When Jesus said to love your enemies, I think He was considering the spiritual welfare of the hater as well as the hated. Love is given and received in a true community.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
Jesus commanded his followers to “Love your enemies.” Yet looking at the world today—or at least the daily news—we see misunderstandings, divisions, chaos, and hatred drawing lines between people. One big problem is that from political parties to neighbors, there is a lack of connection. Our society is virtual in large part—we don’t connect person to person or even voice to voice as much as when I was growing up. It was hard to avoid personal communication then. In smaller communities, people still mingle with necessity. In large urban areas, people zoom around in their cars or online, often building resentments toward each other for behavior that was not intended to harm others.
The command to love your enemies goes into further detail in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Before the gathered crowd, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” Matthew 5:43-45.
By way of explanation, Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” Matthew 5:46-47. Jesus understood the conflict between people. There was conflict among his disciples and followers as to whom was most important. And Jesus’ ministry caused major conflict in his dealings with government and religious authorities at the end of his earthly life.
What Does 'Love Your Enemies' Mean?
Jesus said to turn the other cheek. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” Matthew 5:38-40.
When differences arose among my former high school students, I would remind them that we’re all in this together. We need each other and grow from each other’s experiences and insights. Some of us need help to walk across the street or to carry a heavy object. We also need each other’s advice. We all have gifts to share with one another and unique experiences others would love to hear. Love is a verb, and doing something for someone else expands our hearts. There is research supporting the idea that volunteer work and social involvement with others is wonderful for our general health. It’s physically good for our hearts. Research published by Harvard Medical School states, “We know that stress, depression, and anger all have negative effects on the body, especially with regard to the risk of cardiovascular disease…The opposite emotions and mindsets —satisfaction and optimism — are closely linked to (but not necessarily synonymous with) a sense of purpose…associated with better heart health.” On the opposite shore, stress from conflict is very bad for our health.
Human interactions are not always going to go smoothly, however. Loving your enemies may means you can “agree to disagree.” The key is to sit down and have an honest talk. What we perceive as differences may not be differences at all. We’re all human. We are all the same under our skin and in our emotions. A community of any type builds individual hope. It is encouraging to hear other people’s problems and know you are not alone in your struggles. It is encouraging to know we are all human.
How Can You Still Love Your Enemies When They've Used Up Your Patience?
Paul says in the New Testament letter to the Romans: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone (Romans 12:17). It’s a tough pill to swallow when your perception of another’s actions is negative when you believe an enemy is hateful toward you. It’s hard to keep your thoughts from leading straight into the jungle of hurt feelings. And these negative feelings lead to inappropriate actions. We have seen this scenario played out again and again in news headlines the past year. Hatred reached a high pitch in 2020.
I read during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement this past year that racism is its own disease, and a vaccine isn’t being developed by anyone. Certainly, hatred is a disease that destroys the person feeling it as much as or sometimes more than the person or people the hatred is directed toward. When Jesus said to love your enemies, I think He was considering the spiritual welfare of the hater as well as the hated. Love is given and received in a true community.
In the words of John, Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another (I John 4:10-11).
Think of Jesus on the cross. He loved the evildoers who crucified him. He died for them. The Holy Spirit can grant us that kind of love, a love that gives beyond reason. You can pray to God for the fruits of the Spirit to teach you how to love unconditionally. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23). As Jesus promised, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7). Ask for a loving heart.
In I Corinthians 13:5-8 it says that love “keeps no record of wrongs” and that “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Love can get past any difference of opinion of imagined slight from an “enemy,” another pilgrim on the road to understanding how to get along with others. We can build up each other in community.
Why Was Jesus So Adamant about This?
Jesus knew he would be with us always, but he would only be face to face with his followers for a while. He came to earth to set things right between people. Jesus healed broken hearts and broken bodies in his ministry. Love was and is at the center of His mission. And his mission embraced people hated by the status quo—unscrupulous government officials, unfaithful women, diseased people, and insane people —who we might perceive as enemies. Jesus told all people their sins were forgiven and to go and sin no more after He healed their spirit and body.
Why Should You Love Your Enemies When They Treat Your Poorly?
Harboring hatred for another person, an “enemy,” causes you more damage than it causes the target of your hate. God forgave us by sending his Son to a sick world. We must emulate Jesus by forgiving and loving those who offend us in any way. In more advice to the Romans, Paul wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
4 Ways Christians Can Love Their Enemies When They Feel Their Love Has Been Used Up
1. Consider the Source
I taught school in jails and community centers in low-income neighborhoods for a couple of years, long years when I was young, and learned a lot about myself and other people. One common occurrence was that once I heard some of a person’s life story, I could forgive them for almost anything they did. The trials some of my students went through were horrific. And there is also the issue that, for whatever reason, people are not given the same talents to survive from birth. Low intelligence and devastating environments breed trouble for the next generation of people. Yet social status didn’t always play a part in breeding trouble. I later taught in a wealthy private school and in a very middle-class community where there was hurt, neglect, and abuse in families raising damaged children. Jesus says in Luke: To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48). Consider how God has blessed you and how that blessing was not experienced by everyone else. It’s not an even playing field, but you can play fair or even give a little advantage to those born with fewer talents that you have been given.
2. Lovingly correct your neighbor when they hurt you.
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else (1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14-15). In this way, you will build up the body of Christ. Your actions will be like those of Jesus in his ministry on earth. He corrected people and led them to see the light of God in loving and serving each other.
3. Give to fill in the gaps
Making something or buying a present for an enemy is a great way to heal wounds—in yourself and the enemy. After all, the meditative action of knitting a scarf or buying a treat for someone you have anger toward will give you time to develop a love for the receiver of the gift. When we intentionally give good things to our enemies and do good things for our enemies, we will discover that their attitude towards us will most often change for the better. And an attitude of love will develop in us.
4. Forgive “70 times seven” times
In Matthew 18: 21-22, when Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. This is a big number, and it describes the frequency of forgiving as well as the number of times we should forgive an enemy. When those old, hateful feelings start rising to the surface of your mind, forgive your former enemy once again. Forgiveness and learning to love the unlovable is not a one-shot deal. It takes practice, lots of practice. Loving enemies is not natural. The best way to have the right attitude, the agape love attitude toward those who persecute us, is to bring your former enemy with yourself before the Lord in prayer.
God grant us a contrite heart, willing to forgive ourselves as well as others. Peace and blessings.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes
Betty Dunn hopes her writing leads you to holding hands with God. A former high school English teacher, editor, and nonprofit agency writer, she now works on writing projects from her home in West Michigan, where she enjoys woods, water, pets and family. Check out her blog at Betty by Elizabeth Dunning and her website, www.elizabethdunning-wix.com.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.
Listen to our Daily Bible Verse Podcast Now!
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.