kind of ordinary job could possibly follow their rigid regulations.
Who are Our Enemies?
Enemies are easy to define in wartime. Let’s put wartime, terrorists, murderers, and rapists aside for a moment and bring our enemies closer to home. Who is our enemy? Our enemy is anybody who hates us or who wishes us harm or injury through word or deed. An enemy comes closer and takes on a familiar face when you see your enemy as someone who may cause you difficulty and turmoil in your job or makes your work miserable. Our enemy may be seen as someone who has caused us to go bankrupt, or smeared your name or hurt your reputation through gossip or slander, or anyone who has told a half-truth about you or sought to cause you harm. Or some one who makes fun of you, puts you down, or ridicules you. An enemy may be someone who has closed the door of communication, or some one who responds differently to you because she has misunderstood or misinterpreted something you said or did. All of us feel we experience some kind of enemy.
Why Should I Love My Enemy?
The more basic question seems to be: Why should I love my enemy? Why should we try to love somebody who wants to hurt us, hates us or cause us harm? If you respond to a person who dislikes you or hates you with the same attitude they are directing toward you, you will soon find that your life is poisoned within. Hatred is a self-destructive attitude. Jesus went so far as to say that the wells of anger and lust within determine our outward behavior.
We need to make a distinction between hating things and hating people. We tend to identify a person with the vicious, destructive or harmful behavior which he or she does. It is easy to hate a murderer, rapist, or terrorist. Instead let’s direct our indignation to the root cause behind the evil and not on the person who is committing the act of evil. We need to love the person and hate the evil. We need to overcome war, prostitution, prejudice, drugs and other enemies, but not by hating the persons involved in them.
Why should we love our enemy? We love our enemy because love is the only power which can change our enemy. Jesus was not interested in condemning a person but in saving them, making them whole. No prostitute was ever changed by treating her as a prostitute. No thief was ever changed by treating him as a thief. An enemy is not changed by treating him as an enemy. Love is the power which can convert an enemy into a friend. Why do we want to love? Because it is only in forgiving others that we are really forgiven ourselves. This is what Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” If you and I refuse to forgive others, we close the door to our own forgiveness by God.
Loving Does Not Mean We Have to Like Our Enemy
We begin to love our enemy by realizing that we don’t always have to like our enemy. There are things that our enemies do that we will never like. Who can like somebody that murders and rapes, robs and kills, or somebody who hurts us with words, or who victimizes us, or who is prejudiced against us? It is difficult to like these people. But we are told not to like them but to love them.
The word agape is different from a sentimental concept of love. Agape means that you deliberately direct your will to accomplish what is best for your enemies. This kind of love is not based on emotion or sentiment. When I loved my children by directing my will to recognize and motivate the best within them, there were times that I had to deny them what they wanted. At times I had to discipline them or put restraints on what they wanted to do. I had to correct or try to modify their behavior. I may not have liked what they did, but I continued to love my children. I also continue to love myself when I do some things that I don’t like. Real love does not say that it doesn’t make any difference what a person does. By an effort of my will–by loving them–I try to bring about change in their lives.
Don’t Identify a Person with his or her Sin
Another way to love my enemy is by not identifying the person with their sins. I make a distinction between my real self and what I do. I need to do the same for others. I have to see the potential within others. If I refuse, I will never give another a chance to change. Jesus looked at people and saw what they could be through grace and forgiveness. He saw Zacchaeus, a tax collector, who was one of the most despised persons of his day. Yet he saw the difference that could be in his life if he would follow him and change his life. He saw within the life of Mary Magdalene, a prostitute and an outcast of society, what she could become through transforming love. He saw within Saul, who was persecuting and executing Christians, a pioneering missionary.
This is what God does for us. We can learn to forgive our enemies when we begin to realize how often people do not really understand their own actions. Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The influence of friends, relatives, peer groups, community, social or national pressures, gangs or other pressures cause us to act the way we do. Sometimes, we do not really “know what we do.” But thank God we can break free from packs and their pressure and experience forgiveness and have the opportunity to start again.
This Radical Forgiveness Identifies Us with God
Jesus told his disciples that if they learn to forgive their enemies they would be children of the most high (Luke 6:35). This kind of love reveals that we are like our Father. Even if we are like the prodigal son and go into the farthest country of sin, God will still forgive us when we say: “Father, I have sinned.” Out of love God extends grace that issues in our forgiveness.
This Is a Demanding Love
This kind of love is not easy. Its claim on our lives and attitude is demanding. The love that Jesus Christ models for us goes beyond anything many we can imagine. This love demands the forgiveness of others, the unwillingness to cling to grudges or harbor hatreds, and the goal of being “perfect” like God. Christ calls us to be unselfish, caring, patient, understanding, loving, and sacrificial. Jesus didn’t say his way was easy. Loving our enemies is difficult and hard to accept. But it is at the heart of our faith. This teaching makes us realize how far we are from following our Lord’s way.