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How to love our enemies

Kathy Ferguson Litton04.05.18

“Love your enemies” -- Jesus

Perhaps this is among Jesus' most revolutionary statements — and certainly most humanly counterintuitive. We already were struggling to “love our neighbor,” and then He throws this at us. Seriously, Jesus? Our enemies?

He did have plenty. And even a frenemy or two. Yet in His Sermon on the Mount, He shockingly resets what people and their lives should look like in the Kingdom of God:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father 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 have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matt. 5:43-48)

Jesus even defines enemy for us:

  • He means people who oppose us, try to hurt us.
  • People who have harmful intentions and clear hostility toward us.
  • Those who literally persecute us.

Then He points out what we should do:

  • Love them.
  • Bless them.
  • Do good toward them.
  • Pray for them.

I don’t know about you, but this is what I do for my family, not my enemy. Our enemies run the spectrum from mild hurt, to a serious offense, to one who devastated our lives permanently. Our enemies may attack us physically or merely gossip about us. They may even persecute us because of our beliefs. In our highly charged religious and political climate, our enemies may be in the Middle East or just on the opposite pole of current American politics. Racial and ethnic tensions are very high, creating battlefields and enemies in communities and hearts. Ironically, churches themselves have people who powerfully oppose each other — and some even have harmful intentions.

Jesus tells us we have to respond counter to our hearts and counter to our culture. He says plainly, "Don't just love those who love you," love your enemy. He says we then will be true sons of our Father in heaven. In other words, we would be treating them like He treats us.

Two countercultural responses we can learn from

Christianity Today’s article entitled Chick-Fil-A's Lesson on Loving Your Enemies details the heated controversy in the summer of 2012 over Dan Cathy's refusal to support gay marriage. It was polarizing on both fronts as those for gay marriage boycotted Chick-Fil-A and those opposed flocked to the popular eatery. CT said "We did what we are too good at: opposing our enemies." But not Chick-Fil-A's CEO Cathy! He moved toward his "enemy," Shane Windmeyer, Campus Pride director, gay activist, and openly gay man. Cathy reached out to hear more about LGBT concerns regarding his company. Cathy modeled something powerful when he said, "We don’t have to agree with our enemies, but we still have to honor and love them." Much to everyone's surprise, Windmeyer "came out" as Cathy's friend in a Huffington Post article.

Read more from Dan Cathy:

The current cultural milieu seems to have hoodwinked us to believe the false premise that we must both agree with and bless our enemies' choices in order to love them. Christianity does not give us permission to dishonor or disregard those whom we perceive as enemies. It does not require us to come in lockstep with their perspectives as a prerequisite to sharing the love of Christ. Cathy seemed to get this. When we can grasp the reality that others are worthy of our love simply because they are made in God's image—not because they agree with us— bridging ideological divides becomes possible. How might our lives look if instead of cutting off relationships, we chose to say, "I don't share your conviction on that topic, but I would like to hear more about why this is so important to you." If nothing else, listening well dials down defensiveness and allows for empathy, which moves us in the direction of love.

"Move in the direction of love." Powerful words.

The second response is by Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon Loving Your Enemies. Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Montgomery, Alabama, Nov. 17, 1957:

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must not do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Keep in mind the very volatile context. The hate was strong against him and his movement. His followers being struck, hosed with water, fire bombed, killed, etc. This is not a small moment, but a highly charged one. And eventually King was killed by an enemy.

I love Martin Luther King’s language in these thoughts:

When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Reading this helped me see how very slowly God has changed my perspective toward my enemies. When I thought of my enemies as “bad” people, they remained my enemy. They were just like me

— living in an evil system of sin. But in time I began to see my enemies through a gospel lens. I saw them as sinners who are deceived by sin.

I am caught in the same system of sin. My enemies really aren’t the issue; sin is. Diverting my attention from them to sin and deception has gone a long way in helping me love as Matthew 5 suggests. When I readily relate my enemies to the idea of sin and being deceived, I am more prone to dispense love and grace — as my Father dispensed to me. This is the beautiful, powerful love MLK called for. And modeled by Jesus Himself: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:24) Let's be countercultural and love our enemies.

Do you have any examples of countercultural love shown toward an enemy? How do these stories encourage you to love your enemies?