I was a very earnest child. Jesus said, “Love your enemy,” and I was determined to give it a try. But how? The practical steps were fuzzy. Who even was my enemy?
I dug through the stacks of Christian books and magazines provided by my parents and church, discovering steps to assurance of heaven and how to lay out the Romans Road to a friend. But little or no practical points on loving one’s enemy.
Eventually I found it: A children’s magazine arrived in the mail, and one of the devotional readings described how to respond to bullies in a Christlike way. Surely this was it!
The devotional suggested that when a bully insults me—for example, saying my sweater looks ugly—I should respond not by defending myself or paying them back with a similar insult but by agreeing. Then, I should offer a compliment to the bully that turned the insult upside down. For example, “I guess this sweater is ugly . . . but I think your shirt is so pretty!”
I read through the piece several times, ensuring I was ready to try it at the next opportunity.
Just a few days later, when my classmates and I were taking off our shoes and socks to play in the sandbox at school, one of the girls pointed to my feet and said, “Your feet are so little!” To me, this was the height of insults. I was small for my age, a situation that proved humiliating on a daily basis. I knew what to do.
“I guess you’re right,” I said, bravely. “My feet are small. But I think your feet are super huge.”
The rest of the interaction did not go the way I had hoped.
Warnings vs. Practices
To be honest, it’s still hard to find practical teaching on loving enemies. We are well equipped to identify them. There is no lack of teaching and conversation warning us to beware of people in other political parties who want to take away our rights, people living other lifestyles who may destroy our nation, or people with different theological interpretations who are likely to contaminate our faith. Yes, warnings abound. It’s hard to find a Christian sermon, book, podcast, or radio show that isn’t full of warnings about these dangers.
But if these folks are truly enemies, what should follow is teaching, coaching, and daily discipleship advising us on how to love and pray for them. Right? It’s still hard to find practical teaching on loving enemies. We are well equipped to identify them...But what should follow is teaching, coaching, and daily discipleship advising us on how to love and pray for them. Right? Click To Tweet
It’s this part that so often seems to be missing.
When Jesus taught his followers, he often repeated the two traditional Greatest Commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. But Jesus extended the definition of neighbor in ways that were uncomfortable. First, he told the story of the Good Samaritan, in which the “neighbor” was a stranger and enemy who cared sacrificially for a stranger who was his enemy. Second, Jesus declared, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor. . . .’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’” (Matthew 5:43-44, NIV).
Prescriptions from Jesus
Enemy was not an abstract idea for Jesus and his followers. They were working-class members of an occupied country, and the Roman Empire wielded power through terror. The empire would crucify men (by the dozens or hundreds) along busy highways as a reminder not to step out of line. This community was deeply persecuted. At the same time, there were people Jesus’ friends looked down upon with disgust and disdain; hated, odious people. The Samaritans, for example.
In either case, what did Jesus prescribe? Pray for those who persecute you. And those you view as disgusting, terrible, “the worst”? Actively love them with an engaged life of service.
This is where the rubber meets the road for us who follow Jesus, even today in 2022.
Who are the people you look down on with disgust, that you hate or despise? Who are the people you think might be ruining the world, your country, your faith? The people you think are terrible, the ones you hope to never meet in person or online because you just simply cannot? These are the people Jesus asks us, if we are his followers, to not only pray for but also actively and intentionally love and serve. Who are the people you think are terrible, the ones you hope to never meet in person or online because you just simply cannot? These are the people Jesus asks us... to not only pray for but also actively and intentionally love and… Click To Tweet
This Christian practice is far from passivity, allowing evil to overcome. Rather, in Romans 12, Paul calls on Christians to bless those who persecute them, to never repay evil for evil or take revenge, but instead to provide food and water to their enemies. And Paul says in the same breath to overcome evil with good.
Overcome is about as active and engaged a stance as we can imagine.
In addition to offering food and water, Paul writes in this passage that the Christian community will be marked by always sharing what we have, offering hospitality, living in harmony, associating with all people (even those without status), blessing even those who curse us.
Today, Jesus’ instructions to us are the same: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Share everything. Live in harmony. Bless those who curse you. Overcome evil with good. Yet I see Christians—in the online public square of Twitter or in-person conversation—as likely to be the bully as to be loving the bully.
Is it possible that, in our neglect of Christian practices like loving our enemies, we have become enemies to those we are called to love? For when we give in to gossip, slander, hate, fear, and neglect toward each other, we contribute to the cycle—we become the evil. Is it possible that, in our neglect of Christian practices like loving our enemies, we have become enemies to those we are called to love? Click To Tweet
What if we gave Jesus’ teaching a shot and began a daily practice of praying for, loving, and serving our enemies? If Jesus was right, we just might change the world.
This article is adapted from Catherine McNiel‘s new book, Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies.