Learning to Love Enemies

February 4, 2014

Ugh. Did Jesus really say we needed to love our enemies?

When I was in seminary, I was heavily influenced by the writings of Yoder, Hauerwas and other theologians and ethicists, most of whom were pacifist. I learned the power of virtue pacifism and saw that it was nothing like the caricatures of pacifism that are often brought up. Instead, I learned the theological significance of a nonviolent resistance to evil and the way virtue pacifism calls us back to our identity as those who have received the grace of Jesus. There were other students who differed and often espoused a just war theory for the handling of evil in the world, and we learned together that just war theory can also be a faithful approach if there is a stringent and consistent submission to the boundaries and perimeters of that theory. And though the virtue pacifists and just war theorists among us disagreed, they too practiced that disagreement faithfully. I remember heated debates that when ended saw the debaters headed for a meal together or continuing in friendly conversation. It was a hopeful place to work out our thoughts on love and peace, war and enemies.

Of course it was mostly about nation-state issues and war. The application to our personal lives was sometimes missing amid the grand gestures and debates. Yet when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, I don’t think he is just talking about nations. It is certain that the Jewish people of his day had national enemies. Specifically Romans and Samaritans, though perhaps there were others. And yes, I think Jesus is talking about loving those enemies.

But I think when we bring the focus down to the microcosm of our lives, his words have a deep impact there, too. At least they do to me personally. What do we do with the people in our lives who are enemies… or at the very least the people who are troublemakers, crazy-makers, and difficult for us to tolerate? What do we do with the person who has betrayed us? The person who has lied to us and about us? What do we do with the person who has hurt us, abused us, ignored us, manipulated us? What do we do with the people who end up saying the things that haunt us, bringing up painful memories- by accident or worse, on purpose? What do we do with the person who makes comments that are just benign enough the general public wouldn’t notice, but are direct enough to us that we know what they are really saying? What do we do with the people who malign us? What do we do with the folks who just plain make us mad? What do we do?

It’s easy to say, “Well, Jesus told us to love them,” but in practice, that can be very, very hard. Not simply because loving someone we don’t want to is hard, but because sometimes that person is so “there,” so a part of life and we can’t get away from them. It’s so easy to judge them and their hearts. It’s so easy to start sprouting up some bitterness toward them, without realizing that that bitterness will overgrow our souls and take a long time to dig up and get rid of it. It’s so easy to hate. Science shows that the feelings of hatred are actually physically destructive to us- not to mention emotionally, mentally, and spiritually- but hate sometimes feels easier. Yet as with many sins, hatred may seem easy, but it becomes so heavy, so ugly, so painful that it isn’t easy after awhile.

I wonder if Jesus tells us to love our enemies not because it will change them- sometimes it does not- but because it changes us. In fact, he tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that when we love our enemies, we show ourselves to be children of God. But Jesus forgot the words, “Look, it’s soooooo easy, people.” Oh wait, he didn’t say that because it’s just not easy .

I have come believe that learning to love people who are so difficult is a choice. But the choice is not between loving and hating. Because if we are children of God, then we are not really given that choice. If we love Jesus, we will follow what he says, and he says that we need to love our enemies. So that’s not the choice. The choice is really between throwing ourselves on God to help us or trying to figure out how to gut through it on our own. The latter won’t work. It just won’t.

Jesus ends his words on loving enemies in Matthew 5 with the challenge: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Yeah, fat chance! Perfect? Really? As a high schooler trying to be committed to Jesus, I worried over this. How could I be perfect? The pressure was pretty huge. Agonizing, really. Then I learned that there were indeed Christians who actually believed that they could indeed reach perfection if they just prayed enough, followed close enough, loved God enough. And they were admirable people, but far from perfect… at least to my imperfect mind. But this challenged me to try harder and harder and harder… on my own. Failing and flailing and feeling more and more hopeless about the whole thing.

No one told me that the word perfect came from the Greek word telos. When I finally learned that as a young adult, a  wave of relief washed over me. Because telos implies a movement toward completion, not a fixed point in the present. We are teleological creatures, meaning we are moving toward a goal, toward completion. And with that relief came the gift of knowing that it is God in us that makes us complete, that he is still working in us and on us to finish what he started. So perfection is a process of maturation, not a command that is unattainable. To “be perfect as God is perfect” calls us to mature, but the only way we can mature in this form of love is to throw ourselves onto God at every turn, especially when we are faced with an enemy. Love doesn’t happen by our own making; it happens to us, and breaks its way into us, if we are open to the invasion. It comes to us, tasting of Jesus and craving to be released, and it grows in us. The choice is to trust God for it, not ourselves.

And so Jesus says to love our enemies. This does not mean that you let people consistently abuse you. It doesn’t meant you get rid of healthy boundaries. It doesn’t mean you allow destructive behaviors at all costs. But Jesus meant it when he said. Of that, I’m really sure.

The thing about enemies is that they are sometimes the very thing God uses to lead us deeper into union with Jesus. Not that God causes them- I don’t believe that. But nothing is wasted to God. He can take everything- every experience, every thought, every action, every incidence of hurt- and use it. There’s a beautiful song some of my pastor friends taught me that says, “Nothing is lost on the breath of God, nothing is lost forever…” I’ve come to believe these words. So God can even use our enemies to grow us, to mature us, to perfect us. 

Sometimes those enemies show us things that need to change in us. Sometimes they show us opportunities to find compassion. Sometimes they show us who we are not. Sometimes their message, though cloaked in hurt and anger and dishonesty, can carry with it truth with which that we must grapple. Of course, it’s important to remember that our critics may be messengers of truth. At the same time, we also must remember that the Enemy disguises himself as an angel of light. Discerning between the two is hard. The meanest person in the room may be speaking something you need to hear. And the manipulative person who presents themselves as a “concerned friend who just wants to pray for you” may sow the Evil One’s lies into your heart. Discerning through the Spirit between those is indeed hard… and vitally important.

And then the challenge is to love both.

When 9-11 happened, I was in my first semester of seminary in my Church History class. Upon the news of what had happened, we were released to gather in the lounge of the seminary building. The TV was on and the students and professors gathered there were silent as we watched. We were there when one of the towers fell. In shock and sorrow, we turned to prayer, stammering out our disbelief and pain or staying silent with our tears.

At some point, Dr. Burton Nelson, a scholar on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a dearly loved professor who died many years ago now, prayed. The normally jovial and joke-cracking professor’s face was wet with tears and his smile lines were ironed out with sorrow as he choked out these words, “Lord, help us to love our enemies and forgive as you have forgiven us, for surely we will need your help in this.”

It was then that I knew I was among those who are wanting to work through these issues, in global and personal scales. It is not easy to allow for God to mature us into loving the unloveable around us- the critics, the emotionally unhealthy, the liars, the betrayers, the manipulators, the people bent on destroying us and everything we have, even the people who claim to be “loving” us when they are anything but loving. It’s not easy to choose to throw ourselves on Jesus to give us the courage and strength to act in our salvation when someone is acting in the fullness of their ugliness. It’s not easy to love when someone doesn’t deserve it.

But if love was easy, it wouldn’t be the life-changing force of God’s movement in this world, would it? If love was easy, it wouldn’t matter so much. So yeah… I think Jesus meant it.

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