Overcoming the Fear of Loving our Enemies

Editor’s Note: With America more polarized than ever, it is vital that Jesus’ followers take his teaching to love our enemies seriously. In this excerpt from Who Are Our Enemies and How Do We Love Them?, author Hyung Jin Kim Sun shares his experience with the opportunity and dangers of enemy-love.

The book is now available as a part of the series The Jesus Way: Small Books of Radical Faith from our partners at Herald Press. Order a copy for yourself, a stack for your team, or the entire series today!

I was surrounded by four people who each held a broken bottle, ready to stab me if I made any quick moves. I was determined to fight, but suddenly…

This event occurred during my sophomore year of high school in Asunción, Paraguay. After a class meeting, I was heading to a bus stop. It was getting dark and there was a sprinkle of rain. A woman approached me and asked me for money for bus fare. I was happy to help and gave her some coins. As she reached for the coins, she suddenly touched my gold ring and asked me what it was.

Something did not feel right, and I knew that I needed to leave this situation immediately. I was about to run, but it was too late. I could feel the sharp edge of a broken bottle, ready to stab me if I resisted. I looked around and realized that I was surrounded by four people, three women and one man, all of whom were in their early twenties. They were each holding a broken bottle, and the man’s bottle was touching my back.

I was determined to fight because, at that moment, I thought that was the only way to escape from the situation. I had some experience in Tae Kwon Do and had watched numerous martial arts movies, so I felt confident that I could beat these four people. I had my defense all planned out in my mind, but as I was about to execute it, an image passed through my mind. I saw myself lying down, slowing dying of excessive bleeding. In this image, I was apologizing to my mother for leaving her too soon.

Give Your Cloak as Well

After seeing this terrifying image, I did not know what to do next. A few milliseconds later, a Bible passage came to me: “If anyone wants to…take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40). I knew then what I had to do. I immediately knelt, opened my backpack, and showed my attackers everything I had. I took out my wallet and gave them all the money. I also took off my ring and my shoes, and told them, in a gentle way, that these items were theirs.

I noticed that these strangers were surprised by this unexpected response, and the man asked, “Why are you so nice?” What happened next surprised me as well. I thought that they would take everything, but they gave me back my wallet and ID, saying that I would need them. They also insisted that, since I was a student, it was crucial for me to have my backpack and my books. Because I was now barefoot, the man gave me his shoes. I had not anticipated this response, but before leaving me the man told me that he was sorry for robbing me and added that he was just following orders. I felt the sincerity of his words. I lost some personal belongings, but gained some important life lessons, especially about nonviolent engagement.

I wrote Who Are Our Enemies and How Do We Love Them? to introduce the Christian practice of nonviolence: how to love and engage with our enemies. The purpose of this book is not to incite guilt in those who do not practice pacifism or to argue that pacifists are morally superior people. Rather, the purpose of this book is to help readers better understand the Christian practice of nonviolence, how it relates to Christian discipleship, and how to apply it concretely in our contemporary daily life.

As a follower of Jesus, I am a pacifist, and while I hope for everyone to become Christian pacifists, I do not expect that everyone will do so. However, I do believe that there are insights and wisdom that everyone can gain from the practice of nonviolence. For this reason, I want to invite every reader, whether pacifist or not and whether Christian or not, on this short journey where we will explore nonviolent engagement.

Overcoming the Emotion that Keeps us From Trusting God

Acknowledging our fear and what it does to our brains is an essential first step toward loving our enemies. Acknowledging our fear and what it does to our brains is an essential first step toward loving our enemies. Click To Tweet

Fear is a powerful emotion that influences how we react and think when we are faced with a perceived threat. Sometimes fear can be so overwhelming that our body simply shuts down, but much of the time fear helps us prepare to face a threat or escape from a dangerous situation by temporarily enhancing our focus and increasing our strength.

When we sense fear, our brain quickly discerns whether a perceived threat is a real threat. This is why, according to psychiatrists Arash Javanbakht and Linda Saab in their article “The Science of Fright: Why We Love to Be Scared”, we respond differently when we see a lion in the wild versus in a zoo, or why we respond differently when someone is chasing us in a haunted house versus down a dark alley.

Javanbakht and Saab argue that the way we react when we sense fear is based on “our sense of control.” The more we feel in control, the less we will feel threatened. Sometimes, if our sense of control is strong, we will even enjoy the thrill. The more we feel we are not in control, the more heightened our fight-or-flight response becomes. A sense of control is also central in Christian spirituality and here is why.

Most people do not want to use violence as their first response to an enemy or a perceived threat. We try to find different ways to engage, but when we sense that there is no other option, or when we no longer have any sense of control, we choose violence because we believe that it will solve the problem of an immediate threat.

What to Do Instead of Fear

As Christians, instead of trying to take control of our lives, we are invited, as Proverbs 3:5-6 says, to “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Likewise, just as Jesus did when he prayed in Gethsemane (Mt 26:39), so too in the Lord’s Prayer we ask that the will of God, rather than our own will, be done.

Trusting in God does not mean giving up our reasoning and judgment. Instead, it means that we think critically and discern deeply but, in the end, trust that God is in control. In the Christian tradition, this kind of virtue is termed humility. Christian humility, as professor John Roth writes, asks us to have an active trust in God and our calling while we “adopt a posture of vulnerability and love in all circumstances, even when confronted by people who threaten us.” Trusting in God does not mean giving up our reasoning and judgment. Instead, it means that we think critically and discern deeply but, in the end, trust that God is in control Click To Tweet

Humility asks us to surrender our desire to control through violence but, at the same time, to stand firm to our Christian conviction and calling. Humility is a posture that asks us to “love other people in the same way that God has loved us in Christ: non-coercively, gently, creatively, vulnerably, invitationally. Humility is the concrete embodiment of our confidence that God loves us and that God is in control of human history.”

It takes courage and risk to give up our sense of control and to trust in God’s way. For this reason, love toward enemies and nonviolent engagement embody spiritual discipline. Giving up our desire to control and trusting God do not happen naturally and through brain power alone. Learning to trust God is a lifelong journey that requires intentional effort and a long period of discipline. Fear is a natural emotion, but seeking to discipline our sense of control is a profoundly spiritual endeavor.

To learn more about how to love our enemies, order Who Are Our Enemies and How Do We Love Them? today.

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