Jesus told His disciples to love their enemies. What did He mean? What does it look like to love your adversary?
We associate love with feelings. I love chocolate chip ice cream, sunsets at the beach, and the gal I just met. What do I mean when I toss love around these dissimilar objects like a good dressing? I love how ice cream tastes, sunsets inspire, and how my new acquaintance shares similar interests.
Biblical love is not based on how someone makes me feel. Erratic behavior can’t squash biblical love. It is as steadfast as the character of the lover, because it flows from God.
Why Should I Love My Enemy?
While refraining from vengeance is wise, it’s not enough. We “overcome evil with good,” not neutrality (Romans 12:19-21). Doing good crushes evil, heals our souls, and radiates Jesus.
Hate is the typical human response to wrong. That’s why showing forgiveness, like the members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, stuns the world. After tragically losing nine members in a hate shooting, these church members forgave the killer. Their actions freed themselves from the torment of bitterness and beamed God to the world better than any sermon.
Who Benefits When I Love My Enemy?
Notice who benefits from love (italics added).
- “The merciful man does himself good, but the cruel man does himself harm” (Proverbs 11:17 NASB).
- “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35 NIV).
- “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” (Matthew 25:40 NLT).
Loving our enemies blesses Jesus, transforms us, and reveals God’s grace to a hurting world. God rewards us when we do good to our enemies. When people see our love they see Jesus.
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 5:44-45 NIV).
What Does Love for My Enemy Look Like?
When God tells us to love our enemies, He isn’t asking us to manufacture warm feelings. Godly love seeks a person’s eternal best. Love is displayed through action. Christ demonstrated ultimate love on the cross by dying for us while we were still enemies.
Love does what’s right. It seeks what’s best for all involved. Praying for the offender is one way to do this. Stopping to help when they experience trouble is another.
God told the Israelites to return their brother’s stray ox or donkey when they found it (Deuteronomy 22:1). If they found their enemy’s lost animal, they were to return it, too (Exodus 23:4). In other words, they were to always do what’s right.
If you return your brother’s lost property, you might stay and share a meal together. However, when you return your enemy’s stuff, you probably won’t stick around to socialize.
What Loving My Enemy Is Not
Loving your enemies doesn’t mean seeking a close relationship with them or tolerating evil. The second greatest commandment says to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Biblical love isn’t about placing ourselves in harm’s way anymore than shoving someone we love there. God calls us to be loving—and wise.
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15 NIV).
Unsafe people put kind people in awkward positions. It’s uncomfortable to live guarded. But we must practice caution with those who manipulate, deceive, and back-stab. We don’t do anyone a favor when we protect wrong-doers.
A young woman told me she felt guilty because she told her principal about a young man who kept bullying her. “I should have been able to shrug it off. He got into trouble, and it’s my fault.”
This woman had warned this bully many times to leave her alone. Yet she felt responsible because he blamed her when he reaped the consequences of his wrongs.
The instruction to love our enemies does not mean to tolerate sin or abuse. Permitting sin is not good for us or them. Love and boundaries go together. Real love hates wrong.
- “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good” (Romans 12:9 NLT).
- “Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them” (Ephesians 5:11 NLT).
This young woman practiced biblical love when she revealed this young man’s dark deeds. Our enemies don’t define what love looks like. God does (Revelation 3:19).
Can I Set Boundaries and Still Love My Enemy?
Love sets protective boundaries and motivates me to say, “Your raging is not good for either of us. I’m going to my bedroom. When you’ve calmed down, I’ll hear your thoughts.” The Holy Spirit produces love and self-control.
David hid in caves to keep King Saul from killing him, even after King Saul confessed his wrong and asked David to return. Saul’s actions didn’t match his words. Yet, David refused to retaliate or curse Saul when the opportunity arose.
Jesus demonstrated the firm and soft sides of love. He blasted the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and refused to speak to Herod who had beheaded His cousin John the Baptist (Luke 23:9). Yet, He wept over Jerusalem and went to the cross for all of these men (Matthew 23:37).
Where Do I Find the Power to Love My Enemy?
God is love, and the Holy Spirit produces love through us when we submit to Him. With Christ ruling our hearts we no longer love based on how others act. We love based on who we are in Christ. Nobody can rock that.With Christ ruling our hearts we no longer love based on how others act. We love based on who we are in Christ. Nobody can rock that. #LoveYourEnemy Click To Tweet
Since our worth doesn’t come from what people think of us, our love doesn’t depend on how people treat us. We love them for their good—not to avoid feeling guilty or to win their approval.
God uses awkward relationships to turn us into awesome lovers. This love from God transforms us into people that can’t be manipulated by fear or guilt. As we obey the Romans 12:14 command to bless those who persecute us, power shifts from our enemy to us. They don’t control us; God does.
C. S. Lewis said, “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.” Let’s allow God to make us people who really love.
Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
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Photo by Steve Browne