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Though the word enemy might sound too strong, most assuredly, the person you have in mind is not your bestie. We can tone it down a bit as long as you’re honest with your thoughts about “your enemy.” Maybe annoying is better. Okay. That’s fine, but don’t forget the folks in your home. Disliking someone outside your family or in cyberspace is less challenging than trying to love those living within our four walls. As you think about that person, will you reflect on this passage?
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. 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? (Matthew 5:43-44, 46-47).
As God “rings the gospel bell,” the question is whether the sound is in tune with His heart. If you’re unsure about any dissonance between your heart and the heart of God, there is another assessment you can make. When you think of that person, does your heart feel pity or frustration toward them? When I say, “Pity,” I don’t mean, “I pity that person. So glad I’m not like them.” I’m asking something different. Are you heartbroken for them, in the vein of Paul’s warning, “What do you have that you did not receive” (1 Corinthians 4:7)?
There are two primary groups that struggle with obeying the “love your enemies mandate” (Matthew 5:44). Those who have experienced legitimate hurt, abuse, pain, and suffering, and those who have succumbed to the shaping influences of Adam or cultural biases toward others. All of us fit into one (or both) of these camps.
The first group of hurt souls needs the Lord’s grace to help them walk through their genuine, objective and painfully memorable past. Many of them do not lack the Lord’s truth; they know they should love their enemies. The problem is that the pain was real and residual. Suffering has legs, and they cannot quickly get to a mature biblical frame of mind. It takes time.
Bringing these suffering souls to the heights of what Jesus is asking is not something for the careless counselor to attempt. Some people need a long runway before they soar with the eagles. You see a snapshot of this in Paul’s preamble to the Corinthians. Before he “trucked the challenging truth” over to them, he was careful to assure them of his affection (1 Corinthians 1:3-4). Paul had worked through their hatred and had a genuine love for them.
Encultured is the effect of being affected by historical or modern norms outside biblical worldviews and assumptions. Many believers have been shaped by things the culture promotes but the Bible denounces, like Critical Theory. The enculturated group needs the Lord’s truth to see how their shaping influences obscure the gospel’s love and power. My point here is that any Adamic person can hate another image-bearer.
Trapped people who struggle with loving their enemies need careful, courageous, and competent exposure to God’s impeccable Word. Adamic fallenness is complicated enough, but when you add an enculturated layer on top of it, you’re not far from a case-hardening effect that will dull anyone’s conscience.
For example, my father was a white-hot racist. Though he did not “evangelize us” into his bigotry, we knew where he stood. Mercifully, I’m not aware of any of his children succumbing to his racist venom. The same thing happens in black homes, too, or any home where prejudice is part of the unique fallenness of a unique family. Of course, the problem of enculturation does not have to be about melanin. Adamic people can hate anyone.
The issue with these trapped souls is how they govern their hearts. The most tempting stance to take when thinking about enemies is a morally superior attitude. The temptation is to spill our righteousness all over them. A few of these quick-trigger truth-tellers have social platforms, in addition to church contexts, where they can pontificate.
Jesus was the perfect example of a person who knew how to lead with grace while sharing the truth but never holding back either one (John 1:14). People did not manage His emotions, which freed Him to love the annoying people in His life well by modeling a profound, others-centered love to them.
The issue is not about withholding the truth but whether we have accomplished the prerequisite heart work to make sure we are leading with the right attitude for the recipients of the “love your enemy” mandate. As challenging as speaking the truth is at times, it is harder to govern our hearts with love before we talk—especially if that person is annoying.
The key to loving enemies is whether we are willing to set aside what we want for the greater good. To set aside is yet another beautiful facet of the gospel. The Lord Jesus, who was God, chose to place His God-ness aside so that He could come to earth as a human to save us. Christ, the offended power, penetrated the enemy’s camp to rescue those evildoers.
We will have to decide if we will love those who are unlovable. Like we were before Christ penetrated our dark souls with the gospel. Thus, the most vital question is if we’re going to live out the gospel to a fallen image-bearer. Gospel work is for humble, courageous souls.
As you already sense, the need to arrest our hearts and examine our affection for a fellow image-bearer is the first and most crucial examination we can make. Sometimes the disappointing people in our lives can weigh so heavy that we never see the crouching lion of frustration ready to pounce.
Because of the difficulty of the task and our lack of human ability to accomplish the “love your enemy mandate,” we must take ourselves back to our example. Jesus would not withhold the truth, but it would not come out of an annoyed heart. Perhaps it would be wise to consider confessing a sinful attitude to that annoying person. (I don’t recommend this all the time, especially where abuse has happened, but it could prove helpful in normal relational conflict.)
For example, there have been a few occasions when a family member was sinful to me, and my reaction was sinful. Rather than starting with them, I began with myself, demanding to change myself first. I would say something like, “I have had an angry heart toward you, and I am asking if you will forgive me. Will you forgive me?” I knew I could talk later about their role in the relational dust-up.
The primary thing was to clean up my dust before vacuuming the “other sinner’s side of the room.” When the most vital things in our lives are what we want, like, or prefer, we will entangle our souls in a blinding web. An example of this is the parent of a disobedient child when the parent complicates the child’s sin by sinning against the kid. It could also be the spouse who responds wrongly because they feel as though they are drowning in marriage disappointment.
Christ came into the world to save sinners, which means, in part, He came to untangle fallen creatures from sin’s entrapments. While the wayward child and hurtful spouse should change, neither one should have so much power over us that we sin in response to their failures. When this happens, we are succumbing to the first wave of idolatry.
One of those idolatrous entrapments is when a desire, even a good one, begins supplanting what the Lord can do and provide for us. I know that what I’m saying is hard to apply because I live in the same body as you, a fallen one. I’m not speaking to you as a disembodied flesh and blood humanoid who has no connection to Adam, Christ, or reality. I feel your pain, and I do not mean that sarcastically.
This idea about “loving your enemy” was not something that I made up but an imperative that Jesus gave with the expectation that His followers apply it. I am one of those fallen followers. The gospel empowers us to do many things after our regeneration. I want you to press into the call to action in this chapter while asking the Spirit of Christ to do whatever He needs to do to bring a few reasonable changes to your life and relationships.
Enemy Loving: What is your genuine “heart of heart attitude” toward the person you thought about when I asked you to “pick an enemy” from your mental index? Think of what I’m asking as a spectrum: if hate was on one end and love on the other, where would you land with this person? Remember: there is nothing that a person can do to stop you from loving them, even if you reduce your love to sadness because of their lack of change. Though they may never love you in return, they cannot stop you from biblically loving them.
Setting Aside: What desires do you need to set aside to be Jesus to that person? I’m not suggesting that you will ever experience reconciliation or be their best buddies. Loving your enemies does not mean your enemies will change or reconcile with you. I trust you have a broader definition and application for love. My questions are less about reconciliation and more about being Jesus to someone.
Speaking Truth: Are you ready to speak the truth with love? How do you know? When you are living out the previous two aspects, you might be ready to talk about the truth in love. You will mess up what you say if you do not authentically love the person while setting aside your desires, no matter how hard you try to mask your disappointment. You cannot fake legitimate hurt, and when it lingers too long in the heart, sin will cling to the walls and eventually take over the mind. It will come out in your tone. What if you pray this prayer?
Dear Spirit of God,
Will you help me honestly, transparently, and humbly work through what you ask, love my enemies? Will you give me the grace and courage to address my heart the way it needs addressing? Will you change me? I want to be a balanced Christian, who speaks the truth in love, but first, I need a heart change. As I read Peter’s words, will you show me what I need to do? Will you lead me to someone who can help? Will you help me? Make what Peter said real to me.
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:20-25).
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).