Are Christians really supposed to love their enemies?

Love Your Enemies


By Don Ruhl


Enemies are one of the more difficult problems of life. We should not be guilty of making enemies through our own fault, that is, people should not dislike us because of our difficult ways. To have enemies is good, if because of our righteousness someone opposes us. Let us learn from Christ that if we love our enemies, we will not lose, but we will win, and in many cases we will win a friend.

Making our enemies our friends

Someone said that Abraham Lincoln got rid of his enemies by making them his friends. Thus “A merely fallen enemy may rise again, but the reconciled one is truly vanquished” (Schiller, The New Dictionary of Thoughts, p. 174); and “The fine and noble way to destroy a foe, is not to kill him; with kindness you may so change him that he shall cease to be so; then he’s slain” (Aleyn, Ibid.). Augustine and others have added to these thoughts of making an enemy a friend by saying:

Ye have enemies; for who can live on this earth without them? Take heed to yourselves; love them. In no way can thy enemy so hurt thee by his violence as thou dost hurt thyself if thou love him not. And let it not seem to you impossible to love him. Believe first that it can be done, and pray that the will of God may be done in you. For what good can thy neighbor’s ill do to thee? If he had ill, he would not even be thine enemy. Wish him well, then, that he may end his ill, and he will be thine enemy no longer. For it is not the human nature in him that is at enmity with thee, but his sin. … Let thy prayer be against the malice of thine enemy, that it may die, and he may live. For if thine enemy were dead, thou hast lost, it might seem, an enemy, yet has thou not found a friend. But if his malice die, thou hast at once lost an enemy and found a friend (Leaves of Gold, p. 127).

An enemy is a danger, but the danger is not what he can do to you. It is what he makes you do. If he fills you with envy, malice, hatred and all uncharitableness, he has done you real harm. But you can prevent that. Pray for him. If you say you cannot trust him, then watch and pray. But you cannot hate a man you pray for (E. S. Waterhouse, Sourcebook for Speakers, pp. 137, 138).

“It is much safer to reconcile an enemy than to conquer him; victory may deprive him of his poison, but reconciliation of his will” (Feltham, The New Dictionary of Thoughts , p. 173).

“Our worst enemies are those we carry about with us in our own hearts. Adam fell in Paradise … while Lot continued righteous in Sodom” (The New Dictionary of Thoughts, p. 173).

The poet, Tasso, upon receiving reports from friends that certain enemy was spreading gossip about him, observed: “I am not disturbed. How much better it is that he speak ill of me to all the world than that all the world should speak ill of me to him” (Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, number 940).

Generally it is the case that our friends far outnumber our enemies, yet we can become so focused on our enemies that they run our lives, showing that the power of an enemy to control us is when we think nothing but of the enemy.

Proverbs 16:7 shows something else that is critical in making our enemies our friends, or at least in having a peaceful co-existence with our enemies part of the time: “When a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”

According to Romans 12:18 we should really try hard to live in peace with all people, which would even include our enemies: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”

Respond to an enemy with God’s way

If someone takes revenge on us our natural way is to avenge ourselves, to punish the one trying to hurt us, and possibly to hurt him more to make him sorry that he ever tried to hurt us. Romans 12:19–21 reveals God’s way for us to respond to someone who is trying to hurt us:

Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

“If you tend to your work, and let your enemy alone, someone will come along some day, and do him up for you” (Edgar Watson Howe, Sourcebook for Speakers, p. 138).

When an enemy prospers our natural way is to envy him and wonder how God could let that person prosper after the evil that he has done. Romans 2:4 makes us realize that God’s way is to consider what will happen to that person in the end (Psalm 73), and to realize that even as God’s goodness has changed us, so it can change an enemy: “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”

Proverbs 24:17, 18 rebukes what tends to be our natural way to react when an enemy has problems: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the LORD see it, and it displease Him, and He turn away His wrath from him.” Remember from Romans 12:20 that God’s way is for us to feed our enemy when he is hungry and to give him a drink if he is thirsty, that is, rather than rejoicing in our enemies troubles we should help him overcome them.

Matthew 5:43–48 is one of the classic passages of Scripture on loving our enemies:

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.

Luke 6:27–36 is also a classic text. Here is more on what our Lord taught:

But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Highest. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

What is meant by having love for your enemy?

We often restrict love to good feelings, that is, “I feel good toward you, or you make me feel good, therefore I love you.” Perhaps this is why so many people have trouble in their relationships. One moment the feelings are good, so we love. The next moment the feelings are bad, so we do not love. Feelings can come from love, but it should not be that love comes from feelings.

We are commanded in the Scriptures to love every person, including our enemies. Do we feel good toward enemies? Do enemies make us feel good? Generally we would answer no.

Biblical love, or more specifically the love that we are to have for enemies is the kind of love that seeks the well-being of others. It does not work ill toward any person, but it looks for opportunities to do good for all, even for an enemy.

What is an enemy?

Do you remember how the lawyer in Luke 10 sought to get out of loving his neighbor by questioning Christ on who is a neighbor? Some people do this with an enemy. Sometimes I will show husbands and wives, who are in an awful conflict, what the Bible says on loving your enemy. Almost always one of the spouses will say that the other spouse is not an enemy, and that excuses him or her from doing what the Bible says. I think that this is done because spouses, and those in similar situations, think that since the other is supposed to be loving and is not, then that gives license for the one to avenge him or herself.

One way that love for an enemy is carried out is by blessing those who curse you. When Jesus said “bless,” He used the Greek word from which we get another English word, eulogy. So let not our tongues return evil for evil, but let us find something good to say.

Another way that love for an enemy is carried out is by doing good to those who hate you. It was said of one man, that “If you would be sure to have [him] do you a good turn, you must do him some ill one; for, though he loved to do good to all, yet especially he would watch for opportunity to do good to such as had wronged him” (1000 Acts and Facts, p. 72).

When East Berlin was communist controlled and West Berlin was free some people in East Berlin one day took a truckload of garbage and dumped it on the West Berlin side. The people of West Berlin could have done the same thing. But instead they took a truckload of canned goods, bread, and milk … and neatly stacked it on the East Berlin side. On top of this stack they placed the sign: “EACH GIVES WHAT HE HAS.” (Salem Kirban, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, number 2291).

Also we can pray for those who spitefully use and persecute us. This is where we are from the bottom of our hearts seeking the well-being of that person. Moreover, it is harder to hate someone for whom we pray.

Follow the example of God

Romans 5:6–10 gives the example of God, and of course it includes Christ Himself and if we hope to live with God and His blessed Son, then we have to be like them, even in how we treat our enemies:

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

Jesus died for us to set us free from the law of sin and death. Even before He died He prayed for the forgiveness of His executioners. Has any of us ever had greater enemies than the Lord had? Have we all not been the enemies of God at one time? Here is the key to loving your enemies: Remember the example of Christ.

During the Revolutionary War there lived in Pennsylvania a [preacher] by the name of Peter Miller. Although Miller was greatly loved by everyone in the community, there was one man who lived near the church [building] who hated him and had earned an unenviable reputation for his abuse of the minister. This man was not only a hater of the church, but it also turned out that he was a traitor to his country, and was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

The trial was conducted in Philadelphia, and no sooner did Miller hear of it than he set out on foot to visit General Washington and interceded for the man’s life. But Washington told him, “I’m sorry that I cannot grant your request for your friend.”

“Friend!” Miller cried. “Why, that man is the worst enemy I have in the world!”

“What?” the general exclaimed in surprise. “Have you walked sixty miles to save the life of an enemy? That, in my judgment, puts the matter in a different light. I will grant him a pardon for your sake.”

The pardon was made out and signed by General Washington, and Miller proceeded at once on foot to a place fifteen miles distant where the execution was scheduled to take place that afternoon. He arrived just as the man was being carried to the scaffold, and when he saw Miller hurrying toward the place, remarked, “There is old Peter Miller. He has walked all the way from Ephrata to have his revenge gratified today by seeing me hung.” But scarcely had he spoken the words when Miller pushed his way through to the condemned man and handed him the pardon that saved his life (Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, number 1768).

“To love an enemy is the distinguished characteristic of a religion which is not of man but of God. It could be delivered as a precept, only by him who lived and died to establish it by his example” (The New Dictionary of Thoughts, p. 173).

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the outstanding intellects of all history, for he was great as a draftsmen, an engineer, and a thinker. Just before he commenced work on his “Last Supper” he had a violent quarrel with a fellow painter. So enraged and bitter was Leonardo that he determined to paint the face of his enemy, the other artist, into the face of Judas, and thus take his revenge and vent his spleen by handling the man down in infamy and scorn to succeeding generations. The face of Judas was therefore one of the first that he finished, and everyone could easily recognize it as the face of the painter with whom he had quarreled.

But when he came to paint the face of Christ, he could make no progress. Something seemed to be baffling him, holding him back, frustrating his best efforts. At length he came to the conclusion that the thing which was checking and frustrating him was the fact that he had painted his enemy into the face of Judas. He therefore painted out the face of Judas and commenced anew on the face of Jesus, and this time with the success which the ages have acclaimed.

You cannot at one and the same time be painting the features of Christ into your own life, and painting another face with the colors of enmity and hatred (C. E. Macartney, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, number 1767).

Going back to Matthew 5:45–47 we discover in the teaching of Christ that we must reach out to those who are not of us. God does this by sending the rain and the sun upon everyone. So if we merely love those who love us, what have we accomplished? Then in Matthew 5:48 the Lord teaches that in this regard we can be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Learn from your enemies

Sometimes they are right. What they have done to you may be wrong, but their work against you shows what kind of person you are, hence you will see areas of improvement.

Observe your enemies, for they first find out your faults (Antisthenes, The New Dictionary of Thoughts, p. 173).

Men of sense often learn from their enemies.—It is from their foes, not their friends, that cities learn the lesson of building high walls and ships of war; and this lesson saves their children, their homes, and their properties (Aristophanes, Ibid.).

Plutarch has written an essay on the benefits which a man may receive from his enemies; and among the good fruits of enmity, mentions this in particular, that by the reproaches which it casts upon us we see the worst side of ourselves (Addison, Ibid., p. 174).

Our enemies are our outward consciences (Shakespeare, Ibid.).

Second Samuel 16:5–12 shows that David was a man who sought to understand what his enemies were saying about him:

Now when King David came to Bahurim, there was a man from the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei the son of Gera, coming from there. He came out, cursing continuously as he came. And he threw stones at David and at all the servants of King David. And all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand and on his left. Also Shimei said thus when he cursed: “Come out! Come out! You bloodthirsty man, you rogue! The LORD has brought upon you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the LORD has delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom your son. So now you are caught in your own evil, because you are a bloodthirsty man!” Then Abishai the son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Please, let me go over and take off his head!” And the king said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? So let him curse, because the LORD has said to him, ‘Curse David.’ Who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’” And David said to Abishai and all his servants, “See how my son who came from my own body seeks my life. How much more now may this Benjamite? Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the LORD has ordered him. It may be that the LORD will look on my affliction, and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing this day.”

David knew that he was suffering the revolt of his son Absalom because of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. Thus David also knew that God would take vengeance on Shimei when and if it was necessary.

Most Christians know these biblical passages, but what it comes down to is having the faith to believe that God’s way is right and successful. We will therefore do it even though we might think that it will not work.

Therefore having a conflict with an enemy is an opportunity to let your Christianity shine. Your Christianity shines because you are following God’s way even in a difficult situation. It is obvious that the way you are taking is not your way, for it is natural for humans to carry out personal vengeance. So your faith will glorify God, and when you glorify God He exalts you.

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